Young, Crounse, Sutcliffe, Breckinridge . . . today these names are simply places where we go to learn chemistry or philosophy, to work out, to meet a professor or hang with a friend. But before they were attached to particular buildings, these names belonged to real people whose close ties to Centre reveal fascinating stories.
As the College wends its way toward its bicentennial in 2019, it seems timely to recall the people who lent their names to campus landmarks.
When Old Main, Centre’s primary academic building from 1871 until 1964, had outlived its usefulness, the College conceived of an innovative replacement: a “hall of learning.” Books and research—the library—would be at the heart of the enterprise. Classrooms, where students would explore with their professors the great ideas to be found in books, would surround the library. At the top would be faculty offices.
The entire new building was known as Grace Doherty Library when it opened in 1967. In 1986, the building was renamed Crounse Academic Center in honor of major benefactors Eleanor and George P. Crounse Sr. In 2005, Crounse Hall, as it is now known, was significantly enlarged.
GEORGE P. CROUNSE SR. (1912-1999)
Innovative, impish, and wise, George P. Crounse Sr. made a fortune with his eponymously named river transportation company, then gave much of it away, usually anonymously. His 1976 gift of stock in the Crounse Corporation and the corporation’s subsequent repurchase of the stock in 1982 remain among the most significant events in Centre’s long history.
The original gift was valued at about $1.1 million—at a time when Centre’s endowment was only $7.5 million. When the closely held corporation repurchased the stock in 1982, the deal was worth more than $8.5 million and resulted in a dramatic increase in annual income for current expenses.
In a 1984 letter to then-president Richard L. Morrill, Crounse set out the history of the gift and his reasons for choosing Centre as the beneficiary. Because of an impending change in tax laws, he explained, the charitable foundation he established to support organizations mostly in Paducah was no longer feasible. His response was to dissolve it, giving all its assets—Crounse Corporation stock—to Centre.
“I strongly believe gifts should be made close to home,” he wrote. “I also believe that no institution in Kentucky is more stable than Centre.”
Crounse served on Centre’s board for 16 years between 1970 and 1987.
From Morrill’s perspective, the gift made it possible for Centre to change the way it thought about itself and, at last, to begin to dream big.
“When the ‘egg’ hatched it afforded an opportunity that seldom comes in the life of an institution,” Morrill wrote in a letter two years later. “It provided the resources for us to make a quantum leap in areas such as salaries, financial aid and scholarships, equipment, endowment growth, and financial stability of a fundamental kind. Perhaps most importantly, it has given us the confidence to sketch a vision of the College’s best future that otherwise would not have been possible.”
Crounse’s first contact with Centre had come when he brought his older son on a college visit in the early 1960s. George Jr. wound up at Harvard, but Crounse was impressed with Centre’s commitment to the liberal arts and, in particular, by a chance meeting he had while on campus with then-president Thomas A. Spragens.
A Minnesota native, Crounse Sr. had headed to Ohio for his own higher education, graduating from Antioch College in 1936 with a degree in economics. He “always gave this small liberal arts college considerable credit for his success,” his son Avery recently recalled.
Antioch connections took Crounse to the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was then building Norris Dam to control floods and to generate hydroelectricity.
“Many episodes in my life have been interesting, unusual, educational, and hard to explain,” he once wrote, and such was the case with the TVA. Although the experience taught him that he did not want to work for the government ever again, it did help him appreciate the enormous business potential of the locks and dams the TVA had built. Equally important, it is where he met his wife, Eleanor, of Marion, Va., who had found work with the TVA in the height of the Great Depression. Their partnership would last nearly 60 years.
Crounse had worked for towing companies before and after service in the Navy during World War II, and decided that Paducah, a city at the confluence of two major rivers, would be the ideal place to make his mark. In 1948, he started Crounse Corporation with an idea for a better towboat, his life savings, and a $60,000 loan.
In addition to building a thriving business—which today continues to transport coal on the Ohio River and its tributaries—George Crounse and his wife threw themselves into their adopted community, becoming tireless civic leaders, advocates for higher education—and convivial hosts.
“They had a really great group of friends in Paducah, and they had a social structure set up for having fun, which I think was not uncommon with that war generation cohort but that really doesn’t exist now,” recalls their grandson Guthrie Allen. “There was also the philanthropic aspect. Nobody will ever know how much he did, but there are a lot of little institutions around town that quietly benefited over the years.”
After he stepped off the Centre board, Crounse continued to recruit worthy Paducah-area students to Centre with four-year scholarships, always anonymously. As he and Eleanor grew older, however, they became slightly less emphatic that their generosity receive no public recognition. Although their interest was in students, not structures, in 1986 they allowed the board to rename the College’s main academic building in their honor. In 1990, he accepted an honorary degree from Centre, becoming at last an “alumnus” of the college he had transformed. He died in 1999, at 86, having continued to run his beloved company almost until the end. Eleanor died in 2000. Sadly, their two older children preceded them in death. Avery, the youngest, is a filmmaker and photographer. A series of his “photographic tableaux,” based on photographs he took while in Vietnam in 2003 with Clarence Wyatt ’78, line many of the walls outside faculty offices in Crounse Hall.
And the Crounse connection continues today at Centre, where George and Eleanor Crounse’s great-granddaughter India Allen ’17 is a rising junior majoring in English.
By Diane Johnson
June 22, 2015
Article featured in the summer 2015 edition of Centrepiece magazine.