President Thomas Corwin Mendenhall
Thomas Corwin Mendenhall was the sixth president of Smith College, and the last male president to take office. He accepted the position in 1958, and began work in the fall of 1959. He remained at the college for 16 years, retiring in the spring of 1975. Over the years he became a respected and beloved member of the Smith community, seeing the institution through one of the most divisive periods in American history with skill, sensitivity, and a precocious sense of humor.
Mendenhall arrived at Smith with more than 20 years of experience as an educator and administrator. After receiving degrees from Yale (Class of 1932), and Oxford’s Balliol College (B.A. 1935, B.Litt. 1936), he returned to Yale as a professor of history in 1937. Six years later he began taking on administrative duties, first as assistant to the provost (1943-1950), then as the master of Berkeley College (1950-1959). He also had experience with Smith itself by way of his mother, Dorothy Reed Mendenhall, Smith Class of 1895.
Mendenhall was president during a challenging and eventful period for academic administrators across the country. He successfully guided the college through both national and local upheaval, weathering the social and political disputes that have become the hallmark of the 1960s and early 1970s. As the country battled over civil rights, the wars in Southeast Asia, and class iniquity, Smith became one of the thousands of colleges and universities across the country compelled to join the fray both nationally and locally. The legacies of student and faculty activism at Smith can be seen in the curriculum, social regulations, and even administrative structure and procedures. Afro-American Studies (via the Five Colleges), the Bridge Program, and the student exchange program with historically Black colleges all began during these years as a result of local and national struggles for civil rights and class equality. Recruitment programs attempted to diversify the population of students, as well as that of faculty and staff. The debate over coeducation also reached a pinnacle during the Mendenhall years, and the women’s movement began to impact the college’s curriculum and administrative structure.
Changes in the administration and population were accompanied by renovation and addition to the physical layout of the college. Mendenhall oversaw the construction of three new centers and the renovation of several existing buildings. The Clark Science Center, the Fine Arts Center, and the Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts were all constructed between 1959 and 1975. There was also a significant addition to Neilson Library.
As president of one of the premier women’s colleges in the country, Mendenhall was also required to participate in intercollegiate associations such as the Seven Sisters, the Pioneer Valley’s Five Colleges, Inc., and the primarily ivy league 12-College Exchange. He was also the Smith representative and point person for many educational organizations and related businesses. His daily schedule was crowded not only with campus activities and responsibilities, but also with speaking engagements and meetings at a variety of locales across the country.
Throughout his tenure, Mendenhall played key roles in traditional college events, was cheered for his formal and informal talks, and came to be known by successive classes of students and alumnae as “Uncle Tom.” He could be seen regularly rowing on Paradise Pond, made frequent appearances at dinners and teas in the student residences, and took an active role in the daily life of the college. He also remained an active educator, teaching in the history department throughout his presidency. When he died On July 18, 1998, at the age of 88, he was mourned by many from the Smith community. The following October, there was a memorial service in the Hills Chapel where friends and spoke about his legacies as an administrator, an educator, and a charismatic character in the history of Smith College.
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