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GOULD: A Beacon So Bright

Eric Hillemann’s biography of Laurence McKinley Gould

After many years research by Eric Hillemann, Carleton College finally has published his thorough biography of Laurence McKinley Gould, A Beacon So Bright. Gould was President of Carleton College between 1945 and 1962, a period that included my four years at that school in Northfield, Minnesota. Truth be told, bias revealed, my wife Rose and I know the author, since Eric served as lecturer on an Alumni Adventure to Antarctica several years ago. It was two glorious weeks of perusing the penguins, scrambling over snow, ogling the orcas, savoring sunsets that colored 360 degrees of horizon, our best ever travel trip. But Antarctica was also Gould’s world, his habitat, the Carleton geologist and president having made seven trips to the southernmost continent during his long life. Forgive me, thus, a certain bias as I review a friend’s book. I purchased A Beacon So Bright several months ago at my class reunion, even got Eric to autograph it: “For Rose and Hal Higdon, Antarctic shipmates….”

But I wondered: Did I really want to read a biography commissioned by the College as mainly a historical record of its most famous president? Isn’t that, ummm, almost incestuous? Also, Larry Gould was a man that I barely knew as a student and never saw as an alumnus. He was a larger-than-life figure, who had served as second-in-command during Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s ground-breaking (or rather, ice-breaking) expedition to the South Pole in 1928-1930. Gould’s yearly lectures describing that expedition to students were attended with great excitement. Once a year, my classmates and I donned red ties (or red outfits) to honor the man, who himself, against all fashion, wore ties of that bright color. Unfortunately, my only personal contact with Larry Gould came because of a misadventure that caused me to be hauled into his office for a (deserved) tongue-lashing. After graduation, despite my attendance at frequent five-year reunions, we never again met.

Nevertheless, once I dutifully plucked A Beacon So Bright off the coffee table, it turned into a much more enjoyable read than anticipated. Gould was born in 1896 in a small village near South Haven, Michigan, less than an hour or so up the Lake Michigan shoreline from where I live in Long Beach, Indiana. To earn money for tuition before enrolling at the University of Michigan, this soon-to-be college president taught in a one-room school in Boca Raton, Florida. Boca then was little more than a tiny farm village; today, it is one of Florida’s richest communities, where a round of golf at the local country club costs more than $500.

Before he could finish his education, World War I erupted in Europe, the U.S. eventually being sucked into the conflict. Gould, patriotically, served in the Ambulance Corps in Northern Italy, as did Ernest Hemingway, who used that setting for the novel, Farewell to Arms. No evidence exists that the two ever met.

Gould earned a doctorate at Michigan and while serving as an assistant professor, the lowest rung of the collegiate ladder, he participated in two expeditions to Greenland and the Arctic organized by G. P. Putnam, a member of the family that owned the publishing company by that name.* Putnam later would marry aviatress Amelia Earhart. When in 1932, Earhart departed New Jersey by plane, seeking to be the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, Larry Gould and his wife Peg were among the few people in the send-off party. By the time, Earhart landed in Ireland before a much larger crowd, she had become “the most famous, most celebrated woman in the world.”

It was Putnam, who had recommended Gould to Admiral Byrd. This was during the so-called “Heroic Era of Antarctic Exploration.” Norwegian Roald Amundsen had been first to reach the South Pole in 1911. Byrd had been first to fly over the North Pole in 1926 and wanted to add the South Pole to his adventurer’s resume during a year-and-a-half long expedition to Antarctica in 1928-30. Byrd succeeded, but in many respects the fly-over was almost a stunt compared to Gould’s 1500-mile trek by sled-dog to the Queen Maude mountains. Gould collected rocks that proved that the icy continent once had supported lush vegetation and hinted at a then unproven theory of continental drift, at one time all the continents being joined together. After his return, Gould wrote a fascinating and very readable book titled Cold about the expedition and trek, including one misadventure where he slipped into a crevasse and almost never came out. In the Gould biography, Eric Hillemann does an effective job in recycling Cold, while adding information from other sources. Hillemann pictures Admiral Byrd as almost a paranoid egomaniac, jealous of any who stepped into his spotlight. For several years after their return from Antarctica, the relationship between Byrd and Gould was more than frosty, their personal feud causing ripples within the tightly knit scientific community, particularly among those who had participated in the Antarctic expedition. Eventually both men forgave each other for imagined slights and mended fences.

In 1932, Carleton College recruited Gould as a geology professor, offering him more money than any other professor on campus. The money certainly was well-deserved: Gould had Star Quality. He expected to stay at the small liberal arts college for a year or two, burnish his image while upgrading his teaching credentials, then return to the grandeur of the University of Michigan. He never did, falling in love with the small school. A frequently quoted statement by Gould, still echoes on campus: “You will become part of Carleton, and Carleton will become part of you.”

In 1945, the long-time president of Carleton, Donald J. Cowling, retired. Gould became one of the leading candidates to replace him. The Board of Trustees, including chairman Laird Bell, resisted, not wishing to promote one of their own professors, despite Gould’s popularity with the students. He also was relatively young, still in his 40s. Hillemann opens the book intriguingly with the story of the political infighting. Gould got the job despite Bell’s objections, heading Carleton for 18 years, retiring at age 66 in 1962. (Bell eventually became one of his number one supporters.) It was during this period that Laurence McKinley Gould transformed what had been a moderately respected liberal arts college off in the Midwest into one of the top colleges in the U.S., one that consistently ranks in the top five on the annual list compiled by U.S. News & World Report. I may be biased when I say that Carleton is not the Harvard of the Midwest; rather, Harvard is the Carleton of the East Coast.

Gould’s activities in the early 1950s, as reported by Hillemann, were most fascinating to me, because that was when I attended Carleton, graduating in 1953. I knew and even had classes with many of the professors mentioned. As to the one time I was invited into the President’s office, it was not for being the top runner on the track and cross-country teams, but because of my criticism of one of his fellow presidents in the Midwest Athletic Conference: Nathan M. Pusey of Lawrence College. Pusey was behind a move to drum Beloit College out of the Conference. Beloit most certainly had bent the rules to recruit a top basketball team, one that (perhaps unwisely) had obliterated the second-place team in the Conference by a score of something like 150 to 50. Pusey’s roll in banishing Beloit struck me and the editor of The Carletonian, the school paper, as unjust. Woe to us. We struck in print! Gould forced us to apologize to Pusey, who would leave in one year to become president of Harvard.

My most vivid memory of the trip to the presidential office was the stuffed emperor penguin with a bullet hole in its chest, the bird having been killed by the Great White Hunter and brought home as a trophy. I could identify with the shot penguin. The stuffed penguin remains preserved in a display case in the Laurence McKinley Gould Library on the Carleton campus.

Admirably, Eric Hilleman did not come to his reconstruction of Larry Gould’s life only to praise him. He shows the warts, the blemishes, one being that Gould had a well-sculpted ego. Why not? He continued to be worshiped by the students (including me), all of us happy to walk in his shadow. We loved his annual Antarctic Expedition lecture. We wore red ties on Larry Gould Day. All hail the King!

We were naïve, as undergraduates, in not knowing the main job of a college president, and it was not showing up once a year to give an Antarctic lecture wearing a red tie. It was all about money. Asking for money, large sums of money. No, not asking for money: begging for money. Gould spent less time on campus than many of us realized. He served on committees and attended conferences, chairing this and organizing that, rubbing shoulders with millionaires and directors of foundations, whose monetary assets were not merely in the millions, but in the billions. The Ford Foundation, on whose Board he served for nearly a dozen years, had $4.4 billion in assets back in the 1960s when that was a lot more money than it is today.

Money: The necessity to acquire the green stuff that kept the college running. There's a lot of talk about money in the Gould biography. I found Hillemann’s description of Larry Gould humbling himself in order to meet a pre-retirement goal of $12 million painful to read, particular in his relationship with The Olin Foundation, whose chairman was downright nasty, once shoving a check across the desk and onto the floor, forcing our favorite president to bend over and pick it up. The check was only for $10,000! Yes, only! Over the years, Gould continued to accept a series of small checks from The Olin Foundation, chronicled through several chapters by Eric Hillemann to the point where I wanted to shout, “Stop! Stop! Eric, I don’t want to hear any more about the humbling of our hero.” Yet toward the end of Gould’s tenure, The Olin Foundation, like a penguin returning to the nest stuffed with krill from the sea, regurgitated $150,000 for the science building that still bears its name.

Fascinating also was how Gould’s political views shifted over the years. He started as a staunch Republican. My senior year, soon-to-be-president Dwight Eisenhower made Northfield, Minnesota one of his first campaign stops. Gould liked Ike (as did 77% of the student body), but he thought little of Ike’s running partner, Richard M. Nixon.

At one point, Carleton’s president campaigned vigorously against Federal aid to education, fearing that it might result in Federal “control” of education. Yet in the 1960s Gould felt no shame in accepting $800,000 in Federal aid, which allowed him to build two new dormitories. Most admirably, Gould refused to yield to pressure from the followers of Senator Joseph McCarthy to remove from the faculty Kenneth May, a mathematics professor, a former member of the Communist Party. Gould defended May as a top teacher who in 1942 had renounced communism. Politics might be one thing, but don’t mess with my college!

Though Republican, Gould was a centrist, distrusting the arch-conservative wing, represented by Robert Taft, Ike’s primary opponent. Shades of today's Tea Party! Eventually, Gould’s political pole swung left, partly because of a friendship with Minnesota’s Senator Hubert H. Humphrey. The leaders of the Republican Party on several occasions tried to recruit him to run for Governor, or Senator. Gould resisted. He was happy with his job as college president. He would rather beg for foundation grants than for votes. Many years later, Gould would consider Ronald Reagan, along with Richard Nixon, among the two worst U.S. Presidents.

One possible quibble: Hillemann suggests that when Ike and his wife Mamie came to Carleton in 1952 in a special 18-car train, Gould met the campaigners at the train station, presented Mamie with a flower bouquet and escorted the party in a bright red convertible to Laird Stadium, jammed with 11,000 cheering people.

Classmate Cliff Stiles, president of the Young Republican Club, helped organize the Eisenhower visit to Carleton. Stiles claims that Ike actually refused to let Gould ride with him in the convertible. Gould was disappointed, even angry, until Ike later confessed that he would be appearing soon at a similar rally at the University of Wisconsin, and he did not want to establish a precedent that would allow Joe McCarthy into the car with him. Stiles also told how Mamie was distraught during the drive of several blocks from the train station because of streets devoid of people--until they turned the corner and saw the packed stadium. She later would claim that the Carleton visit was the most memorable event of the entire campaign. Stiles still has a large campaign poster signed by Ike, framed and hanging in his study.

Incredibly, when Larry Gould retired from Carleton at age 66, he had completed only two-thirds of his life. He would live to just before his 99th birthday. With his wife Peg, he moved to Tucson, teaching part-time at the University of Arizona in geology, occupying an office offered to him because the president of Arizona appreciated his Star Quality, particularly in the area of geoscience. In total, Gould would travel seven times to Antarctica, serving as a chairman for the Antarctic Committee of the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58. At various times, publishers tried to persuade Gould into writing an autobiography. Unfortunately, he never did. His lectures, particularly on the subject of education, probably deserved being collected between covers. Eric Hillemann mines this vein well.

The Goulds did not have children. His wife Peg seemed a troubled woman, suffering sometimes from depression, estranged from her sister for nearly a quarter century because of some real or imagined slight, the two siblings reconnecting only a month before Peg’s death. Larry and Peg spent long periods away from each other. He had his scientific ventures and memberships on boards and committees; what she had remains unclear. Before his retirement and move to Arizona, Peg Gould would escape to that state for most of the winter. No worshiper of ice and snow she, but it must have been difficult for a woman living in a shadow so largely cast. Biographer Eric Hillemann seems puzzled by Peg Gould and, as a result, so are we. Perhaps it is best that we do not know more.

Laurence McKinley Gould functioned at a level well above the level occupied by those of us who attended Carleton College, we who sat spellbound during his Antarctic lectures and who on one day a year mimicked his wearing of red ties. Too bad we did not get a chance to know him better. At least in A Beacon So Bright, Eric Hillemann provides us with a belated introduction to a remarkable man.

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* G. P. Putnam's, located on Madison Avenue in New York City, would in the 1960s and 1970s become the publisher of several of my books including one that continues to sell today: The Crime of the Century, about the Leopold and Loeb case featuring attorney Clarence Darrow.