Gettysburg's "Forgotten" President:
The front page of the January 17, 1952 Gettysburgian reported major news.
John Yovicsin, Class of 1940, had just been named as the new football coach,
succeeding the legendary Hen Bream in that post. Yovicsin's
appointment was featured only slightly less prominently than the other big news:
Walter Langsam, president of Wagner
College on Staten Island in New York, was the Gettysburg trustees' choice to succeed Henry
W.A. Hanson here.
The choice of Langsam was on the face of it a master stroke.
Langsam came to Gettysburg with impeccable credentials,
including an Ivy League Ph.D, stature as a widely published European historian,
an impressive record in his seven years at Wagner, and commitment to the
Lutheran faith. Asked by a New York newspaper why he would leave a place
where he was comfortable, Langsam cited the opportunity to advance his career by
heading the nation's oldest Lutheran college and his desire to live in a small
At Gettysburg College presidents had enjoyed long
tenures in office. Only one of Langsam's predecessors,
Samuel Hefelbower (1904-1910), served less than a decade. Hanson was currently
in his 29th year at Gettysburg's helm. While Langsam
could not predict the future, he anticipated putting his own stamp on Gettysburg in the time he
had at the college. But that was not to be; Langsam's time at
brief. Less than three years after arriving at Gettysburg, he resigned his post to accept the presidency
of the University
of Cincinnati and closed
out his career there, retiring in 1971. What happened?
Hindsight is often 20-20. It's more clear now
than it was at the time that Walter Langsam's goal of putting his stamp on
Gettysburg College-and moving it in directions that in some respects were
different than the patterns of the Hanson years-was the root of his undoing. For
Langsam was not only inheriting Henry Hanson's faculty, staff, and his Board of
Trustees, he was in effect inheriting Henry Hanson as well.
Although Hanson moved to Harrisburg upon his retirement, he retained a
seat on the Board and as such was the man people often went to when there was a
complaint about the new president.
When Langsam arrived at a college he knew by
reputation as a strong liberal arts school, he was dismayed to learn that
whatever Gettysburg's reputation and current popularity
with prospective students, it faced a serious fiscal crisis.
Hanson's dream as president was to build a new chapel, a dream deferred
through the Depression years and World War II. Post war, Hanson
pursued the dream, hiring an architect to design a building that
would hold at some 1200 students-the maximum number he could imagine Gettysburg College would ever accommodate.
By Langsam's arrival in the Summer of 1952,
ground had been broken and construction commenced, though the college had not
come close to raising the nearly $600,000 the new building would cost.
Raising funds to pay for the Chapel would be one major task for Langsam -
but then money would factor into virtually everything during his tenure of
office. Faculty salaries had been stagnant under Hanson, the
college's residential facilities were manifestly inadequate for the needs of a
growing student population, and the institution's budgetary system was, to put
it mildly, irregular. (Athletic program funding, for example, was essentially
under the auspices not of the president but of Henry Bream, and there was no
system whereby departments made budget requests for the ensuing academic
year.) Funds had to be found to support the basics, including a new
campus heating system. Further, a more transparent system of disbursing monies
had to be established, Langsam concluded.
As president, Langsam was a change agent.
Henry Hanson had met the challenges before him with honesty and a measure
of ingenuity. But in truth, his educational principles and practices were
increasingly outdated. Langsam recognized this, instituting a
budget system for the first time, raising faculty salaries, offering merit aid
to superior prospective students, encouraging the creation of new departments of
Art and Sociology, respectively, and recruiting the college's first full-time
Chaplain. One of Langsam's first acts, even before taking office,
was one of his most notable: he told the Admissions Director, "Hips" Wolfe, to
find and admit at least one qualified African-American first year student for
matriculation in Fall 1952. Wolfe found and admitted Rudolph
Featherstone. Feathersone went on to graduate in 1956 (thereby
outlasting Langsam at Gettysburg) and to distinction as a pastor,
campus minister and seminary professor.
Langsam was a hands-on administrator who focused
on assuring that Gettysburg's curriculum was sound and that
academic freedom should be respected. Because of the money crunch,
Langsam pursued greater funding from the Lutheran Church, in exchange for which he was
willing to accept representatives of Lutheran synods on the college's board of
trustees - something Henry Hanson, for all his emphasis on Christian education,
had never embraced. The infusion of church monies helped the
college stay in the black, but at the price of reinforcing its denominational
identity and potentially increasing church influence on decision-making.
In perspective, most of Langsam's initiatives,
including his efforts to hire more women faculty, made eminent sense.
But as an innovator, Langsam evidently irritated and upset older alumni,
senior faculty, and trustees who didn't think Gettysburg needed to change. It did not help
Langsam that, despite his gregarious nature (he enjoyed playing bridge with
faculty members and regularly attended college sporting events), he had a
tendency to shoot from the lip. Several observers have noted that
Langsam would sometimes make off-the-cuff, cutting remarks that, with a moment's
reflection, would have been better left unuttered. Those who were the targets of
his comments did not forget-or forgive.
By 1954, as complaints increased over spending
priorities at the college, and charges of poor accounting practices were leveled
at Langsam's young business manager, the new president began to realize that his
own tenure at Gettysburg might be short.
While a special committee examination of the
college's financial dealings revealed nothing damning, the investigation itself
roiled the waters at Gettysburg and encouraged Langsam to look
elsewhere for professional fulfillment. In the winter of 1955, less
than three years into his presidency, Langsam accepted an offer to become
president of the University of
Cincinnati, a 13,000-student
institution funded by the city of Cincinnati.
In Langsam's papers at University of Cincinnati archives one can find dozens of letters
from members of the Wagner
College community thanking him for what
he had done for Wagner and lamenting his departure for Gettysburg in 1952.
The folder containing correspondence regarding Langsam's resignation at
Gettysburg and wishing him good luck in Cincinnati contains just three items, suggesting that
Langsam's Gettysburg fan club was small. His presidency
would await a kinder judgment from history Charles Glatfelter's sympathetic
treatment in A Salutary Influence (1987). While not uncritical, offered a
measure of vindication. Glatfelter suggests that Langsam's ideas
for moving Gettysburg forward were sound, adding that most
of his major initiatives were implemented by his successors.
Whether Walter Langsam would have emerged, in a
longer tenure in office, as one of Gettysburg's best presidents is impossible to
say. History does not allow for do-overs. But based on his experience,
priorities, and energy, it seems likely that he would have made a major impact
in a longer tenure at Gettysburg. Because he left, he is
largely forgotten, and the small oil portrait of him hanging in the college's
Lyceum looks more like a paint-by-numbers sketch than a meaningful depiction of
a formidable academic leader.