Vanderbilt Magazine

Vanderbilt Magazine

Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Alexander Heard embraced the world’s irresistible compulsion to change.

Fall 2009Featured  |  Share This  |  E-mail  |  Print  | 
(No Ratings Yet)
PHOTO BY HERB PECK

(Photo: Herb Peck)

“I have sometimes said that during the half dozen or so years from 1967 to 1973, I never relaxed once,” Vanderbilt’s fifth chancellor, Alexander Heard, once remarked. “That’s not technically true, of course, but I was constantly aware of the local and national matters that affected Vanderbilt’s welfare.”

The former dean of the graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a brilliant political scientist, Heard became Vanderbilt’s fifth chancellor in 1963. That same year George C. Wallace declared in his inaugural speech as Alabama’s governor, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!” Betty Friedan launched the women’s movement with the publication of The Feminine Mystique. In Dallas, President John F. Kennedy was shot to death while waving to crowds from an open convertible. And his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, confirmed that the U.S. would continue supporting South Vietnam militarily and economically.

As vandalism and violent protests became the norm at colleges and universities during the 1960s and 1970s, Vanderbilt remained a relative citadel of peace. Fellow U.S. higher education administrators admired Heard for maintaining campus stability during a tumultuous time. Faculty members embraced him as a distinguished scholar in his own right. And students loved him because he listened to them. Early on, Heard began holding quiet regular meetings with student leaders, including campus radicals. His defense of the open forum survived challenges from both ends of the political spectrum.

“The university’s obligation is not to protect students from ideas, but rather to expose them to ideas, and to help make them capable of handling and, hopefully, having ideas,” he said in 1966.

Under Heard’s leadership Vanderbilt added three schools, constructed three dozen new or radically enlarged buildings, conducted two highly successful fundraising campaigns, doubled enrollment, increased the annual budget tenfold, and recruited faculty who achieved new levels of quality in teaching and research.

Heard, right, hosted John F. Kennedy when the president delivered the convocation address on May 18, 1963, at Dudley Field in celebration of Vanderbilt’s 90th anniversary.

Heard, right, hosted John F. Kennedy when the president delivered the convocation address on May 18, 1963, at Dudley Field in celebration of Vanderbilt’s 90th anniversary.

Alexander Heard retired as Vanderbilt’s chancellor in 1982. That same year a secretary in Vanderbilt’s computer science department was injured by a bomb mailed to the university by the Unabomber. In Chicago seven people died after ingesting Tylenol capsules laced with potassium cyanide. And in Washington, D.C., groundbreaking ceremonies were held for a memorial to honor 58,000 Americans who gave their lives in Vietnam.

The world by then seemed more sinister and more cynical. But Heard, in his parting remarks to graduating students on Curry Field that May 14, quoted Thomas Jefferson: “[L]aws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.”

Alexander Heard would live another 27 years after his retirement as chancellor, frequently lunching with faculty members at the University Club on campus and working from his office at Kirkland Hall well into his 80s. He was 92 when he died on July 24, survived by his wife, Jean Heard, and four children: Stephen, a Nashville attorney; Christopher, an acknowledgements coordinator for Vanderbilt’s Division of Development and Alumni Relations; Frank (BA’75, MBA’80), a Florida businessman; and Cornelia Heard, the Valere Blair Potter Professor of Violin and chair of the string department at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music. Chancellor Heard’s ashes were interred at Benton Chapel, near the main building of the Jean and Alexander Heard Library.

For this issue Vanderbilt Magazine asked five people who knew Heard to share their memories.


He believed that students, in large measure, should govern themselves,
for how else could they make their way in the world?

—Frye Gaillard, BA’68

Frye Gaillard, BA’68

It happened again and again in the 1960s. Chancellor Alexander Heard would appear at a Vanderbilt basketball game—one of his favorite pastimes back in those days—and as he made his way to his courtside seat, the entire student body would stand to applaud. All across the nation these were days of student unrest, and more and more as the decade progressed, there were activist stirrings at Vanderbilt as well. But the rebellion was never directed at Heard.

On the contrary, most of us in school at that time, especially those who knew him well, regarded the chancellor with a respect that shaded almost into awe. Part of it was simply his accessibility. Once at a “meeting of the university,” events that were usually held in the spring at which students could ask anything they chose, a young woman rose to question the dress code. Was it really true, she demanded to know, that women students were forbidden to wear shorts on campus except to play tennis? And were they expected to wear raincoats on their way to the courts?

The dean of women, one of maybe 20 administrators arrayed on the stage to answer such questions, replied a little officiously that those indeed were the expectations. “Well,” said the student, growing testy herself, “how about a plastic, see-through raincoat?”

There was a moment of tension that Heard broke with a smile. “There goes the dress code,” he said, and with that the issue seemed to be settled.

The chancellor was never a stickler for rules, at least not the silly and artificial ones. He believed that students, in large measure, should govern themselves, for how else could they make their way in the world? As historian Paul Conkin would later conclude, Heard saw Vanderbilt as “a place where pleas for fuller freedom could be calmly heard.”

Talking with students in 1971

Talking with students in 1971

The most demanding test of that philosophy came in the spring of 1967, when the student-run Impact Symposium invited, among others, black power advocate Stokely Carmichael to appear on campus. Only a few years earlier, such an invitation might have been unremarkable. Carmichael had worked as a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizer in some of the toughest places in the South, winning the respect of local black leaders for what one of them called his “hip and fear-no-evil style.” They knew that he carried a .22 pistol, but they also knew he didn’t want to use it, preferring instead to rely on his wits.

By 1967, however, Carmichael had become, theoretically at least, an advocate of violence in pursuit of black freedom. At Vanderbilt he delivered a well-reasoned address, introducing many of us to the concept of institutionalized racism—the notion that injustice in the country went deeper than the bigotry of sick individuals. But he also spoke the same day on the African-American side of town, shouting black power slogans that were followed by a riot. Some in Nashville blamed Vanderbilt, and specifically the chancellor, for refusing to rein in the unruly students who were responsible for Carmichael’s visit to the city.

“Nothing that could be said in the way of apology,” declared the Nashville Banner, “can remove the stench of Stokely Carmichael’s visit.” At a Vanderbilt Board of Trust meeting on May 5, 1967, there were some who wanted Heard to “eat crow,” as one historian would later put it. The chancellor responded with an unflinching calm. He rejected the offers of some of his allies to push through a vote of confidence by the board, contending instead that the Carmichael visit was simply routine, requiring no action by the trustees.

It was, Heard explained, a case of the university “being a university.”

“It hardly seems necessary,” he said, “to burden you with a defense of the free exchange of ideas, or of the freedom to hear and the freedom to read for our students, or of the educational value of these freedoms.”

In the weeks that followed that persuasive talk, Heard won national acclaim for his stand—and for Vanderbilt. For many of us who were students, meanwhile, he made an impression that never went away. In all of our meetings regarding Impact, there was never a moment—and I mean, not one—where he displayed the faintest trace of cynicism or departed from the public principles he espoused.

Of all the things I learned at Vanderbilt, nothing was more important than that.

Frye Gaillard, BA’68, was chairman of Impact the year that followed Carmichael’s visit. He says his experiences with Heard “put a human face on the definition of integrity.”


It was not unusual to see him headed home at the end of the day with not one but two briefcases.

—Susan Ford Wiltshire

Susan Ford Wiltshire

I was not there, so I cannot vouch for this, but when I came to Vanderbilt in 1971, I heard it said that Alexander Heard concluded his inaugural remarks to his new faculty as follows: “And if we do this right, we’ll have some fun.” I still smile when I think of it.

Nor was I present during the tumultuous later ’60s, but I have friends who were Vanderbilt students at the time, and they adored Chancellor Heard. He stood up when it counted most, proclaiming the highest values of a university, the unbending commitment to the open forum as requisite for an open society. They believed him because his actions matched his words.

When Chancellor Heard decided to turn down the presidency of Columbia to remain at Vanderbilt, the faculty gave a huge party to thank him. And this was only the refusal we had heard about. He made a home with us because he was one of us.

One day I passed by as Chancellor Heard was rushing to get into his car in front of Kirkland Hall. “Where you going, Mr. Chancellor?” someone asked. He gave the only proper response: “I’m going to be late, that’s where.”

Heard returns to campus in 1969 after declining the presidency of Columbia University.

Heard returns to campus in 1969 after declining the presidency of Columbia University. (Photo: Vanderbilt University Special Collections & University Archives)

Heard had an exquisite work ethic. It was not unusual to see him headed home at the end of the day with not one but two briefcases. A friend in political science said that during Heard’s tenure as chancellor, he always had the highest number of scholarly publications of any member of the department—each year.

In 1976 I edited a special collection of papers on the Classical Tradition in the South, and I had found a venue for their publication as a special edition of the Southern Humanities Review. The journal, however, required a subvention of $1,500. I spent the better part of the next year being turned down—more than a dozen times as I recall. Finally, I wrote a memo to Chancellor Heard, describing the efforts I had made and asking him if he had any further ideas for me. A day or two later, I received a one-sentence memo on the chancellor’s distinctive blue paper: “I am happy to provide $1,500 from the Chancellor’s Contingency Fund. Good luck.”

When Alexander Heard called himself the senior faculty member, we believed him. With Heard as chancellor we felt confident because of his competence and confidence. Even in times of serious disagreement about policy—and I was publicly involved in such a disagreement in the early 1980s—no one ever worried about retribution or had reason to suspect dissimulation. We respected one another, and we were each doing our proper jobs. No one understood that better than the canny political scientist.

Heard was never chummy, never made plays for approval. Sometimes I thought that was because he was simply too busy. Now I rather think it was because he was focused. He was centered. Most of all, he was trustworthy.

Susan Ford Wiltshire, professor of classics, emerita, joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 1971 and is the former chair of the Department of Classical Studies.


Papa led by example and never imposed his opinions.

—Cornelia Heard

Cornelia Heard

My husband has always been mercifully tolerant of my belief that my father, like Mary Poppins, was practically perfect. For me there is no bad memory, no time he was unfair, no time he was inconsistent, no time he was anything but a loving, generous, graceful, brilliant man. All my life I have felt fortunate in the extreme to have Alexander Heard as my father.

Papa, as we called him, loved life and appreciated every aspect of it. He loved his work and handled it with such ease that it didn’t seem like work. He loved his family and was devoted to my mother, to whom he was married for 60 years. He led by example and never imposed his opinions. He was a role model and set a high standard, and yet he always made others feel that their accomplishments and contributions were significant.

I have childhood memories of my three brothers and me going with my father at Christmastime to knock on doors for Big Brothers of Nashville, memories of sledding down the hill with him at night and ice skating on frozen Richland Creek, of decorating our 18-foot Christmas tree while hanging from the banister in the stairwell, and of hearing a strange humming noise outside the window one night at our friend’s cottage in Jamaica during a summer family vacation and realizing it was the dreaded “Jamaican Tickler” (Papa), who then burst in the house doing what ticklers do.

I still have the instructions he left the baby sitter when my parents went to Europe while we were quite young, stating our allowances: “Stephen 15 cents, Kit 10 cents, Frank 5 cents and Connie 1 cent, to be paid weekly.”

When we lived in Chapel Hill, N.C., I remember someone asking Papa how long it took him to mow the lawn, and he answered that it took one hour or, with the children’s help, two. In Nashville for years as a child I would hide behind the front door each day as Papa walked up to the house in the late afternoon; I’d pull the door open just as he reached for the knob. I remember my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary celebration at the home of our dear friends the Brittinghams, dancing with my father on the patio, then through the house, and out into the front driveway.

I remember a time when I was living in New York that he came to town and asked if I was free for dinner. When I told him I had to drive to New Haven, Conn., for an orchestra rehearsal, he decided to ride in the car with me for the 90-minute trip and then went directly to the station to catch a train back to New York.

Papa lived by his maxims, including, “Never write anything you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of The New York Times” and “It is not only that you must not violate ethics or break the law, but you must not have the appearance of doing so.”

The Heard family in 1962, from left: Frank, Stephen, Jean, Christopher, Connie and Alexander.

The Heard family in 1962, from left: Frank, Stephen, Jean, Christopher, Connie and Alexander.

I remember my poor father cleaning up after our little dog, Alouette, who continually wet the carpets in the chancellor’s house. I remember summers at Pawley’s Island, S.C., in the Swinnie Cottage with our friends the Holstens—four adults, seven children and one bathroom. I remember the day he found out his mother had died; I saw him through the bedroom window at Pawley’s, lying on the bed for hours with his hand on his forehead.

Papa was from Savannah, Ga., and considered it the center of the universe. He loved jazz big-band music and Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole.

When he was in the Navy during World War II, he read the Bible from cover to cover, and when he was a graduate student at Columbia University, he went to a different New York church every Sunday. One of the cards we received after Papa died was from John Livingston, a fellow officer from the USS Laurens, the attack transport they served on in the Pacific during the war. Another was from Sam Olden, with whom my father spent two years as vice consul in Quito, Ecuador.

My father was a man of compassion and understanding. When my parents’ close friend Blanche Henry Weaver was ill and at the Health Center at Richland Place, my father visited her almost every day for the last year of her life.

After a Blair Patrons dinner and concert one night years ago (and a number of years after he had retired as chancellor), I was walking with my father back through the tables after it was over. A waiter approached my father and said, “Chancellor, I just wanted to let you know that my daughter will be enrolling in Vanderbilt this fall.” My father thanked him warmly for sharing that news and said it was the best news he had heard in six months.

Jean and Alexander Heard at home in 1984

Jean and Alexander Heard at home in 1984 (Photo: Vanderbilt University Special Collections & University Archives)

My father’s integrity was a powerful example to my brothers and me. One memorable experience occurred when I was a sophomore in high school. Each student at my school was required to sign an honor pledge in the fall, stating that she would not cheat or break school rules and that she would report anyone whom she observed cheating or breaking school rules.

That fall I made the decision not to sign the pledge. I did not want to be bound to turn in my classmates, and I felt the pledge had lost meaning because there was quite a bit of cheating and students did not report infractions they observed. As a result of not signing the pledge, I was called before the student council and strongly urged by a faculty representative to sign it.

A subsequent meeting of the student council resulted in minutes that stated that all current students would be required to sign the pledge in the spring, or not be allowed to return in the fall.

I went to my parents and explained the situation and the new policy. When my father asked what I would do if I had to choose between signing a pledge I didn’t believe in and being asked not to return to school, I said I supposed I would have to sign the pledge.

He surprised me by saying that if I believed in my position, I should stand by it, even if it meant not returning to the school. He set up an appointment for me with the dean of students at Vanderbilt to discuss the Vanderbilt Honor System and the pledge the university used. The dean met with me, and we discussed many aspects of the pledge and the honor system. My father supported my efforts to draft a revised pledge and encouraged me to feel that I could participate in the process of bringing about change. He taught me that principles are more important than individual situations and that they are worth defending even when consequences seem harsh.

My father used to say that children needed parents who love them and are consistent in their expectations and behavior. He provided that love and consistency to the four of us, as well as much inspiration and a joyful approach to life.

Cornelia Heard is the Valere Blair Potter Professor of Violin and chair of the string department at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music.


He was often the ball bearing in the race between the inner collar of stability and the outer of change.

—John S. Beasley II

John S. Beasley II

He was the most urbane and polished man I had ever met, and, like others, I was completely taken. On the law school faculty at the time, I saw him first a few days after his arrival on campus when he and Rob Roy Purdy, then vice chancellor, paid us a visit, and he went round the room giving each of us a handshake and a steady look into the eyes. He made a few appropriate remarks before leaving, again shaking each hand and this time calling us every one by name as though he knew precisely who we were. Mercy, I thought. This man is remarkable.

I had the good fortune to work with him as a faculty colleague, then volunteer, then closely in other capacities at Vanderbilt, for more than three decades. He had a quick rich laugh which erupted from deep inside, and his sense of humor was acute. He used the language as a skilled surgeon would use the scalpel, precisely and with elegance. But he was kind, and I never saw him use that tool, over which he had such mastery, at the expense of another. On one early occasion when I wrote for him, he was careful with his “emendations,” ever in the educating mode. (“You have used ‘comprise’ here, John, when what you mean is ‘compose.’ Not only do they not mean the same thing but, in fact, each is the obverse of the other.” Who would have thought? But after that, who could forget?)

He was a good and patient sport when we hit the trails much later in search of the oil that would power the institution. Old trip reports recount the grace with which he undertook the difficult and, occasionally, the unpleasant. There were no “air kisses” in those days, and when he had to bestow a real kiss, he did it. He knew where the university needed to go, and he seldom shrank from urging those who could help, to do so.
He was modest and fair, a fine raconteur who could listen as well as talk. And his ability to listen helped him guide Vanderbilt through the turbulent ’60s and ’70s. He was a man of granite principle who sought skillfully and tirelessly to bring others to his point of view. He was often the ball bearing in the race between the inner collar of stability and the outer of change. At times everyone knew he was dead wrong, but history has tended to suggest that, despite their view, he was right. He led by example, and it was unselfconsciously both stylish and substantive.

It may seem presumptuous of one to write about such a person. But I have seen the testimonials from alumni who were students here under his chancellorship, both those who rallied for him and those who railed against him, and they all end with expressions of love and gratitude and an appreciation of who he was and what he meant to them and to Vanderbilt. And thus I am in position to attest to his remarkable legacy, one that is etched indelibly and gracefully on the tablet of the university as it is on the hearts of thousands and thousands of students whose lives, because of him, have been enlarged and made fuller and thus more useful to the world.

Often his thank-you note to some donor would begin, “Many and true thanks … .” On Vanderbilt’s behalf, and on all of ours, beneficiaries of his life and service, it is perhaps not inappropriate to end with a salute in that fashion. Many and true thanks, Mr. Chancellor.

John S. Beasley II, BA’52, JD’54, is vice chancellor, emeritus, and counselor to the chancellor.

Hail and Farewell With pinkies raised and tongues in cheek, founding members gather around Chancellor Alexander Heard (center, kneeling) on April 26, 1979, for the last rites of The Wild Bunch, a prank-loving group of students who came to signify the Heard era. “He really was a tremendous influence, especially the way he encouraged using the university as an open forum for the expression of new ideas,” says Wild Bunch member Mike Bagot, BA’77. Raised pinkies served as the official recognition symbol for Wild Bunch members. Read more about Vanderbilt’s fifth chancellor beginning on page 36. Photo provided by Vanderbilt University Special Collections & University Archives.

With pinkies raised and tongues in cheek, founding members gather around Chancellor Alexander Heard (center, kneeling) on April 26, 1979, for the last rites of The Wild Bunch, a prank-loving group of students who came to signify the Heard era. “He really was a tremendous influence, especially the way he encouraged using the university as an open forum for the expression of new ideas,” says Wild Bunch member Mike Bagot, BA’77. Raised pinkies served as the official recognition symbol for Wild Bunch members. (Photo: Vanderbilt University Special Collections & University Archives)


He told a story in which significant universities led America to a land of perfected race relations and equal opportunity for all.

—Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos

Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos

Alex Heard brought to the problems confronting college presidents a rare combination of personality and principle. His calm and confident approach to conflict helped. His curiosity and appetite for analyzing the history, context and possible consequences of problems were important. And his steadfast belief in the university as a special institution dedicated to—here I paraphrase him—“reinforcing and developing” the qualities essential to “a self-governing society, a political democracy, and the rule of law” surely helped him get through more than one meeting with impassioned students and outraged faculty.

I think the key to his success lies in the unique marriage of these personal traits and firm beliefs. Their authenticity, both the way he reasoned and related to others and what he believed in, gave him true authority as chancellor and drew to him the willing and ardent support of his students, faculty, staff and board of trust.

Jean and Alexander Heard at home in 1984

Jean and Alexander Heard at home in 1984

One of the important lessons I learned from Chancellor Heard has to do with his success in leading Vanderbilt through a period of financial distress. We are so preoccupied at the moment with our own sense of financial peril that we forget that the 1970s were also a period experienced as the “worst economy since the Great Depression.” The economic growth America had known since World War II disintegrated into growing unemployment, interest rates topping 20 percent, stagflation, and two crippling energy crises. After Vietnam and Watergate, there was a prevailing loss of faith in political leaders.

Yet between 1973 and 1981, Vanderbilt and Alexander Heard launched and saw to successful conclusion the largest capital campaign in the university’s history to that date. Chancellor Heard’s remarkable ability to speak to his times and simultaneously invoke the timeless value of the university inspired all to give of themselves.

He reminded listeners of the age-old relationship between social progress and the improvement of higher education. He kept a focus on the special significance of the American South as a place deeply in need of national attention and federal support to make improvements. He told a story in which significant universities led America to a land of perfected race relations and equal opportunity for all. He drew all eyes to Vanderbilt as a place where these noble goals ought to be pursued and inspired faith in a worthy mission.

And at the same time, he managed to remind the chancellors who would follow him of what he called one of the “modern paradoxes of the university,” that, as he phrased it, “A strong and alert institution will be willing with impunity to bite the hand that would feed it, to turn aside support for ends that it cannot properly claim or make its own.”

He cautioned us from his own time of shrinking university endowments, collapsing federal support, and alumni whose businesses and personal fortunes were at risk, you “must be on guard to remember that [you] raise money in order to run the university, not run the university in order to raise money.”

In his last commencement address, Chancellor Heard referred to what he called “the world’s irresistible compulsion to change.” I am convinced it was his careful, and what has to be called loving, attention to the characteristics of his time which enabled him to welcome change as the inevitable path to a better future.

He understood the unique economic, social and psychological conditions that had influenced and shaped the generation of students entrusted to him. He spoke knowingly to his faculty’s inherent need for autonomy and simultaneous need to identify with the destiny of their university. He studied and responded actively to the problems of immediate concern in Vanderbilt’s surrounding community, in Nashville, in the South, in America, and in the world at large.

After 20 years of leading Vanderbilt, he said goodbye in 1982 by reminding graduates and their families that universities must change “not their primary values, but their ways of living” and by encouraging them to help lead Vanderbilt “across new thresholds to create a better university, better in its educational distinctions, better in the range and value of its public services, better in the richness of spirit and daring imagination with which it looks forward.” Nearly 30 years later I find his words both inspiring and comforting.

Nicholas S. Zeppos, Vanderbilt’s eighth chancellor, delivered this eulogy at a memorial service held in Benton Chapel on July 29. His remarks have been adapted for publication.

Heard at a 1966 news conference announcing the launch  of the university’s new $55 million campaign

Heard at a 1966 news conference announcing the launch of the university’s new $55 million campaign (Photo: Vanderbilt University Special Collections & University Archives)

 

© 2014 Vanderbilt University | Photography: Vanderbilt Special Collections

Share Your VUpoint

Conversation guidelines: Vanderbilt Magazine welcomes your thoughts, stories and information related to this article. Please stay on topic and be respectful of others. Keep the conversation appropriate for interested readers across the map.






Larry Wallace says:

Thank you for publishing this material on this man for all seasons that only a small (and now shrinking) portion of the VU family experienced directly.

I was a direct beneficiary of the leadership of the late G. Alexander Heard (as a student 1968-72 and SGA President ‘71-’72).

Your publishing this material helps insure that a broader audience realizes the Heard legacy that benefits them as not only VU people but as citizens of the world.

Heard’s contributions to civilization are much deeper and wider than VU.


Letters to the Editor | Vanderbilt Magazine | Vanderbilt University says:

[...] you for publishing the article [Fall 2009, “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”] about this man for all seasons whom only a small (and now shrinking) portion of the Vanderbilt [...]


Keep Reading

    None Found

Search