June 19, 2003


Simeon D. Fess


Simeon Fess reinvigorated Antioch

When Antioch College students met their new president in the fall of 1906, they expected a big man. After all, they knew Simeon D. Fess as a leading University of Chicago scholar and a famous orator, and equated a large public stature with a corresponding physical appearance. But they were mistaken.

“There are those here today who recall with me a beautiful September morning in 1906 when, as a little band of students, we stood on the wooden steps at the north entrance of the college waiting with tense anticipation to catch the first glimpse of the new president, of whom so much had been said and written,” Homer Corry said in a eulogy he delivered years later at Fess’s funeral.

“The new president came from the Horace Mann home up to the gravel walk to the College and the inaugural ceremonies,” Corry said. “He was small, and at first it may have seemed that this was not the man who could fulfill the promise of rebuilding Antioch.”

At the time, Antioch desperately needed rebuilding. Once considered at the forefront of American higher education, Antioch had been worn down by its constant financial struggles. At the time of Fess’s inauguration, the school had only about 70 students and, according to Corry, “an almost hopeless outlook.” According to a biography of Fess by John Nethers, the college’s physical plant was badly in need of repair, its endowment held steady at only $100,000 and revenue from students fees only reached $5,000 a year.

But the strength of Fess’s stature and personality immediately turned things around.

Fess’s passion for education undoubtedly sprang from his own experiences, since education lifted him out of a bleak childhood. Born in a log cabin in Allen County, Ohio, Fess experienced the death of his father when Simeon was 4, and after that witnessed the further dissolution of his family’s circumstances.

“He had seen his father die,” wrote Fess’s son Lehr Fess. “He had seen Squire Oles take away the only milk cow the family had, in part payment of the tenant farmer’s rent; he had seen the kindly old country doctor remove a battered clock from the log-hewn mantel above the smoky fireplace as partial payment for services rendered.”

Almost sent to the poorhouse, 7-year-old Simmy Fess was instead taken in by an aunt, then “farmed out as a chore boy among neighboring farmers,” according to his son. He worked summers in order to attend school during the winter, and was such a promising student that he passed the teacher’s examination at 19. He taught school for seven years, attending Ohio Northern University during the summer. Upon graduation from Ohio Northern, Fess was immediately appointed as an instructor and later became professor of history.

After receiving a law degree, Fess became director of the Ohio Northern College of Law, and in 1902 answered a call from the president of the University of Chicago to help start a new university extension division. From that position, he came to Antioch in 1906.

But why did Fess leave a lucrative, established position to head up a college on the brink of collapse?

“It was because as one of the outstanding educators of that period, he had an intimate knowledge and fine appreciation of Horace Mann and his contribution to education and to American life,” wrote Corry. “He felt the challenge and accepted the adventure of rebuilding a college which had such a foundation. This decision is an index of his greatness. He was essentially unselfish and he constantly devoted himself to causes and institutions that were greater than the individual.”

Fess’s first step in reinvigorating the college was instituting a summer school, with which to attract teachers who wished, as he once had, to complete their college degree. To further lure people to the summer school, Fess introduced the Antioch Chautauqua, taking advantage of a popular format of the time which featured lectures and entertainment. The Chautauqua caught fire and remained in Yellow Springs from 1906 to about 1916.

Fess also attacked Antioch’s financial crisis by introducing an endowment fund drive in memory of Horace Mann, the college’s first president, seeking a $1 donation from every school teacher in Ohio, to reach a goal of $25,000, according to Nethers. Due to its small endowment, Antioch was on the verge of being expelled from the Ohio College Association.

During Fess’s 10 years at Antioch, the college did show improved health. Student enrollment increased dramatically, from an average of 50 to 70 students in the years preceeding his tenure to 234 students in 1907 and a peak of 279 students in 1915. He also made significant improvements to the physical plant, including the construction of a new gymnasium

But Fess had less success tackling the root of Antioch’s financial difficulty, its small endowment, according to Nethers. Although his pleading letters to other Ohio college presidents kept Antioch in the Ohio College Association, he never did raise the $25,000 he had hoped for.

And Fess’s efforts took a considerable personal toll, according to Lehr Fess, who wrote that his father “struggled for years to keep Antioch alive, but exhausted his savings and himself to the point of a nervous breakdown.”

Perhaps inspired by Chautauqua speakers, Fess found his interest turning to politics. In 1912, he was one of three Ohio Republicans elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and he resigned the Antioch presidency in 1916. Ten years later he was elected to the Senate, where he spent much of his life, becoming what Lehr Fess called an “unofficial spokesman for the Harding, and later the Coolidge and Hoover, administrations.” At the 1928 Republican National Convention, Fess delivered the keynote address.

Although he spent much of his time in Washington, D.C., Fess maintained his large, stately home in Yellow Springs on the corner of Xenia Avenue and South College Street, and he and his wife, Eva, visited frequently. Until his death in December 1936, just after his 75th birthday — he had finally been defeated in his Senate bid the year before, largely due to his passionate support for Prohibition — Fess remained a local hero, his every hometown visit generously covered by the Dayton, Springfield and Yellow Springs papers.

Although Fess was not able to overcome Antioch’s considerable financial difficulties, he brought to the college a period of strong leadership, relative stability and hopefulness.

“To Fess must be given the credit,” wrote Nethers, “of keeping the college alive for 10 of its most difficult years.”

—Diane Chiddister