The complicated legacy of president Howard Lowry: As our values evolve, do our heroes change as well?

Maggie Dougherty

Editor in Chief

 

Content Warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual harassment and predatory behavior.

In early March, a Viewpoint titled “Consider implications of renaming buildings” was published in the pages of the Voice. Near the end of the article, author Geoffrey Allen ’23 posed a question to the paper’s readers: “Today we may know about the life and work of Alfred Louis Kroeber, but what about other past figures whose names occupy some of our buildings such as Kauke, Morgan and Lowry? Do we truly know the moral integrity of some of Wooster’s greatest benefactors…?”

In the first two cases, we have little information to address that question. However, concerning Howard Lowry, there is more to say. This month, the Voice has received testimony from Wooster alumni, backed up by letters from Lowry himself, that shed new light on the life of the man whose name adorns one of our most central campus buildings.

“An Adventure in Education,” published in 2015 by Wooster alumnus and current Trustee Jerrold Footlick, traces the history of The College of Wooster from the arrival of Howard Lowry and into the 21st century. The first sentence of the book’s opening chapter, A Visionary Arrives, reads: “This story begins with Howard Lowry — how could it not begin with Howard Lowry, who brought to The College of Wooster the academic standard that for nearly three-quarters of a century has distinguished it from other outstanding liberal arts colleges; the scholar admired and honored on both sides of the Atlantic; the orator with a baritone so mellifluous that his lectures sounded operatic…”

As the man who brought Independent Study to Wooster, many consider Lowry to be the one who put Wooster on the map. “Indeed,” Footlick maintains later in the chapter, “one might identify Lowry as the most influential single figure in the College’s history.” 

Yet, it seems there was another side of Howard Lowry, documented even in his own biography “Howard Lowry: A Life in Education,” published in 1975 by James Blackwood, as well as in Footlick’s descriptions of Lowry’s life. In fact, Footlick’s opening chapter quoted above continues with its description of Lowry, calling him “the nineteenth-century Romantic who cherished the company of attractive young women yet somehow could not bring himself to marry one.”

In other places, both Footlick and Blackwood put it more succinctly: Lowry was “a lifelong bachelor.” As members of the Wooster community, we are all too familiar with how gossip and conjecture spread on this campus. As such, there are a great number of theories behind Lowry’s inability to settle down: his overbearing mother; the loss of his father; his need to feel young via proximity to (much) younger women. There were also those who considered Lowry “Too good a bachelor to spoil,” and others who apparently “thought him a demon,” according to Blackwood. Regardless of the psychology that the reader would like to attribute to Lowry to explain his behavior, it is clearly documented that Lowry had a well-established pattern of relatively short-lived relationships with women significantly (i.e., sometimes 40 years) his junior.

At the age of 53, Blackwood reports that Lowry still “loved the acquaintance of young people… If one of them happened to be a lively, attractive young woman, so much the better.” Blackwood describes how Lowry would regularly ask groups around him some variation of the question, “Does an older man have the right to marry a younger woman?” Blackwood’s narration continues with the “young woman of the moment” positing that, if the couple loves one another, then why should they not be married? He then describes Lowry’s reaction:

“Talking with this young woman in the next few days, Howard told her of his great interest in her views. When could they talk further? Soon, he hoped. They went out to dinner and attended the theater; they listened to records, they talked by candlelight. For Christmas, he gave her the album of a symphony or the first edition of a book she admired. On her birthday, he sent her, as he sent and would continue sending each one, in turn, a blaze of red roses. At night he walked with her as he had walked, slowly and meditatively, with Fran, Aileen, Elma, Helen, Ruth, Virginia, and the rest.” Each one in turn. And the rest.

Later in Blackwood’s book, he expands the list of names that make up ‘the rest,’ adding to the list of young women Gladys, Margaret, Janet, Jo, Eleanor, Norma, Louise, Anne, Mary, Beth and again, “the others.”

And what if, as Blackwood asks, he was in his fifties? Or, later, when his behavior had not changed, what if he was in his sixties? Footlick describes Lowry within the last months before his death, shortly before he would have turned 66: “In one way he remained the original Howard — he had not lost his taste for the company of attractive young women; pretty undergraduate women could still get swift access to his office hours or dinner invitations, and one in particular, only five years out of college herself was his hostess at the end.”

Although listing 16 young women and alluding to more he is unable to name, Blackwood seems unphased by Lowry’s behavior, instead describing him as a serial romantic. He further posits, “Howard’s unassailable idealism kept him from damaging charges by the young women he courted.” Blackwood claims that one of the young women reflected after her entanglement with Lowry that she still continued to view him as a friend and “spoke of him with affectionate goodwill.”

From these anecdotes, Blackwood concludes that there must not have been any misconduct on Lowry’s part, but rather an inability to maintain a long-term relationship. Nevertheless, it seems that even Lowry himself knew the truth; Blackwood reports a conversation between Lowry and his close friend Dean William Taeusch, in which Lowry confessed to Taeusch on the topic of his relationships with young women, “That is the part of my life I have managed most poorly.”

Apparently, the school’s leaders at the time knew enough to be wary as well. Although there are differing reports on the nature of his relationship with a young woman named Gretchen Harmon — some sources saying that they were engaged, others referring to her simply as another of Lowry’s “young women,” others calling her more innocently a friend — all agree that Lowry was visiting her in California at the time of his death in July of 1967. Whatever the true nature of their relationship, it seems to have made the school’s leadership nervous. Footlick writes, “These leaders worried about circumstances they didn’t know, which they feared might be scandalous.”

Despite Blackwood’s assertion that Lowry’s relationships with young women were all consensual and harmless, we would be remiss to forget the context of his observations. Lowry was president of the College in the 60s, at a time when “boys will be boys” attitudes were prevalent, and the language of sexual misconduct was not. There were no published accounts from the young women themselves. And why would we expect there to be, when we have established what an influential and respected man Howard Lowry was? Not only would a woman coming forward with claims of misconduct likely have been dismissed, if not threatened or slandered, but her account would also have faced major hurdles for publication.

It is also crucial to point out that, despite the normalization of the “boys will be boys” mentality at the time, Lowry’s behavior was extreme to the point of atypicality, as evidenced by the extent to which it was written about throughout his life.

In the basement of The College of Wooster libraries, stored in Special Collections, is a box of transcripts of the interviews that Footlick conducted as part of the research for his book. In one such interview, Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies Gordon Tait said to Footlick, “Well, I think, I’ve heard enough stories from certain alumni that Howard might have been accused of female harassment, if he’d lived to…”

Although Lowry has long since died, some of the women who he pursued all those years ago have decided to come forward to share their experiences with Howard Lowry. Now, allusions to his relationships with young women need not stay hidden in dusty boxes in the basement of the library but can instead come to light from the women who navigated their relationships with him.

One of these women — identified in this article simply by her first name, Irene — graduated from The College of Wooster in 1962. She was in her early 20s; Lowry was in his 60s. Irene characterizes her younger self as naïve and trying to make her way in life. “I still feel the angst of not knowing how to deal with the machinations of a person I respected, and whom many held in high esteem,” she describes. “He showered me with letters, and gifts and his very close physical presence for multiple years.” 

In the accounts Irene and others share, Lowry offered career assistance — a letter of recommendation, advice on graduate schools, whatever the young woman might need. In some cases, the women report that Lowry even went to the lengths of creating new jobs at the College specifically for the purpose of bringing them there. This would be an excuse to follow up with attentive and romantic letters, to take them out to dinner and to the theatre, as corroborated by the descriptions in Blackwood’s book. Irene herself recalls, “he wanted to marry me and make me a Dean of Women.”

For decades, Irene kept her discomfort to herself, assuming that her experience was an isolated incident. At the time, she says, “the words ‘sexual harassment’ were not in our American vocabulary.”

Irene’s letters from Lowry are often addressed affectionately to “Reeni,” (a nickname Irene’s family uses for her) and signed “Love, Howard.” The signature is unmistakably his own, matching the scrolling gold signature that adorns the front of the otherwise modest blue cover of the Blackwood biography. One letter, dated May 9, 1963, is signed “Love (and not so damned Platonic, either) to you, Howard.” One of his most overtly non-platonic gifts to her was a full-length sheer, powder blue negligee, which Irene notes has remained unworn for the last 58 years.

One letter of Lowry’s to Irene references an enclosed $300 check (just over $2,275 in today’s money) to cover her airfare to come visit him in Chicago to discuss his advice for her post-graduate plans for grad school. In Irene’s words, “He was quite knowledgeable about and had connections in the field of education.” She went along with meeting him, she explains, without realizing his more romantic intentions, but rather expecting career advice from her trusted school leader. 

Lowry writes in this letter, “I’m free to devote myself exclusively to being your guide, escort and friend. This is what my tired spirit needs. And the spirit isn’t a bit tired now! In fact it’s full of adrenalin.” Even at the time, however, Irene felt uncomfortable with the situation. She wrote a quick note to herself on a hotel pad of paper: “I just came from an evening with Dr. Lowry — I can’t get used to even thinking of him as ‘Howard.’” The letter further describes feeling anxious upon her arrival and awkward while watching a show together.

It wasn’t until years later that Irene conferred with a classmate, Mary Behling ’62, and she realized she wasn’t alone. Behling put Lowry’s actions into language that Irene had long been unable to verbalize: in Behling’s words, Lowry was a predator. More so, Mary seemed to know about a great number more women who had been subject to Lowry’s over-attentiveness. In late 2017, Irene and Behling began discussing their relationships with Lowry in relation to the emerging #MeToo movement. An email from Behling to Irene, sent on October 17, 2017, reads, “When we get together I will tell you all about my problems with HL. And I keep meeting other people who had them… they fall out of the sky. He was a predator.”

In a later email, dated June 3, 2018, Behling wrote to Irene, “You and I appear to have survived Howard because we were relatively strong people, naïve but strong. The ones I feel sorry for are the ones whose lives were really messed up by him and my sense is there were many of those over the years.”

Behling’s stories about Lowry include an account of an intervention by the “powers-that-be” at the College to “knock it off” with his predatory ways after an angry father caused a scene. Unfortunately, Behling died soon after in July of 2018 and is not alive to shed more light on these circumstances, and the Voice has been unable to find other records documenting the situation. However, Behling’s husband George Browne ’63, still remembers Lowry’s pursuits of his then-girlfriend and fiancée.

In an email sent on March 3 of this year to a senior administration official in the President’s office, Browne writes, “The dark side of Lowry’s heritage touched me all too soon. Mary Behling ’62 went directly to physical therapy school and a job at Hahnemann Hospital in Philadelphia. Lowry came calling, invented a new job, Assistant Dean of Women, and persuaded Mary to take it. During the two years she held the job, Mary was determined to reject Lowry’s advances. She knew too many other young women he had burned.”

Browne continued, “Mary and I announced our engagement in August 1966 and planned for a December wedding. In October, Lowry came to Washington (D.C.) to persuade Mary to break the engagement. She knew better.”

Reading through Lowry’s letters, Browne reflected, “As I read these letters I am amazed at the energy Lowry put into his contacts with women,” while at the same time rarely devoting his efforts to helping young men, who also could have used his guidance and recommendations. “To me,” says Browne, “that makes his behavior toward women much more clearly predatory.”

In the Voice’s reporting, we have tried to get in contact with several other women who were rumored or thought to have had relationships with Howard Lowry. Sadly, time has taken its toll, and many of the women who we hoped to contact have either died or lost their health and memories of that time to serious dementia.

Nevertheless, Lowry’s letters to other women at the time are telling. Though few of them remain in The College of Wooster collections, the archives do contain a series of letters from Lowry to a graduate from the class of 1953. The letters are available for public access in Special Collections, but because the Voice has been unable to get in touch with the alumni at this point to obtain permission to use her name in connection with this story, we have opted to exclude her name for the time being. The four letters included in the collection are a series of attempts on Lowry’s behalf to meet the young woman during his business travels. In the first letter, dated January 1, 1954, Lowry wrote that he was sorry that his most recent trip had not overlapped with the graduate’s time there. “That was really too bad — for I would have insisted on you knocking off work and going fishing with me,” wrote Lowry, underlining the world ‘really’ for emphasis. Lowry would have been in his early 50s at the time; the graduate in her early 20s. He then outlines his schedule for the coming weeks, and requests that she send him her plans for the same period. He writes, “I still think the Florida business [i.e., failing to be there at the same time] was a shame, as I should have so much enjoyed introducing you to some nice bass and of setting the world in order with you.”

His second letter in the collection, dated February 16, 1954, begins, “Foiled again, I was!” He again describes their failure to overlap in location and outlines his upcoming travels. On the second page of the letter, he continues in his appeals for her schedule, writing, “I don’t suppose your route is yet clear. But I feel balked and a little mad at having been deflected from my Alabama stopover; so I’d like to twist the [unclear] of circumstance yet!” He references writing a letter on her behalf, and then expresses once more his disappointment over their inability to cross paths. The third letter, dated March 15 of the same year, again expresses dismay over their inability to meet. The fourth and final letter in the collection dated March 30, 1954 voices Lowry’s excitement that they have finally found a date and location to meet and he discusses the proper attire for their dinner together. There is no other correspondence following up after this letter or to confirm that they did in fact meet. [Note: in his will obtained by the Voice, Lowry instructed that his letters, notes and any books with extensive notation be burned or destroyed upon his death, unless deemed particularly worth saving. As such, little of his correspondence remains.]

His pursuit of recent female graduates throughout his travels is a common theme in Lowry’s story. One woman, who did not wish to have her name included, recounted a visit from Lowry in which he took her out to lunch in St. Louis, and recalled close dancing that made her uncomfortable. Between the years of 1962 to 1967, we are aware of reports from female graduates of Lowry showing up and making some connection with them, seemingly out of the blue, all across the country. Other locations of his visits include Cleveland, Philadelphia, Berkeley and Oakland.

Lowry’s modus operandi, as established in both the direct and indirect testimonies shared with the Voice, as well as in Footlick and Blackwood’s books about his life, was clearly predatory. He would somehow identify a recent female graduate, find out her post-graduation plans and make some connection on that basis. He would then follow up with an increased level of intimacy — letters and gifts, and then scheduled business trips to her location.

When Lowry sought Irene’s hand in marriage, a close friend wrote her a letter advising against acceptance. The friend cited their age difference, Lowry’s many prior engagements (asking, “Why did he not marry them?”), his insistence on an answer before a certain deadline and his reputation as “a confirmed flatterer and chaser.” Finally, in one of the less generous assessments of Lowry’s character, the friend wrote, “My opinion, and opinion only, is that he is a lecherous old man with a girl in every port. He has probably been playing this game for years in many of the places he visits.”

It is true that business and personal relationships may have overlapped much more fluidly during the period of Lowry’s life than what we now are accustomed to, and that part of his job would have included the recruitment of young professionals for jobs at the College. However, it is also clear that a great many of Lowry’s relationships with these women crossed the line of professionalism. His position as an internationally respected scholar and college President, as well as his significant age differential relative to the women he pursued, distorted the balance of any potential relationship with these young female graduates.

The information that Lowry took advantage of his powerful position in order to get close to young women is significant now for two reasons. Firstly, because we are in a different cultural context, and with new information, we can reassess how we honor figures of the past. Do they still represent us and our values? Our world has changed dramatically since Lowry’s lifetime, and we as a society have evolved in many ways. As Irene wrote in a 2018 email to a member of the Wooster administration, in Lowry’s days “he was just one of the boys, and boys will be boys. But those of us women did not invite his behaviors — later to be termed sexual harassment.” Our society today has shifted significantly towards valuing civil rights, equity and justice. Following the #MeToo movement, we as a whole have had to grapple with the harms of inappropriate and predatory behavior, of sexual harassment. By and large, we have recognized it as unacceptable.

Secondly, the information is significant because there might be a window of opportunity for change because of the upcoming renovations to the Lowry Center. George Browne, Mary Behling’s widower, entreats the Wooster community to pay attention: “The dark side [of Lowry’s life] must not be swept under the rug. If the student center at The College of Wooster is to bear Lowry’s name, we who lived it must demand public acknowledgment and an accounting of the harms Lowry visited on multiple young women, and the collateral damage to those who loved them.”

As for Irene, she asks simply, “How do we women now reconcile ourselves that he is so honored?” She added that when visiting campus now, she feels deeply uncomfortable stepping into the building that bears Lowry’s name.

Confronted all these years later with information about Howard Lowry’s personal life, the Wooster community must ask itself if it wants to uphold the romantic idealization of his legacy, or to accept that the uncomfortable truth that the impact of his life was a lot more complicated than the simplification recorded by history up to this point.

Irene and Browne, as well as some of the unnamed sources referenced in this article, have suggested a shifting of Lowry’s honors to be more directly associated with Independent Study at the College. Independent Study was a brilliant and ingenious idea when Howard Lowry brought it to Wooster, and no one would deny that it has set Wooster apart from other small liberal arts colleges for decades. For this reason, Irene and Browne propose that his name be more explicitly tied to I.S., to a digitalized I.S. database, or perhaps to the registrar’s office as a symbol of I.S. completion, in exchange for its removal from the student center building.

Finally, it should be noted that this is not new information to the administration or the Board of Trustees, and that both Browne and Irene have come forth to shed light on this issue multiple times since 2017. After corresponding with a senior administration official throughout 2017 and 2018, Irene again reached out in March of this year to follow up. During the Voice’s reporting, Irene and Browne have been contacted by President Bolton to discuss their concerns.

When the Voice reached out for comment this April, President Sarah Bolton wrote, “The board has discussed these matters, and takes them very seriously.  They have begun a process to gain a fuller understanding of what took place, and to then make decisions about how the College should proceed to address the issues.” She added, “The board is forming a small group to lead the work on this important matter, and they will communicate with the campus and alumni community regularly.”

Soon after, on Monday, April 12, the Board of Trustees released a statement to alumni and members of the campus community outlining their plans to form a board to review the concerns brought forward. Part of the email read, “We owe it to the alumni who have raised these concerns, and any other alumni who have relevant information but have not yet come forward, to welcome, receive and assess the information they provide us with an open mind.” Later in the email, they wrote, “While our first goal at this time is to understand and address the issues surrounding President Lowry’s actions, we will also consider what additional efforts we should undertake, particularly to understand the histories of matters related to equity.” The Board of Trustees further encouraged anyone with additional information to send an email to inquiry@wooster.edu or to leave a voicemail for the trustees at 330-263-2111.