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New book recounts life of Stanford's fourth president
STANFORD - "When I came to Stanford in 1945," novelist Wallace Stegner said, "they were still cutting oats right up to the walls of the library. The south end of the campus was a hayfield. There were only a few men on campus, m ostly women students. It seemed like a girls' college, and a quiet girls' college at that. And then came September and the GIs and the place just exploded."
Stanford's fourth president, Donald Bertrand Tresidder, presided over that explosive period of change from 1943 until his sudden death in 1948. Yet in all the years since, little has been published about Tresidder or his accomp lishments.
Now, Donald Tresidder: Stanford's Overlooked Treasure (Stanford Historical Society, 1992) seeks to illuminate the president who drew up the blueprint for the modern Stanford.
"It always seemed important to me that a book be written about this unappreciated man who gave so much of himself to others," said Stanford alumnus Bill Janss, a member of the Class of 1940, who conceived the idea for the book.
"Stanford has had great presidents before and since Don's death. . . . But it is difficult to picture one who meant more to the university or to its students."
Two years ago, Janss' idea caught the attention of the Stanford Historical Society, and a special committee set to work collecting photographs, letters and oral histories.
Their notes were turned over to Edwin Kiester, a Menlo Park-based freelancer and staff writer for the Reader's Digest, who produced the final volume.
Tresidder was born in Tipton, Ind., in 1894 and took a trip west to California with his sister at the age of 20. Although they were supposed to continue on to Southern California, a flash flood in the San Joaquin Valley washed out the tracks, and the train was halted at Fresno.
"With time to kill, the young Tresidders debarked from the train, sought out the stage and headed for Yosemite," Kiester writes. "It was to be a momentous journey."
In addition to meeting his future wife, Mary Curry, daughter of the legendary camp operator David Curry, Tresidder came to know many of the Stanford faculty families who spent the summers camping in the national park. One, math Professor Rufus Lot Green, convinced Tresidder not to return to Chicago, but to enroll at Stanford instead.
"Years later, Tresidder delighted in telling students of his arrival on the Stanford campus that fall," Kiester writes. "He described himself as a gangling youth from the Midwest, wearing a jacket with sleeves too short to cove r his long arms, shambling nervously up Palm Drive carrying a battered suitcase. But each student he passed waved and spoke to him cheerfully.
"At last he encountered President (David Starr) Jordan. The president tipped his broadbrimmed hat, bowed and greeted the young man from Indiana. Tresidder never forgot that welcome."
Tresidder eventually earned a medical degree from the Stanford Medical School in San Francisco, but he never practiced. Instead, he became head of the Yosemite Park and Curry Co. and presided over the construction of new roads, the Badger Pass ski resort and the spectacular Ahwahnee Hotel.
He also found time to serve successfully as vice president of the Stanford Associates fund-raising group, and to co-chair the university's 50th anniversary celebration.
Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Tresidder became president of the Stanford Board of Trustees, and found himself in the nearly impossible position of heading the search, during wartime, for a successor to retiring pres ident Ray Lyman Wilbur.
When a nationwide search proved fruitless - most of the prime candidates were caught up in war-related research - the board realized that Tresidder himself was well qualified and convinced him to accept the presidency.
"If he had done nothing but keep the ship afloat," a longtime associate has said, "that would have been accomplishment enough." In fact, Tresidder did much more.
"Tresidder took over a campus depleted of students by World War II and still reeling from the economic shocks of the 1930s depression, then guided it through the turbulent and transforming postwar years when returning veterans flooded the campus," Kiester writes.
The 49-year-old president streamlined the administration, shook up the accounting and bookkeeping practices, and consolidated departments to reduce lines of responsibility. He installed a more permanent and professional fund-ra ising operation so that in the single year of 1946, Stanford gained more financial support than in all the years before.
"He also foresaw continuation of the close wartime ties between federal government and the universities, and positioned Stanford to benefit from postwar government grants - establishing the foundation for the federal funds that now make up a major part of Stanford's research budget," Kiester writes.
Many other campus institutions bear the stamp of Tresidder's influence. The president had a passion for Mozart, and during his term, music was upgraded to a department and given its first real home, on the knoll overlooking Lag unita. (The building had served as Wilbur's presidential home, but Tresidder preferred the more homey atmosphere of Hoover House.)
It was Tresidder who made the difficult decision, in 1944, to abolish the university's divisive sorority system, and it was his foresight that led to the establishment of a planning office for buildings and grounds, the first e ver in an educational institution.
Another chief objective of Tresidder's postwar fund-raising campaigns was to obtain money for student aid - the beginnings of the scholarship program in full swing today. Tresidder also played major roles in the expansion of th e law and medical schools, and in the birth of the Stanford Shopping Center, the Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International) and the Stanford Industrial Park.
While on university business in New York early in 1948, Tresidder died of a heart attack at the St. Regis Hotel. On the stunned campus, classes were suspended and flags were lowered to half-staff. His most visible campus memori al - Tresidder Memorial Union - was dedicated 14 years after his death.
Just as enduring, though, are memories of the man.
"Everyone was very fond of Don Tresidder, so it was no trouble getting people to talk about him," said University Secretary Emeritus Frederic O. Glover, director of information under Tresidder and chairman of the committee that researched the book.
More than 40 friends, colleagues and former students were interviewed for the book; others, responding to a notice in the Stanford Observer, sent old photographs and letters.
Many still treasured memories of lying on the floor in Tresidder's study, listening to Eine kleine Nachtmusik or sharing a trail breakfast that the president had cooked in the Stanford hills.
"It was amazing to us how close he was to so many students," Glover said. "The Tresidders had no children, so these students were his children, and he had long correspondence with many of them."
Other Historical Society committee members who gathered material for the book were Roxanne Nilan, co-author of The Stanford Album and a doctoral candidate in American history; and Harry Press, retired editor of the Stanford Obs erver. Peter C. Allen, former director of News and Publications and author of Stanford: From the Foothills to the Bay, helped with editing.
Copies of the Tresidder biography may be obtained by mailing a check for $18.18 to the Stanford Historical Society, P.O. Box 2328, Stanford, CA 94309.
The Stanford Historical Society will sponsor a program about the book at 4 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 10, in the Oak West room of Tresidder Union.
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