John Meem and Robert McKinney (1964)

In January of 1961, as the College was methodically investigating and narrowing down the various geographic options for the site of its second campus, Robert McKinney, the owner and publisher of the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper and at the time also the nation’s Ambassador to Switzerland, enticed Richard Weigle to visit Santa Fe for consideration as a possible campus location. As Weigle retells it in his book The Colonization of a College, the tale has a hint of the mystical:

In early January, 1961 my wife, Mary, and I arrived at the Hilton Hotel in Denver for the meetings of the Association of American Colleges. Our plan was to travel on to the West Coast following the sessions in order to arrive at a recommendation for the faculty and the Board on a site for the second St. John’s College. One morning Mary had an experience that was to change the pattern of our lives. It is best related in her own words:

            “Finally—a vacation—freedom from family, household, and college demands! I woke up that morning in Denver with these thoughts on my mind. I had said ‘no’ to any meetings of college presidents’ wives. I needed a day to wander relaxed in Denver, with no thoughts of problems on a college campus.

            “After an early breakfast together, Dick departed for his assigned meetings. I dressed for a day-in-the-city, and walked down the hall to the elevator. As I pushed the down-button, a strange feeling came over me. The elevator was empty when it arrived.—I pushed the ground level button—the door closed, and as I slowly descended a ‘voice’ inside me said, ‘Go back to your room.’—Slightly annoyed, I walked across the lobby, placed my key at the desk, and started towards the door to go out. At that moment the ‘voice’ became more agitated, and I placed my hand on the door to push it open. I was almost paralyzed—not able to open the door.—Perplexed, annoyed, mad, confused—I turned—walked back across the lobby to the desk and asked for my room key—retreated to the elevator—back up to the 11th floor—down the hall and into our room, slamming the door so hard behind me that I almost knocked it off its hinges.

            “I threw myself on the bed, asking myself, ‘What am I doing here?’—and the telephone rang. It was Robert McKinney phoning from New York. His first question was ‘Where is Dick?’ I answered that Dick was at meetings but I didn’t know which ones or where.—Bob said that he would like to talk with Dick, that he had about 45 minutes before his flight departed for Europe, and that he could be reached by telephone at the Ambassador’s Club.—Bob’s next question was, ‘Mary, have you ever thought of bringing St. John’s College to Santa Fe?’—Since I was ‘steaming under the collar,’ I almost replied: ‘Where is Santa Fe?’—But I didn’t, and I said that I would try to find Dick and have him return the call within 45 minutes—and I did, Dick will tell you of his conversations and the plans from that moment on.”

Here Weigle continues:

McKinney was publisher and editor of the Santa Fe New Mexican and then our ambassador to Switzerland. He was a former member of our Board. In our telephone conversation I assured McKinney that no final recommendation had been reached in the matter of a site and that it was not too late for a bid from Santa Fe. We arranged to meet in Santa Fe in late January, when he said that he would again be in this country….

Robert McKinney was as good as his word. He met me upon my arrival in Santa Fe and provided me with a pleasant guest room at his home. ‘Las Acequias’, ten miles north of town. We visited many of the cultural points of interest in the city—the Santa Fe Public Library, the Fine Arts Museum, the International Folk Art Museum, and the School of American Research. I was told about the Santa Fe Opera, a thoroughly professional organization which offered performances each summer. I also heard about the two symphony orchestras and the many art galleries. Santa Feans, I learned, were extraordinarily possessive and proud of these institutions. We drove by the state capitol and other government buildings. Both national and local affairs were fully reported in the New Mexican, the forward-looking and liberal newspaper serving the community.

For luncheon I was taken to the home of John Gaw Meem, a prominent architect who had but recently retired from active practice. His home, which he himself had designed, was located in the southeastern part of the city at the foot of Monte Sol, or Sun Mount, as it is usually called. Meem had arrived in Santa Fe in 1920 suffering from tuberculosis and seeking to regain his health at the Sunmount Sanitorium on the lower slope of Monte Sol. He soon developed a love of New Mexico, a commitment to historical preservation, and a great talent as an architect. Over the years he designed many of the finest residences in town, as well as a considerable number of public buildings. He was the architect for many of the structures at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. The existing ambiance of Santa Fe owed much to his devotion to traditional forms and to his public-spirited involvement in all efforts to resist senseless modern changes. I had never met John and Faith Meem, but they immediately made me feel at home.

Eight of us sat down to luncheon in the Meem dining room that day in late January. It was an exclusively male gathering, for Faith Meem retired to the kitchen to superintend the serving. Those present, in addition to Meem, McKinney, and myself, included retired General C. Corbett, of Espanola; William Lippincott, former owner of a Navajo trading post; Marshall McCune, retired Pittsburgh businessman; Ross Toole, director of the Museum of New Mexico; and Verner Wasson, president of the First National Bank. Conversation oscillated between St. John’s and its Program and the assets of Santa Fe.

In the middle of the meal John Meem seized upon a lull in the conversation to address a question to me: ‘Dr. Weigle, if you were to bring St. John’s College here, how much land and what kind of land would you need?’ Equal to the situation, I quickly doubled the College’s acreage in Annapolis and replied that I thought we should look for some seventy acres of reasonably level land apart from the city but with access to utilities. To this he responded with characteristic generosity, ‘Well, Mrs. Meem and I have a little land just over the hill here, and we would be glad to give that to St. John’s College if you should decide to come to Santa Fe.’ I confess that I was stumped as to what to say next and how to thank him. I saw the jaws drop around the table, but only later did I discover the magnitude of the offer. After lunch some of us traveled through the snow in Meem’s old Peugeot up over a shoulder of the hill and looked down upon a superb setting for a college. It turned out to be well over two hundred acres!

John Meem and Richard Weigle (1961)