Robert McKinney and John Gaw Meem

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)

Our Beginnings

Stringfellow Barr and Scott Buchanan on the steps of McDowell Hall (1940)

In 1937 Scott Buchanan and Stringfellow Barr, two maverick friends who had first met at Oxford as Rhodes Scholars some twenty years before, took the helm of a small and fading college in Annapolis, Maryland—a college that would soon see new life as the launching ground for their shared vision of a radically reoriented college education.

St. John’s College had begun in 1696 as King William’s school, chartered by the English crown. Nearly one hundred years later, in 1785, King William’s school merged with St. John’s College, newly chartered by the state of Maryland, and under that name carried on through the next 152 years. By 1937, however, the small college that bore the name “St. John’s” had come upon hard times, both financially (from various losses sustained in and following the stock market crash of 1929) and academically (through a recent loss of accreditation). It was as part of the effort to salvage this small and stately old college from its seemingly imminent demise that Barr and Buchanan were invited in and given carte blanche to enact a vision for a new college program the two had already been formulating for some time—the curriculum that would soon become what we all know today as the St. John’s Program.

Barr and Buchanan’s achievement in Annapolis in 1937 has echoed down through the more than eight decades since. What they envisioned was a radical shift in the nature and direction of American education. And one often overlooked but fortuitous element they had going for them, along with their own clarity of vision, was the existing Annapolis campus of St. John’s itself. There on an elegant and spacious property in that scenic bay town, Barr and Buchanan already had dormitories, existing laboratories, campus dining facilities, and—most importantly for a college that was to be rooted entirely in great books—a library with its own existing collection. Which is to say that, even as the re-envisioned 1937 St. John’s College may have been undergoing a curricular change whose reverberations would soon draw national attention, it was also, from an entirely practical operational standpoint, effectively a turnkey proposition.

That, however, was emphatically not the case when the Santa Fe campus was conceived and launched some twenty-five years later.

By 1960, more than two decades into Barr and Buchanan’s New Program and a full decade into President Richard Weigle’s unceasing work of fundraising and ambassadorship for the New Program, the College had entered into the national spotlight and had begun to face the practical challenges of its own success, in the sheer physical limits of its small Annapolis campus. For a certain sort of person—a seeker of truth, a lover of books and serious conversation, a person willing to devote four intense years to an inquiry into the very essence of our humanity and the physical and social worlds around us—St. John’s offers a singularly appealing program. But as more and more students were drawn to the increasingly well-known College, Weigle and the Board of Visitors and Governors faced a quandary. To turn away interested and qualified students seemed deeply wrong. But to expand the size of the Annapolis campus to accommodate even more students would be to risk undermining the very intimacy of small community that was so vital to the essence of the College. Furthermore, the vision of the founders of the St. John’s New Program had never been that the new Program would be for only a select and privileged few. Rather, St. John’s was the recalibrating antidote to all of the American colleges that had ventured down the wrong path in the contagion of the elective system initiated at Harvard under Charles William Eliot, a system that by 1937 had taken hold in most of American higher education. St. John’s was simply to be the trailblazer in the return to the form of education proper to our democracy.

It was in keeping with this vision that the President, the Board, and the Faculty of St. John’s in 1960 made the joint decision to expand the College—not by enlarging the capacity of the original campus, however, but rather by extending the geographical influence and reach of the College and its singular Program through the formation of a second campus in an entirely new location. This was an approach unheard of among small private colleges, but the growing reputation of St. John’s worked immediately in its favor, for when word began to spread that St. John’s intended to open a new campus, the College was solicited by more than thirty towns and cities in states scattered all around the nation. Alabama, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont—all expressed their interest in having the second St. John’s College in their own state.

The challenge this time around would be—not as it had been in Annapolis in 1937, to bring an existing college on an existing campus back from the edge of looming extinction, but—to build an entirely new campus from the ground up. The challenge would be, as Richard Weigle later put it, “the colonization of a college.” The stage for this colonization was firmly set in 1961 by an unexpected land donation from a Santa Fe couple of local and regional renown—Faith and John Gaw Meem, after whom this campus’s library would eventually be named. How that donation came to be is a fascinating story in its own right.

Celebrating 30 Years of the Meem Library

Today marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Faith and John Meem Library, which first opened its doors on November 10th, 1990. Situated at the foot of Monte Sol on the Santa Fe campus of St. John’s College, the third oldest college in the nation, the Meem Library has—in tandem with the Greenfield Library on our sister campus in Annapolis—for three full decades now been at the very heart of our singularly book-centered curriculum.

In ordinary times, this anniversary would call for an on-site celebration. In our current time, alas, our shared circumstances prevent us from gathering together to honor this occasion in person. In lieu, then, of raised glasses, we mark this three-decade milestone with the announcement of our new online project: From the Stacks – Items from the Collection of the Faith and John Meem Library at St. John’s College, Santa Fe.

Running through the very core of our College is a deep and common thread. We are at root a community made up of readers, individuals of a multitude of tastes and origins and creeds who all share a deep affection and respect for books. We know the pleasure and the power of reading books. We know the pleasure and power of conversing about books. And we know, whenever we enter a library or bookstore and have a little time, the paradoxical pleasure and power of browsing books. Paradoxical, because it is through the act of browsing that we are continually reminded of just how many books we still have yet to read. Browsing fosters both humility and desire, and for those of us who love books and the summoning to thought each one offers, there is something on every shelf that beckons. For so many of us, this is the very summons that has brought us to St. John’s.

In the months ahead we will browse our Library’s own collections and in these pages share the fruits of that browsing. While the Program itself will always be our Library’s primary focus and raison d’être, our full collection runs to some 70,000 different items, a good many of these rare or otherwise unusual. Our intention in these pages will be to highlight some of these lesser-known gems.

Some will be books drawn from our Special Collections, books whose lives are too often spent aloofly behind glass. Some will be items selected from our Archives, illuminating the rich and sometimes forgotten history of our College and our campus. Some will be items pulled from our general collection, books our patrons may have walked by a hundred times before and never paused to notice. All, we hope, will serve as reminders that, even in a time marked by the ubiquity of screens and our community’s wide dispersal, the Library quietly carries on its timeless charge: the gathering, cataloging, conserving, and sharing of these remarkable objects of leather and cloth and paper and ink that we call books, the material foundation of everything this College holds dear.

But before we wander off into the stacks, we want first to explicitly recognize this month’s anniversary by devoting a little space in the days ahead to honoring the Library itself, with an overview of its history, its benefactors, its namesakes, and some of the librarians who through the years have steadfastly tended and grown its collections. And so, on this occasion of our 30th, we invite everyone to join us in a spirit of celebration—a celebration of this singular Library, of our sublimely beautiful campus, of our unique Southwestern culture, of the generosity and kindness so many years ago now of Faith and John Meem, and of that deep and abiding passion for books we all, as a community of readers, have in common.