Saturday, February 9, 2013

J. Edgar Hoover, 1938 OBU Commencement Speaker

In yesterday's post on Tom Terry's recent chapel address, I mentioned that Terry once provided me with archival information on J. Edgar Hoover's visit to OBU in 1938.  I moved recently, and can't find the documents at this moment.  But a number of people have contacted me, curious about OBU's J. Edgar Hoover connection.  So I'll do my best to tell the story.

Unbeknownst to many, the list of OBU's honorary doctorate recipients includes a very famous (or infamous) name: J. Edgar Hoover.  By the time young John Wesley Raley became OBU's president in 1934, young John Edgar Hoover had made a name for himself as the FBI aggressively investigated dissidents and fought gangsters.  Raley had already twice invited Hoover to come to OBU by the time Hoover sent word in the fall of 1937 that he would be able to speak at the 1938 graduation.

With the expected crowds, no venue on OBU's campus would be suitable.  It was decided that the graduation would take place at the newly-completed Shawnee Municipal Auditorium on Bell Street downtown.  In the meantime, 1938 turned out to be a momentous year for OBU.  A new men's choir, called Sangerbund, was formed under the direction of a promising young music professor named Warren M. Angell.  It later became the Bison Glee Club.  The iconic Oval Fountain was a gift to OBU from the Class of 1938.

A native Washingtonian, J. Edgar Hoover took a position with the Justice Department's Alien Enemy Bureau immediately after completing his education.  Later, he worked in intelligence, monitoring suspected radicals (including future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter).  In the early 1920s Hoover moved to the Bureau of Investigation.  In 1924, the Attorney General of the United States made Hoover acting director.  After President Warren Harding's death that year and amid charges that the prior director was involved in a political scandal, President Calvin Coolidge appointed Hoover Director.  The bureau suffered a few embarrassments as high-profile criminals evaded capture or escaped, but in general, the FBI prospered under Hoover.  It brought notorious gangsters to justice and Hoover was widely credited with making federal law enforcement more scientific and professionalized.

A May 12, 1938 Baptist Messenger made little mention of Hoover's planned visit, but several of the news clippings Tom Terry sent me indicated that this was a huge event for OBU -- and for the entire state.  (Though note several items of interest on the OBU page of this newspaper.  First, in an article about the OBU debate team, a student named James Ralph Scales is listed having won several debates. Scales followed John Wesley Raley as president of his alma mater and went on to become president of Wake Forest University.  A statue of Scales was unveiled between Shawnee Hall and the library 18 months ago.  Also, note the mention of Porter Routh returning from seminary in Louisville.  Routh was OBU's P.R. director, journalism instructor, faculty advisor for the Bison newspaper, and superintendent of the Bison Press.  This was, of course, long before Baptists stopped believing in objective journalism and Baptist college administrators intimidated and/or ran off talented journalism professors.)

Anyway, Hoover's trip to Oklahoma also included a visit to the FBI's Oklahoma City field office.  On the morning of May 23, 1938, he arrived at OBU to be greeted by President Raley.  To accommodate the crowd, the graduation was held off campus.  Hoover received an honorary LL.D. and gave what amounted to a typical God-and-country commencement address.  The May 26 Baptist Messenger mentioned that Hoover condemned the role of politics in law enforcement.  He also implored the graduates to "show the same pioneering spirit in their fight against crime that the early Oklahomans showed in the building of a great state."  Hoover admonished graduates to follow the Golden Rule and to remember that honesty was needed above all things in a world of doubt and suspicion.

Baptist Messenger (May 26, 1938)

Many newspapers published reports on Hoover's appearance, and the event was broadcast via radio all over Oklahoma.  One account described Hoover as "one of Washington's most eligible bachelors."  Separately, the press noted that Hoover's entourage included Deputy Director Clyde Tolson.  Of course, most people now believe that Hoover was gay and that Tolson (who received the flag draped over Hoover's coffin after it laid in state in the U.S. Capitol, inherited his estate, moved into his house, and was buried a few feet away in the Congressional Cemetery) was his partner.  Thus it may be the case that Hoover and Tolson were among the first gay people at OBU.  But they were certainly not the last, as everyone knows.  At least they were closeted, which is how, then as now, OBU and the BGCO prefer gay people to be.

This would not the the last OBU/Raley family/Justice Department connection.  John Wesley Raley, Jr., who graduated from OBU in the mid-1950s, was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Oklahoma.

Hoover went on to have a colorful, controversial, and incredibly long tenure as FBI director.  He served under Presidents Coolidge, (Herbert) Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.

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