Lloyd Bertholf: The First 100 Years

Former Communications Director Bob Aaron (above right) took notes as Lloyd Bertholf reminisced. (Photo by Marc Featherly)

The following interview ran in the Spring/2000 issue of Illinois Wesleyan University Magazine in conjunction with Lloyd Bertholf's 100th birthday. Many topics were covered, including Bertholf's rural Kansas childhood, his thoughts on the future of higher education, and advice on how to live a long and healthy life.

As the clock struck midnight this past January 1st, IWU President Emeritus Lloyd M. Bertholf crossed an amazing threshold, becoming one of just a few people whose life has spanned three centuries and two millennia.

Two weeks earlier, on December 15, 1999, Bertholf celebrated another milestone when he turned 100. Friends and admirers held not one but three celebrations to commemorate the event, starting with a December 9th reception hosted by IWU’s School of Nursing—a day that also marked the 40th anniversary of the school’s founding during Bertholf’s administration. Six days later, trustees, faculty, administrators, and students joined at the Memorial Student Center to pay tribute to Bertholf on his actual birthday. And on December 16, the Bloomington Rotary held a special noon program remembering highlights of Bertholf’s time as IWU president from 1958 to 1968—an era of marked growth and progress on campus.

Sorely missed at those celebrations was the presence of Bertholf’s wife, Martha, who died last August at the age of 101. Childhood sweethearts, the couple wed in 1921. Despite the difficulty of this loss, Bertholf keeps his spirits up and remains astonishingly vital for a man who’s survived colon cancer as an adult and typhoid fever as a young boy; a man born when the U.S. president was William McKinley and horseless carriages were just appearing on America’s unpaved roads.

Bertholf’s wit and vigor were amply evident in excerpts that follow from his recent interview with Bob Aaron, IWU’s [former] Director of University Communications.

In the interview, Bertholf discusses his boyhood growing up on a Kansas farm; his education, starting in a one-room schoolhouse and leading to doctoral studies at Johns Hopkins University; and his distinguished academic career, culminating with his presidency at Illinois Wesleyan.

On the eve of IWU’s own sesquicentennial birthday party this fall, Bertholf also shared thoughts on the enduring value of a liberal-arts education in a world that, as this centenarian knows better than most, is constantly changing.

Dr. Bertholf, tell me about your childhood growing up on a Kansas farm?

When I was 4 years old we moved to another farm....This farm turned out to be a pretty good farm. We raised all kinds of things there—corn and wheat, oats and barley, and maize and sorghum...Of course, it had a big garden, too....We had no electricity or running water in the house. We had a well just outside the house and an outdoor privy....We butchered our own meat, hogs, and cattle, and chickens.

What was school like when you were a youngster?

My mother didn’t permit me to go to school until I was in the third grade. She did the first and second grades at home....She was a teacher. And, so I didn’t start walking across that mile, across that pasture...and over three fences to school until I was in the third grade....It was in a one-room schoolhouse. The older students sat on the front seats to recite each grade clear up to the eighth grade. So, the rest of us sat back and listened and learned a great deal from the older students as they recited.

[When his family moved] I went to the city school after the fifth grade. My sixth, seventh, and eight grades were all down at the city school at Spivey, [Kansas], a little town of about 500 or 600.

What are some of your memories of high school?

I rode a horse to high school and kept the horse in a barn of the banker in town close to the high school campus. He was named Pet, a black horse. Before I finished high school, my younger sister and I went together and we drove a horse and buggy.

What were some of your favorite subjects?

I remember geography as one I liked very much and, of course, arithmetic and geometry, including solid geometry.

What was college like when you started in 1917 during World War I?

It was always assumed in my family that I would go to college. My dad had only an eighth-grade education. My mother had one or two years beyond that to get her teaching certificate, but they wanted me to have a college education.

I went to Friends University in Wichita, a Quaker school and a good one. And I did my first year there and became 18 years old in December of that year. And I realized that the draft would get me before another year was over, so I didn’t go back to Friends University that next fall, but went to the University of Kansas, where they had a SATC—Student Army Training Corps....

I went to Ft. Monroe, Virginia on the first of November, 1918, [as a member of a coast-artillery class]....Of course, you know what happened on the 11th of November—I was very glad [the war] was over.

When you went to Virginia, you left someone very special behind.

I had become acquainted and had dated for a couple of years in high school, my future wife, Martha Washburn. She had come into the community in the eighth grade, and, I think, we first met at the blackboard one day, when we were diagramming sentences. She beat me at diagramming because her mother was a retired school teacher and had taught her a lot of diagramming at home....So, in going to Ft. Monroe, I not only left my parents, but my sweetheart.

Eventually, you transferred to Southwestern College. What did you study there?

Biology was very attractive to me. I decided to major in biology with the idea of going to medical school, but I knew my folks didn’t have the resources to pay the tuition of medical school. So, when a teacher came in and read a letter from Johns Hopkins University, asking for a candidate for a lab assistant, I said I was interested....We went to the registrar’s office and found I needed six more hours to graduate. And they agreed to take those six hours by transfer from Johns Hopkins.

Lloyd and Martha’s love story began as childhood sweethearts.
So you went to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore in 1921. But what about your sweetheart, Martha Washburn?

I wrote to Martha to propose that she come to Baltimore and marry me on the 15th of June, which was the date of my father and mother’s wedding. It didn’t occur to me how crazy that was—women don’t go to men to marry them, men go to the women’s place to marry them….

She didn’t answer for quite a while and I got more and more afraid that it was a lost cause. But after about three weeks, she did answer and said, “Yes,” she would come. We were married June 15, 1921.

What was it like being a newlywed and going to college?

Oh, it went very well. I was content and happy. My wife got a job teaching in a girls’ school in Baltimore....She didn’t finish her college work until we were married 15 years. She raised a couple of children during that time....So, with her salary and my assistantship, we got along fine with expenses.

The following summer, I let it be known I was a candidate for a job. An offer came from the North Carolina College for Women at Greensboro—$2,400. I took it....Our first child was born shortly after we got there.

You stayed in North Carolina for two years, but you also secured a position with the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Bureau of Entomology and Plant Quarantine in Washington, D.C. What type of work did you do for them?

Yes, they put me to work examining honeybees to see if they [spread disease]....My summer work in Washington continued for 15 years. After about three years, they allowed me to do research entirely.

How did you join the faculty at Western Maryland College, where you taught for some 25 years?

I put all our stuff in the Model T Ford and came up to Washington and planned to go on to Baltimore [and Johns Hopkins] by the end of the summer. But I began to get calls from Western Maryland College. They had lost their only biology teacher, who had decided three weeks before school to go back to his graduate school....They had gone to Hopkins and Hopkins had given them my name.

[They called three times so I thought] we ought to go and look the place over. They were willing to give me a house to live in and the same salary they were giving the other man. I found that if I would go to Hopkins on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday full time, they would count me as a full-time student. I could do my teaching Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at Western Maryland. So I was full time at both places.

We had a train that commuted from Baltimore to Westminster and that gave me an hour to read, an hour to prepare my lessons. I got in a seat where I was all by myself and coming home I would prepare lessons for the lectures I was giving at Western Maryland....So, I did my own research [with the Agriculture Department] and got accepted at Hopkins for a master’s degree and doctorate.

In 1930, you received a postdoctoral fellowship to study in Munich. What was it like to be in Germany on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power?

I had gotten acquainted with Karl von Frisch [the German scientist, who discovered how insects communicate]. He encouraged me to come on over and work with him. So, in 1930, I got a leave of absence from Western Maryland.

Living in Germany was a nice experience....This was a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship I had that paid all my travel expenses and gave me a monthly stipend....

Germany was feeling very much the burden of reparations imposed on them after the war, the Versailles treaty....When Herbert Hoover was president, he gave them a moratorium [on reparations]....

Americans were well received in Germany after that. They’d take off their hat to me when I’d go by and we got along fine.

After serving on Western Maryland’s faculty for a quarter-century, you made a career change in 1948 and moved to the West Coast, joining the College of the Pacific. How did that come about?

My name was given to them by the chairman of the board of higher education of the Methodist Church. So, I went out to California and looked it over and liked it....I went out there as dean of the college. I had been dean of freshmen at Western Maryland....I told them I wanted [to teach] one course in biology, [too].

What were the circumstances leading to your appointment as IWU president?

Well, it was the chairman of the board of higher education, again. IWU contacted him, when Merrill Holmes [IWU president, 1947-58], who was already 70 years old, [was nearing retirement]. The board chairman said, “There’s Lloyd Bertholf, he’s had a successful teaching experience and he’s been a dean now for 10 years. I imagine he’s ready for a presidency.”

I was going to be at a convention at Purdue University and I stopped at Bloomington on my way back [to California]....I was rather attracted to the place. It looked to me like it had a lot of possibilities, so I accepted the position.

Above, a rare gathering of IWU’s four living presidents: Robert Eckley, Bertholf, Minor Myers, and Wendell W. Hess, who served as acting president.
What does it take to be a successful college president?

The biggest job of a college president, I think, is to keep a good spirit, a good relationship with the faculty...and be frank, [saying] what you plan to do and when you’re going to do it....That seems to me to be the job of the president—to keep the spirit of cooperation and joy in the work.

What do you feel were your major accomplishments as president?

We increased the endowment considerably, of course, nothing like it is now, but for those days it was considerable. And, we started January Term—the short term [that eventually became the current May Term]....We started a lot of construction. I was there 10 years and we had a new piece of construction, or were finishing up one, every year I was there.

What are some of the events that have taken place during your long life that have really helped to shape the world?

The telephone is a good example. I was living in Kansas when we got our first telephone. We used the top wire of a barbed wire fence to carry the message. And, the automobile is just about as old as I am, a little older maybe...I remember paying 10 cents for my first ride in a car....[As far as space exploration and the Apollo moon-landing], that would have been the last thing that I would have expected to see. We used to use that as an example of something impossible: walking on the moon. Of course, the computer has come in, in the later years, and revolutionized things again.

Do you have a message for our readers about how they can live as long and healthy a life as you have?

The fact that I taught physiology for 25 years was a big help in understanding my own body—eating the right things and watching for signs of cancer and liver failure, and so on. I think this knowledge of physiology helped me to catch things in early stages, and help me do something about it in time.

As you know, the university will soon celebrate its sesquicentennial. On the eve of this celebration, do you have any thoughts on the relevance of a liberal-arts education in today’s world?

I would point out that only a relatively small fraction of people make a career out of what they major in college, and it’s awfully important to get a liberal education....See what man has accomplished in these last few centuries—in health and science, and philosophy, and in language....And even if you do go into the same career that you prepared for in college, [with a liberal-arts education] you are acquainted with a lot of others that you might go into, or could go into, or read about. Politics, for example—you’ve got to be a political citizen in this country. You’ve got to vote, you’ve got to do your duty as a citizen, and you just can’t do that without a pretty broad knowledge of what man has accomplished.