A Renaissance Professor

I would like to open this blog with some remarks I delivered several years ago to an alumni group which was giving a memorial plaque to be placed in Lisner Auditorium to honor Professor Elmer Kayser.  For at least 20 years Professor Kayser taught one of two required history courses for undergraduates and most of us took his.  So, I had been his student, became his colleague and then friend.

 Elmer Louis Kayser arrived at The George Washington University in 1914 as a freshman student and never left.  He received his Bachelor of Arts in 1917 and MA in 1918.  As a student, he was instrumental in founding the Student Council, serving as its first secretary-treasurer.  He wrote the words for the alma mater, and probably for the original fight song.  He supplied the name Colonials for the athletic teams.  He obviously  participated in the major sale of war bonds that was held at the University during 1917-1918 because the bonds were left in the hands of the Graduate Manager of Activities:  Elmer Louis Kayser.

 Both the President and Secretary of the University retired at the end of the academic year 1917-1918, and Elmer Louis Kayser was appointed Secretary of the University, or more specifically, Secretary of the Board of Trustees, of The President’s Council and of all the Faculties.  In other words, by age 21 Kayser was Provost of The George Washington University.  He had already been appointed to the faculty upon receiving his BA in 1917.  The first task of the new president and secretary was to speed up the movement of the university to its present location in Foggy Bottom.  His stories of dealing with “the neighbors” are a match for those of President Trachtenberg today.

 At the appropriate time, the bonds that had been left in his care as Graduate Manager of Activities were cashed in and the proceeds applied to building the gymnasium known to generations of students as the Tin Tabernacle.

 Dean Kayser’s favorite instructor was “Old Professor Swisher,” professor of history, whose position he filled when Swisher retired.  Dr. Swisher joined the faculty in 1896 at age 50 and retired in 1926.  During the Spanish American War Professor Swisher inaugurated a course of once a week lectures in current history where he explained the issues of the conflict to students and community residents.  He continued these lectures until he retired when Dean Kayser picked them up and continued until almost his own retirement, a run of 60 years.  During World War II he expanded his audience by offering a daily news broadcast on radio.

 There was a great deal of “Old Professor Swisher” in Elmer Kayser the professor.  He once described Swisher as a brilliant conversationalist who knew everybody and was in great demand socially.  He had known every president since Buchanan, was a gifted lecturer with many striking mannerisms of style and an inexhaustible supply of anecdotes and observations of the great figures of history.  If there was ever an apt portrait of Professor and Dean Elmer Louis Kayser, this is it.

 It was obvious to all that he was on a fast track.  When President Collier retired in 1926, Kayser was in an excellent position to succeed him.  However, after what was apparently a bruising battle within the Board of Trustees, it was decided that a President with a doctorate was needed and Kayser did not have one.  So, Cloyd Heck Marvin was called to be president and faced his principal competitor as Secretary who effectively controlled the University.  Marvin met this problem in 1928 by offering Professor Kayser the first sabbatical the University had ever granted to pursue his doctorate in history at Columbia University.  As soon as Kayser was safely out of town, Marvin went to the Board and managed to strip him of every office other than professor that he held.  By that time the list also included being director of summer sessions and University Marshal, director of all public events at the University.  Unfortunately for Marvin, the first  major public event with his new regime was the granting of an honorary degree to British Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald at the Fall Convocation and he botched it. Mr. MacDonald traveled with his daughter who functioned as his secretary.  She carried her father’s speech and someone denied her admission to the auditorium.  It was an unhappy occasion and Spring Convocation found Professor Kayser back in his role as Marshal, a position he held until he retired.

 Fortunately for the University, Kayser did not sulk for the rest of his long career there.  Almost immediately upon returning from Columbia he began agitating for a division that would admit qualified people to study in individual courses where professors would accept them without their having to matriculate for a degree.  Thus, when the Federal government began to expand under the Roosevelt administration, the Division of University Students, with Elmer Louis Kayser installed as director and then dean, was in business to receive these builders of the New Deal.  For years the Division had more students register through it than through it than in any other academic unit of the University.

 Dean Kayser was an active advocate for an active alumni association and for an alumni giving program.  President Marvin was in favor of neither.  It was not until the waning days of the Marvin administration that alumni were actively organized, and not until the coming of President Elliott that an active Development Office was established with Dr. Seymour Alpert as Director.  He and Dean Kayser used to remind me of two confidence men at lunch in the University Club with a victim.  The joviality, the cordiality, the familiarity, the clouds of cigar smoke were signs that the guest was about to become a member of the fraternity of University benefactors.  Dean Kayser used to say, “I just finger ‘em, Sy fleeces ‘em.”

 When President Marvin appeared ready to retire, once again Elmer Kayser was in a position to become president.  He and a key board member had been discussing this very eventuality and Kayser had laid out his ideas for the future of the University.  The board member thought he was the man to set a new direction for GW and was convinced he could get the votes to make it happen.  Before the Board began to consider a new president, Dean Kayser’s supporter suddenly died and the Board went on to choose a man with connections to the new Kennedy Administration.

 When Cloyd Heck Marvin died in 1969, Mrs Marvin wanted the funeral to be at the University Chapel, which was still considered to be Western Presbyterian Church.  Dean Kayser was selected to deliver “words of remembrance” for his old archenemy.  It was a masterpiece.  Mrs Marvin was moved and delighted.  It was a mark of the man that he could describe someone he had so cordially detested as “a man of strong will, keen perception and immovable conviction.  He knew where he wanted the University to go and he saw that it went there.”  And “a man of great ability and of varied gifts, of dedication and singleness of purpose.”

 Upon retirement, Professor Kayser was appointed University Historian and, after several years, completed a two volume history of the University.  He continued to appear every day at his accustomed table at lunch in the University Club.  He always had a single martini, which he told me (though I did not completely believe him) his doctor had agreed was as effective as a prescription drug for his glaucoma.  The Club staff doted on him and, when he was admitted to GW hospital for a minor problem, took his lunch over to him which he had in a small private room that the hospital staff had fitted out for him for gracious dining.  On his third day of confinement lunch arrived without his “medicine.”  He promptly made a call and the Club went into a state of panic.  Soon, two trays with two drinks each arrived in his dining room with neither tray bearer aware of the other.  When I arrived about an hour later the staff was in a state of high alert themselves: they feared the Dean had had a stroke.  Upon starting to walk back to his room he lost his balance and slid down the wall into a sitting position and appeared not to know what was going on.  I sat on the floor and took his hand which startled him out of his lethargy.  He recognized me and began a rambling conversation on waves of alcoholic fumes.  It was then that I noticed the four martini glasses.  When I assured the resident and nurses that they had a drunk on their hands, he was bundled into a wheelchair and put in his bed where he promptly began to snore.  It was later that afternoon as I was imparting the story to the club manager that I discovered that Dean Kaiser’s daily martini was a double.  The next day he was not worse for wear.

 Sometime later, in his office, I twitted him about this escapade.  “Well,” he replied, eyes twinkling and emitting clouds of cigar smoke, “I thought my glaucoma was worse that day and needed extra treatment.”

 In a conversation with President Trachtenberg later Dean Kayser’s name came up.  The President commented that he rarely went anywhere to talk to alumni that someone did not come up and tell a story about Dean Kayser.  Then he said, “he must have been a hell of a man.”

 Well, he was!

  1. #1 by Beth on March 28, 2014 - 4:59 pm

    Great blog entry! I wish I had known this remarkable man.

  2. #2 by P. Nagami, M.D. on January 8, 2015 - 12:28 am

    I just received a two volume edition of Justin Mc Carthy’s “A History of Our Own Times” and each volume was signed Elmer Louis Kayser.

  3. #3 by John Boswell on January 8, 2015 - 8:10 pm

    Dear Dr. Nagami, Wow! What a coincidence. His daughter must have sold his library.

  4. #4 by David Amram on April 3, 2017 - 2:44 am

    Dear John Boswell:

    Thank you for this brilliant blog which captures so much of the spirit of Dean Kayser, whose wit, energy, humor and love of teaching touched the lives of so many.
    When I came to GW in 1949, I already knew i wanted to be a musician and a composer but to assuage my family’s fears of my facing lifetime of unemployment, I decided i had to get a degree in something. i was told that the greatest class was taught by Dean Elmer Louis Kayser and when I attended his first class, even though there must have been several hundred people there, i felt he was speaking directly to me. I became a history major on the spot and graduated in 1952.
    I still think about him every day and remember the great talks he gave which made everything from the Peloponnesian Wars to current events all fascinating.
    It is gratifying to see that GWU remembers and honors him!!

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