The Life of Carolyn Benton Cockefair
The Cockefair Chair has had a significant impact on the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the greater Kansas City community. Through its sponsorship of a wide variety of cultural endeavors, the Chair has touched the lives of thousands of people and, over the years, has built a well-deserved reputation for excellence.
But there was a real person attached to the unique name, and she was too extraordinary to be forgotten. After all, Carolyn Benton Cockefair was so adored by her students that they established a university chair in her honor and managed to finance its activities year after year through their own fundraising efforts. What qualities did Mrs. Cockefair possess that made her such a talented, inspirational teacher?
She was, first and foremost, an unorthodox teacher. Some say she was one of the greatest who ever lived. Her fans emphasize her ability to ignite heated discussions on broad philosophical questions and to breathe life into great literature by relating it to contemporary problems.
Mrs. Cockefair viewed herself as a Child of the Enlightenment. She thought it her duty, as an educated woman, to pass on her love for literature and for the arts. She did not care so much about how much specific information her students acquired, but whether or not they were inspired when they left her classroom to go out and do the things that “educated” people do: participate in cultural activities, read good books and challenge conventional beliefs.
Cockefair’s methodology was controversial, but she undeniably inspired her students. Her greatest success was with the older, mostly women students who flocked to her continuing education courses. These students, who called themselves the “Cockefair Ladies,” adored their teacher and considered her a loyal friend.
They recalled the times she was there when they needed her, and the way she encouraged them to set new goals. They also remembered her as a charismatic lady with a penchant for flashy hats and shoes, as well as abominable driving habits. The latter apparently was a result of her passion for engaging in lively conversation wherever she was. Her students learned to circumvent the problem by volunteering to drive.
She was born Carolyn Belle Benton on November 30, 1884, near Odessa, Missouri, a small farming community east of Kansas City. Carolyn was the fifth child of Richard Higgins Benton and Alice Johnson Benton. Carolyn’s family claimed some relation to the famous Missouri painter, Thomas Hart Benton, but Carolyn always was quick to point out that she had the good fortune to be born into the better branch of the family.
Her father was a former Confederate soldier who settled near Odessa after the Civil War. He established a successful farming business, and later served as a judge of the county court. Both of Carolyn’s parents were more oriented toward cultural and academic affairs than most of their neighbors. This emphasis on knowledge was not lost on Carolyn. She quickly learned to appreciate the joys of reading and learning about a myriad of subjects.
When Carolyn was sixteen years old the family moved to Kansas City, and she spent her junior year at Central High School. Carolyn thrived on the intellectual opportunities in the city, but her father preferred life on the farm. So, at the end of the 1900-01 school year, the family returned to Odessa.
When September rolled around, the inevitable problem of proper schooling arose again. Carolyn had hoped to spend her senior year of high school in Kansas City, but her parents did not want to leave Odessa. Carolyn’s older sister, Hattie, came to her rescue. Hattie had planned a fall wedding with a Kansas Citian, J.W. Stanwood; but she postponed her marriage for a year and served as her little sister’s guardian so Carolyn could spend her senior year in Kansas City.
During that year the two sisters spent a great deal of time at plays, galleries, concerts and other cultural events. Carolyn made a great effort to absorb and enjoy all of the culture Kansas City could offer. The experience left her with an enduring love for art, drama and literature, and a fondness for Kansas City that stayed with her for the rest of her life.
After graduating from Central High School in 1902 with honorable mention, Carolyn went home to Odessa and got a job teaching at Thorp School. When the six month term was nearing an end, Carolyn’s mother decided to enroll her daughter in Christian College in Columbia to “finish” her education. To their amazement, however, Christian College offered only a handful of “finishing” courses which Carolyn had not taken already in high school.
As a result, it was decided that Carolyn should stay in Columbia and enroll instead at the University of Missouri. This was rather a bold step for an Odessa farm girl. At the turn of the century there were fewer than 300 women enrolled in the University of Missouri.
Carolyn Benton fully expected to go back to Odessa at the end of the spring semester, but her return trip was delayed repeatedly by Mother Nature. The Missouri River embarked on one of its worst rampages, frequently washing away or threatening the safety of bridges between Columbia and Odessa. Frustrated in her attempts to get home, Carolyn decided that she might as well enroll for the summer session. She did return home in the fall, but attended the University of Missouri again the next two summers. During the regular school terms she taught in Wellington, Missouri.
In 1905 Carolyn decided to see a bit of the world, so she accepted a teaching position in Roswell, New Mexico. This was a memorable experience and Carolyn especially enjoyed the warm climate and the many new friends she made. Her teaching experience, however, was not totally satisfactory, and she left after one year.
Carolyn was determined to go back to the University of Missouri full-time and finish her degree. She paid her own way by taking out a loan (which she repaid within one year after graduation) and by teaching Latin at the University High School. Carolyn had planned to major in Latin and Greek, but fell under the spell of her mentor, Dr. Arthur Henry R. Fairchilds of the English department. She switched her major to English.
In January of 1908 Carolyn completed her B.S. in Education and in June she received her A.B. in English. Dr. Fairchilds had recognized Carolyn’s tremendous talents as a teacher and encouraged her to work toward a Master’s in English while she was completing her Bachelor’s degree. As a result, she completed her M.A. in August of the same year.
Upon graduation, Carolyn needed a full-time job. With the assistance of Dr. Fairchilds she landed a position at the University High School as “Vice Principal, Dean of Women, and Model Teacher of English.“ This rather pretentious title may have made an impression on Carolyn at the time, but in later years she dismissed it with, “I have often observed that the more inconsequential the job, the longer the string of titles.”
Carolyn stayed in this position for three years before quitting in 1910 to visit Europe and then marry William Raymond (Billy Ray) Cockefair, a fellow University of Missouri graduate. When Carolyn left Columbia to marry a farmer in Warrensburg, Missouri, she assumed that her professional life was over. She already had acquired much more education and work experience than was common for a middle class woman in the early twentieth century. For her to contemplate continuing the academic life after marriage was almost unheard of.
In her first twelve years of married life, Carolyn Benton Cockefair tried to adjust to the traditional role of a young farm wife, devoting her time to helping Billy Ray and rearing two daughters and a son. But for Carolyn Cockefair, being a homemaker and mother was not enough. She longed for the intellectual stimulation that only a classroom could provide.
That opportunity arose in 1922 when Professor W.W. Parker of Central Missouri State Teachers College in Warrensburg asked her to substitute while one of their teachers recuperated from an accident. Professor Parker was pleased with Carolyn’s work and offered her a summer school teaching job. Carolyn accepted and taught in 1922 and for the next few summers.
Mrs. Cockefair enjoyed teaching again; but, unfortunately, her time at Central Missouri State ended. When news of her employment reached other educated married women in the community, many of them also applied for summer jobs with the college. According to Mrs. Cockefair, the Board passed a rule abolishing the employment of married women as a simple way of handling the deluge of applications.
She later remembered this brush with sexual discrimination as one of the bitterest experiences of her life. She was casting about for some form of redress when a letter came inviting her to teach for the University of Missouri Extension Service.
Carolyn Cockefair accepted the University of Missouri’s offer and conducted courses in their Extension Division for eighteen years. These courses took her to many towns in western Missouri, including Kansas City, Marshall, Jefferson City, Harrisonville, Boonville and Sedalia.
It was during this period that she began what soon became her forte—teaching non-traditional students. Mrs. Cockefair’s emphasis on discussion rather than formal lectures and her style and personality made her very popular with her students. Because they enjoyed her classes so much, many of them asked if their mothers could visit their class. As word spread among the older students, more of them flocked to hear Mrs. Cockefair.
In 1937, Dr. George W. Diemer became President of Central Missouri State Teachers College and offered Mrs. Cockefair a job as Assistant Director of Field Services. She accepted the position and remained with Central Missouri State for seven years, in the winter working as an extension teacher and book reviewer and in the summer teaching English on the Warrensburg campus.
Mrs. Cockefair continued to teach some courses for the University of Missouri Extension Service during this period, but the majority of her work was with the Central Missouri State Extension Program. The popularity she enjoyed in the University courses carried over to her new role with Central Missouri State. Carolyn Cockefair undeniably had a phenomenal ability to attract people who desired education for education’s sake.
As Mrs. Cockefair’s reputation as a provocative lecturer spread, she was inundated with invitations to address the American Association of University Women, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the League of Women Voters and other organizations. She gave talks to branches in St. Joseph, Kansas City, Springfield, Joplin, St. Louis and countless smaller communities. Invitations to present book reviews also poured in; and at one time, Mrs. Cockefair presented as many as 50 per month.
Her busy schedule found her spending a significant amount of time on the road. The children were grown by now and, although Billy Ray did not like for his wife to be away so much, he accepted the situation and took great pains to make sure that Carolyn’s car was in tip-top condition before major excursions. One day he went so far as to telephone the Missouri state highway patrol and have them track down his wife. The patrolman’s message? “Mrs. Cuckleburg (sic), you’re almost out of gas.” Billy Ray had forgotten to fill the tank before she left.
Although Mrs. Cockefair enjoyed teaching at Central Missouri State, she never felt accepted as a legitimate member of the English department. This status bothered her, so she was thrilled when she received an offer from her lifelong friend, Dr. Fairchilds, to come back to Columbia as a visiting professor.
In 1943 the University of Missouri called on former graduate students such as Carolyn Benton Cockefair to fill the shortage of teachers created by World War II. At this time Billy Ray was working for the Farm Securities Administration, and had no trouble transferring to Columbia so his wife could take the job. Consequently, the Cockefairs left Warrensburg, their home of 32 years, and moved to Columbia.
Mrs. Cockefair taught at the University of Missouri in Columbia from 1943 through 1946. Two major factors combined to make this experience so delightful. First, she had the opportunity to renew many old friendships from her earlier days at Columbia; and, secondly, her classes were filled with young trainees and veterans. She found these young men mature and eager to learn about her beloved Shakespeare and Greek literature.
Her favorite example of their enthusiasm was the class project of one group of young veterans. They staged an elaborate production of a Greek play, complete with togas and columns, on the steps of Jesse Hall.
Mrs. Cockefair compared her years teaching young G.I.s at Mizzou with the one school year she spent teaching young ladies at Stephens College in Columbia. She much preferred Mizzou’s G.I.s and older students.
In 1947, her friend, Dr. Norman Royall, Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Kansas City, offered her a position as an English instructor. Mrs. Cockefair had long dreamed of returning to Kansas City, so she accepted the offer. Not everyone at the University of Kansas City shared Royall’s enthusiasm for hiring Cockefair. There had been opposition to her appointment, based primarily on her lack of a Ph.D. and her age. (When Royall extended his offer, Carolyn Benton Cockefair was already 63 years old, and age at which most people think about retirement, not career moves.)
Royall and other supporters won out, and Mrs. Cockefair was given the opportunity to fulfill her dream of teaching permanently in Kansas City. The dream was worth waiting for, because it was in Kansas City that she experienced her greatest triumphs as a teacher.
One of her earliest successes at UKC was working with the Great Books Program, founded by Royall. Through this program and her continuing education courses, Mrs. Cockefair developed a loyal following of non-traditional students, known affectionately as “the Cockefair Ladies.”
Most of these students were well-to-do, non-working women between 35 and 55. Many had children who had just left home, so they were looking for a constructive, challenging use of their time. They found it with Mrs. Cockefair. Once the majority of these women participated in the Great Books Program or took one of her continuing education courses, they stayed involved.
Carolyn Cockefair had always been a successful teacher, but she was most effective with these students. Several reasons accounted for her popularity with this group. First of all, Mrs. Cockefair had an uncanny ability to bring new life to classic literature by comparing characters and events to contemporary subjects. When one of her classes studied Gone with the Wind, Mrs. Cockefair compared a character to the “opportunist, scheming, materialistic woman who lives down the street from you.” A more vivid description of Scarlett O’Hara is hard to come by.
The story of Antony and Cleopatra reminded her of Edward VIII’s abdication of the throne of England to marry Wallis Simpson. According to Mrs. Cockefair, both Antony and Edward should have stuck to their respective jobs.
Mrs. Cockefair’s method of comparing classic works with contemporary people and events was a little unorthodox but generally produced the intended effect. Through analogies, she breathed life into these stories by making the characters seem like real people with problems to which the students could relate. Her method usually achieved this goal, especially with more experienced students.
One other important teaching goal was achieved by the comparative approach. Mrs. Cockefair’s comments sparked frequent debates that might disrupt the flow of a traditional lecture course; but she depended on these discussions as part of her course content.
Mrs. Cockefair’s encouragement of “off the subject” debate distinguished her from the mainstream instructors at UKC, and illustrated an important aspect her teaching philosophy. She thought there was more to teaching than simply imparting information. Her goals were loftier. She wanted to open her students’ minds to new thoughts, and to develop in them an appreciation for culture and learning that would stay with them.
With her emphasis on exciting students and opening their minds, she used Shakespeare and other great authors as tools to introduce students to a new world of ideas. Specific details of the literature took a back seat to the larger concepts. Virtually no comment was considered “off the subject” when the subject was so broadly defined. For Mrs. Cockefair, the classroom was a place to question major concepts—she flowed with big ideas. “There is fun to be had in grappling with an idea, and intellectual fun is the most stimulating of all.”
Carolyn Cockefair started each class with a list of probing questions, the more ambiguous the better. “Can an evil book do evil to a judicious mind? Can a fool become wiser with a good book? Is virtue of less value to society if it is untempted?” These questions and her controversial comments paved the way for the lively conversations that filled her classroom time.
Mrs. Cockefair thought the lecture method bored students and took them out of the learning process. Lectures might impart information, but she found that her discourses failed to stimulate students as much as her questions and dialogue. She referred to her approach as the “Socratic Method,” though in some ways she was more opinionated than perhaps Socrates had intended.
While Mrs. Cockefair’s style may not have been exactly what Socrates had in mind, it worked. In fact, it may have worked better – her off-the-cuff remarks often sparked livelier interaction than the specific issues at hand. Older students in the non-credit, continuing education courses were especially appreciative of Mrs. Cockefair’s emphasis on discussion. They welcomed the opportunity to interject their own ideas and interpretations and relate their own experiences.
Many of Mrs. Cockefair’s younger students also enjoyed the emphasis on discussion; but since they were enrolled for credit, they had to pay more attention to details and interpretations of literature. The others, freed from worrying about taking extensive notes, enjoyed her style immensely.
Over a semester, Mrs. Cockefair’s students would become aware of most of her personal opinions. According to her friend and successor, Miss Susan McClelland, “She saw expressing opinions as sort of a duty. If she was against something she was against it, and if she was for it she was for it.”
The question of, “Who was Carolyn Benton Cockefair?” is almost as unanswerable as the rhetorical questions she tossed out in the classroom. Carolyn Benton Cockefair was a paradox. She was a great teacher who preached free thinking
and flexibility and didn’t seem to care if people liked her; yet she was well-liked and was blessed with numerous close friends.
She possessed one trait to which all teachers aspire but few achieve: the ability to inspire. Without her, many of the “Cockefair Ladies” never would have had the confidence to continue their education. Many had gone to college years before, but abandoned their intellectual pursuits to marry and raise families. Mrs. Cockefair was a feminist role model for them, although she would not have called herself a feminist because she disliked labels.
She rekindled their interest in classical literature and a range of other cultural pursuits. She had an idea of what an educated woman should be, and she instilled it in her followers. Some of her students were so inspired that they finished undergraduate degrees shelved years earlier, or pursued graduate studies. Others confined their formal study to the non-credit continuing education courses and reading programs, enrolling in these courses for decades.
Carolyn Cockefair’s ability to inspire students to continue their studies, to appreciate culture more fully, and to genuinely enjoy all kinds of literature was intimidating to other instructors. Most teachers, even the very good ones, would be content if their students ever read another book in their subject area. Mrs. Cockefair’s students not only continued to read and enjoy the literature they had studied under their mentor, but they wanted the rest of Kansas City to recognize and enjoy her as well.
This desire to honor and publicize their favorite teacher led her students to establish the Cockefair Chair at the University of Kansas City. Mrs. Cockefair was honored greatly by this expression of love and appreciation, and she participated in the Chair’s activities for as long as she was able.
She retired from teaching in 1964 at the age of 80, completing a distinguished career which spanned six decades. This particular year was chosen because she felt she was getting too old to be an effective teacher, and because it coincided with the 400th anniversary of her beloved Shakespeare’s birth. Although she formally retired in 1964, Mrs. Cockefair taught continuing ed courses until her health prevented it. On November 30, 1969, she passed away at the age of 85.
Carolyn Benton Cockefair was not a saint, plagued as she was by the same shortcomings with which all people contend. She did not merit deification, but she was a success. The intellectual focus of the Cockefair Chair can be traced back to Carolyn Benton Cockefair, proof that she was a great teacher and a real asset to the Kansas City community. What greater immortality for a person who devoted her life to the teaching profession?
The Establishment of the Cockefair Chair
The dawn of the 1960s found Kansas City at a crossroads in its development. During the previous decade, the city had celebrated its centennial and acquired its first major league baseball team. Its population had grown to 475,000, part of a metropolitan area of more than 1,000,000 people.
The city’s growth was due, in large part, to agricultural services, and year after year the farms of the Midwest boasted higher production. In addition, Kansas City’s industrial base had broadened: the Ford Motor Company had built a new plant at Claycomo; Chevrolet had expanded its Leeds plant; T.W.A. had opened a multi-million dollar overhaul base; and a major oil company established its home base here.
With growth came more jobs, more people and more leisure time. In 1960, Kansas City had both the prosperity and the population to take its place among the thriving metropolitan centers of the United States. The city had a number of cultural and aesthetic assets as well. Kansas Citians could lay claim to professional art and music schools, as well as a symphony orchestra. There was the art gallery, a cultural treasure provided to the city by William Rockhill Nelson.
In addition to art and music, the city was home to the Linda Hall Library, one of the nation’s outstanding science repositories; many colleges; and a number of research agencies in the social and natural sciences. There seemed to be every reason to be optimistic about the city’s future.
Despite this favorable foundation for cultural development, there were difficulties. The city seemed to have a case of cultural inferiority. The leaders of most cultural activities wanted prior approval for public projects. Unless something was successful in New York or Europe, Kansas Citians were afraid to try it. As one critic put it: “Kansas City sees a good thing—when it knows it.”
In truth, some of the established cultural institutions of Kansas City were in trouble. The Philharmonic faced financial difficulties. The Kansas City Star noted that donations from Kansas Citians to its orchestra were “one of the smallest of any city of comparable size.”
Nor were the contributions to the Philharmonic the only shortcoming – Kansas City had no theater, a hallmark of a metropolitan center. The problem was so broad that the same Star writer lamented, “Music and higher learning, especially in its humanistic aspects, still receive only a limited acceptance. They are often kept on the ragged edge of starvation in a community seemingly quite able to afford many other things.”
Kansas City’s reluctance to support the arts had several possible causes. It was a young city focused first on its own financial growth and physical development. The city also lacked traditional philanthropists, families of established wealth. Perhaps, too, there was some frontier suspicion of cultural activities not necessary for survival. For these and other reasons, Kansas Citians did not appear willing to support the cultural and educational endeavors necessary to confirm Kansas City’s identity as a major metropolitan center.
This hesitance to support cultural institutions extended to the support of higher education. Although several local colleges faced difficulties, the University of Kansas City, the area’s only University, was exceptionally troubled. Founded in 1933, the privately funded University began as a liberal arts college and slowly brought in previously existing professional schools of Dentistry, Pharmacy and Law; it had also established professional schools in Business and Education.
Development of the University had been difficult at times, but by 1957 a survey of higher education in Kansas City concluded that, “Starting from nothing, the University has acquired a good campus, a number of substantial buildings, a faculty of some standing, and a fair reputation among institutions of higher learning.”
Despite its accomplishments, the prospect of financial ruin haunted UKC. As early as 1952, the school’s leadership acknowledged declining enrollment in the College of Liberal Arts, declining income, and faculty salaries well below the norm. After 1952, frequent tumultuous changes occurred in the administration, budget deficits increased (a 1957 budget revealed a deficit of $378,000), and “minimal continued existence” characterized the fiscal policy. This gloomy picture became more acute when, by April of 1961, “due to a gradual depletion of reserves” the University had only $30,000 in its current fund.
The responsibility for rectifying the University’s financial dilemma fell to the Board of Trustees. The enormity of this undertaking is revealed by the McHenry Report, a privately funded study commissioned in 1957 to survey higher education in Kansas City. According to that study, if KCU was to remain private, it would take an all-out effort to raise a minimum $20,000,000 endowment to yield $800,000 per annum.
Despite the University’s obvious needs and the dire warnings of the McHenry Report, one fund-raising drive after another fell short. Supporters of the University proposed numerous schemes for tax support, such as merging with the Junior College system or obtaining aid from the University of Missouri. However, all efforts to secure the support essential to the survival of the University were dismal failures.
There were several reasons why Kansas City failed to support its University. The McHenry Report further revealed that the University was “not considered by the community to have an advantage in higher quality.”
Nor was the school considered prestigious or a part of family traditions. The community felt that the University, devoid of fraternities, sororities and sports, had not developed “a full and attractive student life or an enthusiastic alumni body.” In addition, UKC was relatively expensive and had strong competition from the University of Kansas. Taken together, these perceptions meant that the citizens of Kansas City did not believe that the University possessed the stature or community ties to warrant their support.
The Cockefair Chair was a major response to some problems faced by both the community and the University. Primarily, it was established to honor its namesake, a woman whose teaching influenced a generation of Kansas Citians. Fortunately, the activities of the Chair met some of the expectations the city had for its university.
From the beginning of her tenure at UKC, Carolyn Benton Cockefair’s classes in continuing education had attracted crowds of dedicated students. Many enrolled in every course she offered, and some became her close friends. There may have been other teachers at UKC as well loved and respected as Carolyn Benton Cockefair, but none had such a capable a group of students acting in her honor.
One of Cockefair’s students with particular ingenuity and determination was Mrs. Milton (Selma) Feld. She was long known for her generosity and interest in intellectual and cultural activities. As a great friend of the University, she wanted to involve Kansas Citians in the university’s programs. In response to Mrs. Cockefair’s teaching and the warmth of their friendship, Feld conceived the idea of founding a Chair in Continuing Education to honor her teacher and at the same time respond to the needs of the community and university.
With her friends, Mrs. Web (Ruth) Bailey and Mrs. Robert (Mickey) Mann, Feld proposed the idea to Mrs. Cockefair and then set about organizing a fund drive. According to the original plan, the Chair would sponsor lectures and nationally known visiting professors for the benefit of continuing education students, the general public, and, of course, the University.
The difficulties seemed great. Robert Nelson, Director of Development at UKC, insisted that the unendowed Chair have at least $10,000 to fund programs for three years. Nelson was unsure if Mrs. Cockefair’s students could raise the money. Mrs. Barrett C. (Gladys) Helzberg, a fellow student with whom Feld shared her hopes, did not think “our women would put that much money into it.” Undeterred, Feld and her friends set began the fund drive.
To place the fund-raising on a firm foundation, Feld invited to her home a dozen women who had studied with Carolyn Cockefair and who could afford substantial donations. Feld persuaded them that education was lifelong; that they needed a Chair to assure their own continuing education; and that it would be unique to establish a chair in Mrs. Cockefair’s honor while she was still living. Feld raised enough at this meeting, about half of the $10,000 goal, to provide solid footing for the broader fund-raising activities.
On July 27, 1960, the next phase began. Feld drafted a form letter explaining the project. Volunteers, women among the Chair’s most steadfast supporters, agreed to solicit gifts from Mrs. Cockefair’s former students. A target date for receipt of donations was set for August 15.
The generosity of Mrs. Cockefair’s former students proved greater than anyone had expected. Donations of $12,494.27 were collected to found the Carolyn Benton Cockefair Chair in Continuing Education, exceeding the $10,000 needed for three years’ worth of programs.
In founding the Chair, there were significant difficulties. Solicitations were sought from a community where, despite personal feelings for Mrs. Cockefair, there was little support for the University. It was hard to encourage funding anything at a University so financially troubled that its very survival was in question. That Mrs. Cockefair’s former students – most of them housewives – succeeded is a testament to their efforts.
Their skill and determination in fund-raising was only beginning. On November 17, 1960, the inaugural dinner of the Cockefair Chair took place. More than 300 friends, former students and contributors gathered in Swinney Gymnasium for the formal presentation to establish the Chair.
The guest speaker for the evening, Norman Cousins, editor of The Saturday Review, spoke of his hopes for world peace. But for many of those present, the evening’s most important and inspiring words were spoken by Carolyn Benton Cockefair when she dedicated the Chair:
“To Those who stand tip-toe on the mountain tops of intellectual research,
To Those who know that wisdom will not die with them and are therefore, crying for Light, more Light.
To All men who search after wisdom, of whatever age, creed, color, sex, or previous condition of ignorance.
To All those who undertake the search with gay spirit, ‘completely disillusioned, yet wholly sweet tempered.’
To All Men who find through friendship, through love, the high roads to life.
To All Those who with dauntless spirit set the slug horn to their lips and blow with a mighty sound their call to duty.”
In short, I dedicate this Chair to Man’s unconquerable mind and the Quest.
With the job of fund-raising now behind them, the women of the Cockefair Chair turned their attention to planning the Chair’s future. It was necessary to work out an agreement with the University of Kansas City to establish the Chair officially. The Declaration of Gift, approved by the UKC Board of Trustees on November 25, 1960, clearly stated the Chair’s purpose:
“…to create and maintain programs designed for the encouragement of intellectual growth of adult men and women, in the field of the humanities as they embrace literature, the arts, science, cultural and political history of the various cultures.”
The Declaration, largely the work of Dorothy Wilson, Director of Non-Credit Courses, Division of Continuing Education, and Selma Feld, charged the Chair to “provide in each academic year one or more outstanding teachers or lectures for adult education classes at the University.” Because of this original purpose, the Chair assumed a name similar to traditional Professorial Chairs common at many Universities.
This purpose, as stated in the original Declaration of Gift, was loosely interpreted by UKC and allowed the Chair to follow a breadth of program options while still keeping its programs oriented toward the humanities. The agreement with UKC also established a fund in the Chair’s name of $12,494.27, the sum of the original fund drive.
When the idea for the Chair had first been raised, Robert Nelson, Director of Development, had suggested that $3,000 a year for three years would be sufficient. Dorothy Wilson and Selma Feld accepted his suggestion, stating in the Declaration that approximately $3,000 from the Chair’s funds be disbursed each academic year. Despite this clause, this provision was largely ignored. The Chair’s expenditures were instead determined by the success of annual fundraising. As a result, expenditures often exceeded the $3,000 limit.
From the beginning, the Chair had surprising success in fund-raising. Also, the bright, concerned members Feld had appointed to the Advisory Board, kept the Chair on good financial footing. But, unlike other Chairs at other universities, the Cockefair Chair lacked an endowment. An endowment with a substantial principal would provide operating funds and eliminate the need for yearly fund drives.
During the 1960’s, the Chair’s solvency rested on annual fund drives. As much as possible, Board members avoided charging admission to Chair-sponsored events, adopting Mrs. Cockefair’s philosophy that lectures should be free to the public. The Chair did charge for the annual luncheon and the annual dinner, but just enough to cover the cost of the meals. The Chair bore the cost of providing speakers – a big expense for a fledging organization.
The desire to build an endowment was a constant concern. In 1974, a small endowment was started; but it was not until 1980 that the Chair received the funding it had pursued for 20 years. Once again, Selma Feld was responsible. In 1980, she gave $100,000 from the Milton W. Feld Charitable Trust to establish the Milton W. Feld and Selma S. Feld Endowment Fund. Interest on this fund would provide the Chair with $10,000 a year for operating expenses.
Another unexpected and critical boost came with recognition and support from the Kansas City Association of Trusts and Foundations (KCATF). The KCATF, led by Homer Wadsworth, had a long history of supplying “seed money” to worthwhile local cultural groups. Wadsworth was aware of Mrs. Cockefair’s reputation as a teacher; and after learning the purposes of the Chair, he committed $30,000 of KCATF funds to a matching grant program. The grant nearly tripled the resources of the Chair and insured a strong beginning.
The Declaration of Gift also established the administrative structure of the Chair. According to the document, decisions concerning the Chair would be made by an Advisory Board made up of community members and designated representatives of UKC. The Advisory Board would “counsel with the University in its selection” of Cockefair courses and programs.
Though the Chair had no membership, it enjoyed widespread support and participation from the community and the university. The community had five positions on the Advisory Board, serving for one, two or three year terms. Initial appointments were made by Feld and the Director of Continuing Education. After the initial appointments, a subcommittee of the Advisory Board would nominate new members.
First Board appointees were: Mrs. Milton W. Feld (Chairman), Mr. C.B. Ball, Mrs. J.C. Higdon, Mr. Berndt L. Kolker, Mrs. Robert D. Mann, Mrs. Milton McGreevy, Mr. Thorpe Menn, Mrs. David A. Patterson, Mrs. Clyde Porter, Mr. Homer C. Wadsworth, Dean Edwin J. Westermann, Mrs. James C. Wilson, and Dean Walter B. Wright. Advisory Board members were allowed to succeed themselves once, but many members remained on the Board for periods far exceeding the limits. In fact, the actual structure of the Chair was much looser than the initial agreement indicated.
The University was represented by the Chancellor or his representative (usually the Dean of Arts and Sciences), the Director of Continuing Education, and a representative appointed by that Director. Although the Advisory Board legally held only advisory power, its competence in programming and fund-raising gave it a strong voice in the affairs of the Cockefair Chair. The University provided able administrative assistance, but “The Chair” remained unique among university programs – a privately led organization functioning through the state University.
In 1963, the financially ailing UKC joined the University of Missouri system, creating the University of Missouri-Kansas City. The school’s new status required that the original Declaration of Gift be reworked and submitted to the Board of Curators in Columbia. The Board viewed the transformation of UKC to the University of Missouri with some anxiety, worrying that their arrangement might be changed. These fears were dispelled when, on April 16, 1964, the University of Missouri gave “Notice of Board Action” and formally accepted the Chair without altering its basic purpose or structure.
When it began, the promise of the Cockefair Chair to the community and the University was threefold.
First, the Chair served to honor an exceptional teacher who had devoted her life to education, particularly adult education. The Chair stood as a monument to Mrs. Cockefair’s belief that a community needs “open and responsive minds” if it is to be politically and socially healthy.
Second, the Chair would provide a valuable educational supplement to the University. It would bring nationally known scholars to the University, and invite the community to hear them and interact with them.
Third, activities of the Chair would bring the community to the University to promote public interest in and concern for the University. Through the Cockefair Chair, the University would become less isolated and more integrated into the community. Only time would show if these goals were met. Only solid programming, wise selection of projects and determined leadership could make these promises come true.
June 18, 2013