From the Fall 1998 UNO Alum
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By Anthony Flott, Editor
Little surprised the University of Omaha Board of Trustees anymore when Daniel E. Jenkins delivered his customarily detailed reports.
For 18 years, the prominent group of mostly Omaha businessmen had listened to Jenkins’ accounts of a seemingly endless litany of financial crises always threatening the young university. Tales of unpaid faculty salaries, overdue bills and failed fund-raising campaigns had become commonplace.
Not that his reports were banal. Though just 5-foot-8 and of slight build, the handsome Jenkins was a commanding presence even in a room filled with Omaha’s power brokers. A gifted, powerful orator, he spoke in rich vocabulary flowing from a rich, deep, authoritative voice.
But when Jenkins convened the board in the early part of November, 1926, it was for more than business as usual. Enrollment had increased again that fall, Jenkins reported, and the need for a new facility — perhaps even a move to a new campus — had become even more pressing.
When he finished his summary, the solemn, gray-haired OU president removed his glasses, surveyed the room full of friends and associates, and, taking a deep breath, issued a most heart-wrenching announcement.
“I’m tired . . . tired,” Jenkins said. “I can’t go on.”
Some of the trustees had suspected Jenkins was not well and that such an announcement was near at hand. Still, they sat dumbfounded by his words.
“You must find someone to carry on the work,” Jenkins continued. “I’ll stay and help all I can, but the time has come for another man to head the university.”
Henry F. Kieser, a trustee and longtime intimate of Jenkins, would later recall the meeting breaking up in silence.
“Afterwards, Dr. Jenkins sat two hours and talked of many things,” Kieser said. “He laughed at humorous incidents connected with his long struggle, and at other times he cried. Tears rolled from his eyes when he told of the university staff of teachers — how they had served through pure loyalty, receiving in pay barely enough to exist.”
It was the humble exit of one of Omaha’s most respected and influential men of the early 20th century. He was founding president of the upstart university on 24th and Pratt streets, but so much more: a devoted family man; an eminent theologian; a Presbyterian minister who spellbound many a congregation; a philosopher; an idealist; a dreamer.
Shortly after his speech to the trustees, Jenkins suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. His son and namesake, Daniel E. Jenkins Jr., was just 10 at the time. He recalls riding his bicycle to the hospital to visit his father.
“I remember he wasn’t smiling. His countenance was sad,” says his son, who has outlived his father by 71 years. “He didn’t talk at all.”
The younger Jenkins used to sit for hours in the family’s north Omaha home entranced by Dictaphone recordings of his father dictating letters. But now, the man of great speech had been struck silent.
Daniel Jr. stayed but 15 minutes at the hospital before hopping on his bike and riding home. It was the last time he saw his father alive.
Later that fall, Daniel E. Jenkins Sr. was sent east to Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore. After a brief stay there he was transferred to a private sanitarium in Trenton, N.J., where he was visited frequently by his oldest son, Finley, also a Presbyterian minister and the chair of systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary.
For a while, it appeared Jenkins would recover. Family and friends were hopeful that he would return home and assume his rightful place at the head of the university.
Alas, the upturn in his health was followed by a complete collapse. On Nov. 24, 1927, — Thanksgiving Day — Annie Finley Jenkins received the call of her 61-year-old husband’s death. A newspaper article listed toxemia as the cause. Daniel Jr. remembers that dysentery was to blame.
There is little doubt, however, as to the true cause of Daniel Jenkins’ downfall.
“He devoted his life to the university, and died for it,” Board of Trustee Secretary Wilson T. Graham would say. “No man could have stood up longer under the burden.”
Finley accompanied his father’s body home by train for the funeral service at Omaha’s North Presbyterian Church. Daniel Jr. can still recall the burial service at Forest Lawn Memorial Park.
“It was a rather chilly winter day, but sunny” he says. “Mrs. James, the wife of the dean of the university (W. Gilbert James) walked me from the end of the funeral up to the car.”
There is perhaps no more fitting of a final resting place for Jenkins than Forest Lawn. Its ornate mausoleums and gravestones are etched with many of Omaha’s greatest family names: Durham; Joslyn; Kountze; Kiewit; Storz. Though not possessing the earthly riches of such families, Jenkins’ legacy is on par with theirs.
“He will be remembered as long as the university stands,” penned an obituary writer in The Omaha Bee-News, “and it is destined to endure for ages, just because it is well founded. By his act he devoted himself to a work that sapped his vitality, expended his energy, and yet he gave it all because he believed in his work.”
For all intents and purposes, however, Daniel E. Jenkins is not remembered. No building on the beautiful University of Nebraska at Omaha campus bears his name, an honor accorded several other important university figures, including two of the men who followed him in office. There is no statue, plaque or other monument. Nothing, save a framed picture hanging in a corner of the Eppley Administration Building and bearing the simple inscription: “Daniel E. Jenkins, First President of the University of Omaha, 1908-1927.”
Thousands of students, faculty and staff pass the photo each year, few realizing the man’s significance. Only two others can match his tenure at the university’s helm, but no one can equal his contributions.
Ninety years since UNO’s founding Oct. 8, 1908, — and 71 years since his death — Daniel E. Jenkins has become the Forgotten Founder.
Son of a Preacher ManDaniel Edwards Jenkins was born Dec. 13, 1866, in Flintshire, North Wales, to Jane and John Mortimer Jenkins, a teacher and Presbyterian minister. Grandson Daniel E. Jenkins III recalls being told that John Mortimer, a U.S. citizen, had returned to North Wales specifically so he and his son could share the same birthplace. One year later, the family returned to the United States, where John Mortimer assumed the pastorship of Cincinnati’s Sixth Presbyterian Church.
Daniel attended local grade schools in Cincinnati and a high school in nearby Orrville, Ohio. In 1882 he began studies at Wooster College, a Presbyterian institution 55 miles southwest of Cleveland.
John Mortimer uprooted his family once more, however, this time to Melbourne, Australia, apparently for the health of his wife. Daniel enrolled at the University of Melbourne and began to flash the academic prowess for which he later would become noted. He earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees in logic and philosophy, graduating with first honors and being awarded $500 upon commencement.
He used the money to return to the United States and enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary. In 1891 he graduated from Princeton and, like his father, was ordained a Presbyterian minister.
Jenkins landed a heady post as pastor of New Salem, Pennsylvania’s, New London Presbyterian Church, the oldest Presbyterian church in the United States. There, he met Annie Finley, a New Salem native from a wealthy family. The couple married June 15, 1892, honeymooning in Colorado.
In 1894, Annie gave birth to the couple’s first son, Finley DuBois. Two years later, the 30-year-old Jenkins was appointed president of Parsons College in Fairfield, Iowa.
A son, John Laurie, was born in 1899. One year later, daughter Anne was born. That same year, Jenkins left Parsons to join the staff of the recently founded Omaha Presbyterian Theological Seminary as a professor in systematic theology and apologetics. Shortly thereafter, in 1902, William Robert Jenkins was born.
Throughout this time of personal and professional advancement, Jenkins kept honing his sharp mind. In 1899 he had earned a doctorate in philosophy from Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pa. In 1906 he was awarded a doctor of divinity degree from the University of Pittsburgh.
In 1908, he would rely on his extensive body of knowledge and experience to form something new.
In the BeginningJenkins did not like the scene of higher education in Omaha in the early 1900s. There was Bellevue College (named Omaha University 1891-1908), the Jesuit-controlled Creighton University and the land-grant University of Nebraska. Jenkins sought something else for the young men and women of Omaha — something affordable, co-educational and non-sectarian in nature.
A Protestant movement composed mostly of Presbyterians but also some Baptists and Congregationalists began pushing for the formation of a private university along those lines. Though it was a collective effort, there was no doubt that Jenkins was the primary champion.
“This institution was his very own, in its inception and development.” the Bee-News would later comment.
On Oct. 8, 1908, the dream of Jenkins and others was incorporated as the University of Omaha. Though free from ecclesiastical control, it had a definite evangelical flavor.
“The purpose of this organization,” Jenkins wrote in the articles of incorporation, “shall be to establish, endow, conduct and maintain a university for the promotion of sound learning and education under such influences as will lead to a high type of Christian character and citizenship with the Bible as supreme authority.”
Initial plans were ambitious. The campus was to be 10 acres large and house 23 buildings, including a gymnasium, library, four dormitories and residences for the president and professors. The Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations pledged $300,000 to its formation, contingent on another $200,000 being raised in Omaha. The trustees never came close.
Instead, when classes began in September 1909, the entire university was housed on a single-square block at 24th and Pratt streets in Redick Mansion, a revamped Victorian house donated to the university by Oak C. Redick. The parlor was converted into a chapel and a resting room made available for female students.
Most of the faculty came from the seminary, who were paid $50 annually. Students rode to campus on the 5-cent-fare streetcars that ran nearby.
“Its beginnings were very humble,” Jenkins later wrote in the 1922 Gateway Annual. “No blare of trumpets announced its advent. No munificent endowment started it on its career.”
Though money frequently was pledged by wealthy Omaha benefactors such as Redick, George and Sarah Joslyn, Oak C. and Lillian Maul, the efforts more often than not fell short.
“It started on a shoe-string, without a nickel, a pure adventure based on faith, or foolhardiness” Jenkins commented.
Olga Strimple, a 1917 graduate and later the first paid employee of the alumni association, remembered cold winter days when Jenkins on a Friday would announce to students that classes would not resume on Monday because the school’s coal supply was exhausted. “We students weren’t smart enough to be happy with our time off,” Strimple said. “Instead, we went out and told our parents about it. After that, we had plenty of fuel.”
Jenkins would not further burden the school’s precarious financial situation and refused to take a salary, relying instead on the $2,000 he was paid annually by the seminary. Somehow, though, Jenkins willed the university forward.
“It began to thrive and grow in spite of obstacles seemingly insurmountable, the good Lord only knows how and why,” he wrote, “Without endowment of funds it lived on optimism and confidence of its worthwhile-ness, as an undertaking.”
The university began to expand, first adding Jacobs Gymnasium following a gift from Maul. Later, it moved out of Redick Hall and into Joslyn Hall. A College of Law would be established, as would the first night classes to be offered in the city. In 1913, the university graduated its first full class. Enrollment slowly increased.
Jenkins’ love for the blossoming institution was unmatched. When the Easter Sunday tornado of 1913 ripped through Omaha, Jenkins, ignoring the damage the wind monster wrought on his own home, rushed to “Check on my baby on 24th Street.” It was unharmed, and Jenkins took that to be a God-given sign he should continue the venture.
It was such devotion that endeared Jenkins to OU’s students.
“Why, we thought Dr. Jenkins was right next to God,” Strimple would comment in the 1974 Gateway.
David C. Robel, a 1924 OU alum, would write and dedicate the U of O song in his honor. Most telling of this student regard for Jenkins, however, is the story of Ellen J. Rhoden, mother of one of the university’s early students. So impressed was she with Jenkins that Mrs. Rhoden asked to be buried as close as possible to him upon her death. When she passed away in 1934 her grave was placed 20 feet to the left of the founder.
Equally devoted to him was his family. In 1916, the brood had grown by one with the birth of Daniel Jenkins Jr.
Family ManDaniel Jenkins Jr. admits he probably was something of a surprise to his 50-year-old father and 47-year-old mother. “You might say that,” his son says with a laugh. “I was almost an only child.”
His closest brother in age, Robert, was 14 years his senior. Finley, the eldest Jenkins child, was old enough to be his father.
Life at the family’s home at 1921 Binney Street was what you might expect from a household run by a Presbyterian minister.
“When the founder worked in his study at home, as he had much of the time since were born, we kids had to be quiet — or else,” son John told a Founders’ Day crowd 34 years after his father’s death.
That sternness, though, was tempered somewhat by his new duties at the university.
“He was busy at Redick Hall and not in his study so often, so life at home was a little freer,” John said. “And, in the summer of 1908, I will remember my sister and I could go up to Redick Hall where we would play hide-and-seek endlessly in the secret passageways, stairways and towers of that vast Victorian labyrinth, while the founder worked at the founding in remote recesses of that labyrinth, and supervised the remodeling of the Redick garage into a chemistry laboratory. Tough for him, gay for us.”
Daniel Jr. has similar recollections of his father.
“He was always very strict about things in the house,” he says. “Prayers before dinner, always say grace and to church and Sunday school.”
Their spread in age did not diminish their relationship.
“We were pretty close. I attended Locust Grade School, and a lot of the time when school was over I’d walk over and hang around my father’s office. When he got through work, he’d take me home.
“And I remember I always used to go up in the morning and he’d be shaving at the back window and we’d talk. We’d talk about the neighborhood, things I liked to do. I remember we had a cat that howled around the neighborhood and he used to complain about that cat howling at night. So I went out and searched for that cat. I’d sneak out there early in the morning and try to find it, but I never did.”
By his account, his mother and father were a happy couple.
“Though I was very used to her complaining about his working too much,” he says. “We weren’t rich but we lived comfortably. I remember our house being full of books, just full of them. Books, books, books, everywhere.”
An Intellectual GiantThat Jenkins’ house would be full of books comes as no surprise considering that many viewed him as an intellectual giant. He often spent his limited spare time in the bookstore owned by his friend and university trustee Henry Kieser. There, Jenkins would engage fellow customers in conversations that often lasted past closing hour. And it didn’t matter to whom he was talking.
“Profoundly erudite, he yet was simple and easily approached,” remarked an editorial at the time of his passing. “He could deliver an address to a group of theological students, discuss doctrinal points with seminarians or talk to a body of labor union men, with equal address and sympathetic knowledge. It was this that endeared him to all he came into contact with.”
It is striking how often his eulogizers praised his mind.
Julius F. Schwarz, vice president at OU, said of Jenkins, “His great brain, set in his square, capacious head, mastered with a giant’s grip whatever it attacked.”
J. B. Wootan, editor of Public Service Magazine in Chicago and a friend of Jenkins, said “His mind was profound, never content to linger long on the surface of any proposition which to him seemed worthy of his consideration. Yet it was keen, incisive, analytical. He was seldom deceived by a person or a problem. Fortunately, in early life his splendid intellect was submitted to a process of training which never ended and made him, in many respects, the intellectual superior of most of us.”
At his funeral service, James W. Bean, a Presbyterian minister from St. Paul, Minn., and a former pupil of Jenkins, lauded his teacher as “furnished by nature with an excellent mental equipment . . . his was an intellect of exceedingly high order. His logic, his reasoning, seemed almost without flaw.” Bean recalled a speech Jenkins had made in 1925 at Parsons College and how a nearby man remarked, “There is a man who knows how to think upon his feet!”
Not that Jenkins was without shortcomings. Like others blessed with impressive mental acuity, Jenkins was given to fits of forgetfulness. He once forgot about a church service he was to conduct, arriving an hour later after a messenger had been sent for him. On another occasion, he forgot about a wedding at which he was to officiate. And he once preached a sermon which was to end at noon, but became so interested that he talked until 1:30 p.m.
His focus often was elsewhere. “He could sit at his desk, with bills due scattered over it, and close his eyes to all but the future,” Kieser recalled.
When Jenkins was not applying his mind to matters of the university, he more often than not was addressing theological concerns. In 1906 he delivered a speech as part of the “Stone Lecture” series at Princeton. The youngest man ever accorded the honor and only the second from west of the Mississippi, Jenkins spoke on “The Function and Right of Anthropomorphism in Religious Thought.”
William L. McEwan, a minister in the Third Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh, called Jenkins “one of the great theologians of this generation.”
Added to his heavy slate of activities at the seminary and university were several other appointments. He was a member of the Omaha School Board, the Council of the National Economic League, the American Academy of Political and Social Science and the National Association of Charities and Correction; a delegate to the Congress of American Prison Association; appointed by the governor to a special vice commission; and an author of textbook chapters on theology and philosophy.
Schwarz said Jenkins’ “was a hand of silk when it grasped that of a friend or bestowed a courtesy; it was a hand of iron when it flung from his path an obstacle or struck a foe to the highest type of intelligence and efficient citizenship.”
Financial woesFor the last 19 years of his life, though, theological and other concerns took a backseat to keeping OU solvent. He was the preacher constantly parting a red sea of deficits. And he worked tirelessly to that end.
Asked how many hours he worked, Jenkins once replied, “Well, I’ve averaged from 12 to 14 for so long I’ve forgotten. It has agreed with me. I have never been seriously handicapped by sickness.”
He knew the demands of his post were steep. In his inaugural address to Parsons College in 1896, Jenkins remarked that “While on my journey to his place a reverend gentleman warned me with a very solemn shake of the head — so solemn indeed that it would tend to make the healthiest man dismal — that he knew from his own experience that a college presidency is no sinecure.”
He would “spend to be spent,” he said.
Creditors knocked on the university’s door as frequently as prospective students. Daniel Jenkins Jr. remembers accompanying his father to ask for funds from Sarah Joslyn.
“She lived in a very pretentious place,” he recalls. “I don’t know how successful he was in later years getting money from them, but he tried. It was troublesome for him.”
And he was sorely tempted by other offers. The American Bible Society asked him to become its secretary. Southern University offered him its presidency, as did San Pablo University in South America. In 1920, the Presbyterian Seminary of Louisville, Ken., recruited him as president at an annual salary of $4,000.
Jenkins declined (his son, Finley, later took the post). When the OU Board of Trustees heard of the offer, they forced him to accept a $2,000 salary.
It was clear that Jenkins wanted to see his baby through the hard times.
The Death of Daniel E. JenkinsThat a man possessed of such vitality and great thought should be struck down made his loss cut more deep.
His downfall may have been precipitated by an attack of appendicitis in May of 1926. Jenkins underwent an operation and quickly resumed his duties.
“He left the hospital too soon in order to be at his desk, laden with work,” Julius F. Schwarz said. “He was very weak, but continued his habit of long hours and paying little attention to meal times.”
When the term concluded that spring, Jenkins began planning for a trip to England in the summer. He left New York by boat July 4 and spent the next two months studying ancient bibles and that country's education system.
He returned in early September. It was apparent to Schwarz that the time away did Jenkins no good. “I could see that he still was broke and weary.”
Jenkins’ condition worsened. In November, he gathered the trustees for his final meeting, requesting a six-month leave of absence summarily granted. W. Gilbert James was named acting president in his stead.
After a brief hospitalization in Omaha he headed to Johns Hopkins, then to the private sanitarium 20 miles near his son Finley. There was the brief rally, then the collapse.
At his funeral Nov. 28 at North Presbyterian, more than 50 wreaths from churches, institutions and individuals filled the church. Seven days later, more than 700 people attended a memorial service for Jenkins at First Central Congregational Church. Telegrams and letters poured in from all over, including Bermuda, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Iowa.
A short time later, Daniel Jenkins Jr. and his mother moved east to be with Finley in New Jersey. After a couple of months there, they moved to Dallas to stay with John and his family.
It had been proposed at the memorial service by Larimore C. Denise of the Omaha Presbyterian Seminary to establish “a permanent memorial to Dr. Jenkins, possibly in the nature of an endowment fund.” If such a fund ever was created it is long forgotten.
As the years passed, the ties linking Jenkins to the university dissipated.
The Redick Mansion had long since been dismantled, its pieces shipped to Keely Cure Island on Lake Shetek in Minnesota. It became the Valhalla Dance Pavilion and Cafe before burning to ashes in 1950. Its original site at 24th and Pratt streets now is a public housing project for the elderly.
In 1930 Omaha voters narrowly passed an issue to take over Jenkins’ university. By 3,000 votes it became the Municipal University of Omaha, a tax- and tuition-supported institution.
In 1938, thanks to one of the many federal grants President Roosevelt doled out during the Great Depression, the university constructed a new building on its current Dodge Street site, then on the outskirts of the city limits. In 1968 OU joined the University of Nebraska.
Today, it is a campus of more than 13,000 students, one of the most respected metropolitan universities in the Midwest.
Olga Strimple recalls a 1960 visit to the campus by Jenkins’ son, John.
“Oh, Olga,” Jenkins recalls John saying, “this just isn’t our university anymore.”
The family did their part to keep the founder’s memory alive, but they, too, faded.
In 1935, Finley died from pneumonia. Of Daniel Jenkins’ five children, he was most like his father, apparently endowed with many of the same gifts. He had studied at the University of Berlin and attended Strassburg University in France on a fellowship from Princeton. The Omaha World-Herald referred to his post at Princeton as chair of systematic theology as “the most commanding position in the whole field of Presbyterian education.” He had assumed the position at 26, younger than any other man to do so.
Jenkins’ wife, Annie, returned to campus in 1942 in celebration of Founders’ Day. She died in Dallas in 1955, her body returning to Omaha to be buried next to her husband.
William Robert also returned for a Founders’ Day, in 1961, joining OU President Milo Bail and Gerald R. Ford, then Michigan’s fifth district congressman, as a speaker. His speech was entitled, “A Man Had a Dream.” William H. Thompson, an early OU graduate and one of the university’s most important figureheads, followed with “The Dream Becomes a Reality.”
“There have been others who captured and were inspired by that same dream of his,” said Robert, a 1923 OU alum. “The whole community rallied to save the dream from the oblivion of most dreams.”
Robert, who had become president of Columbia Life in New York, died eight years later.
John Laurie, a 1920 OU graduate and a successful ear, nose and throat specialist in Dallas, died in 1981. Anne Jenkins, a 1920 OU alumna who briefly headed the university’s home economics department before marrying, passed away in October 1997.
That leaves Daniel Jenkins Jr. as the only direct link to the Founding Father. He married in 1942, had three children (including Daniel Jenkins III, who in turn fathered Daniel E. Jenkins IV) and became an assistant professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.
He’s now retired from his general practice, living in the Houston home he bought 40 years ago. He spends his time occasionally visiting former patients, traveling extensively or working on his computer (considering the era in which his father began the university, it is interesting to note that the younger Jenkins now has his own e-mail address).
He last visited UNO in October 1997 when he came to Omaha to bury his sister. He spent two days visiting the campus with his wife, Dora, no blare of trumpets accompanying the visit of the Founder’s son.
“I was very pleased with what I saw,” he says. “Tremendous growth.”
His father, Daniel Jr. says, “would be amazed” at the changes. “All the buildings and contributions people have made to it. I think he’d be pleased. I certainly was.”
Still, something was decidedly missing. The man who made it all possible is nowhere to be found, save the obscure photo. Daniel Jenkins Jr. remembers the university once had an oak chair of his father’s on display, but it’s nowhere to be found.
Daniel Jenkins Jr. is hesitant to criticize the oversight. But there are hints of his disappointment. The picture, Jenkins says, “didn’t even have his degrees or anything. It just said ‘First President,’ and it gave the dates. That was the only thing I saw.”
Perhaps, however, a memorial to Daniel E. Jenkins is unnecessary.
“He built a monument in the hearts of men,” went his obituary in the Bee-News, “by his inspiring words and example. The University of Omaha will endure, a visible and outward evidence of his great labor and devotion. Students there should achieve much, for its founder set a noble example to inspire them to their very utmost endeavor.”
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