I still remember the day my high school guidance counselor called me into her office and told me that, because of my substandard SAT scores, I'd never get into any of the colleges I'd applied to, and that she wanted me to try Temple University to ensure that I'd receive at least one acceptance (I happened to be an excellent student, but a terrible test-taker). Being an obedient Jewish fellow, I had been trained never to talk back to my elders, but I told this well-meaning though not particularly tactful woman point blank, and with particular force, that there was no way I was staying in Philly.
I really had nothing against Temple or the city, per se. That just wasn't how I conceived of my college experience. I couldn't wrap my brain around the idea of living at home and taking the subway to school. I wanted to go somewhere different, experience a different way of life -- and part of that meant having a real campus experience, like the kinds I'd read about in books and saw in the movies.
Lucky for me, as it turned out, I was accepted to all the schools I'd applied to -- to the guidance counselor's absolute befuddlement -- and thus had the luxury of choice. (I wanted to attend New York University more than anything, but wound up at the University of Iowa; it was the right decision, in the end -- but talk about culture shock!)
My relationship with Philadelphia and Temple didn't end there, however. I realized after a number of years of living in the Middle West that I was an East Coast boy at heart, so I came back to my hometown, married a Philly-area girl and, happily, we raised our children here in the perfect kind of urban-suburban environment.
As for that Temple connection, my older brother and my wife are graduates (my wife actually knew many of the people in my high school class -- Overbrook '66 -- who were her classmates on North Broad). I could go on and on about the personal, professional and familial connections I have to the school and what it meant to so many members of my generation, to say nothing of how, for my father's generation of Jewish Philadelphians, it acted as their CCNY -- a cost-efficient, highly respected institution that granted them higher degrees, and thus armed them with the tools necessary to forge their way into the heart of this city's professional life.
That was why reading Temple University: 125 Years of Service to Philadelphia, the Nation, and the World by James W. Hilty, which Temple University Press has just published, was so entertaining and enlightening, filling in gaps in my modest knowledge of the institution and the area where it sits. The work qualifies as one of the new breed of coffee-table books -- filled with images, but chock-full of text as well.
Author Hilty was the right choice to tackle this ambitious endeavor. A professor of history and dean of Temple's Ambler campus, he's been a faculty member since 1970, and has written extensively on politics and educational history. He has divided the project -- which stretches over more than 250 large pages -- into nine chapters that consider the school from its origins as an idea in one man's mind to its current state as, what the author calls, both a multiversity and a globalversity.
Current Temple president Ann Weaver Hart states in her foreword that Temple is a quintessential American success story -- "a tutorial exercise that has grown into the 27th-largest university in the nation and the fifth-largest provider of professional education in the United States. Beginning with seven students who gathered for evening instruction in a private office in 1884, Temple today enrolls 37,000 students engaged in full- and part-time studies at nine campuses in Pennsylvania, Europe, and Asia."
The university's founding was principally the work of one man -- "not a captain of industry, but a captain of erudition, an educational entrepreneur -- who sought to democratize, diversify, and widen the reach of higher education." Russell H. Conwell, who lived from 1843 to 1925, was one of those outsized 19th-century figures -- a soldier, journalist, lawyer, minister, orator on the Chautauqua circuit ("a traveling tent show that visited towns in America's heartland, presenting musical performances, plays, political speeches, and spellbinding orations"), as well as Temple's founder.
Facts and Figures
Aside from Hilty's colorful portrait of Conwell and the Philadelphia of his time -- he was actually a New Englander -- one of the book's great joys (in addition to its many splendid illustrations) are the little facts and tidbits that pepper the text.
Did you know that one in every eight Greater Philadelphia college graduates holds a Temple degree? Or that the Kornberg School of Dentistry receives 4,500 applications per year for 125 available slots? Or that among Temple's notables graduates was the film director Richard Brooks, who made "Elmer Gantry," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "In Cold Blood"?
Brooks' name when he was a Temple journalism major was Reuben Sax, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who'd settled in Philly. He was an American success story, just like the school that first tutored him.