Thomas C. Mendenhall (1910-98)
Neal Salisbury, May 1999
Thomas Corwin Mendenhall, formerly professor of history at Yale University and president of Smith College, died July 18, 1998, of cardiac arrest following a long illness. Mendenhall died on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, where he had lived with his wife, Cornelia Baker Mendenhall, since his retirement in 1975.
Mendenhall was born on July 14, 1910, and grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, the son of Charles E. Mendenhall, a University of Wisconsin physicist, and Dorothy Reed Mendenhall, a prominent pediatrician. After graduating from Andover, he attended Yale and graduated in the class of 1932, and went on the Balliol College, Oxford, as a Rhodes scholar. From 1937 to 1959 Mendenhall was a member of the history department at Yale, serving also as assistant to the provost from 1943–50 and master of Berkeley College from 1950–59. In the latter year he became sixth president of Smith College.
Mendenhall's presidency at Smith coincided with the great upheavals associated with the civil rights/black power and antiwar movements of the 1960s and early 1970s. More pointedly at a women's college, he served during the onset of the "sexual revolution" and the beginnings of the contemporary feminist movement. Under his leadership, Smith reaffirmed its commitment to women's higher education (when most single-sex institutions were embracing co-education), established an Afro-American studies department, and launched the highly regarded Ada Comstock Scholars Program for returning older students. Mendenhall also led the way in rebuilding and expanding Smith's science, fine arts, and performing arts complexes; presided over its abolition of college-wide academic requirements; and worked to expand its participation in intercollegiate athletics. In addition he was a principal figure in establishing the nationally recognized consortium, Five Colleges, Inc., consisting of Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, and Smith colleges and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. In an era when small college presidents remained closely connected to students and the classroom, he regularly offered courses in history and served as assistant coach of the crew team.
As a historian, Mendenhall was the author, co-author, and editor of more than a half dozen books. His Oxford dissertation, The Shrewsbury Drapers and the Welsh Wool Trade in the XVI and XVII Centuries, was published in 1953 and continues to be cited in scholarly publications on related topics. Reflecting his particular interest in teaching, he edited, with Yale colleagues Basil D. Henning and Archibald S. Foord, The Quest for a Principle of Authority in Europe, 800–1715 and The Quest for a Principle of Authority in Europe (1948) for students in Western civilization survey courses. Each chapter in the two volumes centered on a problem of historical interpretation, clearly introduced and accompanied by a series of questions and a choice of diverse, often conflicting, evidence on which to base an argument. Although the books' format is now familiar, it was a pioneer in its time and introduced a generation of American college students to the stimulating and demanding requirements of historical analysis.
Those who remember Mendenhall will agree that a mere summary of his professional accomplishments cannot do him full justice. As one colleague remarked recently, he was regarded by all who worked with him as a man of "deep compassion and humanity." At Smith, Mendenhall was never far removed from any problem, large or small. One faculty member recalls how an older colleague, having tried several times without success to have coat hooks installed at the squash courts, finally mentioned his frustration to the president. Arriving at the court for his game the next day, he was surprised to find Mendenhall himself installing the hooks. Mendenhall was a "hands-on" administrator in a time when the term had literal meaning.
Ever the historian, Mendenhall understood the wrenching experience of living through times of unpredictable upheaval, and was acutely aware of the changes and new directions overtaking the United States in the late 20th century. At Smith he embodied the best qualities of those college presidents of an era in which presidents were full participants in the everyday campus life and administrative personnel a tiny minority of the campus community. At the same time, he guided Smith through its transition to a very different kind of environment with equal measures of shrewdness and sensitivity. He was in the fullest sense a man of his century.