Harlen Adams: In His Own Words


Professor Emeritus Harlen Adams served CSU, Chico for thirty-five years, from 1939 until his retirement in 1974. He was a speech teacher, a dean of Education, and executive dean. He was a vital part of the community until his death at the age of ninety-three on December 19, 1998. On August 16, 1997, I interviewed Harlen Adams about his life and ideas. The following photos and text are excerpted from the video interview, with slight changes made for clarity—Kathleen McPartland.

One day in the spring of 1939, I received a call from the Placement Office of Stanford University where I was teaching, saying that President Hamilton from Chico State College was going to be interviewing candidates for the faculty, and he wanted someone in speech. I met President Hamilton and we had a delightful conversation, during which I learned for the first time about Chico State College. He told me that there was an opening and wondered if I might be interested.

Shortly thereafter he phoned and said, "If the legislature passes the budget, we will offer you a job at Chico."

I told the president at Menlo Community College, where I also taught, that I was going to go to Chico if they gave me a job, and he said, "All right, Harlen. Find your replacement." Someone accepted the job before I ever had the offer from President Hamilton.

And so, without a contract, on the first of September 1939, my wife and I drove up to Chico through the wonderful wooded country in the terrific heat. When we arrived it was 110, and it remained 110 for the whole first week. My wife was eight months' pregnant and didn't know whether she wanted to stay.

The thing that was especially interesting about our trip was that we had the radio on and we were listening to news of Hitler marching into Poland. We shall never forget the first of September in '39.

When we arrived in Chico, beyond the heat, our first recollection was coming to the campus and seeing those three historic, original structures at that time—the administration building, the auditorium, and the library [Trinity Hall]. Those were comparatively new because the original state college, built as the normal school, had burned down in 1929, and these had been built as its replacement by the time we got here.

We also began to get acquainted with the community. One thing we shall never forget is that, for a long time, we were "outsiders" because we had not known the Bidwells. In fact, we used to say, "The natives here must get up every morning and bow toward the east in honor of the Bidwells." There was some little time before we felt fully a part of the Chico community.

The student body, when we came, numbered something like 800. Students were primarily preparing to teach. The institution actually had begun as a normal school, a teacher training institution for the elementary schools. Students came here at the high school level, and for two years were given training and then went into the public schools to teach. As the need increased and as the education developed, it was called Chico State Teachers College—I think that name was adopted in 1921. As they began offering work that could be taken by students who weren't planning to teach, it was changed to Chico State College.

When I arrived in Chico, the faculty numbered about forty-five. We had faculty meetings, where we all met together. (There were departments, but they were not at all like the departments we have today. In English, for example, there were four professors. ) Periodically, meetings were held in,what was at that time, the geology lab and is now your provost's office space in Kendall Hall. Everybody would be there because attendance was taken.

When the war began to affect America and California, and ultimately public schools, the enrollment began falling. At Stanford, there was an army student training program, A.S.T.P., and I was asked to teach it during the summer. The army decided that officers needed not only to know how to speak, but how to listen. Spies were an important concern. They asked me to develop a program in listening.

The first thing I did was go to the library to the Guide to Periodical Literature, and there was no entry for either listening or thinking. I did find under the word attention that there was one article telling about a thinking study that had been done at the University of Chicago. It was out of that that I began trying to develop a program, a curriculum, if you will, in the area of thinking. As a matter of fact, it ultimately developed into a workbook published by Stanford University Press.

By the end of summer, the program had to continue, and there was no one to teach it, so they asked me to stay. I called President Hamilton and told him, and he said, "Well, Mr. Adams, that's probably very fortunate because our enrollment has fallen so much that our budget is cut to the point where we can't retain all the faculty." And that's how I happened to go to Stanford to teach speech and ultimately speech education, where I was for three years.

It just happened that, in the summer of 1945, my wife and I were in San Francisco in the hotel lobby where in the past the officers of the state colleges used to meet, and President Hamilton was in the lobby. So we went and sat down and visited with him. And he said, "Mr. Adams, with the end of the war our enrollment is going up, and we're going to put on some faculty. Do you want to come back to Chico?"

He phoned me shortly after that and said, "We can offer you a deanship. Do you want to come?" The salary that he offered me was just exactly double what I was getting at Stanford. And so in the fall of '45, I returned as dean of Arts and Sciences. I hadn't any particular training or preparation for administration. President Hamilton, who had come from the College of Education at U.C., Berkeley, was a good administrator, and so I worked closely with him.

There was little construction of new facilities until about 1948. At that time (I had become dean of Education and it was the largest department) I was given the added responsibility of beginning to work with the State Department of Architecture to develop the institution's building needs. It was projected that the ultimate enrollment by 1970 or 1980 for Chico was to be 2000 students. We began developing master plans for that.

In 1950, President Hamilton retired and President Kendall came in as the new president with a new organization. I continued with major responsibility for the building program. As enrollment increased, it became even more important to find additional space.

When we began exceeding 2000 students, the question was how high should we go? President Kendall had suggested that we put the ultimate at 6000. The board approved a 6000-student master plan for the campus. The business community asked, "Why should we stop the growth of the institution?" That, of course, was a good question because we achieved 6000 years ago.

In 1967, after I had served in those various capacities as a dean for twenty-one years, I decided it was time to graduate, and so when the new president came, I requested to be relieved of administrative responsibilities and return to full-time teaching. I was given a sabbatical year and I spent it traveling across America preparing myself to return to teaching because I hadn't been teaching for some time. My special interest was oral interpretation of literature. I visited the speech programs of twenty-one institutions particularly to look into oral interpretation of literature. I returned to Chico and for the next seven years did nothing but teach. I didn't even serve on a committee.

In 1967, I also returned to the theatre. My first role was as Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. In 1974, the college was doing Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, and I played in that. At the first performance, at the end of the show, the president got up and announced the theatre was to be named Harlen Adams Theater. I had been involved in the construction of the theatre. Of course, I was delighted.

I have spoken of my major as English, but I guess what I haven't fully emphasized is "literature art." I have been absorbed with literature. And the question is, `"What do you do with it?" Well, people might say, "You read it." But I've already made reference to my interest in listening. The reason I have been especially involved in and interested in oral interpretation is so that people will learn to hear the literature, not just see it. If you sit and look at it, all you see is words, but if you hear it, you feel the meaning, you understand the meaning, if it is well interpreted. And the best way is to learn interpretation. So that's why my emphasis is in oral interpretation of literature.

[Adams then demonstrated his love of oral interpretation by reading Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken which ends with

Two roads diverged in a wood and I—

I took the one less traveled by

And that has made all the difference.]

When you come to the division in the woods, which way do you go? You make a choice and that choice makes all the difference. Queer coincidence how things happen.

I stayed on teaching until I was seventy, and then I decided that maybe it was time to retire. But what would I do? I had begun developing philosophical ideas that I think gave me some guidance.

I've attempted to understand what it means to be human. We know that in the world there are animals and there are plants. And we know that man is animal, and so I ask myself what makes a man human? Well, like all animals we are physical. Maybe like some animals we are mental and even emotional and possibly social because human beings do have physical and mental and emotional elements and have to be associated with people. But there is also a fifth one and I call that the spiritual. Incidentally, I refer to it with a thumb because that is the only human element that touches all of the others. What part does the spiritual play in connection with our social, emotional, mental, and physical existence?

So, I asked myself, how I was going to live as a retired individual physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. Physically, I have done that in two ways: walking, for myself, and for the community through such things as working with the hospital. Mentally, I keep alert by such things as being involved in Prime Time and the Area Agency on Aging. Emotionally, I guess I achieve that primarily through theater, music, and drama. That one's a little more difficult in terms of participation. What can I do for the emotional life of the community? Well, sometimes the way I do it is through reading because I think the emotional content of our literature is a vital part of it. Socially, I belong to organizations that give me the opportunity to meet people.

And human beings find, I think, most difficult to associate the spiritual with the other four elements. My spiritual existence has been involved with a number of churches; I have attempted to find some way in which I can not only participate for myself but for the community.

How can I fulfill my social obligations as well as my own life? I offer that as not only my personal experience but as, I'd say, a challenge. What can we as individuals do to make a society in which we can have a life together that is meaningful physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, and spiritually?

Special thanks to Clark Brandstatt, Donna Crowe, Kaye Merritt, Adam Morgan, and Rick Vertolli, all of IMC.


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