On July 1, 1965, the academic dean, Donald C. Kleckner, took over as the tenth president of Elmhurst. He served for six years, a relatively brief tenure at the College, though about average nationwide—especially for the era. It was an extraordinarily difficult time to be the president of an American college. “Radical rhetoric reached deluge proportions,” Christopher J. Lucas writes, in American Higher Education: A History. “The war in Vietnam overshadowed all else .... A minority of students engaged in open rebellion, in direct frontal challenges to almost everything traditionalists held dear.”
Elmhurst in the ’60s had its share of strikes, demonstrations, and confrontations. Some were ugly, though none was permanently damaging to any individual or to the commonweal. Several activist episodes were downright noble. In March 1965, for example, 23 students and three professors traveled to Selma, Alabama, to march for civil rights, in the face of manifest threats to their physical safety. Other students spent spring break in Greenville, Mississippi, registering voters and working to ease poverty in the Delta. Increasingly, The Elm Bark became an animated forum for debate—both heated and enlightened—on women’s rights, nuclear war, integration, overpopulation, pollution, the Black Panthers, the John Birch Society, and, of course, the war.
The larger campus culture embraced the energies of the times. In 1966, the College held its first annual Niebuhr Lecture, sponsored by the philosophy and theology departments. Through the Niebuhr venue and many others, an exceptional array of speakers addressed campus audiences—including Martin Luther King Jr., Paul Ehrlich, Ralph Nader, Edward Kennedy, Muhammad Ali, Norman Thomas, Andrew Young, George McGovern, Ashley Montagu, and Gwendolyn Brooks. The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, Brooks spent the spring term of 1967 teaching creative writing at Elmhurst.
Meanwhile, President Kleckner worked aggressively to develop the academic program and facilities. An Honors Program started; in the first year, sixty-five gifted students participated. A Science Center opened. In 1968, the faculty adopted a new academic calendar with an intensive course in January, called the Interim. Three-fourths of the students participated in the first Interim; its 56 course offerings included a travel class to Greece and an opera workshop in which students presented The Marriage of Figaro. In 1970, Elmhurst launched a baccalaureate program in nursing and broke ground for a new library. In 1971, the centennial year, the College enrolled 2,900 students, from 38 states and 15 countries.
The most lasting legacy of Elmhurst in the sixties was also the most lovely. In 1966, the College established a campus arboretum—a quiet contrast to a tumultuous age. It was all very official; the arboretum was registered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and two other accrediting agencies. A landscape architect, Herbert Licht, donated an untold variety of trees, thus enabling the campus to achieve its new status. The head groundskeeper, Ragnar Moen, steadily increased the number of tree species on the campus, from 65 in 1966 to 650 in 2000. (The selection reflects Moen’s preferences and prejudices. He likes beech trees, for example. The campus has 35 varieties of beech trees.)
Ragnar Moen retired in 2000. His successors will need to realize a goal he set for himself a few years ago, during his third decade on the job. “One thousand is the number I’m shooting for,” he told an interviewer, “one thousand different species.” He added, “This will be a challenging spring—getting everything done on time—but we will do it. We are always on the move here.”