Death of a President
By Kim Clarke
The never-ending question is, ‘How is President Burton?’– The Michigan Daily
Chapter 1 Special Request
The eight young men made their way into the President’s House to accept a solemn invitation.
It was a Friday morning on the Michigan campus in February 1925. The students were all seniors from various walks of university life. One was a baseball player and another a track star. Several were members of Student Council, Michigamua, fraternities and a new honor society called Blue Key. All were considered student leaders, which was why the boys were asked to the grand home on South University Avenue.
They came at the request of Nina Burton, whose husband Marion was U-M’s fifth president. The Burtons had lived in the house for nearly five years and were a favorite with students. As long as Marion Burton was president, she once said, the President’s House would always be open to them.
Now, the young men before her would do something none had done in the history of the University: Lift a casket to their shoulders and carry away the body of the president.
Chapter 2 “Now or Never”
Marion Leroy Burton is the only president in U-M history to die in office. His death brought an end to months of angst and anxiety and cast a pall never before seen on campus. His funeral generated an outpouring that is hard to envision today, from thousands of students lining the streets in silent tribute, to the president of the United States calling him “a man our generation could not well afford to lose.”
By all outward appearances, President Burton was a specimen of health. He was tall, slender and athletic, with grey eyes and ginger hair that made him stand out. As an undergraduate at Carleton College and a graduate student at Yale, he pitched for the school baseball teams. He also loved to pitch horseshoes. “I am just a plain human being, with red hair and sand in my gizzard,” he once said.
It was an understatement. Burton was an academic upstart who led three universities before he was 45. With degrees in divinity and philosophy, he was an ordained Congregationalist minister and a professor at Yale. In 1910, he was named president of Smith College and, seven years later, president of the University of Minnesota. Less than three years into his Minnesota tenure, in mid-1919, the University of Michigan came calling.
“I feel that you are the man for this place. Your qualities are just the qualities we need here,” lobbied Harry Burns Hutchins, who was eager to step down as Michigan’s president after a decade. “There is no place in the country in my judgment that furnishes greater opportunities for a well-equipped man like yourself.”
Michigan’s regents knew they were placing Burton in the awkward position of leaving a job he had barely started. This was complicated by the fact Burton grew up in Minnesota and had deep feelings for the state. “The problem before him is one of extreme difficulty,” wrote Regent Victor M. Gore. “However, he must grasp the fundamental fact that it is now or never.”
By December 1919, Michigan prevailed over Minnesota. At age 45, Burton would become U-M’s youngest president and, with his wife Nina and their three children, move to Ann Arbor. He would replace a president born before the Civil War and assume office at a time “when the energy of young men was so insistently in demand,” a university administrator wrote years later.
Chapter 3 “Burton is Kinetic Energy”
The president was a workaholic. It was a characteristic both impressive and worrisome.
“Burton, true to the promise of his red hair, is kinetic energy in human form. He is that rare combination – a dynamic educator. He talks as a thoroughbred horse runs, swiftly, strongly, as if he enjoyed it. His style is what he would call staccato, and what laymen would call peppy,” wrote alumnus Arthur Pound after attending Burton’s inauguration in 1920.
“He has ginger, driving force; the sort of man who goes to a big job of work with intense enthusiasm, leaping obstacles, dashing down barriers, confident that upon his successful completion of that task depends to some extent the welfare of the planet—in short, a crusader in his attitude toward life and the work of life.”
At the same time, Pound relayed a concern voiced by others: “Burton will break down if he sticks to the pace he has set himself. He is geared too high for the job.”
He brought an energy to the job that had not been seen for decades. His predecessor, Harry Hutchins, stepped down at age 72. Before Hutchins was James Burrill Angell, president for 38 years before retiring at age 80.
President Burton was known for his gift of public speaking and personal charm, his organizational skills, and his ability to raise money, whether from legislators or alumni. He launched a major expansion program that gave U-M buildings that stand today as landmarks: Angell Hall, Yost Fieldhouse, Clements Library and, with support of a major gift, the Law Quadrangle. A massive new hospital was going up. He became known as Burton the Builder.
Two new schools opened: Education and Business Administration. Burton raised salaries for professors across campus and introduced sabbaticals, boosting the morale of faculty. He created an Honors Convocation to recognize the brightest students, and bought space in the Daily to communicate regularly to students.
Burton also established what today is seen as U-M’s first serious endorsement of the arts on campus. The Fellowship in Creative Arts led to the poet Robert Frost joining the faculty in 1921 and elevating U-M’s national stature.
One of Burton’s closest colleagues was Shirley W. Smith, secretary of the University, who saw greatness ahead for his boss and friend. “He has taught us all,” Smith wrote, “to think in larger terms and over a wider range than we ever did before.”
Chapter 4 “Friends Call Constantly”
On the evening of Oct. 21, 1924, Burton fulfilled a task required of every university president and welcomed a visiting dignitary to campus. Standing before a crowd at Hill Auditorium, he introduced the famed Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, left the stage and was never again seen in public until the viewing at his funeral.
First reports were vague: President Burton is ill. He missed a Board of Regents meeting, a monthly session traditionally chaired by the president. He was said to be suffering from bronchitis and next pneumonia. Word then leaked in November that Burton had actually suffered a heart attack. By December there was a throat infection, several small surgeries, fluid in his lungs, and a struggle with influenza. Burton would relapse, rally and relapse again, each time carrying the emotions of students and faculty with him.
“Friends call constantly on the telephone to receive the latest reports, and pedestrians, passing the campus White House, pause to watch the lights as though expecting some sign of encouragement from them,” the Michigan Daily reported.
“Deep concern for the welfare of the president is manifest by the campus and city on every hand, in classroom, business and social life. The never-ending question is, “How is President Burton?’”
In short, the president was a very sick man.
Chapter 5 “I Am Very Hopeful”
Marion Burton lived with a secret known only to few: He had a bad heart. Starting with his presidency at Smith College in 1910, he was unable to obtain life insurance because of high blood pressure. For years his doctors cautioned him to slow down. He ignored their advice. Perhaps he believed he was invincible, or perhaps he felt the need to squeeze in as much living as possible.
His sudden disappearance and decline at age 50 was chronicled in bulletins issued daily, and sometimes twice daily, from physicians who tended to the president after he collapsed.
A team of five U-M doctors was treating him, led by Dr. David M. Cowie, who was known nationally for introducing iodized salt into the American diet and eliminating enlarged thyroids. Whether day or night, there were at least two nurses and one doctor on duty at the President’s House. Cowie provided detailed, sometimes excruciating, updates to the regents. On the morning of November 4, he wrote:
President Burton passed a very restless night. Two days ago a swelling in a gland below the right ear developed which rapidly spread involving the parotid gland. This went on to abscess formation. Marked edema or swelling of the throat developed threatening obstruction of the largnx. Drs. Canfield and Furstenberg have been watching this complication closely. At 2:30 a.m. the abscess was opened and drained from the inside. Marked evidence of failure of the circulation known as auricular fibrillation developed. Dr. Wilson was called in consultation at this time. The process in the lung is progressing favorably. There has been some improvement in Dr. Burton’s general condition since last night but he is still in a serious condition.
There was one added note: Not to be given to the press.
There were regular reports issued to the Daily and Detroit newspapers. Some were innocuous (“President Burton’s temperature has remained normal for 24 hours”) and others were cautiously optimistic (“President Burton has made noticeable improvement in the last twelve hours and has had his best day so far”). Bulletins often cautioned that Burton would need time to rebuild his strength. The university’s executive officers said the same.
“If he continues to improve,” Shirley Smith privately told an influential alumnus, “I have a reasonable hope of seeing the President back in his office by the time this year is up, good for a dozen or fifteen years of active service. He cannot continue to ‘run seventy miles an hour,’ as he has always done, but I am very hopeful that he can, after a good long rest, do fully the amount of work ordinarily expected of a man.”
There was no denying Burton’s absence as president. Regents appointed three men to run the University: President emeritus Harry Hutchins, Frank E. Robbins, Burton’s assistant, and Smith. The University was in crucial negotiations with the state Legislature over funding, and Burton’s absence “is a major disaster,” Smith said privately.
Smith added: “When a heart has stood the strain which his heart had to stand at the beginning of his illness, it takes it a long, long time to come back, but we are very hopeful that with a long rest he will ultimately be himself again.”
No one knew how long Burton would be away. Students on campus and alumni throughout the state and beyond missed his presence.
“Wherever the maize and blue is loved, wherever genius is appreciated, wherever purposeful manhood is revered, petitions are going up to the Throne of Grace that this stricken chieftain may soon may be returned to his full vigor, even as our hearts and hopes are on their knees beside his bed tonight,” said Arthur Vandenberg, editor of the Grand Rapids Press, in his inimitable style in a speech to Michigan newspaper editors.
Robert Frost sent a note to Nina Burton, expressing concern for her husband. “He must get well and then take care of himself. We want him to preside over Michigan University for years and years.”
As Christmas 1924 drew near, Michigan Daily editors wished students well as they left for the holiday.
“But there is one thing from which these thousands are not departing – the thought that their president, whom they respect and love so much, and who has gone through so many weeks of suffering, must watch this holiday season pass from his bedside. As they leave Ann Arbor, the students’ Christmas wish for President Burton takes a definite form – a hope that the New Year will bring with it strength and happiness for him.”
Instead, Burton was waylaid by the flu and fought it for two weeks. It was yet another setback, and he saw no one but his doctors, nurses and family. His youngest child, Jane, was 15 and son Paul was a U-M freshman studying engineering. His eldest, Theodosia, was a newlywed living in California. She was called home as her father’s health slipped.
I have a reasonable hope of seeing the President back in his office by the time this year is up, good for a dozen or fifteen years of active service.– Shirley W. Smith
Chapter 6 “A Great Shock”
Burton did not leave his bed for 10 weeks. When he did, in early January 1925, it was to a wheelchair. But doctors warned of an “extreme depletion of all the body functions” and asked for “great patience” from the public. Nina Burton was said to be brave but exhausted. Then came another relapse, internal bleeding, a soaring temperature, and a congested lung that required draining.
With only a nurse by his side as he slept, at 3:20 a.m. on February 18, Marion Burton let out a small sigh and died.
His death stunned people. The vagueness surrounding his illness combined with his age and physical vigor belied a man unable to rally against a damaged heart. “It is a great shock to me because I did not understand his illness was so serious … The whole country has suffered a great loss,” said U.S. Sen. James Couzens of Michigan.
The Detroit architect Albert Kahn, who was hired by the University to carry out Burton’s massive building program, was devastated. “It was just the greatest kind of a privilege to work for him these four or five years during which I really got to love the man.”
Condolences poured in. From the White House, Calvin Coolidge and his wife sent a telegram to Nina Burton: “We are sharing your sorrow at the loss of our friend.” Marion Burton had become friends with Coolidge years earlier in Northampton, Mass., where Coolidge was mayor and Burton led Smith College. At the 1924 Republican National Convention, Burton delivered the speech nominating Coolidge for president.
Henry Ford sent his sympathies, as did Rotary Clubs throughout the state, the Detroit Council of Churches, the leaders of Dartmouth, Harvard, MIT and Stanford, and U-M alumni chapters stretching from Boston to San Francisco. The Minneapolis Newsboys Protective Association told how “a common bond existed between Dr. Burton and the members of our association”; whenever Burton spoke publicly of his childhood, he told of having a paper route to help support his widowed mother.
“It is not necessary … to examine his accomplishments to find the greatest tribute to his character. That is discernable in the deep respect and love with which he was regarded by his immediate associates and thousands of friends,” wrote Daily editors in a special edition published hours after Burton’s death.
“The University is desolate today because of the loss of a man whose place in our life it will be impossible to fill.”
Chapter 7 “A Teacher and An Idealist”
The University cancelled classes to pay tribute. Two days after Burton’s death, members of the Michigan National Guard and campus ROTC units lined South University Avenue as students carried his body from the President’s House to Alumni Memorial Hall. Surrounded by mounds of bouquets and a military guard, he lay in state in the light-filled apse; some 18,000 people walked past the open casket over the course of nearly eight hours.
The following day, after a private funeral, Burton’s coffin was moved to Forest Hill Cemetery. Students lined the streets of campus, arranging themselves by gender, school and college: LSA men on South University; Law, Business and Education men on East University; women on Geddes from Washtenaw to the cemetery gates. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder in silence, the only noise coming from the motorcade’s tires as it rolled along streets left wet by rain.
Because Burton’s funeral had been for family only, University leaders wanted a memorial ceremony for the campus. They had one, and only one, speaker in mind, and his crowded schedule delayed the convocation until May 28, 1925.
Robert Frost, whom Burton had befriended and who spent several years on the faculty, had initially resisted the request to speak, saying he “had never before done such a thing.” But now he stood on the stage of Hill Auditorium, where some 4,000 people waited to hear him eulogize Burton.
“I had always thought of him as an administrator, but I found out that administration was never enough to satisfy the idealism of his nature. He brushed it aside in his mind for something beyond, which, as I came to see, was no less that the advancement of learning through ‘magnanimous teaching,’” said the 51-year-old poet.
“Buildings, discipline, entrance requirements, professional schools were but the spread and ramification of the tree. His heart was really in some slight branch away at the top by which alone the tree was gaining height.
“My first impression was that he was an administrator,” Frost said. “Now for my last impression – that he was a teacher and an idealist.”
Chapter 8 “His Spirit Will Forever Sound”
Marion Burton’s death left his wife Nina and her children without an income, life insurance and a home. Shirley Smith and others worked quickly and quietly to help by appealing to key alumni for money: specifically, $100,000 – some $1.4 million in today’s dollars – toward an endowment to support the widow and her family.
“Mrs. Burton is very brave and is facing the future with head up and with dry eyes but desperately puzzled,” Smith wrote. “She knows absolutely nothing of any plan for her relief and must not know until the fund is complete. Our state and alumni of Michigan cannot let such a life as his be followed by hardship for those he held dearer than life itself.”
The response was immediate. Henry Ford gave $25,000, as did his son, Edsel. Checks of $10,000 came from Walter Briggs, who owned the Detroit Tigers; Detroit News founder George G. Booth; former Gov. Chase Osborn; Albert Kahn and others.
“It is a privilege to do something for Mrs. Burton and the family of our good friend who gave his all to the university. You can count on me for ten thousand dollars,” said Roy D. Chapin, co-founder of Hudson Motor Company. More than $105,000 came in within a month. Interest earned on the endowment would go to Nina Burton; she received a check from the University for the rest of her life.
On a larger scale, students stepped forward in the weeks after Burton’s funeral saying they wanted to honor the president. Burton’s construction vision for the campus had included a bell tower to honor alumni killed in the Great War, but now students wanted a campanile to memorialize their president.
“We students may not be able to erect the whole tower, but certainly we can get the chimes, which is the real spiritual expression of the tower,” they told the regents. “Thus his spirit, in the shape of these chimes, will forever sound across the reaches of the Michigan Campus.”
It would take 11 years for a 10-story bell tower to rise and become reality, in part because of the Great Depression. But on the afternoon of December 4, 1936, with thousands gathered along Ingalls Street and North University Avenue, the bells of Burton Memorial Tower tolled for the first time.
Read more about the construction of the campus carillon: The Burton Tower That Never Was.
Sources: Marion L. Burton Papers, 1895-1925, Bentley Historical Library; Secretary (University of Michigan) records, Bentley Historical Library; Harry Burns Hutchins and the University of Michigan, by Shirley W. Smith; Frost-Bite, Frost Bark: Robert Frost at Michigan, by Robert M. Warner; The Making of the University of Michigan, by Howard H. Peckham; The Letters of Robert Frost, Vol. 2, by Robert Frost; and contemporary news accounts.