The Second Century – A Great University

Sometimes at the University Archives, materials appear without any clear indication of what it is or why it was made. Such was the case with a lone film reel entitled The Second Century. After combing through the Archives’ stacks, we can now surmise that the film was produced around 1954 as part of Washington University’s first massive fundraising campaign to turn the locally-known school into a university of national prominence. We also know that the film was directed by Charles Guggenheim, who would later achieve fame as an Academy Award-winning documentary film director; The Second Century counts as one of his first projects. The film has been preserved and digitized and is now available on YouTube:

Although very few documentary sources exist concerning the film’s creation, the Archives’ Second Century Convocation Collection provides information regarding its purpose.

Evidently, the film’s content was meant to inspire alumni and other potential donors to seriously consider the benefits of giving gifts to the university. For this reason, The Second Century film concerns not only what makes Washington University great, but what it needs to compete with the best universities in the nation. As the narrator queries at the film’s beginning, “What does a university mean?…What is a university? What is a great university?” As it turns out, that greatness can be found in each student’s potential. The narration focuses on a young man, asking “What does it take to make a man out of this boy? Two things: men and books.”   

Throughout the film, the student encounters all the wonderful things that Washington University already has to offer. He listens to T.S. Eliot giving a free lecture at Graham Chapel, and he attends class discussions led by the university faculty. In this segment, prominent figures such as future chancellor Thomas H. Eliot teach to full classrooms. Nobel-prize winning biochemists Carl and Gerty Cori conduct lab experiments for students, and archeologist George Mylonas lectures on ancient Greek history. Artist Fred Conway can also be seen instructing students on draftsmanship.

The student then listens to university football coach Carl Snavely applaud the university’s policy of amateur athletics. As the coach tells his players, this policy is another element that makes Washington University great. He says, “I know that you are not here to get athletic scholarships or special inducements or special favors or some ready-made, easy means of attending college…Your success in football depends upon the same qualities as those that determine your success in whatever walks of life you enter when you graduate.”

Another theme of the film is strengthening the connections between Washington University and St. Louis. During a scene in which the St. Louis Symphony orchestra plays in Graham Chapel, prominent members of the community can be seen in the audience. The narrator asks, “How important is this mixture of citizen and student? How difficult for the young mind to comprehend the priceless relationship of the university and the community?”

Indeed, the blending of different communities is a conspicuous theme throughout the film. For instance, the narrator stresses the importance of Washington University’s international reputation, as well as the popularity of adult continuing education.

Shepley_EA_1956_JanThe film ends with a speech by Chancellor Ethan A.H. Shepley: “We know what we have been. We know what we are. And I believe we know what we should be. We are proud of our past, we are proud of the many fine things that we are doing now. But what concerns us most is what we could be and what we should be.”

This appeal for improvement dated back to earlier in the decade, but many of the pleas made in the film, such as the need to retain faculty, the lack of endowments, and more emphasis placed on adult education, were reiterated in a deans’ report compiled in 1954. In the report, the faculty demanded salary raises, better-equipped facilities, and more career opportunities. The assessment argued, “The paramount need is an increase in salaries. Also need a salary scale that will allow the recruitment of the best individuals that we can distinguish to fill vacancies in the faculty. Not to aspire to be the best inevitable leads to mediocrity.” The report submitted by University College specified the need for better facilities and stressed the important link between Washington University and the St. Louis community, a relationship also emphasized in the film.

Warren-Earl_65-37C-28Chancellor Shepley responded to the complaints by forming a committee that would prioritize the costs of improving Washington University. He then launched a three-year fundraising campaign to raise $20 million, at that time the second-largest fund drive made by any American university. The drive began on February 19, 1955 with a convocation entitled “The Blessings of Liberty” that celebrated democracy, praised liberal education, and encouraged donations. Chancellor Shepley went so far as to ask President Dwight Eisenhower to speak broadly to the nation about liberty, and while Shepley was unable to secure Eisenhower, he did bring in world leaders, university presidents, and popular entertainers. Speakers and performers included Robert E. Wilson, C.E.O. of Standard Oil, Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, television star and Washington University alumna Mary Wickes, and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

The fundraiser was a resounding success, ensuring the construction of the new John M. Olin Memorial Library. The remainder of the gifts went to other projects. The Shepley administration remodeled existing buildings and established endowed institutes such as the Graduate Institute of Education, the Social Science Institute, and the Graduate School of Business. They raised faculty salaries and constructed the South Forty complex, which would help Shepley achieve his dream of turning Washington University into a school of national prominence.


As for The Second Century film, it continued to be distributed to schools and organizations throughout the country. By 1957, it had been seen by more than one million people before finding a permanent home at the University Archives.

To find out more about this formative time in Washington University’s history, please consult the Archives’ Second Century Convocation Collection.

Links to film and recent publicity
YouTube: The Second Century film
The film runs just under 30 minutes. Around minute 26, then-Chancellor Shepley talks about the pressing need for a new library.

WU Record article: Guggenheim film chronicles life at Washington University in early 1950s or

St. Louis Public Radio: Interview with Sonya Rooney, University Archivist and Steve Givens, Associate Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs, discuss The Second Century film
This interview aired on Feb. 9, 2013 at 4:35 p.m. on NPR station KWMU (FM 90.7). You may hear the interview at the link provided here.

Fox2 interview with Steve Givens, Associate Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs

Image credits:
Image 1: film still of plaque under Brookings archway
Image 2-3: film still of student
Image 4: Ethan A.H. Shepley, Photo Services Collection – People, filename: Shepley_EA_1956_Jan
Image 5: Earl Warren, Photo Services Collection – People, filename: Earl-Warren_65-37C-28
Image 6: film still of end credit

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