Boyd Lee Spahr (1880-1970)

Boyd Lee Spahr, c.1920

Boyd Lee Spahr was born on April 18, 1880, in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. There he grew up in the first block of South Market Street; his father was a local merchant. Young Spahr attended Dickinson College's preparatory school in nearby Carlisle, and then matriculated in the College proper with the class of 1900. Charming and athletic, he played tennis and joined Phi Kappa Sigma and the Belles Lettres Society. He was editor of The Dickinsonian and through other activities came to earn the nickname “Yodeler.”

Upon graduation he taught history for a year at the Preparatory School and published a collection of stories, Dickinson Doings. He then enrolled at the law school of the University of Pennsylvania, and he remained a Philadelphian the rest of his days.

Seemingly a figure from a Louis Auchincloss novel, Boyd Lee Spahr dominated Dickinson for much of the twentieth century. He served on the Board of Trustees from 1908 until his death in 1970; from 1931 to 1962 he was the Board’s president. Witty and urbane, he deftly governed the College, variously choosing and controlling trustees and presidents to shape Dickinson into an ideal he often declared, “to make Dickinson the best small liberal arts college.”

To that end Spahr emphasized three aspects: secularization, history, and aesthetics. Spahr slowly and quietly sought to cut the College’s ties with the Methodist Church, an effort especially sensitive during the presidency of Fred Pierce Corson, later a Methodist bishop. To highlight the College’s heritage, Spahr paid close attention to the library, donating books and manuscripts; he was an avid reader of auction catalogues and had a good memory for alumni and their various genealogies. Spahr’s gifts to the library first became recognized in 1940 with the Boyd Lee Spahr Room for Dickinsoniana, then in 1966 when the new library building bore his name. In 1947 he established an annual lecture series, the Boyd Lee Spahr Lectures in Americana. Four volumes of lectures, many by prominent American historians, were published, all at Spahr’s expense. All the while, Spahr set about conserving and creating the College’s physical proportions, careful to keep the great leafy trees and grey stone buildings. Perhaps the most extreme case of the latter was in 1940 when Bosler Hall was remodeled from the red brick and sandstone of Richardson Romanesque to match the limestone Federal symmetry of Old West.

In 1908, Spahr married Katharine Febiger, daughter of a long line of publishers in Philadelphia, and they made their home in Haverford. In time their sons and grandsons were also Dickinsonians. Spahr was a member of Saint Christopher’s Episcopal Church, Gladwyne, as well as the Union League. He was also active in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, serving as its president and writing for its quarterly journal several judicious book reviews. Spahr studiously avoided the vulgarity of new money; in attire he was noted for good suits, bow ties, and rimless spectacles.

Boyd Lee Spahr, admired by friends and enemies, died August 15, 1970, while on vacation in Maine. When three years later a book in which he was profoundly interested, Charles Coleman Sellers’ history of the College , made its appearance, readers found a chapter called “The Spahr Years.” Students of the Dickinson history continue to consider Spahr’s legacy.

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Dickinson College Archives
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Acting, 1945-1946
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