A Legacy Endures at Hendrix College

Blake Rutherford Commentary

A Legacy Endures at Hendrix College
An aerial view of the John Churchill Memorial Plaza at Hendrix College (Travis Peeples / courtesy Hendrix College)

Arkansas is blessed with an extraordinary intellectual history. John Gould Fletcher, for example, is considered to be among the most innovative twentieth-century poets. His work drew from French Symbolism, art from the Orient, music, and philosophy. He was deeply curious about man’s relationship to nature as well as an individual’s search for salvation in relationship to God. Fletcher was a voracious reader, educated at Harvard, and traveled widely through Europe, befriending the likes of Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and W.B. Yeats. He wrote the first biography of the acclaimed painter Gaugin in the English language.

In 1933, Fletcher returned to Little Rock, where he was named Arkansas’s poet laureate and considered the premier intellectual in our state. He founded the Arkansas Folk Lore Society in 1935; in 1936 he wrote an epic poem to commemorate Arkansas’s centennial; and in 1939 his poetry collection, Selected Poems, was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. In 1947 he published Arkansas, an impressionistic history of our state. To be sure, his life was not without complexity, in childhood, marriage, and later in life, when he ultimately drowned himself in a pool near his home, in 1950. You can visit his grave at Mount Holly Cemetery in Little Rock and there is a library in the wonderful Central Arkansas Library System named for him.

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Fletcher’s intellectual legacy endures. He brought cosmopolitan sensibility to Arkansas in the 1930s. To this day, he is widely recognized as one of Arkansas’s most notable literary figures. Throughout his life he embraced the romantic notion too many students today ignore: artistic accomplishment is superior to success in business and law.

Fletcher's intellectualism and cosmopolitan sensibility was on my mind this week as Hendrix College, in Conway, dedicated the John Churchill Memorial Plaza on its campus. Dean Churchill, as his students referred to him, was also my uncle, a towering figure of brilliance, wit, and good humor. Together with his long love, my aunt Jean, they had three exceptional children who to this day live their lives with a happy blend of accomplishment, family, and fun.

John Hugh Churchill died on Nov. 16, 2019 after retiring from Hendrix and later serving as president of Phi Beta Kappa, the most prestigious academic organization in the world. I loved John deeply. He was a man of towering intellect, educated at Southwestern (nee Rhodes) College, where he became a Rhodes Scholar. After receiving a postgraduate degree at Oxford University in England, he successfully completed the doctoral program in philosophy at Yale University. He entered the Academy, thriving as a scholar and administrator at Hendrix.

It has been 22 years since I graduated from Middlebury College, and in that time I have yet to meet a Hendrix graduate who did not express adoration for Dean Churchill, whether it involved his work in the classroom, his scholarship, or his on campus interests. John’s love of rocks, trees, and Arkansas history had a profound influence on the campus’s architecture as well as its spirit.

Today, students, faculty, staff, and visitors to Hendrix College can visit the John Churchill Memorial Plaza, designed by Hendrix graduates and supported by the generosity of alumni and friends of my uncle. It was an effort led by my father, John’s brother-in-law, and John’s great friend, Jack Frost, himself a Hendrix institution. Hendrix president, Ellis Arnold, cognizant of John’s enduring legacy as well as the necessity to preserve that legacy, was a steadfast advocate. Mr. Arnold’s tenure at Hendrix is coming to a close and among his many accomplishments the John Churchill Memorial Plaza may be, in the stream of history, his finest.

There are a lot of reasons to be pessimistic about higher education. The intense debate over President Joe Biden’s decision to provide student loan debt relief for millions of students is a good example. But when we are able to tamp down the rhetoric and lower the political temperature, we are also able to see the beauty in other things, like the benefit of a great teacher and scholar. My uncle John was just that.

He dedicated most of his adult life to the success of Hendrix College, and while then-Bishop Richard Wilke, leader of the United Methodist Church Council of Bishops overseeing the Arkansas region, foolishly denied John the Hendrix presidency at a time when John was most deserving, the plaza named for him serves as a symbol that intellectualism, curiosity, virtue, the mastery of language, and the pursuit of the common good continues to thrive at Hendrix.

Blake Rutherford, a Little Rock native, lives in Bentonville. You can email him here.