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Douglas’s “Pen Portraits of Prominent People”

by Ronald R Johnson (

Besides contributing a weekly column in the University of Illinois’ student newspaper, the Daily Illini, Lloyd Douglas also wrote anonymous articles in The Siren, a student-run magazine. During the 1914-1915 school year, he wrote a series of tributes to the university’s top administrators, describing their distinctive characteristics (hence the name “Pen Portraits”). It was just like Douglas to give the series a memorable title through the use of alliteration: “Pen Portraits of Prominent People.”

Dr. Edmund James, President of the University of Illinois from 1904 to 1920.

Dr. Edmund James is remembered as one of the university’s successful presidents, helping to bring about the school’s growth, not only in its physical plant but also in its reputation. (See, for example, Robert P. Howard, Illinois: A History of the Prairie State (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), p. 404, and Allan Nevins, Illinois (NY: Oxford, 1917), pp. 210-218.)

In his Pen Portrait of the “Prexy” (the nickname for “President”), Douglas called James “a cosmic person whose resourcefulness will not be fully understood” until decades later. “For the Prexy is living in the future…. [He] turns out early these fine mornings on his saddle-horse and as he rides about the campus he sees great buildings that aren’t there at all. But they’re real enough to him! He guides his horse carefully around them and peoples them with thousands of students who have yet to be born.

“However, living away out yonder as he does – a dozen decades beyond tomorrow – the Prexy is mightily interested in today. He has his fingers on the pulses of all the colleges that make up the University – very steady fingers, too, when one remembers that the Prexy is venerable in years. He knows what grade of steel and concrete is going into the new Chemistry laboratories; knows how much Pat O’Brien earns per hour, shoveling dirt out of the hole where the Administration Building will stand; knows the name of the last new book that came into the library yesterday.

“He has just one obsession…. the future greatness of the University of Illinois!”

Thomas Arkle Clark, the Dean of Men.

Thomas Arkle Clark, the Dean of Men, was and is a legend. When I spent a few days at the University of Illinois archive in 2015 and asked the librarian to get me his private papers, she was thrilled. “Are you going to write a book about him?” “No,” I told her. “I’m writing about the bestselling novelist Lloyd C. Douglas.” “Oh,” she said, looking very disappointed.

Somebody needs to write a book about Thomas Arkle Clark; it’s well overdue. They say that, during Prohibition, he broke up a party at a frat house by coming down the chimney like Santa Claus. Of course, it didn’t happen – it couldn’t have happened – but stories like that were told and retold even while he was still alive because they caught the essence of the man. In his Pen Portrait of the Dean (whom he refers to as “Tommy”), Douglas says:

“It is confidently asserted of Tommy that he can flay his victim and nail his quivering pelt to the mast with greater ease and dispatch than any other skinster between the Aurora Borealis and Palm Beach. Moreover, the flaying is achieved so deftly and with such a wealth of good humor that the hideless one rejoices over his… condition, regretting that he has only one skin to give to his executioner….

“Perhaps there is no place in all this world where a man is so courteously invited to build his own scaffold, make his own funeral arrangements, adjust his own black cap and kick himself through the trap, as in the pleasant room of vast distances where Tommy sits day by day, calmly and dispassionately dealing with a docket full of the delinquent and deficient.

“It is mostly a court of reprieves. Tommy only hates one type – the liar. If one has business with the Dean o’ Men, it is better to tell him the truth at once, thereby saving time and self-respect. It is privately believed in certain quarters that Tommy has an X-Ray attachment in the top rim of his glasses and that when he lowers his head to gaze over them, he can see what the culprit had for dinner…”

Douglas wrote about “G. Huff,” the Athletic Director…

…Johnny O’Byrne, the baggage guy at the local train station…

…Eugene Davenport, the Dean of the School of Agriculture, and other people well-known to students and faculty. Each essay was fun, imaginative, and full of life. Not religion, but life. As I mentioned earlier, they were also published anonymously. Month after month, everyone on campus must have speculated about who wrote them. This was during the 1914-1915 school year, and in the early months of 1915 Douglas left to become pastor of the First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor (in Michigan). The student editor of The Siren, Ralph Barlow, wrote the final “Pen Portrait” himself, and it was a tribute to Douglas.

I’ve included an image of the complete essay below, because it’s full of first-hand observations of Douglas. It also must have been the talk of the school, because of the concluding sentence: “We wish he were back with us, then he would be writing this about somebody else instead of us writing about him – for he was the Pen Portrait artist.”

But even though he was becoming better at writing for secular audiences, Douglas still felt the call to be a pastor. While he was at the University of Illinois, he was working on that, too, behind the scenes. I’ll tell you about that in the next post.

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