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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.

To receive a free PDF of the booklet, The Secret Investment of Lloyd C. Douglas, fill out the form below:

A New Start

by Ronald R Johnson (

Lloyd C Douglas, circa 1911-1912. From a promotional brochure in his 1909-1915 scrapbook.

Something happened to Lloyd Douglas between 1912 and 1913. In the previous post I told you that, in 1912, he invested secretly in Roger Zombro by writing anonymous ads for him in the Daily Illini. Neither of the two men ever mentioned it, but I have a lot of evidence to back up that hypothesis. (I have included it in the booklet The Secret Investment of Lloyd C Douglas, available upon request.) Of all the evidence I have gathered, the most important is this: Douglas’s writing style changed between 1912 and 1913, the exact period during which the anonymous “Zom” ads began running in the student newspaper.

Douglas had always been a powerful writer, but his earlier essays were intense. His sense of humor shined through, too, but overall he came across as a very serious young man. In the fall of 1913, though, he began displaying a more relaxed, whimsical style that would characterize his writing for the rest of his life. He was still a powerful writer, but he exercised that power in a new way: through a nonchalant, humorous presentation somewhat like that of Mark Twain. Prior to this, he reached out and grabbed you by the lapels with his writing, but now he disarmed you with humor and casually persuaded you. I believe it was his anonymous work on the “Zom” ads that gave him this breezy new way of expressing himself; but even if I’m wrong about the cause, the effect is obvious. In 1913, Douglas found his voice as a writer.

And there was something else: prior to this, Douglas’s writing was religious. It was church-oriented. In 1913, he put that behind him. He spoke as one who was deeply acquainted with the day-to-day lives of real people, both students and faculty. He focused on the things that mattered to his readers.

We see his new style exhibited in a weekly column he wrote in the Daily Illini called “The Sunday Sermonette” (later changed to “The Weekly Sermonette”). He doesn’t sound like a young man anymore; he sounds like a wise older man with a sense of humor and a very light touch. There were flaws in these “sermonettes” – they were often paternalistic and somewhat patronizing – but they were popular and down-to-earth, and they set a course for all of his future writing. For example, when he moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1915, he started writing a weekly column in one of the local newspapers called, “The Saturday Sunset Sermonette,” aimed more at the townspeople than the students. The “sermonettes” in the Daily Illini set the pattern.

Here are some examples from the Daily Illini column:

On writing home to Mother: “If you wish to make a distinct hit with her, tell her how you are faring as to creature comforts. Since you came upon this planet, her chief concern has been your physical well-being. She was always glad, of course, when you exhibited any interest whatever in the development of your mind or the culture of your soul; but her first thought for you has always been cast in terms of food, clothes, shelter. Tell her where you are living. Draw a map of the house, showing the position of your room. Draw a diagram of the room, indicating doors, windows, closet, registers, book-cases – where you sit when you study, etc.” (“The Letter Home,” Daily Illini, Sunday, September 28, 1913, p. 4).

On rags-to-riches stories: “Reacting against an ancient notion that a man must be hereditarily rich and influential to achieve greatness, book markets of our country are glutted with biographies of eminent men who came up into positions of trust and honor from homes of poverty…. In view of the highly prosperous state of our civilization, perhaps it might be just as well to ease up a bit now on advice for the poverty-stricken and make some effort to provide an inspirational pabulum upon which the rich man’s son may feed” (“Washington,” Daily Illini, Sunday, February 22, 1914, p. 4).

On hanging out with the crowd: “The student who fails to provide for an occasional hour by himself becomes about as original and inventive in his thought and speech as the funnel of a phonograph” (“The Man Himself,” Daily Illini, Sunday, October 5, 1913, p. 4).

On rushing around campus, taking oneself too seriously: “Many people here, students and others, are afflicted with a ‘busy’ bee. They maintain the breathless attitude of one who leaps from an engagement brimful of crisis to another even more fraught with fearful consequences…. Cold-blooded as it sounds to say it, the world was hobbling along – handicapped, to be sure, but managing to struggle painfully along – before any of us arrived and it is… possible that the world may continue to do business when the grass is a foot high over the place where our tired bodies rest from their frenzied scramble to attend to so many important things at once” (“How Doth the Little Busy Bee?” Daily Illini, Sunday, April 26, 1914, p. 4).

These are just a few examples. A little later (the 1914-1915 school year), he also began writing “Pen Portraits” of the university’s top administrators. As with the “Zom” ads, he published them anonymously – only this time his identity was revealed. I’ll tell you about it in my next post.

To receive a free PDF of the booklet, The Secret Investment of Lloyd C. Douglas, fill out the form below:

A Well-Kept Secret about Lloyd C Douglas

by Ronald R Johnson (

In his 1929 novel Magnificent Obsession, Lloyd C Douglas taught that we can gain a special intimacy with God if we invest in the lives of others and do it secretly. Throughout the years of my research, I’ve been on the lookout for signs that Douglas practiced what he preached, knowing that, if he did those things in secret, then it would be difficult – if not impossible – for me to discover them.

It was difficult, but I did discover a clever investment he made in a young shopkeeper during his time at the University of Illinois. I don’t have conclusive proof, but I have a very strong case. I believe that he wrote anonymous ads in the Daily Illini for Roger Zombro, owner of a haberdashery on Green Street.

In the two photographs below, Jack Scanlan (Class of 1911) is surrounded by four of his female classmates. They’re goofing off in the first picture, but it looks as though, in the second one, the photographer has spoken to them sternly and tried to get a serious portrait, although there’s still a hint of mischief on some of the faces.

Jack A. Scanlan Scrapbook, 1907-1911, University Archives, Student Scrapbooks and Papers, Series No. 41/20/39, Box 1, University of Illinois.

Notice what young Mr. Scanlan is wearing: not just a suit, but an old-fashioned detachable collar, as well as a tie. That was the dress code in those days.

At his store at 604 East Green Street, Roger Zombro sold just such small-ticket items: shirts, collars, ties, umbrellas, etc. He had a lot of competition, for there were bigger clothing stores in town, and they sold suits as well as accessories. They also put more money and thought into their advertising in the student newspaper.

Here’s how Roger Zombro originally presented himself to the student body:

Daily Illini, Wednesday, September 20, 1911, p. 6.

Doesn’t exactly make you want to stop what you’re doing and go to his store, does it? But then, a year later, his persona changed drastically:

Daily Illini, Thursday, October 31, 1912

The ad mentions campaign cigars because the 1912 presidential election (Taft vs. Wilson vs. Teddy Roosevelt) was wrapping up. This ad is so much more interesting, more lively, more in tune with the life of the students it was designed to reach. And I’m convinced it was one of many that were written anonymously by Lloyd C. Douglas between Fall 1912 and Winter 1915, as a personal investment in the life of Roger Zombro – an investment that not only boosted Zombro’s career but also helped Douglas find his voice as a writer.

I had to do a lot of detective work to uncover this secret – both men were serious about keeping it secret, apparently – and there’s not enough space on this page to tell you how I did it. I’d love to send you the free PDF document in which I lay out my case. Just fill in your name and email address in the form below.

“Tremendously in Touch with Life”

by Ronald R Johnson (

When Isabel Bevier arrived at the University of Illinois in 1900 to become the head of its Home Economics Department, this is how she reacted: “I thought I had never seen so flat and so muddy a place, no trees, no hills, no boundaries of any kind” (Isabel Bevier, “The History of the Home Economics Department at the University of Illinois, 1900-1921,” University of Illinois Home Economics Library, Urbana, p. 14).

“It takes some imagination to visualize the five buildings on the campus when I arrived,” she said (p. 13).

She may have been exaggerating the sparseness of it, for records say there were more like ten buildings, if you include greenhouses. At any rate, the overall effect was the same.

Although this photo was taken after the erection of several important buildings, it gives us a sense of the wide-open spaces Professor Bevier saw in 1900. This was the view from the north end of the commons, facing south. Beyond the dome-shaped Auditorium is that part of campus that was devoted to agriculture, horticulture, and floriculture. From Jack A. Scanlan Scrapbook, 1907-1911, Student Scrapbooks and Papers, Series No. 41/20/39, Box 1, University of Illinois Archives, University of Illinois. Copyright University of Illinois.

But the situation changed quickly. Fifteen new structures were added between 1900 and the fall of 1911 when Lloyd Douglas arrived, and fifteen more were built during his brief time there (between 1911 and 1915). In contrast to Professor Bevier’s experience of wide-open spaces, Douglas saw a whirlwind of activity, with construction going on everywhere. (From Leon Deming Tilton and Thomas Edward O’Donnell, History of the Growth and Development of the Campus of the University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1930), Table: List of Chief Buildings and Tabulation of Building Data, pp. 179-183.)

Using data from a few of these sources, I drew a crude map of the campus as it looked just after Douglas left in 1915. The north end was taken up by the various departments of engineering and by the physics department. A stream called “the Boneyard” runs east-and-west here, as well as Green Street, the commercial district of Champaign.

South of Green Street was the central campus, where most of the other departments were clustered around the commons. The library and the Auditorium were also located here.

Although the School of Agriculture was part of the main campus, the southern section had barns, fields, labs, and greenhouses for agricultural, horticultural, and floricultural research.

As you can see, it was no longer a wide-open place with empty spaces. Many of these buildings were added while Douglas was working at the university.

But it wasn’t just construction that made the place a buzzing hive of activity. For example, Allan Nevins wrote in 1917: “Twenty-six departments of the University are equipped with laboratories, placed in a dozen buildings.” Among them, he listed the following: “The mining engineering laboratory contains materials for drilling, blasting, mine rescue, and ore concentration work. In the mechanical engineering laboratory are large experimental boiler plants and gas engines, and such pieces of special equipment as an ice and refrigerating machine capable of making one and a half tons a day. In civil engineering are satisfactory road and cement laboratories, and in electrical engineering a wealth of machinery – sixty direct or alternating current machines, fifty transformers, experimental telephone switchboards, and so on.” (Allan Nevins, Illinois (Oxford University Press American Branch, 1917), p. 292.

Perhaps the most dramatic of these was the locomotive testing laboratory, which was unveiled in 1913 (while Douglas was there). The train engine was securely locked into place on a suspended track within a warehouse, then the engineer ran it at high speed while technicians measured its “tractive effort,” as well as its consumption of coal and water. The steam from its smokestack was funneled and directed out through the roof of the lab. There were only three other testing sites like it in the United States, and only two outside the US. (From E.C. Schmidt, “A New locomotive testing plant at the University of Illinois” (Chicago: American Railway Master Mechanics’ Association, 1913. Circular no. S-1912-1913).)

I.C. 2-8-0 Steam Locomotive (4) circa early 1910-1930, Locomotive in shop. Found in Box 9, Folder Engineering-Civil Engineering, Negative Number 899, Record Series 39/2/22, University of Illinois Archives, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Copyright University of Illinois.

A reporter for the student newspaper wrote, “The locomotive’s roar, the spinning of its giant wheels, the sight of its glowing firebox, and its sway from side to side, make lasting impressions on the visitors to this department” (“New Building Dedication Begins with Convocation,” Daily Illini, Friday, May 9, 1913, p. 8).

Graduate student Olive Deane Hormel (Class of 1916) summed it up well when she wrote that the university was “tremendously in touch with life.” (Olive Deane Hormel, Co-Ed (New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1926)). She used this phrase three times in her book (pp. 10, 26, and 28).

The school was a buzzing hive of restless activity. Students were in training to be architects, engineers, lawyers, journalists, politicians, and lots of other things that were needed in the surrounding communities. By 1912 (while Douglas was there), “women interested in landscape architecture had begun to invade the classrooms of the University of Illinois, taking surveying courses and learning the names and characteristics of plants.” Two young women who were there at the same time as Douglas went on to successful careers: Annette Hoyt Flanders (class of 1918) set up her own practice in New York City in 1922; Florence Yoch (class of 1915) “became one of the leading designers of Hollywood estate gardens and film sets” (Natalie Alpert and Gary Kesler, “Florence Bell Robinson and Stanley Hart White: Creating a Pioneering School of Landscape Architecture.” In Lillian Hoddeson, ed., No Boundaries: University of Illinois Vignettes (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004), pp. 114-115).

From Melville J. Eames Papers, 1907-1908, Student Scrapbooks and Papers, Series No. 41/20/32, Box 1, University of Illinois Archives, University of Illinois. Copyright University of Illinois.

But it wasn’t all just academics. For male students, daily military drills were also compulsory. That was part of their education.

From Jack A. Scanlan Scrapbook, 1907-1911, Student Scrapbooks and Papers, Series No. 41/20/39, Box 1, University of Illinois Archives, University of Illinois. Copyright University of Illinois.

And then there was the social side of it all. The first several weeks of each school year were taken up with “rushing,” a word that nicely captures the frenetic activity involved. Not only did new students have to get used to the campus and their classes, but they also had to put their best foot forward as they were considered for membership by the various fraternities or sororities. Nor was it simply a question of what their social status would be among their peers. Even with all the construction going on around campus, the university had not yet built a residence hall. Those students who were not selected to join a chapter house were left having to rent a room nearby. For those who were chosen, however, here are a few examples of accommodations, along with a view of the residents, all from student Jack Scanlan’s scrapbook at the university archives:

Here’s a closer look at the main campus:

The chapter houses of the fraternities and sororities were all to the west, located either on John Street or down one of the side streets branching out from John Street. Every day, students by the thousands walked back and forth on that one street – passing right by Lloyd Douglas’s office. For he worked at the newly-constructed YMCA Building, which was on the corner of John and Wright Streets. (The females – the members of the YWCA – were in a house across the road, on the southern side of John Street.) There was all this buzzing activity going on, and Douglas was right in the middle of it.

They called him “the live wire down at the Y,” and yet, compared with the previous several years, he was strangely quiet. And there were reasons for that.

(To be continued…)

To receive a free PDF of the booklet, The Secret Investment of Lloyd C. Douglas, fill out the form below: