Recently I received a notice from Claremont Graduate University of the passing of John David Maguire, who served as President there. You can find that notice here. John was President at CGU when I was teaching there and at Scripps College in the 1980s and 90s, and I remember him well. He was my boss, I suppose, but I remember him more as my neighbor. Among the things we had in common was a love of Wesleyan, where he began his own academic career in the Religion Department in 1960. Six years later he was Associate Professor of Religion and a year after that served for a time as Associate Provost. In 1970 he left to become President of SUNY College at Old Westbury. You can find that college’s honoring of his passing here.
John was at Wesleyan for the whole of the 1960s. He arrived here already a close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and he arranged for King to speak on campus multiple times. You can find a photo of one such occasion below. John was considered in those days as a “radical” and a “firebrand” for putting pressure on Wesleyan to become more diverse. He and his colleague David Swift made a huge impression on campus in 1961 when they joined the Freedom Ride to Montgomery, Alabama; and when they were arrested there, Wesleyan colleagues raised money to pay his fines and legal costs (until the process ended at the United States Supreme Court). John returned to campus a hero to many but by no means to all. Many alumni in particular disapproved of faculty engaging in such public actions. But momentum for such engagement was growing, and John was at the heart of it. “Moral-based activism,” to use the term of historian of Wesleyan David Potts, was not new to campus, but now, thanks to John, among others, it was being applied in earnest to race relations. Other Wesleyan faculty and staff began participating in civil rights demonstrations in the South, and the campus became civically engaged – in civil rights, in social justice, in the anti-Vietnam war movement – as never before. John was also instrumental in opening the gates to Wesleyan to African American students, setting it on the path to becoming a diverse campus.
Shortly after my appointment as president of Wesleyan, I returned to Claremont for an event celebrating the founding of the Scripps College Humanities Institute. As I crossed the street, a car screeched to a halt in the middle of the road. Out jumped John Maguire, long retired from his post but still living in the college town. He grabbed me in bear hug and expressed his joy that I would be returning to Wesleyan, a university that had formed each of us in indelible ways.
John’s life-long, exuberant dedication to the combination of moral activism and liberal learning (and in this his wife Billie was a powerful partner) is stamped upon the memory of all who knew him. At this time in America, such dedication is needed more than ever. May the recollection of John’s life strengthen our own combinations of moral activism and liberal learning. On behalf of the Wesleyan community, I express gratitude for John’s many contributions and condolences to Billie and their daughters Catherine (Wesleyan class of ’83), Mary and Anne.