Remembering John Maguire (1932-2018)

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.

Maguire with Martin Luther King, Jr. in January 1963
Maguire with Martin Luther King, Jr. in January 1963

7 thoughts on “Remembering John Maguire (1932-2018)”

  1. John Maguire did indeed work to integrate Wesleyan, in the early 1960s. Many faculty members were with him in this, but my memory gives him the main leadership role in this effort, especially during the time when he was president of the Junior Faculty Organization. The transformation that eventually brought 15 or so black, first-year students (the “vanguard class” of 1969) to Wesleyan owed much to his persistent, vigorous organizing. There’s a good deal in the archive about this.

  2. Aside from his commitment to moral activism and liberal learning John had an engaging social personality. When he and Billie came to Wesleyan my wife Ginny and I became their close friends. We had some great times together laughing, dancing, arguing( John was the last adult I ever talked with seriously about religion) and learning to care for our new born kids. Not only was he a public leader of moral causes, he was privately a lot of fun.

  3. My 1965 freshman class a.k.a. Hoy’s Boys had 5 black students (I think). I took David Swift’s religion course in which we read John Hope Franklin and other texts on black religion and culture. Richard Slotkin taught a seminal black literature course.I graduated in 1969 with an awareness I would have so soon acquired in my native Oklahoma. I don’t remember Dr.Maguire but it is clear that bhe and his colleagues — including Edgar Beckham started a flapping of butterfly wings that created a deeply necessary tsunami.

    Jim Drummond ’69

  4. Maguire had a remarkable post-Wesleyan career, starting with his presidency of a new branch of the State University of New York (SUNY) College at Old Westbury. In 1970 he somehow sold the chancellor on the idea that he would be allowed to create “a college of human justice, half black, half white” — i.e. an institution of higher learning that was thoroughly integrated from top to bottom: administration, faculty and student body. It was inspired by successful integration efforts Maguire pushed for at Wesleyan. John “raided” the Wesleyan faculty to bring teachers like Jonathan Collett (English) and jazz musician Ken McIntyre to his experimental college, and he hired Edwin Sanders (leader of black students at Wesleyan at the time) and myself as his personal assistants. It was my first job after graduating from Wesleyan in the tumult of 1970. We even tried to lure the estimable Richard Ohmann away, but he remained at Wesleyan. Old Westbury was a wild ride, but Maguire stayed true to his vision, expanding his enrollment plans to include Puerto Ricans, Asians and others. He was a cheerful fighter to the end.

  5. I was a student from 1960-64 and majored in Religion with a minor in Pre-Med. John Maguire was a superb teacher and person. As noted, he was funny, engaging and very smart. His Baptist Alabama drawl was also a joy. The Religion Department was excellent with Maguire, David Swift (a Quaker), Stephen Kreits (Kierkegaard scholar), Spurrier (college chaplain),, and Kenneth Underwood (ethics and philosophy). Please excuse the misspellings.
    We did enjoy MLK, Jr. on occasions and were inspired to be active in the civil rights movement. I will always have “We Shall Overcome” in my heart and soul, although I believe we still have a long way to go.
    I moved on to medical school at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, but will never forget John Maguire’s influence on my life and my Religion Major at Wesleyan!!
    Dan Davis, MD, MPH- Class of 1964

  6. A celebrated religion professor and civil rights activist, John Maguire had a remarkable post-Wesleyan career. He somehow managed to convince the state of New York in 1970 to allow him to lead an experimental branch of the State University of New York (SUNY) College at Old Westbury. As president of this new college, Maguire planned to create a “college of human justice, half black and half white.” It was a dramatic attempt to build on the integration efforts he had been involved in at Wesleyan. And it worked — evolving under John’s leadership into what is still one of the more diverse institutions of higher learning in the country. Just as I was graduating from Wesleyan in the tumult of 1970 (the invasion of Cambodia, the national student strike, the killings at Kent and Jackson State) Maguire hired me to be his personal assistant at Old Westbury and convinced a number of young faculty to join him. He was definitely a pioneer in opening up higher education to people of color and women. Was a privilege to work for him.

  7. I graduated from the College of Social Studies in 1963. John made his presence felt even there – among other contributions by bringing MLK, Jr. to give a talk in our commons room. His razor-sharp mind, enormous energy, moral passion, and sheer joy of life led me to take (or audit, perhaps) one of his courses. And his enthusiastic recommendation of a professor at a school I was considering for my graduate work proved to be important in my academic career. I also have fond memories of the time that he and Billie took the time to visit my little off-campus abode on a gorgeous fall afternoon after he had preached in that University’s chapel.

    If John jumped out of his car and enthusiastically hugged Wes U’s current President when he heard of his appointment to that position, I know that my alma mater must be in very good hands!

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