During the fall semester of 1962, a legend stopped by Gambier on an October morning.
Acclaimed American poet Robert Frost paid several visits to Kenyon, but one of his most notable appearances occurred on Oct. 28, 1962, when he dedicated the then-new Chalmers Library. The event was Frost’s last public address before his death, and his speech struck a chord with Kenyon that reverberated for weeks.
Frost described the library “as a ‘sanctuary of the humanities, a stronghold of the humanities,’” Former Dean and Provost Bruce Haywood says in his book The Essential College, “and a place of resort for students — young people, older people, but young people particularly, who are having it out with themselves about God and man and sociology and poetry.’”
Frost was close with Gordon Keith Chalmers, who served as Kenyon president from 1937-56, and his wife Roberta Teale Swartz Chalmers. Frost first met Roberta, a published poet and professor, when she was a student at Mount Holyoke College, according to College Historian and Keeper of Kenyoniana Tom Stamp ’73.
“Chalmers was a vision guy,” Stamp said, referring to Chalmers’s ability to look beyond financial costs when planning the College’s future. “In a way, the trustees were looking for someone who wasn’t a vision guy after Chalmers, someone who would take care of the books.” Chalmers might not have managed the College’s money as well as the trustees would have liked, but he was undoubtedly a great aid in propelling the College into academic and literary renown. It was at this time when prominent literary icons like John Crowe Ransom and Frost frequented the Hill, delivering lectures and paying visits to the president, that Chalmers died suddenly in 1956.
The 1962 opening of Chalmers Library, named in honor of the beloved president, was a momentous occasion according to several sources. “The happiest achievement of the [President Franze Edward] Lund years was the building of a new library,” Haywood said. Chalmers had previously developed plans for a bigger, better library, but the blueprints were consumed by the 1949 Old Kenyon fire.
Students responded to Frost’s visit in the Nov. 2, 1962 issue of the Collegian. They paid special attention to Frost’s appearance, noting he “rose from his well upholstered chair like a tired old man that he is” and the sight of his “ash white hair drooping over a corner of his wrinkled forehead.”
In an article from the same issue, headlined “Frost Dedicates ‘Sanctuary’ to Audience of Foreigners,” the writer describes a significant crowd of “largely outsiders” that occupied most of the Rosse Hall auditorium and left little room for Kenyon students. “Approximately 200 leftover students were shown into the Rosse cellar, where they heard the lecture via loud speaker,” the article says.
Being swept aside to accommodate trustees and other donors angered students; according to the Collegian issue, two students from an unnamed fraternity sent a telegram to Frost (who was then staying at Cromwell Cottage) reading, “We wish you to know of our regret at not being permitted to hear your address this afternoon.” Other anonymous students spoke out, including one who claimed that “by cutting the student body off from a great man like Frost, [the College] has done Kenyon’s reputation irreparable damage in the eyes of the students.” Later, President Lund claimed there simply had not been enough room for students, and Frost hinted at a return trip to the College so students could meet him.
Graham Gund ’63 H’81 was a student at the time of Frost’s dedication and took matters into his own hands to meet the famous poet. In a Nov. 14, 2014 Collegian article by Henri Gendreau ’16, Gund’s roommate recalled their visit to Cromwell: “[Gund] said, ‘Let’s go and visit them.’ So he took me with him and we knocked on the door to the president’s and we said, ‘Hi, we would like to meet Robert Frost.’ ‘OK,’ said the president. ‘Come in.’ And then we had a tremendous time.”
Frost died on Jan. 29, 1963, three months after he strolled down Middle Path for the last time. But for some students and devoted fans, Frost’s homage to a past president and his celebration of the College’s literary future made all the difference.