‘Purge’ of the speech department

Editor’s note: This is a series of columns by John Malcolm on his “50 years at Fredonia.” Retired, he is a professor emeritus at Fredonia State.

Another group went into speech correction, still more went to graduate school and wound up teaching speech related subjects on the high school level or in higher education – including this author.

While I am embarrassed about the early and middle years of my Fredonia education I discovered after being accepted by Syracuse University in their Radio/TV program that my Fredonia preparation exceeded many better known schools. In fact, during my doctoral studies I preferred to use Fredonia’s superior equipment and facilities to those of Syracuse.

Problems with the speech department also arose with the arrival of a new president, Dr. Harry Porter. Gerald Hackman, the college’s Financial Secretary, reported that “Porter hated to see “Sol” Simonson because he was too good at getting things out of him.”

To bring the program to heel, a new man elderly and semi-retired, Dr. Clyde Lytle, was brought in as an administrator whose responsibilities included chairing the English Department. He was charged with paring “superficial” course offerings. Simonson was relegated to a subordinate position. Sol fought this change. He lobbied and organized students into an underground group that titled themselves “Speech Loyalists” and flooded the campus with their take on the situation. Simonson was a master of propaganda and of course taught their strategies.

At the time student demonstrations were novel and not welcomed. (I remember being “buttonholed” by Robert Coon, himself a Fredonia graduate who went on to a distinguished career as a Fredonia administrator.) The protests did not last or have an effect. Simonson went on leave and never returned. He did obtain a post at Yeshiva University in New York City.

The administration’s policy was, in my then and now opinion, short sighted and one can cite the results of Sol’s efforts though the graduates of HIS program. Two of the graduates went on to graduate work in broadcasting at Syracuse (Newhouse School of Public Communication) winning their “Loeb Award” as the outstanding graduates. They went on to chair academic departments at Ithaca College and Maryland’s Towson State University. Two others did graduate work at Pennsylvania State University and rose to deanships.

There was the aforementioned student who went on to be executive producer of national PBS programs and was a winner of “Oscars” and national “Emmys.” On a regular basis one would see a Fredonia graduate performing, (one in the national production of “Our Town”) or in any number of television and radio commercials. I always delighted in calling the President’s office when something important was done by one of these folks.

After the “purge” the speech major was now a division of the English Department. The unofficial new “area” head was Irvine N. Smith who had been brought in to be in charge of theater activities. While not of the Simonson mold, he was innovative and disciplined. He also was also a generalist and taught speech and forensics during his 13 years on the faculty. With Smith “speech” took on a definite theatre perspective. A full-time skilled professional technical director was hired.

Another faculty member was in charge of the supervision of speech education and also ran a popular readers theatre program. This was Alice Bartlett for whom Bartlett theatre is named. One year she portrayed Lady Bracknell in “The Importance of Being Earnest” and won an award at the annual Corning College Theatre Festival. The judge, Esse Ljungh, who was head of the Canadian Board of Adjudicators, said, in presenting her Steuben Crystal, “There is someone who has trod the boards before.”

John Malcolm is a Fredonia resident.