David Starr Jordan, Lombard College, and a Forget Me Not Book

The book from the 1870s was titled  “Forget Me Not.” It was filled with pages and pages of poems and signatures, many in ornate script, some faded by time, and others hard to decipher without a magnifying glass. The former owner was a graduate of Lombard College in Galesburg, Illinois. I kept turning the pages until the name “David Starr Jordan” caught my eye.

I recognized his name from one of the best classes I took in grad school – Jeff Aper’s “History of Higher Education.” David Starr Jordan was one of the boy wonders of his time. The Stanfords, Senator Leland and his wife Jane, took their private train car to Bloomington, Indiana, to woo Jordan away from the Indiana University presidency and crown him president of the university they created as a memorial to their son, Leland Junior.

Could the same David Starr Jordan have penned this little ditty to a student at Lombard College in Galesburg, Illinois?

I’m no great hand at palaver,
And saying things pretty and sweet.
Whether I mean them or not you know,
To everybody I meet.
I shall not call you an “angel.”
Nor even the “Queen of Girls:”
Nor say that the Light of Heaven
Is shimmering through your curls.
But if I say, “I like you.”
The simple truth I  tell
And truth is ever a Pearl, my dear,
Though it be in an Oyster shell.
David Starr Jordan
Lombard, June 13th, ’73.


Born in upstate New York in 1851, Jordan was among the first students at Cornell University. There, he became a member of Delta Upsilon Fraternity. In 1872, Jordan graduated from Cornell with a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree in botany; he was also a commencement speaker that year.

After graduation, he took a teaching job at Lombard College and spent the 1872-73 academic year there. He apparently caught flack from the trustees for teaching students about the geological ages and he left the school after only one year.

He spent the next few summers at Louis Agassiz’s school. Agassiz, a naturalist, geologist and one of the foremost scientists of his time, fostered Jordan’s interest in ichthyology (the study of fish). Agassiz also opposed Charles Darwin’s theories, but Jordan became a believer in them. Jordan spent a year at Wisconsin’s Appleton Collegiate Institute serving as principal and worked another year teaching high school science in Indianapolis, Indiana. He then spent a year studying medicine and earned a medical degree in 1875. At the 1875 Delta Upsilon convention at Rutgers University, he was elected Poet of the fraternity.

He joined the faculty at Northwestern Christian University (now Butler University) and obtained a Ph.D. In 1879, he was hired at Indiana University.

In 1885, Jordan became the seventh President of Indiana University: he served until 1891. In those days, college presidents were jacks of all trades – fundraisers, administrators, keepers of the key to the library – and yet Jordan was able to keep up with his research interests. More than 2,500 species of fish were discovered by Jordan and  his students. He also left his mark on Indiana University, doubling enrollment and instituting the elective system of college courses.

Senator Leland Stanford and his wife Jane chose him to be the first president of Stanford University. He served in that capacity from 1891-1916. On December 28, 1905, he was a speaker at the Denver Delta Upsilon Alumni Club meeting at the “magnificent new” Savoy Hotel. As he left, after his talk, to make his way to another engagement, the attendees sang, “He’s a jolly good fellow.”

In 1925, Jordan was an expert witness in the Scopes Trial. He died in 1931.

And, for what it is worth, there is no doubt in my mind that Delta Upsilon’s Poet penned the poem for a student’s memory book while he was on the faculty at Lombard College.


© Fran Becque, www.fraternityhistory.com, 2013

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