Columbia Lions | Frank Diehl Fackenthal

The RBML’s University Archivists feature a different graduate as part of their Columbia Lion series. Learn more information about Lions in the University Archives Collections and on exhibit in the RBML reading room cases. 

“I made the university my hobby and stuck around.
My idea was that somebody had to watch the oven.”
“Oven Watcher,” The New Yorker, 30 November 1946

black and white photo of Frank D. Fackenthal, Historical Photograph Collection, Columbia University Archives

Frank D. Fackenthal, Historical Photograph Collection, Columbia University Archives

Frank Diehl Fackenthal arrived at Columbia in the fall of 1902. It was only the fifth year of the Morningside Heights campus and Nicholas Murray Butler was starting his first year as President. While still a student, Fackenthal started working as a secretary for student employment in October 1905 and would continue to serve the University for the next 43 years. As he used to say, he “came up on the office boy route.” He served as Chief Clerk (1906-1910), University Secretary (1910-1937), Provost (1937-1945), Acting President (1945-1948), and Trustee (1948-1967).

The position of Provost had been vacant for 10 years, but President Butler reestablished the office for Fackenthal to serve as his official second-in-command. After Butler’s retirement, Fackenthal was appointed by the Trustees as Acting President and served in that role during the three-year-long search for a new president. Typical of his work ethic, during his years in the president’s office, it was said that Fackenthal signed each of the diplomas individually, taking a batch of them to Brooklyn with him every night in his briefcase. The 1947 Columbian was dedicated to this loyal alumnus and consummate administrator: “We feel that you have done more than is expected from a man in your office to promote full understanding between the administration, faculty, and the student body.”

Columbia College Class of 1906

Fackenthal had an hour-and-a-half commute from his home in Brooklyn to Morningside Heights: “[he] traveled home via 9th Avenue el, Madison Avenue horsecar, and 23rd Street ferry.” (Spectator, 12 October 1948, page 6) But the long commute did not prevent him from becoming very involved in extracurricular activities: he was in the cast of the Varsity Show (1904 and 1906), the lead in the Sophomore Show, Business Manager at the Spectator, Class Secretary, Editor of the Class Book, Secretary of the Columbian Board, member of the Junior Ball Committee, Manager of the Musical Club, and member of Banjo and Mandolin Clubs.

World War II & Columbia

Fackenthal served as chair of Columbia’s Committee on National Defense. As a member of the Committee on War Research, he directed the program which trained 23,000 naval officers. He oversaw 118 government research and development grants, including the atomic research now known as the Manhattan Project.

As enrollment almost doubled in the post-WWII years, Fackenthal is credited for the physical growth and the curricular expansion during his term in office. A new undergraduate college, the School of General Studies, was added to offer educational opportunities to returning GIs. Columbia also gained the Russian Institute; SIPA, then known as the School of International Affairs; and the American Press Institute.

Photo of Frank D. Fackenthal and Rear Admiral Russell S. Berkey with the Navy Department Bronze Memorial Plaque, November 1947, Historical Photograph Collection, Columbia University Archives

The Editorial

In April 1947 (and two years since the announcement of Butler’s retirement), the Student Board on behalf of the Columbia College student body sent a letter to the Board of Trustees. They expressed their unanimous belief that “Fackenthal should be elected President of Columbia University.” In doing so, the Board of Trustees would be acting “in the best interest of the University.” Their proposal was seconded “in an almost angry editorial in the Daily News,” as Barzun recalled at the Fackenthal’s memorial service at St. Paul’s Chapel in 1969. The anger “[was] directed at the Trustees for not making the obvious and perfect choice.”

Alexander Hamilton Award 1948

The Hamilton medal is awarded by the Alumni Association of Columbia College “for distinguished service and accomplishment in any field of human endeavor.” Fackenthal received the award on January 15, 1948 at a banquet held at the Waldorf-Astoria in front of 1,500 alumni, faculty and students. He was the second-ever recipient of the award (Butler was honored in 1947). The banquet was also President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first address to the Columbia community.