Richard D. Weigle, president emeritus of St. John's College and a national promoter of liberal arts education, died yesterday morning from complications of Parkinson's disease.
The 80-year-old professor, who had lived the last several months the Annapolis Convalescent Center, served 31 years as the 18th president of the college. He saw it through the early years of the classical Great Books program, opened the doors to blacks and women and established a second campus in Sante Fe, N.M.
"We owe him a great debt of gratitude for a lifetime of service," said St. John's President Christopher Nelson, a former student of Dr. Weigle. "During a period of growth, he was our anchor."
As friends and former colleagues reminisced yesterday, Mr. Nelson spoke of scenes from his own student days.
"I remember most his cheerful, chipper good morning to all of us as he crossed the quad," Mr. Nelson said. "It was a sign that all was well."
Perhaps most exceptional about Dr. Weigle was his devotion to the Great Books program. At St. John's, students read approximately 120 books and documents that form the backbone of Western intellectual tradition: the Bible, the works of Plato, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and Nietzsche.
"To those who would say they're interested in learning something practical," Dr. Weigle once said, "we would say a liberal education is the most practical because it's very useful to learn how to use your head. To think and to speak well, these are the skills that make it possible to master most jobs."
Under Dr. Weigle's leadership, the college enjoyed widening recognition through the 1950s, '60s and '70s, doubling its
enrollment while upgrading the quality of the students. He also was instrumental in pushing the college to admit women and minorities.
The formerly all-white, all-male college began admitting minority students in 1949 and women in 1951.
Barbara Leonard, a former assistant dean, was the first woman faculty member. She recalled Dr. Weigle as "very supportive of women and very creative. In those days, people thought girls would just attend St. John's because of [the young men at] the Naval Academy and wouldn't be able to do math or science. Dr. Weigle wasn't like that. He hired me, and I always enjoyed working with him."
While no one denied Dr. Weigle's enterprise, some of his goals for the college ruffled feathers. In the early 1960s, when he wanted to expand the student body beyond its capacity of 325, many faculty members objected. "Some faculty members characterized him as a Don Quixote," too ambitious, too growth-oriented, said one former colleague.
Dr. Weigle responded to the opposition by simply shifting gears. Instead of enlarging the Annapolis student body, he established a second campus in Sante Fe in 1964. Dr. Weigle and his wife had to make the 1,800-mile trip eight times a year for 15 years, but he didn't mind.
"Few men are given the opportunity to bring a new college into being," he remarked.
A native of Northfield, Minn., Dr. Weigle earned his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from Yale, where his father was dean of the Divinity School. He spent several years teaching English in China in the 1930s, and for two years during World War II was secretary to the general staff of the Chinese Combat Command in China.
After a stint in the Army Air Forces during World War II, he served on the State Department desk for Far Eastern Affairs before assuming the presidency at St. John's in 1949.
Dr. Weigle helped organize the Historic Annapolis Foundation and served as president in 1957-1958. He also served on the Anne Arundel County Board of Education.
In 1980, Dr. Weigle retired to write two books: "The Colonization of a College: The Beginning and Early History of St. John's College in Santa Fe," and a companion, "The Recollections of a St. John's President, 1949-1980." He was a member of numerous educational and charitable organizations.
He is survived by his wife of 50 years, Mary Day Weigle of Annapolis; two daughters, Mary Martha Weigle of Santa Fe and Constance Weigle Mann of Winston-Salem, N.C.; a granddaughter, Mary Elizabeth Mann of Winston-Salem; and two sisters, Margaret W. Quillian of Lynchburg, Va., and Ruth Weigle Guyton of Jackson, Miss.