University of Denver Magazine
A Life Well Lived
For more than 50 years, Chancellor Emeritus Chester Alter has cast a light on the University that is still shining bright.
Walk across campus and you’ll see Chancellor Emeritus Chester Alter’s footprints everywhere: from Evans Chapel to Centennial Halls and Towers (built on the far edge of campus so as not to block the view in the central campus core), from J-Mac to the Boettcher Center. The DU arboretum even bears his name.
Alter’s impact is far deeper than buildings, however. The University Lecture, Women’s Library Association, Foothills literary magazine and the Dean’s Honor Roll all began during his chancellorship. Under Alter, DU’s football legacy ended and hockey assumed dominance as the University’s flagship sport.
“He is one of the true giants,” says psychology Prof. Emeritus Bernard Spilka. “He wanted to put DU on the map, and he made the University a scholarly place. He supported research and scholarly publication, and so he brought in people with national reputations.
“Chester Alter opened DU’s door and brought the world in.”
More than half a century after he joined the University, DU’s 12th chancellor now lives quietly in a retirement community in Santa Fe. The 98-year-old Alter moved there recently to be closer to his son, Dick, a retired psychologist. “Dick was getting too old to make the trip to Denver,” Alter says, a twinkle in his eye.
It’s clear that although he may have faded a bit, Alter certainly hasn’t dimmed. Nor have his accomplishments.
The man who transformed the University of Denver from a largely commuter school to a world-class center of higher education had a humble start. He was born on March 21, 1906, during a raging snowstorm on a farm near Rushville, Ind., 35 miles southeast of Indianapolis. By the time he was 17, Alter had followed in his father’s footsteps and become an educator, teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in Orange Township.
Alter’s love of science began during long walks with his dad in the Indiana woods, where they observed the flora and fauna, the earth and stones. He went on to receive a BS from Ball State Teachers College in 1927, an MA from Indiana University in 1928 and a PhD in chemistry from Harvard in 1936. He joined the faculty of Boston University in 1934 and rose through the ranks from chemistry instructor to dean of the graduate college.
Not long after the outbreak of World War II, Alter was recruited to work on the top-secret Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic bomb. There was no typical job interview. Instead, Alter recalls, he was awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call from a “very secretive government-agent type.” The men in black were seeking Alter’s expertise in purifying the inorganic components necessary for refining uranium and its byproducts. When his draft notice arrived later, Alter was put in the awkward position of not being able to report for duty and not being able to tell the draft board why. (A phone call from a senior member of the project took care of the problem.)
As he strolls down memory lane, Alter lights his pipe—a habit he took up as a young chemist. Scientists could not smoke cigarettes, he says, because falling ashes were bad for the experiments. The pipe has always allowed him to focus his thoughts, he adds, pointing out that at his age, he’s not worried about long-term health effects.
Because Alter had to travel frequently and wasn’t allowed to speak about his classified Manhattan Project work, he and his wife, Arvilla, developed a code phrase for his project: They called it “the blonde.” When friends would ask where Alter was, Arvilla would jokingly say, “He’s with his blonde.” And when the first A-bomb was deployed, Alter recalls, Arvilla told their friends, “That’s Chester’s blonde.”
After the war, Alter was honored with the Bronze Medal and Certificate of Merit from the War Department and returned to Boston University and his role as dean. But another out-of- the-blue phone call changed the direction of his life. The call was from Methodist Bishop Glenn Phillips, a trustee of the University of Denver, a small school out in Colorado that was seeking a new chancellor. He asked Alter if he was interested in the job.
“They called me several times about the possibility of becoming chancellor, and each time I said I was not interested. I had never heard of the University of Denver,” Alter recalls. “They were persistent and asked my wife and I to come visit the campus. We did, and we fell in love with the city and the University.”
Life as a freshman
When the University was planning his 1953 inauguration, Alter had one request: “Let us begin on time and end on time. There is work to be done.” Indeed.
When Alter arrived on campus to assume his duties, there was a definite sense that things would be different. He joined the freshman class in donning the traditional beanie, declaring that he himself was but a freshman at DU. His advice to the new students was, “Have fun while you are here. I plan to.” When the new chancellor and his family moved into their large University-owned home, they restricted themselves to a five-room living area on the second floor. “The rest is yours, and I hope you will come enjoy it,” Alter declared, inviting students and faculty to come and make themselves at home. They did. He also had an open-door policy at his office in the Mary Reed Building. Anyone could drop in and see him at any time, so long as he was not already meeting with someone else. This policy occasionally got him into trouble, Alter recalls, as when an angry father pulled a gun on him after Alter had suspended his daughter for a drug infraction. The suspension stuck, Alter notes.
During Alter’s tenure as chancellor from 1953–67, the operating budget of the University quadrupled, from just over $4 million to more than $16 million, and the campus expanded from 75 to 125 acres. Much of the funding for Alter’s big ideas came from the Ford Foundation, which in 1960 gave the University $5 million after $10 million in matching funds was secured. The dollar volume of sponsored research quintupled, and corporate support for the University more than tripled. Faculty salaries, Alter’s highest priority, doubled. His belief in the importance of quality faculty was summed up in his 1960 convocation address: “…If we were asked to set priorities among faculty, libraries, laboratories, and arrangement of the curriculum, we would unhesitatingly put faculty first, for universities are of all ideas, and in the whole history of mankind no new idea has ever sprung from books, from test tubes, from brick or steel or from a course of study. New ideas are the exclusive property of mankind.”
One of Alter’s most popular achievements was the 1960 relocation of Evans Chapel from its original downtown location at 13th and Bannock to the University Park campus. The move saved the chapel, built by DU founder John Evans, from demolition.
Perhaps his most unpopular decision was the dropping of the football program in 1961, a decision Alter does not regret nor apologize for.
“One day, a young female student came to see me and asked me why it was that while she had to struggle to afford to pay for her lunch in the student union, an athlete could load up his plate with all he could eat for free,” Alter recalls. “I told her I did not have an answer for her, and it troubled me.”
The jock’s free lunch was not the deciding factor in dropping football, but Alter felt it was symbolic of the favoritism paid to athletes. Ultimately, finances blew the final whistle on Pioneers football. While attendance was in decline, the cost of intercollegiate football was skyrocketing. DU simply couldn’t keep up.
Some felt that instead of dropping the football program entirely, the sport could have continued on at the Division II level, an option that Alter vetoed. “If we would not compete at the top level, we would not compete at all,” he says. It’s a sentiment he shares with current Chancellor Dan Ritchie, who helped move all Pioneers athletic programs to the Division I level. Alter is pleased that DU student-athletes today get none of the favored treatment that has become media fodder at other institutions, and he credits Ritchie and the current administration for keeping a tight rein on athletics.
The University’s 100th birthday party was one of the high points of Alter’s chancellorship. He turned the celebration into an on-campus forum for international leaders and thinkers, including Arnold Toynbee, Dean Rusk, U Thant and Averill Harriman. World attention was focused on DU as never before.
Alter “retired” from DU in 1967. He felt that his nearly 14 years as chancellor were enough. “It took me five years to learn the job. The next five years were the really productive ones,” Alter says. “The last few years I felt I was making decisions more out of habit.”
As chancellor emeritus, Alter maintained an office on campus until 2000. He mentored the next four chancellors, although he attempted to keep a low profile. “I had my day, let them have theirs,” says Alter, who, until his recent move, kept a framed picture of Chancellor Ritchie in his study.
“Chester and I have become friends over the years since his retirement. We share the common bond of both being chemists,” says chemistry Prof. and Chancellor Emeritus Dwight Smith, who served from 1984–89 and still chats with Alter regularly. “More than any other chancellor, he changed the direction of the University from a regional institution to one with national visibility. His roots were in academia and still today, at age 98, he has a sound understanding of teaching and research, just as current today as it was in his day.”
After his retirement, Alter and his wife traveled extensively and Alter did consulting work with colleges and universities around the world. He recalls visiting a college in Korea where, in the dead of winter, the buildings had no heat. He saw students studying in the library wearing coats, hats and gloves. “I asked the president of the college why this was, and he told me that it would be a sin to waste precious resources on heat when they could better use the money for education,” Alter remembers. “I have never forgotten that. We are so spoiled by comparison here in this country.”
Alter continued to serve as a trustee for the Gates Foundation, the Central City Opera Association and the YMCA. He served on the board of trustees or board of directors of almost every Front Range educational institution. He was a section and a division chairman of the American Chemical Society and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His influence has been felt throughout the state of Colorado in such organizations as the Colorado Board of Ethics, the Colorado Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, the Colorado Expenditures Council and the Judicial Advisory Council of the Colorado Supreme Court. He was the first non-lawyer to be an officer of the American Judicature Society and was honored by its Justice Award in 1980.
In 1999, the University Park campus was designated the Chester Alter Arboretum, a fitting tribute to a man who has always possessed a deep and abiding love of nature and who, as a young boy, often sought solace in the boughs of a sycamore tree.
“Chester has always been concerned with the natural look of the campus—the trees and flowers and the landscaping,” says Chancellor Ritchie. “When I first met him after joining the Board of Trustees many years ago, one of the first things he mentioned to me was the neglected state of the trees on the campus. We set about to rectify that.”
To what does Alter attribute his long and fruitful life?
“Genes,” he says. “Good genes, and loving every job I ever had. So many people hate their jobs. I never did. I was always learning something from so many people.”
Alter can no longer play his beloved golf and had to give up driving a few years ago, but he still tinkers in his small garden. He points out the scarlet ivy on a wooden fence outside his porch and describes his quest to find a species that retains its leaves year round. It has not been easy. Others have told him that no such variety of ivy exists.
Still, he’ll keep looking.
In his 1960 convocation address, Alter said: “May we, in the months that lie ahead, assault our goals with courage, with wisdom, with enthusiasm and with boldness; but may we in years to come, no matter with what success our efforts may be crowned, set always new goals that lie beyond our grasp.”
Chester Alter has never liked to be told that something is impossible.