Remembering David Alexander ′53
16th President of Rhodes College 1965-69
By Martha Hunter Shepard ’66
John David Alexander ’53 of Claremont, CA, the 16th president of Rhodes College who served from 1965-69, passed away Sunday, July 25, 2010. He was 77. He was the only alumnus then to serve as Rhodes president, and at age 33, one of the youngest sitting presidents of an American college.
In 1969 Alexander was called to become the seventh president of Pomona College, serving from 1969-1991. The year after his retirement, Pomona named its new administration building the David Alexander Hall for Administration in his honor.
Born in Springfield, TN, in 1932, he graduated from Rhodes in 1953, Phi Beta Kappa with honors in Greek. A classicist with a deep interest in theological history, he went on to study at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. A 1954 Rhodes Scholar, he earned a D.Phil. in Theology from Oxford University (Christ Church) in 1957. In 1965, after teaching for eight years at San Francisco Theological Seminary, Alexander was named president of Rhodes College.
Rhodes bestowed on Alexander an honorary Doctor of Letters degree in 1986, and in 2004, he was the subject of a Rhodes Faculty Portrait, which today resides in the Hill Board Room. In addition, he held honorary degrees from the University of Southern California, Occidental College, Centre College, Loyola Marymount University and Pomona College.
Current Rhodes College President Bill Troutt was a longtime admirer of Alexander, having issued an invitation to him to speak at his high school graduation, which Alexander accepted, and in 2001, arranging a joint retreat for the Rhodes Board of Trustees and Pomona officials at Pomona “to discuss the essentials of a liberal education at its very best,” Troutt said at the time.
“David Alexander was recognized around the globe for his contributions to higher education,” says Troutt. “He was an outstanding college administrator and friend.”
From 1981 to 1998, Alexander served as American Secretary of the Rhodes Scholarship Trust, and from that position oversaw the selection every year of the 32 Americans chosen to study at Oxford. He was the author of “The American Scholarships” in The History of the Rhodes Trust (OUP, 2001) and served as editor of the American Oxonian, the magazine of the Association of American Rhodes Scholars. In 1998 he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and in 2000, named a Distinguished Friend of Oxford University.
Alexander was a trustee of the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association (TIAA) from 1970-2002 and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation from 1978-99, and was on the Board of Overseers of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens from 1991-2010. He was a director of KCET, the Seaver Institute and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. He also served as a trustee of the American Council on Education and the Fellows of the Society of Phi Beta Kappa. From 2004, he served as president of the David ’53 and Catharine Alexander ’56 with his faculty portrait at Homecoming/Reunion Weekend 2004 American Friends of the National Portrait Gallery in London. In 2006, he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
President Alexander leaves his wife, Catharine Coleman Alexander ’56 of Claremont; two daughters, Catharine M. Alexander Shirley of Larchmont, NY, and Julia M. Marciari-Alexander of San Diego; a son, John D. Alexander III of Oakdale, CT; five grandchildren, Alexander, Oliver and Theodora Shirley; and Jack and Beatrice Marciari; a sister, Jane Alexander Biedenharn ’59 and brother-in-law John Ursary Biedenharn ’58 of Vero Beach, FL.
Several members of Catharine’s family attended Rhodes, including her mother, Janie Cobb Coleman ’29, sister Mary Jane Coleman Gentry ’61, sister-in-law Sally Cross Coleman ’61 and nephew Thomas Cross Coleman ’88, all of Memphis.