Athens, Ga. – Henry King Stanford, who died New Year’s Day in Americus at the age of 92, was a sprightly, highly regarded veteran of nearly 30 years as a college president when he came out of retirement in 1986 at age 70 to lead the University of Georgia through a year of healing as interim president.
An Atlanta native known for his sharp intellect, keen wit and consensus-building skills, Stanford came to UGA in July of 1986 after Fred C. Davison resigned as president, and served until July of 1987 when Charles B. Knapp became UGA’s 20th president.
“Henry King Stanford is a real hero of Georgia history,” said UGA President Michael F. Adams. “Though his decades of public service and leadership included only a short time at the University of Georgia, his impact on the institution was substantial. He steered UGA through tumultuous waters, refocused the institution on its core mission, and prepared it for much of the progress made in the years since he was president.”
Prior to leading UGA, Stanford was president of the University of Miami from 1962 to 1981. He also had been president of Georgia Southwestern College (now Georgia Southwestern State University) in Americus (1948-50), Georgia State College for Women (now Georgia College and State University) in Milledgeville (1953-56) and Birmingham Southern College in Alabama (1957-62).
Stanford had retired in 1981 after leading the University of Miami through 19 years of growth that included a four-fold increase in the budget, creation of 63 graduate programs, a jump of nearly $35 million in federally sponsored programs and a ranking as one of the country’s 50 top research institutions.
He was living with his wife, Ruth, in Americus when the University System of Georgia Board of Regents asked him in April 1986, to take the helm at UGA while a search was conducted for a permanent president.
Davison had resigned in the wake of a federal court trial in which UGA instructor Jan Kemp asserted that she had been fired for speaking out against alleged preferential academic treatment for athletes. The jury ruled in Kemp’s favor in a decision that attracted national attention.
Stanford arrived in Athens shortly after his 70th birthday to find a campus embarrassed and frustrated by months of unfavorable publicity. He later told an interviewer he had never “seen a group of people related to and loving an institution as dejected and discouraged as the faculty, administration and alumni were.”
Irrepressibly energetic and upbeat, Stanford decided the way to restore optimism and confidence to the campus was by trumpeting the university’s academic strengths at every opportunity. Proclaiming himself a “self-appointed evangelist who, like St. Paul, fetched the gospel from Athens to Rome (Ga.),” he spent much of the year travelling around the state boasting about UGA’s research activities, library collections and Honors Program, and urging audiences to support the university.
He quickly became a familiar figure around campus, attending student, faculty and alumni functions and speaking to any organization that invited him. He surprised students and faculty by stopping them on the sidewalk to get their opinion on how things were going. Once, as onlookers held their breath, he climbed aboard a bulldozer and scooped up a bit of dirt to break ground for a new building.
He made 181 speeches during the year, including an appearance before a joint session of the Georgia House and Senate. He even carried his message into Georgia’s Sanford Stadium, working the crowds in the stands during football games.
His enthusiasm and cheerfulness were infectious, and by the time Knapp was named president the campus mood had brightened noticeably. Stanford later told a reporter he had “never felt so needed and appreciated” and that the year at UGA was a highlight of his career. Ruth Stanford said she often told her husband “you had such a good time in Athens you should have paid them for letting you come.”
While his service was chiefly building good will, Stanford did not shirk other serious duties. On his first day in office he replaced the vice president for academic affairs and an associate who had been key figures in the athletics court case. He appointed Louise McBee, a respected veteran administrator, as acting vice president, a position she would continue to hold for a year under Knapp. Later, he appointed two African American professors as the first minority members of the board of the UGA Athletic Association.
Asked in later years why he left a comfortable retirement to take the stressful UGA assignment, Stanford replied that he initially accepted because of “flat out ego,” flattered that the regents thought he could do the job. That reaction, he said, was quickly followed by a feeling of obligation to provide helpful service to the state if he could.
In July of 1987, Stanford and his wife returned to Americus, but Stanford’s service to UGA wasn’t finished. Knapp asked him to head a faculty committee charged with developing an environmental education program for UGA and he periodically returned to campus for committee activities.
In 1987, the Board of Regents bestowed the title of President Emeritus on Stanford, and in 1992 his official portrait was added to the collection of portraits of other former UGA presidents.
He is believed to be only the second person to serve in the 20th Century as an interim leader of UGA, which has had 21 permanent presidents in its 224-year history.
With his signature boutonniere and shiny cuff links, the ebullient Stanford was a dapper, charming scholar who peppered conversations with historical references and quotes from German philosophers and Greek playwrights. As a college president, he was known for seeking collegiality and consensus with faculty and students but making tough decisions when necessary, as when he banned the song “Dixie” at University of Miami football games.
He enjoyed popularity in most of his presidential posts. When he announced he was leaving Birmingham Southern, students staged a protest. The University of Miami honored him on his retirement by naming its residential college and a campus street for him. The University of Georgia established the Henry King and Ruth Stanford Honors Program Scholarships. There are Henry King Stanford scholarships at Miami and Georgia Southwestern, as well.
Stanford and his wife, who died in 2002, were inveterate travelers who made numerous trips to Europe, South America, Africa and Asia. In 1987 they celebrated their 50th anniversary, delayed a year by their UGA assignment, by taking a hot air balloon ride over French vineyards.
A lifelong fitness enthusiast who enjoyed tennis, hiking and gardening, Stanford usually walked several miles daily even after retirement. In 1988, at age 72, he climbed 17,500 feet up the east face of Mt. Everest as part of an expedition organized by a UGA student. McBee, who had retired and was 64, also made the trip, and at the time they were the oldest Western man and woman ever to ascend that high up the world’s tallest mountain.
The descendant of ancestors who came to America in 1680 and to Georgia a year later, Stanford was born in Atlanta April 22, 1916. He earned a bachelor’s degree in German from Emory University, and after studying for a year at the University of Heidelberg in Germany he re-entered Emory and earned a master’s degree in international relations.
He earned another master’s in government management from the University of Denver, where he also was director of the School of Public Administration. While serving as president of Georgia Southwestern he received a doctorate in political science and government administration from New York University.
He worked two years as director of the University Center in Georgia and a year as assistant chancellor of the University System of Georgia before becoming president of Georgia State College for Women in 1953. In 1956, he went to the University of Ankara in Turkey to direct a technical assistance program for New York University. He returned to the U.S. to become president of Birmingham Southern.
Stanford also held teaching positions at Emory Junior College in Valdosta, Emory University and Georgia Tech.
Stanford served as president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and vice president of the International Association of University Presidents. He was a founding member and director of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, and was president of the Caribbean Resources Development Foundation.
He was on the board of trustees of the Knight Foundation and the board of visitors of Air University, and served on several corporate boards.
He was awarded 13 honorary degrees and received numerous awards including the Eleanor Roosevelt-Israel Humanitarian Award; the “Star of Africa” medal, presented by the president of Liberia; the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany; and the Distinguished Service Award from the Florida Association of Colleges and Universities.
He received the Brotherhood Award from both the Florida and Georgia regions of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and also received awards from the Anti-Defamation League in both Birmingham and Miami.
Stanford is survived by four children: Henry Stanford, Jr., Lowry Stanford, Rhoda Stanford McCabe, and Peyton Stanford, and a sister, Annabell Nickel.
A memorial service will be planned to be held in Americus later in January. Hancock Funeral Home of Americus is in charge of arrangements.