November 24, 2009

SMU has a long history of bringing affordable cultural programs to campus and community. In 1939, SMU director of publicity Ronald C. Knickerbocker was concerned that the citizens of Dallas weren’t visiting the University. To attract them to campus, Knickerbocker and Rabbi David Lefkovitz of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas persuaded President Umphrey Lee to sponsor a concert, lecture and drama series in McFarlin Auditorium. Called the Community Course, the series ran from 1939 to 1979.


“Mr. Nick” and programs from early Community Course events.

That first season tickets cost $3.50 for the Dallas community, and students could attend free – if they sat in McFarlin’s upper balcony. SMU faculty and
students could pay $2.50 if they wanted to sit in the mezzanine. Within two weeks of announcing the program, 1,000 seats had been sold without any high-pressure sales or telephone campaigns. Although SMU was prepared to underwrite the program, the Community Course ran in the black each year. Most years, the season sold out.

That first year, the most popular event with students was British pianist Alec Templeton, with 413 in attendance. Isaac Stern, Paco de Lucia and Yehudi Menuhin, soon-to-be world-famous young artists, all appeared on the Community Course stage, along with such widely known figures as Salvador Dali and Thomas Mann and popular returning acts such as the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

Ronald C. Knickerbocker ’30 became SMU’s first director of publicity in 1931. He served as University photographer and director of the Office of Information and University Publications and founded the SMU Archives. Yet his name is most associated with the Community Course, which he directed throughout its 40-year tenure. He thought of the Community Course as a “Chautauqua in the best sense.”

The tradition of community enrichment is alive and well today – with more than 600 campus lectures, performances, exhibits and other programs open to the community, including the Tate Distinguished Lecture Series.
– Joan Gosnell, University archivist