By Andrew Kaufmann, ’01, originally published in the fall 2012 edition of MPRINT magazine
On any given afternoon on the SMU campus – particularly in the halls of the Owen Arts Center and the galleries of the Meadows Museum – dozens of students proudly wear a t-shirt, sweatpants, socks or a ball cap emblazoned with the word “Meadows.” At the same time, thousands of graduates across the globe fondly remember becoming “Meadows students” and then “Meadows alums.” To those in the SMU community, the Meadows name stands for many different things. Meadows is an arts school. Meadows is a museum. Meadows is a brand. Meadows is a mindset. Meadows is a destination. Meadows is a performance venue. Meadows is home.
But Meadows was first a family name. Specifically, that of Algur Hurtle Meadows, an oil man and art collector whose generosity accomplished so much more than just naming the Meadows School of the Arts at SMU.
And while Mr. Meadows is most renowned for being, as LIFE magazine called him, “a virtuous millionaire” who doled out kindness and trust as often as he wrote checks, the principles he embodied throughout his business and philanthropic activities are still at the core of the present-day school and museum that bear his name. His vision for excellence and entrepreneurship, his recognition of the importance of viewing art and business globally and his commitment to the local community are still alive in Meadows School of the Arts today.
Born April 24, 1899, to John and Sally Meadows and raised in Vidalia, Ga., Algur Meadows studied at Georgia and Alabama Business College and at Mercer College before earning a law degree at Centenary College in 1926. Already experienced in finance and accounting, Meadows committed fully to the entrepreneurial life in 1928, when he and friend Ralph G. Trippett co-founded a loan company in Shreveport, La., the General Finance Company.
In 1936, Mr. Meadows and Mr. Trippett joined forces with petroleum expert J.W. Gilliland to form the General American Oil Company. The next year, they moved the company to Dallas, which was quickly becoming the financial center for the oil industry in the United States.
While Mr. Meadows wasn’t an engineer or scientist, his contribution to the new company included more than simply steering the ship. Mr. Meadows is credited with devising the “ABC” method of purchasing properties on which to drill – a practice that limited tax liabilities for investors and gave General American Oil a competitive advantage before the method became an oil industry standard.
Mr. Meadows’ wide breadth of business knowledge and thirst for negotiating a deal (he was known as a master bargainer) led him to become the president, chairman and major stockholder of General American Oil.
The operational advantages and leadership that Mr. Meadows provided helped propel the company to meteoric growth and profitability, establishing the financial foundation that would later fuel Mr. Meadows’ philanthropic and art-loving fire.
Mr. Meadows’ business successes afforded him a luxury that was rare in the post-World War II era: he and his family were able to travel widely and personally experience the myriad cultures of the world.
He was so fascinated by his experiences in other countries, in fact, that in 1949 he published two collections of his travel letters to friends: The Globe Trotters, chronicling his 1948 tour of Asia, Europe and war-ravaged Japan, where he was a part of the first group of tourists allowed to explore the island nation without the protection of a military escort after the World War II atomic bombings; and Southward Ho!, detailing his 1949 visit to South America.
The books, written with wide-eyed curiosity and appreciation for foreign lands and their art, architecture and customs, begin to paint the picture of the Algur Meadows who would later spend a fortune bringing foreign culture back home to Dallas.
Algur Meadows’ son Robert A. Meadows, now chairman of the board of trustees, trustee and director of The Meadows Foundation, accompanied his father on the world tour chronicled in The Globe Trotters.
“At the time, I thought, ‘Big deal. I can see pictures of this stuff.’ But it’s not the same. You have to go and experience the culture,” Robert Meadows says. “Turns out mom and dad were right about that one.”
That spirit of cultural exploration lives on at SMU Meadows. Today, The Meadows Foundation Edge for Excellence Grant that was awarded to Meadows helps fund Meadows Exploration Awards, which are given to students to do just that – explore – and include grants for national and international travel.
Mr. Meadows’ time abroad also led to a grand idea. What if he could create a “Prado on the prairie”?
As the General American Oil Company’s dealings grew to include international wells, Mr. Meadows regularly found himself on business trips in Madrid, Spain, in a hotel across the street from the Prado Museum. The Prado served as an escape from the pressures of the business world, and it was during these trips that Mr. Meadows’ particular fondness for Spanish art grew. He began actively collecting art by Spanish masters such as Goya and Velázquez, eventually creating an impressive private gallery.
Mr. Meadows quickly realized that his collection was too precious to keep private and should be enjoyed by the people of Dallas. In 1962 (sadly, shortly after the death of his wife Virginia to cancer), Mr. Meadows donated the entirety of his Spanish art collection to SMU. But what’s an art collection without a facility in which to properly view it? Mr. Meadows answered the question by donating an additional $1 million for a museum to be built as a part of the planned Owen Fine Arts Center.
Eugene McElvaney, the chairman of the University’s Board of Trustees in 1962, called the donation “a measure of Mr. Meadows’ deep and devoted interest in the development of a cultural environment in Dallas and the Southwest.”
One large problem emerged, however: The collection was marred by expertly done forgeries – which, when made public, landed Mr. Meadows in the national headlines. Undeterred by being scammed, Mr. Meadows responded in his typically generous fashion by promising an additional $1 million to SMU to replace the forgeries. Always the negotiator and giver, Mr. Meadows told LIFE magazine in 1967, “I’m going to continue to buy and build something great in the Southwest and I will still bargain for everything we go after. I believe in moving in this life right now, and no one is ever going to change me!”
Despite the setback with the forgeries, the Meadows Museum thrived and grew to house one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of Spanish art outside of Spain, with works dating from the 10th to the 21st century.
“His commitment to excellence, exemplified by the outstanding collection of Spanish art he built, is a source of inspiration for us. We continually set the bar higher for ourselves and our students in order to honor him and his legacy,” says Mark Roglán, current director of the Meadows Museum.
Linda P. Evans, president and chief executive officer of The Meadows Foundation today, sums up Mr. Meadows’ art gift: “By giving his world-class collection of Spanish art to SMU and building a museum to house it, he gave both the students and the public a unique resource for the study of fine art and cultural enrichment.”
Mr. Meadows’ giving to his adopted home of Dallas didn’t stop there. He donated his collection of sculptures by contemporary Italian artists to SMU to establish the Elizabeth Meadows Sculpture Garden – named after his second wife and launched with the opening of the Owen Fine Arts Center – and provided a $8 million gift to the SMU School of the Arts. He also donated his collection of French Impressionist art to the Dallas Museum of Art.
The sum of the gifts should not be measured in dollars, but in impact. During a time when the city of Dallas was growing into a major hub of not just the Southwest but the U.S., Mr. Meadows’ commitment to Dallas helped it keep pace in the arts and arts education. The momentum from that commitment carries on decades later in the mission of Meadows School of the Arts.
“We are all about making Dallas – our community – a better, richer place,” says José Bowen, Algur H. Meadows Chair and Dean of Meadows School of the Arts.
In a token of appreciation for Mr. Meadows’ generosity, in 1969 the SMU Board of Trustees chose to rename the SMU School of the Arts to the SMU Meadows School of the Arts. And while the gifts made to SMU during his lifetime helped set in motion programs that would help put SMU and Dallas on the cultural map, the founding in 1948 of The Meadows Foundation to “assist people and institutions of Texas” ensured that the Meadows spirit would live on in perpetuity.
Tragically, Mr. Meadows passed away after a car accident near Dallas in 1978. But the foundation that Algur and Virginia Meadows founded carries on Mr. Meadows’ mission of generosity, providing funding for worthy causes throughout Dallas and Texas – including grants that help Meadows School of the Arts and the Meadows Museum at SMU create local and global impact. Recent grants from The Meadows Foundation have funded a new, state-of-the-art, stand-alone museum on the south side of campus, further acquisitions for the world-class art collection and countless programs and initiatives that educate students at Meadows.
“Thanks to The Meadows Foundation Edge for Excellence gift in 2006, the Meadows School has been able to recruit more students who are not only top talents in their discipline, but who also excel in academics,” says Dean Bowen. “We have also been able to attract more accomplished, diverse faculty members who are developing incredible initiatives in arts research, entrepreneurship and urban engagement that differentiate the School from our peers and elevate our national profile.”
“Algur H. Meadows occupies a special place among the preeminent donors and visionaries who have literally changed the course of SMU,” says Dr. R. Gerald Turner, University president. “Through his gifts and the continuing support of The Meadows Foundation, SMU has a nationally prominent School of the Arts and the internationally renowned Meadows Museum. The School is preparing students in the arts and communications not only to hone their skills but also to benefit from the strengths of a comprehensive university, making them more competitive in the marketplace. With the Meadows Museum, SMU is among an elite handful of universities with artistic masterpieces that support research, teaching and community outreach in unique ways. It truly is not possible to imagine SMU – or Dallas – without the resources and facilities provided by the generosity of Mr. Meadows and his family’s foundation.”
In the end, “Meadows” represents far more than just a name on a t-shirt or a building entrance. It represents how a man can help shape the culture of a city.
“Mr. Meadows was an extremely generous and visionary man who supported a large number of charitable efforts,” says Ms. Evans. “But, I believe his greatest legacy is in the Meadows School of the Arts and the Meadows Museum. Meadows now attracts the best national and international students and faculty. The Meadows Museum has achieved international prominence and an unprecedented partnership with the Prado Museum in Madrid. Both Dean José Bowen and Museum Director Mark Roglán are dynamic leaders who have helped advance both the School and the Museum to a level of excellence exceeding my expectations.
“Al Meadows would be so proud of what has been accomplished at SMU.”
More information about The Meadows Foundation and Algur H. Meadows can be found at mfi.org.
Globe Trotters and Southward Ho! can be found in SMU DeGolyer Library Special Collections. Quotes from Algur Meadows are from LIFE magazine, “How Art Swindlers Duped a Virtuous Millionaire,” by William A. McWhirter, July 7, 1967.
Special thanks to The Meadows Foundation and the Meadows Museum for their help in the research for this article.