Legend has it that the ghost of former SMU President Umphrey Lee prowls the west stacks of Fondren Library. Visitors have reported hearing unexplained noises, walking through strange cold spots, and finding books that have mysteriously fallen off the shelves and onto the floor. Is the ghost of SMU’s fourth president to blame?
As with most ghost stories, many of these strange occurrences can be explained.
The west stacks of Fondren Library used to hold the library’s main circulating collection, but following a remodel, they now house the DeGolyer Library Special Collections and Archives, and are closed to students and the public. This has increased the ‘spookiness’ of the stacks–haunted houses are never crawling with people, after all. And to preserve the rare books and materials, the lights are left turned off in the stacks, adding to the haunted feeling. The mysterious noises? Well, Fondren Library West was built in 1940, and octogenarian buildings, just like people, have been known to make odd noises. The strange hot and cold spots can also be chalked up to the age of the building, and especially its heating and cooling system–when Fondren Library West opened in 1940, it was the first air-conditioned building on campus (and reportedly the first air-conditioned library in the country). But, the system shows its age from time to time, leading to floors that require sweaters and gloves in August, and offices that heat to 80 degrees for no apparent reason, ghost or otherwise.
As for the man whose ghost allegedly haunts the library? Umphrey Lee (1893-1958) was born in Indiana to a farmer and Methodist minister. Lee was SMU’s first student body president, and earned a PhD from Columbia. He served as President of SMU from 1939 to 1954, and was the university’s first Chancellor, from 1954 until his death.
Lee was known as a dedicated scholar of Methodism, who published ten books and numerous articles. He was working on his final book, Our Fathers and Us: The Heritage of Methodism when he passed. As reported in Southwest Review by Charles S. Braden,
“It was Umphrey Lee’s tenth and final book. He was just finishing it when the end came. Indeed, he had called for a member of the staff of the Southern Methodist University Press to come to his office and confer with him concerning the manuscript when the heart attack which ended his career seized him. On entering the room she found him unconscious but still alive, though he passed away before he could be gotten to the hospital.”
Braden went on to note, “his life came to a close fittingly enough in a room lined with scholarly volumes, his desk covered with the papers and notes of scholarly research with his retirement not long before had given him the leisure to indulge, freed from busy demands of an active career. A scholar can think of no happier way to pass.”
The author of this post isn’t inclined to believe in ghosts, but if the spirit of Umphrey Lee was haunting the DeGolyer stacks, it sounds like he’d be a happy ghost, content to be surrounded by the books he loved. Which is comforting, because we can’t explain why so many books mysteriously fall off the shelves…
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