Frank Palmer Speare: Northeastern University's Founding President

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Frank Palmer Speare’s name is synonymous with the university that he founded and built. Well, he didn’t literally build Northeastern University, but for his enormous legacy at the private Boston institution, he might as well have.

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By contrast, Frank’s father was literally a builder — of enormous boats, to be exact. By the time of Frank’s birth in 1869, his family’s Dorchester, Massachusetts, steamship business was quite successful. This made the Speares a prominent family and gave Frank access to a tremendous education. He paid back that opportunity by dedicating his entire life to ensuring educational access for others, all while living a life of remarkably diverse interests and achievements.

It’s Fun to Study at the YMCA

Speare had the ambition to help young men gain access to practical education on the path to their various professions. The first venue for this ambition was the Boston YMCA, which appointed Speare as its educational director in 1898. Speare wasn’t just the director of the Evening Institute of the Boston YMCA but also a teacher of algebra, arithmetic, and English.

Over the course of the next two decades, Speare pursued an ambitious agenda of expansion, helping to launch the Evening Law and Evening Polytechnic schools as well as both the School of Commerce & Finance and School of Engineering. He also had the vision to found an automobile school (now defunct) just as the world-changing invention was taking root in American culture.

A College Is Born

As the Evening Institute expanded its course offerings and its aspirations, Speare pushed for his institute to become an official college. The YMCA board of directors voted in support of the idea, forging Northeastern College in 1916. It was only natural that Speare be named the school’s inaugural president.

His ambition for Northeastern showed no signs of slowing. The newly minted president continued to expand course offerings, transforming the college into Northeastern University just five years after its official incorporation. The tireless Speare would go on to serve his role for another two decades, helping to shepherd a loose collection of YMCA courses into one of the largest private universities in North America.

Palmer retired from the post he defined in 1940 but remained active on campus throughout his life.

Extracurricular Activities

Northeastern wasn’t the only institution where Speare left his mark. At age 73, he became the president and principle stockholder for the Chandler School in Boston, a private professional training school for women, assuming the post when the outgoing president departed to support the U.S. effort in World War II. Speare held this post for five years.

His life outside of work was equally reflective of the campus he helped to forge. Speare was constantly immersed in activity, be it practical, recreational, or creative. He embodied a liberal arts education. During the course of his life, he was a member of the Massachusetts Schoolmasters’ Club, the Harvard Teachers’ Association, the University Club, the Boston City Club, the St. John’s Lodge of Masons in Boston, and the Church of Christian Science as well as a founder of the Lakes Region Music Festival Association.

His interests also reflected the mutual influence of his parents. Frank, possibly in tribute to his father’s maritime profession, was an avid sailor. But it was perhaps his mother — an entertainer — whose influence loomed largest, inspiring Speare to become a music enthusiast and an amateur playwright.

To the latter, he produced and staged a 1903 play called Mystic Waters, or the Spirit of Winnipesaukee.

Speare also produced a few music compositions, notably “Silver Bay, a Song of Vacation Days.”

No recordings are available, but you can dig the sheet music out of a 1916 compendium published by the Washington D.C. YMCA called Social Activities for Men and Boys. Here’s a taste of the lyrics:

The strenuosity, ‘tis said of modern city life,
is surely making us into a nation,
a nation of nervous cranks and spindle shanks
and other sorts of freaks,
the very worst there are in all creation.

Oh! We hustle in our business
and we hustle in our fun.
We never stop to chew our food
but bolt it while we run.
And everyone is on his mark
and waiting for the gun, then
Oh! for a short vacation.

Oh! Silver Bay
is the only place to stay.
When the frogs begin to sing (chug, chug)
and the birds are on the wing,
the lake so fair
with its hills and balmy air
will surely prove to you a revelation. Oh!

The Omnipresent Frank Palmer Speare

Of greater importance is the fact that Speare composed the official "Northeastern March," just one of the countless and eternal reminders of his on-campus presence, alongside the Speare Residence Hall, Speare Hall Commons, Speare Place, and the Frank Palmer Speare Society, which “honors alumni and friends who demonstrate their generosity and commitment to Northeastern through an estate provision or other planned gift.”

Speare passed away at 1954 at the age of 85 and left behind a remarkable and tangible legacy. Today, Northeastern enrolls roughly 25,000 grads and undergrads and has satellite campuses in Charlotte, Seattle, San Jose, and Toronto.

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