Dr. Malcolm Lester’s liberal arts legacy lives on through lecture series | Mercer Legends

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A black and white photo of a man in a suit reading papers at a desk.
Dr. Malcolm Lester is pictured in this undated photo. Mercer archives photo

Dr. Malcolm Lester was a man of wit and wisdom and a scholar. His legacy as a historian and liberal arts advocate is carried on today through Mercer University’s annual Malcolm Lester Phi Beta Kappa Lectures on Liberal Arts and Public Life. Here’s how Dr. Lester became a Mercer Legend.

Dr. Malcolm Lester

Mercer connection: Mercer graduate, faculty member in the history department and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Years at Mercer: Class of 1945 graduate; faculty member, 1946-59; College of Liberal Arts and Sciences dean, 1956-59.

What he did: Dr. Malcolm Lester was born and raised in Georgetown, Georgia, the only child of Malcolm Nicholson Lester Sr. and Emmie Frank (Bledsoe) Lester. His mother, the daughter of a Civil War veteran, was a historian and record-keeper who instilled in her son a love for studying the past.

As a Mercer student, Dr. Lester was involved in Blue Key, Ciceronian, Kappa Phi Alpha, Phi Eta Sigma, Life Service Band and Sigma Mu and served as student body president his senior year. He was awarded the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award and graduated magna cum laude in 1945. He went on to earn a master’s degree and Ph.D. in history at the University of Virginia. 

Dr. Lester became Mercer’s youngest faculty member when he joined the history department at age 21 in 1946. He took a leave of absence in 1949-50 to study at the University of London as a Fulbright Scholar and conduct research at the University of Virginia for his doctoral dissertation on the influence of British naval policy upon Anglo-American relations from 1783-1812. 

Dr. Lester met Pauline “Polly” (Domingos) Lester in Macon, and they married in 1956. Before the fall semester of 1959, he left Mercer to join the faculty at Davidson College in North Carolina, where he taught American and British history until his retirement in 1989. He remained connected to Mercer as an alumnus, at one point serving as president of the Half Century Club.

He died in 2008 at 83, and at his request, “Professor of History” was engraved on his tombstone. His wife, Polly, died two years later at age 86. The couple was married for more than 50 years.

Why he’s a legend: Dr. Lester was a historian who specialized in diplomatic history and international relations, with a special interest in 18th and 19th century America, England and Anglo-American relations. He contributed numerous written pieces to historical journals. He was well known for his dry wit as well as his scholarship. He expressed his views strongly, while applying his broad sense of humor and always respecting the opinions of others. He was a devout Christian who attended and served the Presbyterian church for many years, including as an archivist. 

As a Mercer faculty member for nearly 15 years, he made quite an impact on his students and peers. While dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, he advocated for the strengthening of natural sciences education through better facilities and equipment, additional faculty and the establishment of professional endowed department chairs. 

“Mercer University is sustaining a distinct loss in the resignation of the scholarly and cultured Dr. Malcolm Lester,” Mercer President Dr. Spright Dowell said in his announcement of Dr. Lester’s resignation in June 1959. “His connection with Mercer as student, professor of history, and dean of the College of Liberal Arts has been characterized consistently by superior ability, application, quality and efficiency. We regret to give him up, but we are pleased that he is to give his full time to the fine arts of teaching and research in accordance with his wishes and in which he excels.”

Throughout his career, Dr. Lester was a proponent for liberal arts education. In 2007, he made a gift to Mercer and requested that a lecture series on the liberal arts be created once the University secured a chapter of prestigious academic honor society Phi Beta Kappa, which he was involved in for many years including as senator. Mercer was awarded its chapter in 2016, and the inaugural Malcolm Lester Phi Beta Kappa Lectures on Liberal Arts and Public Life was hosted on the Macon campus in 2018.

Quotable: “Dr. Lester devoted his career to promoting the essential value of the liberal arts. He believed that an education grounded in critical thinking and broad learning prepared people to adapt to a dynamic workplace environment, to participate in democratic institutions, and to seek personal fulfillment and happiness. His generous gift to endow the Lester Lectures demonstrates the depth of his convictions and his confidence in the value of a liberal arts education at Mercer.” — Dr. David A. Davis, secretary of Mercer’s chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, chair of the Lester Lectures committee and English professor

Mercer Legends is a series that highlights iconic figures who left a lasting impact on the University and its faculty, staff and students, as well as the community.

 

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