Dr. Spright Dowell served as Mercer University’s president for 25 years, seeing the University through the Great Depression and World War II. Here’s how he became a Mercer Legend.
Dr. Spright Dowell
Mercer connection: Former Mercer president
Years at Mercer: Served as president from 1928-1953, acting president from 1959-1960, and emeritus president 1953-1963
What he did: Dr. Dowell came to Mercer in 1928, following eight years as president of Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University). He served until 1953, and his 25 years make him the University’s second-longest serving president after Dr. Kirby Godsey. Upon retirement, he was named emeritus president and later was called on to serve in an acting capacity from 1959-1960 after the death of President George B. Connell. A man of faith, Dr. Dowell also served two terms in 1949 and 1950 as president of the Georgia Baptist Convention, with which Mercer was affiliated at the time.
Why he is a legend: Dr. Dowell assumed Mercer’s presidency just before the Great Depression. At the time, the University faced heavy debt, shrinking income and declining student enrollment. During his tenure, Dr. Dowell established sound fiscal practices and made several changes to help make Mercer financially solvent, including modifying the University structure and dropping intercollegiate football. By the end of his presidency, the fund balance’s deficit was replaced with a surplus.
Though frugal, Dr. Dowell was also generous. While many students found him a stern disciplinarian, he was also known to have a sympathetic ear when hearing about their financial needs. Before financial aid was established, he maintained a personal loan fund that enabled countless students to remain in college.
Dr. Dowell’s tenure is remembered as one of outstanding growth and achievement. Successful fundraising campaigns during his presidency raised Mercer’s endowment from $750,000 to more than $3 million, provided for the construction of a new law school building, and helped build Mary Erin Porter Hall, the first residence hall for women. In addition, he increased enrollment from 600 to more than 1,000 and added the Southern School of Pharmacy (now School of Pharmacy) in Atlanta. He also wrote the only published history of the University, covering the period from 1833-1953.
Dr. Dowell died in 1963 at the age of 85 and was buried in Penfield Cemetery, located at the site of Mercer’s founding.
Quotable: “That Mercer be an institution of educational integrity in the service of the kingdom of God was the controlling purpose of his life. He stood undaunted against every force that sought to compromise this purpose, and welcomed every resource that would further it. He called on everyone — officers, staff, faculty, students — to join him in pursuit of this objective. Always firm, discipled and frugal, he demanded these traits in all who served under him, and he was respected and loved because he did so. To know Dr. Dowell was to know a man of uprightness. He was one of Mercer’s greatest leaders, perhaps her greatest.” — Dr. Joseph “Papa Joe” Hendricks, upon Dr. Dowell’s death in 1963
Chelsea Meyer, a senior at Mount de Sales Academy in Macon, contributed to this story.
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.