A Personal Reminiscence of EKU Presidents

Dublin Core


A Personal Reminiscence of EKU Presidents


This is the second in a series of columns recounting my personal recollections and memories of Eastern’s presidents going back to my entrance in Richmond in early 1930. I was born in Louisville in November of 1929, as I was a late baby and my mother wanted the facilities of the Louisville hospital, and moved quickly back to my parent’s home on South Third Street. My father had come on the faculty at Eastern in 1928. I returned to Eastern as a business faculty member in the fall of 1959 and taught many business classes, but mostly economics, until the spring of 1998.

Robert Richard Martin became president of Eastern in 1960 and retired in 1976. He was the first Eastern graduate to become president and oversaw the attainment of university status in 1966. He loved Eastern and worked constantly for its beautification and the addition of new buildings and programs. He was a keen competitor and pushed himself and everyone around him to grow, enhance and improve the campus programs and the educational experience of Eastern students.

When he came to Eastern, it was Eastern Kentucky State College and had about 3,000 students. When he stepped down, it was Eastern Kentucky University and had some 13,000 students.

In the early years, meetings of the entire faculty were conducted in the Little Theatre besides the Keen Johnson building. Any change of grade forms had to go before the entire faculty body for discussion and a vote. At one of these meetings, Dr. Martin (he received his doctorate from Columbia University and specialized in the financial aspects of education) jokingly asked one of his old Eastern professors if he was going to change one of Martin’s old grades! Regular faculty banquets were conducted in the Keen Johnson ballroom and these events always were well attended as Dr. Martin was well aware of who was present and who was absent. Political candidates often were speakers at these functions.

One of the more memorable of these speeches was given by Henry Ward, who gave a speech of about 20 minutes, then gave the same speech again and then again for the third time. The story was that the next morning, Dr. Martin called in John Vickers, one of his administrative aides, and said, “John, I want you to go over to Walnut Hall and see if Henry is still speaking.”

Dr. Martin came to Eastern after having served a term as State Superintendent of Public Instruction. He also served as campaign manager in Bert Combs’ successful campaign for governor in 1959. A larger than life character, Dr. Martin knew everyone on the faculty, their politics, their family and constantly assessed their sense of commitment to Eastern. Happily married with no children, Eastern was his family and he was very much the father figure. His legacy remains today in many of the programs, buildings, statues, values and core principles of Eastern.

A memorable and entertaining moment of the later Martin administration came with the celebration of Earl Comb’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Combining my two loves of baseball and the community of Eastern, it remains a truly outstanding evening for me, even today.

J.C. Powell (president 1976-1984) was an educational finance wizard. He worked for the Commonwealth of Kentucky before coming to Eastern in 1960 with Dr. Martin. A third member of this team was John Vickers, an expert in public relations.

Dr. Powell was a very pleasant and thoughtful gentleman. He was president of EKU during my term as chair of the University Senate and he and I worked together on a wide range of university problems, projects and issues. He put EKU on a sound financial basis and consolidated and expanded many of the priorities of the Martin administration. His term was about half of Dr. Martin’s tenure as president, but his leadership led to many administrative and infrastructure advances that were sorely needed after the grow-grow days of the 1960s.

A relaxed, quiet man, he enjoyed a good joke and preferred to build consensus and move deliberately. Dr. Martin’s long-range plans for presidential succession beyond Dr. Powell ran afoul of political changes in Frankfort and the next presidential search process was a more wide open activity.

H. Hanley Funderburk (president 1984-1998) came to Eastern from Alabama. He was soft spoken, with a lyrical Alabama accent, but firm in his positions and fiscally very conservative. He was said to be able to pinch a penny. He was loathe to add faculty and staff positions, but did succeed in providing regular raises for the faculty. This prudence paid benefits in 1990s as funding levels from Frankfort deteriorated and other universities in the state had to scramble for resources.

I recall he used to take regular constitutionals and could be seen walking a circuit around the campus. He often traveled with the Eastern football team on away games and got to know Coach Kidd and Judge Bill Robbins, whose communications network handled some of the radio announcements for the games. His wife was a genteel southern lady and became a good friend of Mrs. Betsy Robbins and Mrs. Susan Kidd.

In the spring of 1998, President Funderburk and I retired from Eastern. We spent the evening of the retirement dinner at the table together with Mrs. Funderburk and my wife talking about the charms of the south, while he and I discussed my military service in 1951-1953 with a group of officers who were Auburn graduates.

My retirement ends my close connection to Eastern’s presidents. I have known Doug Whitlock, EKU’s present president, since the 1960s — as he was a student at Eastern and when he returned from military service he worked with Don Feltner in the Public Information office and then with Hanley Funderburk as assistant to the president. He knows Eastern and higher education as well as anyone could.

Now, I am largely aware of the actions and activities of Eastern’s presidents the same way you are — through the papers and television. They were all very different men, facing very different issues and challenges in their time — yet all a part of Madison’s heritage.


Dr. Fred Engle




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Dr. Fred Engle, “A Personal Reminiscence of EKU Presidents,” Madison's Heritage Online, accessed June 15, 2024, https://madisonsheritage.eku.edu/items/show/1809.