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A look back: ASU president George Homer Durham

June 14, 2010

When he was in high school, George Homer Durham played piano with a band called the Rhythm Red Devils.

There was significance in that name, though Durham didn’t know it at the time.

He would go on to become the 11th president of ASU, a young and growing university with a Devil for a mascot.

It would have surprised no one if Durham had majored in music in college, since he played trumpet and piano, and was the son of a musician and composer who graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music.

But Durham majored in political science, earning his doctoral degree from UCLA in 1939 – he received only the second Ph.D. granted by UCLA – and going on to became noted for his studies of tax problems and municipal government administration.

Durham, who was born in Parowan, Utah, on Feb. 4, 1911, never let his calendar get too full for music or the arts, however.

He continued playing the piano – his favorite piece, he told a newspaper reporter, was the Adagio from Beethoven’s "Moonlight Sonata" – and even tried his hand at composing. In 1967, he wrote a fight song which was to be performed by the Sun Devil Marching Band during the ASU-San Jose State football game in Sun Devil Stadium, titled “Sing a Song for ASU.”

His love for the arts – and humanities – was evident in a list of goals for the university that he outlined in 1961. Among them was to equip the new fine arts center, which the legislature had authorized for ASU that year, with “one of the finest pipe organs.”

His list also included the construction of a new language and literature building. (Which is now named for him.)

George Durham, his son, said of his father, “The ‘young’ ASU of the early 1960s reminded him of the ‘young’ UCLA of the late 1930s, and he often would say that Tempe should join the ranks of other places like Westwood, Ann Arbor, Berkeley, New Haven or Cambridge!

“ASU's first doctorates were given during his tenure as president and I think he enjoyed many other firsts at ASU: the law school, the graduate school of social work, the Fiesta Bowl, etc.”

Durham was a passionate advocate for higher education. He viewed universities as “fortresses for individualism,” and told Phoenix Gazette reporter John L. Carpenter, that the major purpose of a university is to “liberate the mind.”

Even though Durham thought that education should be free, he believed that students should make good on their part of the bargain and set the tone for their future success in their freshman year.

Durham himself was no stranger to hard work. He took his first job at age 10, selling Liberty magazine door to door, and earned money for his tuition at the University of Utah by playing the piano.

Nine years after he was inaugurated as president of ASU, he resigned to become Utah’s first state commissioner of higher education – yet another challenge for a man who liked to climb mountains, and seemed always to be looking for a bigger one to scale.