Since my last name began with a “T,” I was seated in the first chair of the “T’s.”
To my left was Steve Suzuki of Kobe, Japan, an economics major – no more than five feet tall – wearing wire-rimmed glasses. His face was broad, his smile wide. To my right was Glynne Thomas, a tall, slender woman from New Orleans, with a bright, unusually narrow forehead. She was African-American, one of only a handful in the class. All seniors, 150 of us were sitting on folding chairs, waiting for the 115th commencement exercises to begin on the Knox College campus in Galesburg, Illinois. Midway between Chicago and St. Louis, it was a railroad town, the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy tracks running just a few blocks east and south of the campus, the Santa Fe just a few blocks north of the business district.
We were outside on the lawn, protected somewhat from the sun by a canopy of fairly tall maple trees, planted sometime in the 1950s, replacing the diseased elms which had shaded the tall, lanky politician who stood under a huge banner reading: “Knox College for Lincoln.” That was over 100 years before. On each side of the seniors were their parents and friends, some seated with legs crossed, others standing huddled in pairs, passing the time, waiting for the music to begin. This was a middle-aged, middle-income crowd.
The fathers, most gray, some bald, wore light blue two-button seersucker Haspel suits, white shoes, button down white shirts, striped ties, and white leather belts. They looked “preppy.” Some were seated, while others were standing to the sides, talking about the coming election in the fall. “We can’t have a President reporting to the Pope, can we?” said a gentleman from Chicago’s North Shore, answering his own question by the tone of his voice. Others were conversing casually with strangers, inhaling Marlboro or Kent cigarettes. “I’m going to miss Ike,” said another, flicking an ash on the wet grass. “Nothing like his Interstates to get around Chicago.”
The ladies in the audience — mothers and sisters, grandmothers and fiancées — looked fashionable in silk dresses, nylon hose, high heels, pill-box hats, and of course, white cotton gloves. Quiet, reserved, dignified, they were church-like in their demeanor.
In front and slightly above us was the platform party finding seats reserved for trustees, a couple of administrators, and three dignitaries who were to receive honorary degrees: Chesser Campbell, publisher of the Chicago Tribune; William Benton, chairman of the Encyclopedia Britannica; and Nelson Dean Jay, president, Morgan & Cie.
To the young, bright-eyed seniors, these three honorees looked very old – all in their sixties or seventies – their white hair standing out from the blackness of their robes. They donned their caps, alternately moving their tassels first to the right, then to the left, looking desperately for an authority on proper placement. Then, they sat down: Campbell on the left, Benton in the middle, and Jay on the right.
After the preliminaries, the Dean of the Faculty, Dr. Herman Muelder, a Midwestern historian of some note, introduced the first honoree with his usual scowl. “Nelson Dean Jay, a 1905 graduate of Knox and a faithful alumnus, we confer on you an honorary degree.” Muelder paused, once again, to push his black horn-rimmed glasses up his long nose, and glanced at his script, “for achievements in international commerce, finance and goodwill.” Muelder’s face was expressionless in contrast to the banker’s. Jay beamed.
In his late seventies, about six feet tall, a little thick around the middle, Nelson Dean Jay’s (NDJ’s) most distinguishing characteristics were his white hair, combed back on both sides, and that broad, friendly smile. He truly was “glad to meet you.” He could have been a twin for David McCullough, the famous American historian. In 1960, most people present had read the Tribune, checked something in the Encyclopedia Britannica, but had never heard of Nelson Dean Jay. Then and now, he is virtually unknown in the United States, his name almost forgotten, even at the college from which Jay himself had graduated in 1905.
On June 6, 1960, we seniors were thinking about our future, but Jay may well have been remembering moments from his past. There were certainly memorable ones.
Chaumont, France — June 23, 1918
NDJ, now a Lt. Colonel, was having dinner at the Headquarters of the American Expeditionary Force with his friend, Col. Charles Dawes. They were not alone. They had been invited to hear how American soldiers would enter into battle, for the first time, in World War I. They were learning about an important point in history, the battle of Cantigny, from the Commander-in- Chief, General John Pershing, standing before them, looking at a large map, pointing to critical bridges, important highways.
There was that day when the Jays bought their weekend retreat.
Fontainebleau, France–Sometime in 1922
Fontainebleau, a city of 35,000, is located 34 miles southeast of Paris. The city has been well-known for centuries for its large, scenic forest and for the historic Chateau, once belonging to the kings of France and often compared favorably to the Palace of Versailles. The Jay home was about a mile from the Chateau with paths leading to the forest where they rode their horses and where, centuries before, royalty went for fox hunts. The two-acre property, surrounded by a high stone wall, consisted of a three-story house built in the 18th century at the time of Napoleon, a gate house for the gardener and his wife, a garage, a stable for their horses and a pavilion for their guests.
There was that time when he received this note of condolence from a friend:
New York City — January 1, 1929
My dear Mr. Jay,
Ever since the great tragedy which came into your lives last year I have wanted to write you a word of deep sympathy and human understanding. Thus far I have hesitated to intrude upon you with even such a message. On this New Year’s Day, however, my heart prompts me to tell you how truly Mrs. Rockefeller and I have sympathized with you and Mrs. Jay in your great loss, and how gladly we would have helped you bear this sorrow had that been possible…
That the New Year may bring to you and Mrs. Jay the fortitude with which to meet life’s sorrows and heart aches, and that peace may come to your aching hearts is my earnest wish…
(Letter from John D. Rockefeller, Knox College Archives)
There was the time when Anne went back to the U.S., but Dean stayed in Europe, wondering if they would ever see each other again.
Paris, France — July 4, 1940
Dean Jay had been warned to leave France twice – once in Sept 1939 personally by Ambassador Bullitt when Britain and France declared war on Germany, and on June 12, 1940, by the American Embassy, when the French government began moving its operations out of the city to the south. Instead, Dean Jay decided to stay in Paris, moving most of the bank’s activities to Niort and helping the American Hospital prepare to care for the sick and wounded, first refugees, later soldiers.
Events occurred quickly. On June 12, Paris was surrounded by Panzer Divisions. On June 13, Paris was declared an Open City. On June 14, everyone was waiting for the arrival of Adolf Hitler, whose soldiers were confiscating buildings for their headquarters. Swastikas, red, black, and white, were flying all around the Place Vendome, even next door to NDJ’s office.
On July 4, Dean Jay was not celebrating Independence Day. He was confronted by a member of the Gestapo. “Heil Hitler!” His message to the banker was direct: “You are to report tomorrow to the Vice President of the Reichsbank. You are to bring a copy of all the investments. Authorities will call in a few days to examine all your safe deposit boxes in the presence of a German customs officer.”
“What are you looking for?” Jay asked.
“Gold, convertible currency, unset precious stones and securities.”
There was the time when he was viewed as more than a banker, something like an elderly statesman.
Amsterdam, Holland — March 18, 1954
Prince Bernhard, the husband of the Queen of the Netherlands, looked particularly striking, wearing his trademark white carnation on the lapel of his colorful uniform. Twenty-eight years older than his host, Dean Jay looked distinguished, nearing the end of a long colorful career.
Bernhard’s motives for seeing Jay aren’t recorded. The Prince may have wanted to “look” the banker over, to verify what others had said about him, or recognizing what others knew, Bernhard may have come directly to the point.
“For the last two or three years, I have been meeting with some key people around the world.” While continuing to talk, the Prince removed a silver cigarette case from his coat pocket and opened it, removing a cigarette, tapping it against the case. He continued. “We began talking to people in Western Europe, as well as the United States. We met with the outgoing members of the Truman, even with some of the new Eisenhower administration.”
The first cigarette was followed by another. The Prince continued, “We are planning a meeting in Holland in May. I am authorized to invite you to that meeting. Jean Monnet says you are just the kind of man we need, someone with a balanced view of America and Europe. Will you join us?”
Galesburg, Illinois – June 6, 1960
Six years later, at the 115th graduation exercises at Knox College, I turned to Steve Suzuki, my classmate, seated next to me, and asked, “Who’s Nelson Dean Jay? Where did he come from? Why haven’t we heard about him before?” Fifty years later, I began answering those questions.
Karl K. Taylor Copyright 2012