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He was born in El Campo, an East Texas town with a museum of big-game trophies from five continents.
He grew up fighting with his daddy, a short, proud German who'd tried to farm and fallen ill, and had to prove himself a man somehow.
He was the first kid in town to make Eagle Scout, trudging an extra 16 miles on dirt roads to attend the meetings. "I know he liked earning all the merit badges," says his baby sister Dixie Guyer, "because he had a whole bunch of them. But mainly you got to go out in the woods, live by your wits, see how far you could push yourself."
Dennis Spellmann has been pushing himself -- and everybody else -- ever since. He headed north to Missouri Valley College in 1956, bent on becoming an executive with the Boy Scouts of America. Survived four years of the Marines and came home jumping over laced fingers to impress the five younger Spellmanns. Earned a master's degree in public administration at the University of Texas-Austin, cleaned up the police force in Fort Worth, cleaned out what locals called the "Texas mafia" in Athens. Arrived in St. Louis in 1970 wearing cowboy boots and a 10-gallon hat, explaining with a shrug that he'd had to leave Texas because there was a contract out on him.
"It's kind of like Wyatt Earp," he says now. "You hire him to come in and straighten out the outlaws in Dodge City, and then what?" Weary of East Texas' rough politics, Spellmann read an ad for three positions at Ladue's elite John Burroughs High School: business manager, grounds director and assistant football coach. "I'll take all three," he told them, "as long as I can have 50 percent release time to start my consulting business." The Burroughs staff was still dazed by Spellmann's mix of "brilliant ideas and blue sky" when he left in 1972 to help close Maryville College. There he swung a series of land deals for the nuns, winning tearful applause by announcing that they didn't have to close after all. continued on page 16
Dennis Spellmann had rediscovered his Boy Scout dream. Gaining rapid fame as a bankruptcy and turnaround expert, he proceeded to bail out a string of Presbyterian, rural and historically black colleges across the country, flying from one to the other and descending like a god to overhaul the books, the payroll and the enrollment. By 1989, he was executive vice president of seven colleges simultaneously, among them Lindenwood College in St. Charles.
A year later, he was president of Lindenwood, and the U.S. Department of Education was auditing two of his prior clients, Tarkio College (now closed) and Missouri Valley College in Marshall, Mo. The same pattern emerged in both places: unprepared students -- some of them high-school dropouts -- illiterate, homeless, drug-addicted, recently paroled or nonexistent, signed up for college courses, their federal grants fattening the college coffers long after they'd stopped showing up.
Everybody thought the game was up. They thought a grand jury would indict the turnaround artist and higher ed would return to its sedate ways, small institutions teetering on the edge of bankruptcy with their ideals intact. Instead, Spellmann escaped un-scathed. He'd done nothing illegal, he reminded the Wall Street Journal: "I didn't invent these grants. If the government didn't want these people eligible, they could change the rules."
They swiftly did so; it's said that Spellmann changed federal law singlehandedly, by forcing officials at the U.S. Department of Education (whom he calls "marble sniffers") to spell out restrictions on financial aid. Today, Spellmann calls Tarkio "one of the best professional jobs I ever did and one of the greatest disappointments," claiming that after he left in 1985, they reverted to their old ways and made him a convenient scapegoat.
By then, Spellmann was working his magic at near-bankrupt Lindenwood, wiping away debt, boosting enrollment, painting pictures no one else could see. He'd made similar suggestions parachuting into other institutions (even convincing the stuffy Jesuits at St. Louis University to discount tuition because it was sinful to let classrooms stand empty). Now, however, Spellmann had the gravitas of a full-fledged college president, and for the first time in his life, he stayed put.
Eleven years later, Lindenwood is the fastest-growing institution of higher education in Missouri, on the verge of granting 10 percent of all baccalaureate degrees in the state. Enrollment has increased ninefold; the endowment has grown from $600,000 to $15.1 million; acreage has expanded from 108 to more than 1,228. The university is building beautiful multimillion-dollar buildings and paying for them with cash. Spellmann, 64, has won himself a tight circle of admirers -- and more enemies than you could fit in Texas.
"Sure, he saved Lindenwood," they say, "but at what cost?"
Founded in 1827 by idealistic reformer Mary Sibley, Lindenwood began as a Presbyterian women's college. For decades, Lindenwood ladies rode horseback through the grove of linden trees, worshiped regularly in the Gothic chapel, studied liberal arts and discussed the serious concerns of the day. A series of refined, scholarly men presided -- but as the 20th century progressed, they grew successively less intellectual, each struggling in his own way to re-create Lindenwood as a modern, coed, solvent institution.