The Talented Mr. Spellmann

Lindenwood University's president may be a genius, a savior and a visionary. He may also be higher ed's worst nightmare.

Land, to Dennis Spellmann, has always meant success. He calls himself a groundhog, admires his grandparents deeply for staying on the land when everyone else left and buys wherever his family's roots stretch (Cottleville was settled by his forbear, Minerva Cottle, and her frontiersman husband, Zaddock Woods). In Spellmann's work, too, land's often saved the day. Take Sulphur Springs, where he worked for a year as city manager in the '60s. Dried-up economy, land good for nothing but grass -- so Spellmann convinced the town's businessmen to plant coastal Bermuda along the new interstate and establish a dairy co-op. Then he read that Hollywood Candy in Centralia, Ill., couldn't get milk because of a Teamsters strike, so he invited them to open a plant in Sulphur Springs, right next to the dairy co-op. "We got peanuts down here, too," he said, "and a lot of poor folks who need jobs.'" When the president asked what sort of subsidy he was offering, Spellmann retorted, "'Sir, I am insulted. I'd expect you to pay your own money.'" Intrigued, the president took the bait. "I sold 'em the land for twice what I was authorized," recalls Spellmann. "They wound up building the largest candy plant in the world, 10 million bars a day -- and it all started with what the ground could be used for."

At Lindenwood, Spellmann started by buying back land the university had sold for quick cash, buying whole subdivisions he could use for adult student housing ("If they get pregnant I don't have to kick them out, move them over into single-parent housing") and buying commercial property he could parlay, annex or trade to fulfill his elaborate vision of Lindenwood's future. Along the way, he made some brilliant moves: bought a country club for the cotillion; bought the boarded-up Southern Air Restaurant, where Chuck Berry allegedly videotaped the women's room. It was a mess, so he convinced Wentzville's Rotary Club to remove soggy drywall and sweep up debris; in exchange, he'd give $4,000 scholarships to students from Wentzville. (He gives that much aid to most students anyway, but the Southern Air is quite tidy now.)

By 1994, Spellmann was talking about luxury villas for alumni and several other projects, enough to alarm St. Charles residents who were afraid Spellmann was trying to run the whole city. "I'm just trying to plan my little campus," he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Six years later, that little campus boasts the spectacular Hyland Performance Arena and several other multimillion-dollar facilities ("We used to say he had an edifice complex," a professor offers primly). Ground just opened for the $12 million Spellmann Center, and the president insists on showing every visitor the plans and sketches for his next projects.

You’d think they'd struck gold. Construction's booming at Lindenwood: Above, one of the new dormitories; soon to come, the $12 million Spellmann Center, honoring the man who made it all possible.
Jennifer Silverberg
You’d think they'd struck gold. Construction's booming at Lindenwood: Above, one of the new dormitories; soon to come, the $12 million Spellmann Center, honoring the man who made it all possible.

Spellmann's dream-in-progress is the Daniel Boone Home, now a National Center for the Study of American Culture and Values surrounded by a living-history village. (The home itself actually belonged to Daniel's son Nathan, but luckily for Lindenwood, Dan'l died there). In 1998, the Boone home's previous owner entrusted Lindenwood with the historic site's future. He now seems to regret it; there are rumors of a lawsuit about to be filed in federal court. But Spellmann's forging ahead, planning an amphitheater, apple orchard, popcorn field and sheep farm where students will shear and weave, learning historic ways at the Frontier University of the New Millennium.

This fiscal year, the frontier university spent $17.8 million of its $56.1 million budget on capital outlay, more than $12.6 million of it in purchasing yet more property. Meanwhile, the St. Charles City Council just confirmed another pet project: straightening First Capitol Drive, with the state paying $500,000, the city paying $1.5 million and Lindenwood chipping in 75 percent of any additional costs. This will allow the university to create a majestic new entrance, expand its boundaries, build a Fine and Performing Arts Center and use the old Commerce Bank building for -- Spellmann's eyes twinkle -- the world's only drive-through registration. Service. Commercial holdouts along First Capitol are caving fast -- all but the Bargain Barn, the thrift shop with the defiant red "Have NOT sold out!" sign in its window. Word has it that if its owners don't relinquish the property soon, the city will declare eminent domain.

With so many residents and small businesses angry, how does Spellmann's vision keep prevailing? It helps that Lindenwood's in old St. Charles, a sepia-tinted village where business is done on a handshake. It helps that the school is in the fastest-growing county in the state and that it draws from rural communities that can no longer rely on farming for a livelihood. And it helps to have strong connections. St. Charles Mayor Patti York is now a member of Lindenwood's faculty and its Board of Overseers; Missouri Sen. Steve Ehlmann (R-St. Charles) also serves on the Board of Overseers; Missouri Rep. Jon Bennett (R-St. Charles), an alum, serves on the education appropriations and higher-ed committees. (Spellman and Harmon were two of the 14 donors who gave Bennett $500.) Lindenwood's director of institutional advancement, Carl Bearden, a longtime member of the St. Charles City Council, was just elected state representative; Lindenwood's dean of management, Nancy Matheny (who earned her Lindenwood MBA without having earned a baccalaureate) used to be president of the City Council and later helped Spellmann negotiate many property deals. Her husband's company does heating-and-cooling work for the university, and the Mathenys recently bought a condominium from the Spellmans.

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