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.

In short, Spellmann is surrounded by a tight-woven net of support. He has his wife, Sue Spellmann, on the Board of Overseers and his kids in administrative and faculty posts, and in 1994 he gave his college mentor Bob L. Meisel an honorary doctorate. When old friend William Symes left the Monsanto Fund, he joined the faculty as a chemistry professor and helped give students the Meyers-Briggs personality test. As for the board, its officers don't have to rotate, and chairman Ray Harmon is deeply loyal to Lindenwood; his father and sister both taught there, and he received an honorary doctorate from the university. So did vice chair Ben Blanton, whose construction company managed the $10 million dormitory project and whose name now adorns one of the halls.

It's all perfectly legal, and the system functions smoothly. But it makes those outside the circle feel pretty helpless.

On the corner of Spellmann's desk sits a rough bronze sculpture of a masked bandit, a strongbox on the ground beside him, a Colt pistol in one outstretched hand and a shotgun in the other, bearing an inscription that reads, "Go ahead, be a hero." Spellmann usually swivels around, sits sideways and leans way back, "so if people want to catch his eye, they come in and stand to one side," notes an employee. "But that way, they're also facing the guns."

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.

"Goddammit!" he'll explode. "You're not the goddamn president here, I'm the goddamn president." Proposals go through 13 or more drafts, and Spellmann must initial nearly everything. "He's like Khrushchev without the shoe," groans a recently departed professor: "He loves to pound his fist on the table: 'Goddammit, I told you this.' 'No, you didn't, sir, you told me this.' 'Well goddammit, this is what I'm telling you now.'"

"Most people aren't used to dealing with a person who doesn't try to put restraints on his anger," a former dean notes calmly. "He doesn't know how to figure out how people feel or how they see things, so he yells at you. When he's yelling at you, he's in control. I've been in the room when the veins were popping out on his neck and I thought he was going to have a heart attack, and then the person leaves and he turns around and says, 'Think that'll hold him?'"

Many Lindenwood employees resent these choreographed explosions, but people close to Spellmann see it differently. "He's a challenging person, and people don't like to be challenged," says Ed Watkins, an education and business expert long associated with the university. "Most people are go along, get along. He disturbs your comfort."

"People tend to complain when they feel their own shortcomings," remarks Spellmann's sister. "And he probably doesn't socialize a lot. My parents didn't socialize with us children, either."

Instead of socializing or paying compliments (one longtime staffer carefully noted his first thank-you in her calendar), Spellmann brainstorms for hours at a stretch, in vivid detail. Faculty trot off to do his bidding -- only to hear, "Well, goddammit, why the hell'd you do that?" when they report back. "They come away saying, 'Man, he's crazy, he said to do it,'" chuckles a former administrator. "But he never really did; he was just thinking out loud."

Sort of like the year, in the mid-'90s, when he told stories of how Mary Sibley had talked to him and told him to go ahead with his landscaping plans. The handful who knew him well discerned the dry humor, but plenty of Ph.D.'s were convinced he was crazy. Spellmann is so frequently misperceived that he sometimes refers to himself as a prophet not honored in his own land, and he seems befuddled by people's reactions to his goddammits. "Nobody needs to be scared if their heart's pure," he says. "I don't tolerate fools gladly. I get unhappy with people when they are trying to do something half-baked and self-centered. Academia wastes so much time playing games, and I don't have time for it.

"I could have more patience, that's true," he adds ruefully. "I'm an ENTJ on the Meyers Briggs, which means I think the world ought to be ruled by logic, and I sometimes don't have enough concern for people's feelings. When you get focused, you get determined; you're not going to get things to happen any other way. But when you come in with the decisiveness of the ER, it's hard to shift gears and operate loosely."

It's also hard to accept external authority. Spellmann hates Washington bureaucracy, and he guards his campus from local intrusions, too -- to the point that when 13-year-old Tiffany Sabourin was raped, stabbed and decapitated on campus in 1998, it was common knowledge that he was giving the police fits, refusing to release information on the faculty or allow them to search rooms. Back in Marshall, his fierce protectiveness went even further: When an official with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) wrote an unfavorable report on Missouri Valley's teacher-education program, Spellmann told a reporter for the Marshall Democrat-News that the state was plotting against religious schools and the official had left her husband and children to live with a lesbian. She denied both and sued, and the case was eventually settled out of court. But Spellmann raised the specter of a state conspiracy against religious schools again last year, when DESE changed their standards for teacher accreditation.

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