Educator, Businessman, and President
Bennette Eugene Geer was an instrumental figure in the history of Furman University due to his ability to influence people and implement change. With his talents in business and accounting, he was able to guide Furman through part of the Great Depression and coordination with the Greenville Woman’s College. A businessman and scholar, Geer brought money into Furman as well as Greenville. To understand why Geer was made president of the University and what accomplishments he made in his life, one must look at his time spent as an educator and as a major player in the South Carolina textile industry.
Geer’s early life experiences made him into the man he was while president of Furman University. He was born on June 9, 1873 in Anderson County, South Carolina. His father was a cotton farmer, but his mother told Geer and his brothers that they needed to move out of Anderson since they could not make anything of themselves raising cotton. According to Geer, “she instilled in her sons the ambition to do something,” and this ambition is evidenced by the fact that four of her sons grew up to be cotton mill presidents.1 After finishing his basic education, Geer worked in a grocery store, since he had no money to attend college. While working at the grocery store, he was offered the chance to receive an education at Furman University by then President Charles Manly. With some financial aid from his brother John M. Geer, and housing provided by Manly, Geer worked his way through Furman. He earned a Bachelor of Arts from Furman in 1896. Shortly after his graduation, Geer became a Furman faculty member. While on the faculty he was an assistant professor of Latin as well as the head of the English Department. Throughout this time he was mentored by Charles Judson.2 Geer described Judson as a man “always unyielding in a contest between right and wrong,” which was a characteristic that was instilled in Geer.3 After the death of Judson, Geer was appointed dean of the university. This was toward the end of Geer’s career as an educator, as he left Furman University for the world of business in 1911.4
In 1911, Bennette Geer’s brother, John M. Geer, became ill and Bennette Geer had to take over management of Easley Mills and Alice Mills.5 In 1919, Geer’s brother died and Geer succeeded him as president of five cotton mills. One of the mills acquired was renamed Judson Mill in honor of Geer’s former mentor. Throughout this time he earned respect from the textile industry. During the Great Depression he was a member of the National Industrial Relations Board for cotton textiles. After this he held a place on the Cotton Textile National Industrial Relations Board in 1933.6 In addition to earning the respect of the textile industry, he also earned the respect of a man named James Buchanan Duke.
Due to his ventures in tobacco, electric power, and other enterprises, Duke was a successful business tycoon. In addition to these ventures, Duke also invested in companies. One such company was Judson Mill, of which Geer was president. While a stock holder in Judson mill, Duke got to know Geer quite well from doing business with him. On one such occasion, Duke and Geer were on the same train travelling to New York. During the journey Duke told Geer about his plan to give five million dollars to help Trinity College’s law school. Remembering his experiences at Furman University and the fact that he was a board member there, Geer asked Duke if he “might help my little school down at Greenville a little bit.”7 This is all Geer said on the matter, but Duke remembered. In a meeting soon after their discussion, Duke told Geer that he was creating a 40 million dollar endowment of which Furman could have five percent. Geer was so impressed by Duke’s generous offer that he feared the next day he would “wake up and all this would be a dream.” This large endowment would become known after Duke’s death as the Duke Endowment.8
Although heavily involved with the textile industry, Geer never forgot about his alma mater and former employer. Since 1914, Geer had served as treasurer on the Furman University board. During this time he helped expand the downtown Greenville campus, and was successful in securing a $175,000 grant from the General Education Board of the South Carolina Baptist Convention.9 While William J. McGlothlin was president of Furman, the University began to receive Duke Endowment funds. This was during the Great Depression, and the funds helped Furman survive. In the midst of relative economic turmoil in May of 1933, the University was stunned when President McGlothlin died in a car accident.
It was then up to the Board of Directors to find a suitable replacement for William McGlothlin. Many board members thought that Geer would be a good replacement due to his experience in business and the fact that he brought the Duke Endowment to Furman. However, some thought Geer had never truly been tested in business, and were opposed to the fact that Geer did not support coordination attempts being undertaken between the Greenville Woman’s College and Furman University.10 Despite the critics, Geer became the new president in July of 1933. His inauguration took place on homecoming and marked the first time that women and men from the Greenville Woman’s College and Furman University came together. In his inaugural address, Geer discussed how the textile industry was constantly making changes based on innovations and how colleges should “make similar progressive adjustments in the light of changing times,” which revealed the business perspective he brought to the presidency.11
Upon entering office, Geer was immediately forced by the board to cut salaries and raise tuition. To make matters more complicated, the Greenville Woman’s College and Furman University were in the coordination process. This was something Geer opposed due to the fact that he thought that the Woman’s College would add further to financial problems Furman was already having. Geer felt that coordination was a ”cooperative effort to tide the college over an emergency and nothing more,” due to the fact that both colleges were having financial troubles at the time.12 However, once he learned that enrollment would increase through coordination he became supportive of the arrangement. For coordination to happen, $300,000 would have to be raised. Geer’s financial and business skills became critical to this effort, and through effective accounting and fundraising methods Geer eventually raised the money. In 1937, trustees from the Greenville Woman’s College and Furman University as well as messengers from the Southern Baptist Convention approved coordination, and the two institutions became one. Although focused on Furman’s financial situation, Geer still put great emphasis on updating the curriculum as well as getting involved with the city of Greenville. He did this by instituting beautification programs on the Reedy River as well as by offering courses to residents of the city. Geer also applied for federal grants to help students receive an education.13 Despite these positive developments, Furman was still having financial difficulties. Geer was known to give out scholarships, which increased the deficit. Also, the building of a new football stadium exacerbated their economic position. When asked about the University’s financial situation, Geer accredited it to the high costs of athletics and coordination. This debt combined with an accused liberal religion professor named Herbert Gezork14 caused University trustees to pressure Geer to retire, which he did in 1938.15
Bennette Geer was a man who knew how to get things done, and how to positively influence people. His skills and leadership contributed greatly to Furman. According to a 1958 article in The Greenville News, Geer “did much to guide Furman into the main channel of modern education,” which is what he said he would do at his inauguration.16 He as well as his brother John have a dormitory on Furman’s new campus which bears their name. In addition to this, Geer has a $100,000 chair of literature granted by the Duke Endowment in his name. Geer’s business and financial skills separate him from other presidents of Furman. His early life experiences combined with his experiences in industry made him the man to count on to lead the University through coordination and financial difficulties. His leadership and contributions have been critical to Furman’s continued development.
Written by Charlie Murphy
2For further readings on Dr. Charles Judson see: Daniel, Robert. Furman University, A History. Greenville: Furman University, 1951, Chapter Six.
3Furman University, The inauguration of Bennette Eugene Geer, as president of Furman University and the Greenville Woman's College, October 28, 1933, Greenville, South Carolina. Greenville: Published by the Faculty, 1933, 18. Special Collections and University Archives, James B. Duke Library, Furman University.
4Glenn, Laurence. Bennette Eugene Geer : A Biographical Sketch. Greenville: Privately Printed, 1956, 15-16. Special Collections and University Archives, James B. Duke Library, Furman University.
5Bainbridge, Judith. Academy and College : The History of The Woman's College of Furman University. Macon: Mercer University Press, 2001, 209-210.
6Huff, Archie. Greenville :The History of the City and County in the South Carolina Piedmont. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995, 346, 351.
7Rounds, F.W. Interview of Bennette Geer on Cassette Tape – Misc. #250, 1963, 47. Special Collections and University Archives, James B. Duke Library, Furman University.
9Daniel, Robert. Furman University, A History. Greenville: Furman University, 1951, 146-147.
10Reid, Alfred. Furman University : Toward a New Identity, 1925-1975. Durham: Duke University Press, 1976, 63.
11Furman University, The inauguration of Bennette Eugene Geer, as president of Furman University and the Greenville Woman's College, October 28, 1933, Greenville, South Carolina. Greenville: Published by the Faculty, 1933, 23. Special Collections and University Archives, James B. Duke Library, Furman University.
12Bainbridge, Judith. Academy and College : The History of The Woman's College of Furman University . Macon: Mercer University Press, 210.
13Reid, Alfred. Furman University : Toward a New Identity, 1925-1975. Durham: Duke University Press, 1976, 66-67.
14Herbert Gezork was a religion professor at Furman University from Germany. Questions arose about whether or not he should be teaching at Furman when he told his students that the story of Samson’s killing of a thousand Philistines was a “folktale, possibly with an original core of truth.” His professorship was also questioned when he defended Gordon Poteat’s statement: “If there is a hell, Jesus will be in it.” Gezork defended this by telling his students that Poteat meant that Jesus lives wherever there is suffering. For further reading on this topic see: Reid, Alfred. Furman University : Toward a New Identity, 1925-1975. Durham: Duke University Press, 1976, 93.
15Bainbridge, Judith. Academy and College : The History of The Woman's College of Furman University . Macon: Mercer University Press, 2001, 216-218.
16“Term Short, Distinguished.” Greenville News. 11 11 58. Geer, Bennette Eugene, Jr., Furmania. Special Collections and University Archives, James B. Duke Library, Furman University.