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Tenney, Charles D. (Charles Dewey) | Southern Illinois University Special Collections Research Center

Name: Tenney, Charles D. (Charles Dewey)

Historical Note:

Born September 19th, 1906, Charles Dewey Tenney came to Southern Illinois University Carbondale, then known as Southern Illinois Teachers College, in 1931. During the next 42 years, Tenney served his institution in an almost countless number of capacities, spanning from coach to professor to administrator. He was not only instrumental in the organization of the university as it expanded rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s, but was also a prolific writer, publishing works in English and philosophy. In 1969, he was named University Professor, becoming but the fourth person to garner the title; in 1979, he received the University's Distinguished Service Award. Tenney retired in 1973, and died in April of 1983 in Carbondale after suffering a stroke.

Tenney began his life in Helena, Montana; he moved to Idaho in 1923 to earn his undergraduate degree from Gooding College, where his father served as president. There he studied English and Philosophy, participated in the debate team, and met his wife, Maude. The research interests he cultivated there, mostly concerning aesthetics and creativity, followed him throughout the rest of his life; some of his writings from this time period were later featured in his work The Discovery of Discovery. After completing his undergraduate studies in 1927, Tenney gained his Master’s at University of Oregon in 1927; he continued his doctoral studies there, also spending a year at Harvard University so as to study under the great Alfred North Whitehead. By the time he completed his student career in 1931, Tenney was already a noted scholar, publishing materials in chemistry, philosophy, and English, specializing in the thought of George Meredith and Whitehead’s cosmology.

Tenney immediately began his teaching career as Professor of English at Southern Illinois in 1931. He soon began organizing philosophy courses, eventually developing the Philosophy Department and serving as the Acting Chairman for several years; he also served as Acting Head for the Art Department for a time, possibly helping out his close friend, Burnett Shryock (son of University President Henry Shryock). During this time, he also served as tennis coach, debate coach, and adviser for student publications.

In 1945, following the death of President Roscoe Pulliam, Tenney considered leaving his post for other openings in philosophy or administration, unsure of a future for himself at Southern. However, Tenney decided to stay, and became Administrative Assistant to the new president, Delyte Morris, in addition to teaching. In 1952, he was designated Vice-President for Instruction. During these administrative years, Tenney was heavily involved in university organization and planning.

After 25 years of administrative work, Tenney stepped down to begin his work as Project Director for Resources for Tomorrow, a division of the University’s Centennial Celebration proceedings and publications. This allowed him to work on the next aspect of his legacy, a mammoth manuscript on the processes of creativity and insight: The Discovery of Discovery, which was to be published as part of the Centennial Celebration. Part of this work involved the assistance of other scholars, collecting quotes elucidating discovery in virtually every branch of knowledge; these quote became interspersed throughout the series of essays authored by Tenney.

Throughout his life, Tenney was a prolific writer, composing many short stories, poems, speeches and articles, many of which were published. Most notable of these works is “Aesthetics in the Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre,” which became part of Volume XVI of the Library of Living Philosophers. He also kept detailed journals of life events and musings on readings.

Unfortunately, Tenney’s failing health prevented the completion of his project before the end of the Centennial Period. However, Harold M. Kaplan, Ralph E. McCoy, and Lewis E. Hahn, all previously involved in the project, completed editing the manuscript, and published it in 1991. In the Editor’s Preface, they wrote: “This work is presented as a memorial to Charles D. Tenney, in recognition of his distinguish career as university administrator, scholar, teaching, and writer… He had the all too rare ability to present complex and abstract ideas with simple eloquence.” Such ‘simple eloquence’ can be found in his statement of University Objectives, emblazoned in stone within Morris Library’s Hall of Presidents and Chancellors.

Note Author: Elizabeth C. Hartman

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