The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Hancher, Virgil Melvin
(September 4, 1896–January 30, 1965)

–attorney and 13th president of the State University of Iowa—was born near Rolfe, Iowa, and died in New Delhi, India. He earned a B.A. at the State University of Iowa in 1918; was a Rhodes Scholar to Oxford University in 1919; and earned another B.A. from Worcester College, Oxford, in 1922; a J.D. from the State University of Iowa in 1924; and an M.A. from Oxford University in 1927. Hancher received honorary degrees from 13 colleges and universities, including such institutions as the University of Illinois, Northwestern University, University of California at Los Angeles, University of Florida, and Michigan State University.

    Hancher was admitted to the bar in Iowa in 1924 and in Illinois in 1925. From 1927 until 1940 he was associated with a law firm in Chicago, where he specialized in corporation law. In 1940 he became the 13th president of the State University of Iowa, and served until his retirement in 1964. That year he was named an educational consultant for the Ford Foundation in India, where he died. Hancher was to have returned to the University of Iowa in 1966 as a professor of law. During his nearly quarter century as president, Hancher worked closely to create harmony between the university and the community, and he often referred to the amicable town/gown relations in his annual State of the University addresses.

    Hancher's impact on the State University of Iowa was significant. Even before his time as president, he served on the board of directors of the Alumni Association, and as its president in 1938-1939. During his tenure at the university, its enrollment increased from 6,667 to 14,480 students, and its physical plant required and achieved major improvements and expansion. Hancher organized the university's academic calendar on a 12-month schedule. He was an eloquent spokesman for the university with the state legislature, and consistently won increased appropriations for capital construction and faculty salary increases. In his State of the University address in February 1961, he said, "Education is an investment in the future. Iowa can afford it. It affords good roads. It affords anything it wants. Of all that is good, Iowa can afford the best. But it may be required to make some hard and wise decisions in order to do so."

    Hancher held numerous positions of national and international importance. In 1944-1946 he was president of the State Universities Association. In 1953-1954 he was president of the National Association of State Universities. In 1953, 1956, 1958, 1961, and 1963 he was delegate from the Association of American Universities to the Association of Universities of the British Commonwealth. He was one of the men President Eisenhower appointed in 1954 to select the site of the U.S. Air Force Academy, and served on the academy's first board of visitors. In 1960 he was appointed to the board of directors of the Harry S. Truman Library Institute. In 1954-1955 he chaired the American Council on Education; in 1955-1960 he chaired the Midwestern Interstate Committee on Higher Education; in 1957-1959 he served on the Ford Foundation Commission on Government and Higher Education; and in 1959 he was appointed a U.S. delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. From 1956 to 1964 he served on the Permanent Committee of the Oliver Wendell Holmes Devise, a committee that prepared a history of the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1960-1961 he served as president of the Association of American Universities, and in 1962 he chaired the Danforth Foundation Commission on Church Colleges and Universities. Among his awards were a Freedoms Foundation Citation, the George Washington Honor Medal, the Omicron Delta Kappa Distinguished Service Key, and the Delta Sigma Rho Distinguished Achievement Award. Among the many tributes paid to Virgil Hancher during his lifetime was the following: "An educational statesman is not simply versed in the principles of art and government of an educational institution nor is he simply one who shows unusual wisdom in treating or directing public matters. Over and beyond these two estimable qualities is the right discipline he imposes upon himself to push forward with zeal the high and broad objectives he sees so clearly.... Virgil Hancher is such a man."

    In addition to his career as a lawyer, an educator, and president of the State University of Iowa, Virgil Hancher was a 33rd Degree Mason; a member of Rotary International; a vestry member and senior warden of Trinity Episcopal Church, Iowa City; and a delegate to the 1963 Anglican Congress in Toronto, Ontario. He enhanced the academic reputation of the State University of Iowa in the state, nation, and world. In a banquet address he once mentioned that people might long to live in a more attractive period of history, but still every age had its darker side. He thought the best period of humandevelopment to live in was at the dawn of conscience, when people learned to ask whether something was the right thing to do, instead of whether they had the power to do it.
Sources Hancher's papers are in the University Archives, Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. Secondary sources include Virgil M. Hancher, "Student Life at Oxford," Palimpsest 35 (1954), 405–16; Virgil M. Hancher, "A Journey to India: A University Lecture," 1/22/1950, Iowa Memorial Union, State University of Iowa, Iowa City; obituaries in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, 2/3/1965 and 5/4/1981; and interviews with Mary Sue Hancher Hockmuth, August 2005, and her private collection of family documents and photographs.
Contributor: Loren N. Horton