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This 1955 photo features San Diego State College's division chairmen. Standing in the middle on the riser is SDSU's first chair of the humanities department, John R. Adams. This 1955 photo features San Diego State College's division chairmen. Standing in the middle on the riser is SDSU's first chair of the humanities department, John R. Adams.
 


Common Chords: Chapters from Aztec History

SDSU's first chair of the humanities set a high standard that lives on today.
By Michael Price
 

This story appears in the spring 2016 issue of 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University.

John R. Adams never meant to come to San Diego. A fluky constellation of sunshine and disease brought one of San Diego State University’s most storied researchers to campus.

Born in Cincinnati in 1900 and raised in Detroit, Adams began teaching English at the University of Michigan at the age of 20. Seeking a change of scenery, he and his wife, Jane, moved to Seattle in 1925 where he began teaching at the University of Washington. Soon after, he contracted tuberculosis. Looking to convalesce somewhere sunny and warm, the couple chose San Diego, “which I had never heard of until I looked on the map to see where was furthest from Seattle on the coast,” Adams said in a 1977 interview.

That may be surprising to modern readers, but in 1928, the city had fewer than 150,000 residents and was barely a decade removed from its world debut, the Panama-California Exposition.

While mulling an open invitation to teach at UCLA, “a funny-looking man … from the local college” paid him a visit, he recalled. That man was Irving Outcalt, head of the English department and vice president at the San Diego State Teachers College. The college offered him a teaching job and a $2,500 contract.

Adams and his wife didn’t plan on staying long. They missed the greenery of the Pacific Northwest and regarded San Diego as kind of a “hick town,” but eventually fell in love with its desert-to-coast charms.

His foray into the humanities came when President Edward Hardy asked if he could teach a class on English romantic poets. He said that he could, despite knowing nothing about poetry—English, romantic or otherwise. “Young fellows think they can teach anything, you know, and maybe they can,” Adams said. His students loved the course and the following semester, he found himself teaching the Victorian poets, as well.

Adams eventually became chair of the university’s first humanities department. He taught and administrated at SDSU for 40 years, shepherding the department as the university grew in population and sophistication, and then stayed on as university archivist after retiring.

In 1977, the John R. Adams Humanities Building was dedicated in his honor. Adams created a $1 million living trust in 1990 that continues to benefit the university to this day. He died in 1994 but is remembered as “an esteemed colleague and teacher ever devoted to literature, to the humanities, and to the liberal and fine art,” according to E. Nicholas Genovese, professor emeritus in the SDSU Department of Classics and Humanities, who inaugurated the annual Adams Lecture in Humanities in his honor.