Reading Between the Lines While Getting Schooled: A Letter from Zacheus J. Maher, President of the University of Santa Clara, to Walter P. Temple, 3 June 1922

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It was a top priority for Walter and Laura Temple, once the ample proceeds of royalties from their oil lease near Montebello were being realized, to send their four surviving children (they’d lost a daughter in infancy) to fine private schools in the belief that this would prepare them for the future with excellent educations.

As the United States entered the First World War just a little over two months prior to Temple Well #1 yielding its precious crude, the couple did what so many American parents did in those patriotic times and enrolled their three sons in military schools, including Page Military Academy west of downtown Los Angeles and Pasadena Military Academy where today’s Annandale Country Club is to the west of the Crown City’s downtown.

Being devout Catholics, the Temples also enrolled their children in schools run by that denomination. Only daughter Agnes, for example, went to St. Mary’s Academy in southwest Los Angeles for several years before attending Dominican College at San Rafael north of San Francisco. Eldest son Thomas was the first to go to north when he enrolled at the preparatory high school, at the University of Santa Clara in fall 1918.

A portion of a letter from Thomas W. Temple II to Walter P. Temple, 31 March 1922.

The choice to send him there was also partly out of honoring family tradition, as notes from Perry Worden, who was hired by Walter Temple to write a family history but which was never completed, stated the eldest of his patron’s brothers: Thomas (1846-1892), Francis (1848-1888), William (1851-1917) and John (1856-1926) all went to what was then known as Santa Clara College, though how many of them went to the preparatory high school or took a collegiate course of study is not known.

From the time he began his schooling at Santa Clara, Thomas was a faithful letter writer and many of his missives home to his parents survive and a good deal of them are in the Homestead’s collection thanks to donations by his niece Ruth Ann Temple Michaelis. What we don’t find often at all are letters about Thomas from his years at the campus and tonight’s featured artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a piece of correspondence, dated 3 June 1922, to Walter and Laura from the university’s president Zacheus J. Maher.

Maher, who was from San Francisco before his ordination as a priest in the order of the Society of Jesuits, was the seventeenth president of Santa Clara, which opened in 1851. He served in that position from 1921 to 1926 and went on to be president of Loyola Marymount University, a descendant of St. Vincent’s College, which Walter and his younger brother Charles attended in the 1880s along with their cousin Boyle Workman, future president of the Los Angeles City Council. After two years at Loyola, Maher went to Vatican City to be an assistant to the Jesuit secretary general.

A studio portrait of Thomas, ca. 1922. Note that he wears a charro suit evocative of the early California past, of which the Temples had particular pride.

The letter began with high praise for the young scholar as Maher, after congratulating the Temples for their son’s graduation, wrote:

He won well deserved honors and left behind him an enviable reputation both for scholarship and for deportment . . . If all the boys were like Tommy life at Santa Clara would be one long series of joys; we would need no prefects either in the study hall or in the dormitory. You deserve to be congratulated on the high principles you have instilled into his heart.

Yet, the school president wondered if Thomas intended to go back to Santa Clara for his undergraduate studies, noting that he did not book a dormitory room for the upcoming school year and, when queried about it, “he would give no definitive answer.” This led Maher to add, “This is a bad sign; I fear greatly that he is rather inclined not to return.”

He continued that, as he informed the graduates the day before the spring session concluded, “I would not advise any boy to return to Santa Clara unless I were fully convinced that it would be for his best to do so.” Moreover, the prelate stated, “I would exploit no one to the mere advantage of the school.” This was up to prayer and the decision of the student and family, as Maher indicated that “he would do as you bid him, but we do not want to solve the problem that way.”

Information about the Santa Clara centenary including the performance of the “Mission Play of Santa Clara,” Oakland Tribune, 8 May 1922.  Jackie Coogan, child star of Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 classic, “The Kid,” (and later as Uncle Fester in the 1960s camp TV show, “The Addams Family”) made an appearance as he often did at the time.

In the meantime, the Temples had a lengthy summer excursion planned and Maher noted this by writing, “and now you are off for Mexico,” and hoped that the letter would arrive in time because “I must wish you bon voyage a safe going and a still more safe return.” Not only would the family have a good time “into those romantic regions,” but would appreciate the fact that “the bond is close between the two countries, for the men who made California came to her from Mexico.”

Maher also told the Temples that “the atmosphere of the Mission Play lingers,” this referring to the fact that Santa Clara concluded a centennial celebration for a week in early May. Though the Mission Santa Clara was established in early 1777, it was in several locations before the one that became the college campus was built in 1822. The “Mission Play of Santa Clara” was written especially for the event by graduate of 1906 Martin V. Merle and there were sixty students in the cast.

Thomas was one of them, as a letter from the end of March mentions that they were going through rehearsals while he recommended that his parents attend the festival and play rather than his graduation (as the latter were commonplace but the former a special offering), and the photograph shown here documents the young man wearing a missionary’s costume. In any case, Maher told the Temples that “people up and down the state are still praising the college for the presentation.” He added that a passion play was slated for the same time in 1923 and he hoped that they would attend, remarking that it was excellent, though different from Merle’s production.

Thomas in his missionary costume for “The Mission Play of Santa Clara,” spring 1922.

Maher ended his missive with a report that plans for a new science hall on campus were well underway and asking for the Temples’ prayers for its success and specifically requesting Laura to “light a candle for me to God’s Mother that she bring God’s blessing on our week.” His concerns about Thomas not returning to Santa Clara were well-founded as the decision was made for him to go to the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and study engineering (his uncle Francis went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology a half-century before to study the same subject), probably with an eye to helping his father in the oil business.

First, however, was the sojourn to Mexico, during which the Temples, already inspired to build a Spanish-Colonial Revival mansion at the Homestead next to the Workman House, while in Guadalajara, made the acquaintance of a maestro de obra, or master stone mason, Pablo Urzua. Urzua and his crew were hired to make adobe bricks in the traditional way, though adobe kilns or ovens were built to fire the bricks rather than have them sun-dried. Initial work began not long after the Temples returned home and continued into the fall.

By then, Laura Temple’s health took a steep turn for the worse as she was diagnosed with colon cancer. It was already difficult enough for Thomas as a first-semester freshman at a school already well-known for its rigorous course of study to then confront the terminal illness of his mother. When Laura died just after Christmas, the family’s grieving included Thomas’ uncertainty about what to do as he was slated to return to Cal Tech very shortly afterward.

The Temple family’s Craftsman house is now the rectory for a Methodist Church in Alhambra. The family sold it not long after Laura’s passing and moved full-time to the Homestead.

Instead, he withdrew from that school and decided to return to Santa Clara, where not only had he spent four years and had a familiarity with the campus and its staff and students, but could turn to the spiritual solace offered there and which could not be matched at Cal Tech, which, moreover, was probably an enormous academic challenge to boot.

With Laura’s passing and after a brief pause in the construction of La Casa Nueva, work on the house resumed later in 1923, followed by the hiring of architect Roy Seldon Price, whose imaginative work did come, pardon the pun, at a price. In late spring as the torrid regional real estate market peaked, Walter Temple announced his biggest real estate project, the Town of Temple, renamed Temple City five years later.

The main financial issue, however, was that royalties from those Montebello wells, which constituted the chief source of income for the family, were on a gradual decline as the field proved fruitful in the short term but shallow in the long run. The rise in expenses from the building of La Casa Nueva, the development of Temple City, and other oil and real estate projects far outpaced revenues.

Just before Thomas graduated from Santa Clara in 1926, the Temple Townsite Company, which developed Temple City, and the Temple Estate Company, which handled everything else, were refinanced with bonds. This brought immediate funding to complete projects, but incurred interest that had to be paid on a timely basis for years.

Even with these growing financial concerns, the Temple children continued to receive expense private school educations. Agnes remained at Dominican from fall 1925 until she graduated with a music major and a Spanish minor in spring 1929. The younger sons, Walter, Jr. and Edgar, went to the Belmont School roughly halfway between Santa Clara and San Rafael and, when Thomas earned his bachelor’s degree, the three were sent to Massachusetts, the ancestral home of the Temple family, to further their educations. Walter, Jr. and Edgar attended Dummer (yup, Dummer!) Academy, now the oldest continuously operating private school in the nation and finished high school there, while Thomas followed his uncle William’s footsteps to Harvard Law School—the trio also graduated in 1929.

By then, the family’s faltering finances were in free fall and less than a year later, the Temples, having leased the Homestead to a military school, vacated the ranch, which was lost to foreclosure in 1932. This letter from a decade earlier when conditions were still excellent and the future looked bright is one of many documents from the museum’s collection which trace the Temple family’s odyssey through the Roaring Twenties and there’ll be more to come in future posts.

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