Loren’s Lasting Legacy
Loren Reid, professor emeritus of speech, influenced 9,000 MU student lives.
For 109 years, Loren Reid’s life seemed a never-ending story.
At least, that’s what good friend Roger Pilkenton, BS Ag ’65, BS BA ’77, joked with him on a crisp Sunday in October 2014. In Reid’s room at the Neighborhoods Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing by TigerPlace in Columbia, two round Mylar balloons — remnants of the celebration from Reid’s 109th birthday Aug. 26 — swayed in gusts from an air vent.
I had been interviewing Reid for a Columbia Missourian assignment, trying to figure out what 109 years had looked like through his eyes.
Though he was increasingly frail in his old age, talking to Reid was still immeasurably fun. He had a dry sense of humor and killer comedic timing — likely aided by his 35-year career as a speech professor at MU, teaching, among other classes, the 19th and 20th centuries’ best speakers.
Pilkenton burst into the room to conduct Communion with Reid, their Sunday tradition for several years since Reid had been unable to attend Calvary Episcopal Church. Hearing that I was interviewing Reid for a story, Pilkenton bellowed, “Loren, you have no short story. Your story continues — it is known as the never-ending story.”
Reid began to laugh. “Never-ending story,” he said and turned to look at me. He jerked a thumb in Pilkenton’s direction. “Who’s that guy?”
Reid died Christmas morning. It was his 110th Christmas.
Since his birth in 1905, Reid saw the advent of the automobile, airplane, telephone, television, microwave oven and the Internet. He lived through two world wars and 19 American presidents.
Reid was 21 when he boarded his first commercial airplane in 1926, making him among the first 500,000 people in the United States to experience commercial air travel. He was 36 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and 58 when Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy. At 70, Reid retired as a professor of speech at MU.
He celebrated his 80th birthday in 1985 by getting a word processor. By the time Reid was 99, in 2004, he was on his fourth computer.
That was 11 years ago.
Reid might never be in a history book. But his life was a testament to human constancy in an otherwise rapidly changing century of technological and industrial advances.
To report this story, I, along with photographer and fellow graduate student T.J. Thomson, sifted through dozens of photographs, old letters and historical documents, much of which are at the State Historical Society of Missouri. We visited Reid on three occasions and read three of his published memoirs, Hurry Home Wednesday (1979), Finally It’s Friday (1981) and Professor on the Loose (1992).
What emerged was a portrait of a wonderful life.
Long Career at MU
When Reid was growing up in Gilman City, Missouri, northeast of Kansas City, he thought for sure he would be a journalist. The family business was newspapers: His father was publisher of the Gilman City Guide and, later, the Osceola Tribune in Osceola, Iowa.
But while a student at Grinnell College in Iowa, one of Reid’s teachers persuaded him to get a teaching license. He fell in love with academia.
In 1935, Reid accepted a position as an assistant professor of speech in the Department of English at MU. He and his wife, Gus, remained in Columbia for the rest of their lives, except for five years when they lived in Syracuse, New York, from 1939 to 1944. He came back to MU as a professor of speech in 1944, and in 1946 he became department chair.
At MU, one of Reid’s well-known classes, called Great Speakers, focused on people such as Frederick Douglass, Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry S Truman and Martin Luther King Jr.
“It filled the biggest classroom we had,” he said in October. “The idea was to talk about present-day good speakers and not ancient cronies,” referring to the likes of Aristotle and Cicero.
Susanne Shutz, BA ’57, of Shawnee Mission, Kansas, had one of Reid’s basic speech classes in her first semester at MU. Shutz went on to teach speech the rest of her career.
“I became convinced that if someone can get on their feet and convey thoughts and facts effectively, it is terrific for their self-esteem,” Shutz says. “He really changed the direction of my life. It all goes back to Loren Reid.”
Stuart Gorin, BA ’60, of Viera, Florida, had Reid for a phonetics class in 1958. Gorin recalls a favorite assignment: He and another student went to a Columbia farmers market to interview visitors about an upcoming election. But they were supposed to write not just what people said but also how they spoke phonetically.
Alan Berner, BA ’68, BJ ’75, of Seattle also took Reid’s Great Speakers class. “Loren was as dynamic as a lot of the speakers he presented,” Berner says. “It was terrific because I remember he played recordings of Martin Luther King Jr., Winston Churchill and FDR, and he read excerpts from great speeches from around the world.”
All former students who were interviewed recall Reid’s warmth, charisma and zeal for teaching.
“He very much had a twinkle in his eye and loved people,” Shutz says. “Not in a cocktail-circuit way but one-on-one.”
‘He very much had a twinkle in his eye and loved people,’ Shutz says. ‘Not in a cocktail-circuit way but one-on-one.’
Upon retirement in 1975, Reid had taught more than 9,000 students. In a letter congratulating another colleague on retirement, Reid wrote:
“Welcome to the Retirement Club of Columbia. This is the most exclusive outfit in town, with the longest waiting list. Our list is long because our requirements are so weighty. We take only mature, ripe folk — gently speckled, like a banana.”
MU continued to recognize Reid long after his retirement. In 2005, the Department of Communication established the Loren Reid Distinguished Scholar Lecture series in honor of Reid’s 100th birthday. In 2011, when Switzler Hall was renovated, it established the Loren Reid Library in recognition of his service to the department. The library houses his professional journals, photos and a number of other reference books.
On what Reid described as “a cool, misty morning” in 1926 at Grinnell College, he met the woman who would become his wife of almost eight decades, Augusta “Gus” Towner. She was two years younger than him, and they ran in similar circles of friends.
In 1930, they were married in a small ceremony in front of the fireplace of the Towner family home.
The pair waterskied and played tennis well into their 80s. In an email to his family in 1989, Reid wrote: “Gus, now a pleasant 82, is up and attem this morning, playing tennis. Doubles, to be sure, but still tennis.” In 1967, they took a trip around the world, visiting 27 destinations.
Gus died in 2009 at age 102. The pair had been married 79 years.
In Professor on the Loose, Reid expressed awe at the big family — today made up of four children, 15 grandchildren, 25 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren — that they had spawned:
“I am amazed at all this family, which happened because once I took Gus to a movie. I explained this predicament to my Aunt Grace Doak, my mother’s youngest sister, age 96, now many times a great-grandmother. She smiled and said, ‘Of course. With me it was a buggy ride.’ ”
Long History in Columbia
When Loren and Gus Reid arrived in Columbia in 1935, the city was still in the throes of the Great Depression, and then World War II began. Rationing for sugar, butter and gasoline was common.
When the war ended, the country was flooded with returning soldiers who needed places to live, study and ways to reintegrate themselves with society. The Reid family stretched its home, converting a musty basement into a room in which returned GIs could live.
“No one who taught during the decade after the war is likely to forget it,” Reid wrote in Professor on the Loose. “Those were the golden years of teaching, with mature students, eager to catch up, wanting to learn, willing to work. Classes were jammed and packed. Morale was high. Learning can be one of the world’s truly exciting adventures.”
During our interviews, Reid sometimes asked if he was the oldest man in the world. The answer was always “not quite.” According to census data from 2010, there are 53,364 people older than 100 in the United States, which is less than 0.1 percent of the population.
There are no data on the number of 109-year-olds in the U.S. or Missouri, but an organization called Gerontology Research Group tracks supercentenarians — age 110 or older. It has validated that there are 75 supercentenarians in the world, the majority of whom are women. Of those, only 22 live in the United States, and none of them live in Missouri.
Any way the data are sliced, Reid was an anomaly.
In one of our interviews, a person with me told Reid he was impressed that he still seemed to have all of his marbles. Reid paused.
“Yes,” he said, his nearly toothless smile spreading wide. “Mostly agates.”
Reid’s many stories are perhaps best summed up in his own words, from Finally It’s Friday:
“Next time you walk down Main Street and see a well-coifed lady, 70 or 80 or whatever, obviously a picture of refinement, you can be sure that as a teenage girl she had wild escapades never reported at the supper table. And if you see a gentleman shuffling along, perhaps with a cane, perhaps without, white-haired, bleary-eyed, arthritic, you can, if you look carefully, see in him the boy that once climbed a water tower and stood on his head on the top and lived to be 70 or 80.”