Herbert Leslie Sawyer (August 21, 1886 – November 24. 1972) was the headmaster of Colby Academy (1922-1928) and, subsequently, the first president of Colby Junior College (1928-1955).
Sawyer was born in Madison, Maine. His father, Dr. Warren Gray Sawyer, was a physician. He graduated from Bates College in 1908 with an undergraduate degree. He went on to earn his master’s degree from Princeton University. After earning his master’s degree, he taught at a high school in Portland, Maine. He went on to serve as a chemistry assistant at Princeton University before moving to Lebanon, New Hampshire where he began as a high school teacher and eventually became Superintendent of Schools.
Life at Colby Academy and Colby Junior College
During the college’s developmental years, it was under Sawyer’s leadership that a dedicated faculty was established, the physical plant enlarged and student enrollment increased. Innovative educational programs were implemented, finances were stabilized, and the institution grew into prominence as one of the country’s leading women’s educational institutions.
Student Attendance and Enrollment
Sawyer joined Colby Academy in 1922 as its headmaster. At the time, the Academy was suffering from a variety of problems – one of the main ones being enrollment. High schools were booming in all of the surrounding towns, thus, threatening the relevance and necessity of the Academy. Competition among schools was keen, and parents measured the advantages of one school over another.
Attendance varied so much at Colby that President Sawyer and faculty members drove around the country and interviewed young people and parents in their homes, trying to entice them to come to the Academy.
Transition from Colby Academy to Colby Junior College
After a year as headmaster at Colby Academy, Sawyer proposed a dramatic change for the institution. In his first report to the trustees he asked, “Would it be advisable to incorporate as a junior college?” It was his opinion that a post-secondary school for young women could be developed if “a faculty and staff were engaged and could offer a general terminal two-year course – a curriculum that would entitle a recommended graduate to transfer to a senior college or university without loss of time, and a two year course in secretarial skills leading to immediate employment.” While the suggestion was initially met with a great deal of criticism from trustees, students and alumni, it was agreed that the Academy was struggling to exist on its former reputation and meager endowment ($175,000) and, thus, needed a change. However it wasn’t until October, 1927, that the board of trustees recognized the declining enrollment and increasing indebtedness as a serious enough problem to unanimously agree that the adoption of a junior college program could help the institution.
The transition was made official in June 1928. One reason it took six years to occur was related to the Academy’s obligation to the Town of New London. As Sawyer explains in Our First Two Presidents, “For fifty years the academy had served the local area as a high school, and only when the town could make satisfactory arrangements for its boys and girls was it advisable to eliminate the high school classes. Until the time arrived when local students could find secondary school education elsewhere, Colby felt morally obligated to continue classes for them.”
Construction of Dormitories:
Some symptoms of success were indicated in September, 1929, when it was reported that Colgate hall was filled to capacity and that off-campus accommodations must be provided. The College began to construct new buildings to accommodate its growing student body and its needs.
McKean Hall was the first of five dormitories that would be constructed under Sawyer. It was constructed during one of the most discouraging economic periods in American history – the Great Depression.
After a plan for a second dormitory had been submitted, financing was furnished by Mary Colgate ($15,000), the board of trustees ($15,000), and the Board of Education of the Northern Baptist Convention ($15,000). Thus, Colby Hall was constructed and named in honor of the Colby family (Mary was the daughter of James Boorman Colgate and Susan Colby Colgate).
With the ever increasing number of applicants to the college, it became evident by 1933 that another dormitory was needed. The central unit of the building was constructed with an east wing added in 1935 and a west wing added in 1936. The building also served the College as a library until the Commons-Fernald Library was constructed in the spring of 1950.
During the summer of 1940, Abbey Hall was also constructed. The dormitory was funded after Emily Abbey Gill of Springfield, Massachusetts, sold to the board of trustees a $50,000 annuity at 8% – while $34,000 of this sum was returned, the rest of the money created a residence at Abbey Hall for 36 more students.
The time had arrived when it seemed imperative for the college to build an infirmary on the campus. Unfortunately no funds could be diverted for this purpose until Mr. William T. Baird, a trustee of the college, pledged a generous sum of money toward the much-needed health center. Ground was broken in June 1954 and the infirmary opened in April 1955.
Elimination of High School
The trustees were encouraged after operating expenses were met in 1930-1931, and at the annual meeting voted to discontinue the freshman high school year in 1932, and the sophomore high school year in 1933. The early concept of a junior college was that it should comprise the last two years of high school and the first two years of college. This plan, however, proved unsuccessful and was finally discontinued in September, 1939. Eleven years were required to eliminate the high school grades and incorporate complete and acceptable junior college curricula. This change was reflected in a name change from Colby School for Girls to Colby Junior College for Women in 1932.
On July 29, 1914, he married Emma Ione Brown of Madison, Maine. They had one son, Robert. President Sawyer was a Republican, a Mason, an Odd Fellow and an active member of the New London Baptist Church and the Northern Baptist Convention.
Following his retirement, Dr. Sawyer made his home on the edge of the campus. He was a frequent visitor to the College and was often present at formal occasions held in the Fine Arts Center which bears his name. He also recommended Eugene Austin as his successor as college president.
On Friday, November 24, 1971, following a brief illness, H. Leslie Sawyer passed away in his sleep, leaving behind an enviable record of academic leadership, a host of friends, and thousands of devoted alumni.
In 1959, the new fine and performing arts center was named the Sawyer Center in his honor.
At their January 1972 meeting, the Board of Directors of the Alumnae Association of Colby voted to appropriate $20,000 during the next two years to augment the H. Leslie Sawyer (Memorial) Scholarship Fund.
In 1973, when the College needed to change its name, it decided to honor its first president by changing the name of the now four year institution from Colby College-New Hampshire to Colby-Sawyer College.
Accolades and Awards
His influence in education and his contribution to his state, church, and community are reflected in his activities beyond the campus. Dr. Sawyer held honorary degrees from Bates College, Portia Law School, and from the University of New Hampshire and his Alma Mater. He was President of the New Hampshire Teachers Association for a term. He was elected to membership in the State Constitutional Convention of 1938. He served as the first Chairman of the New Hampshire U.S.O. Committee from 1942-1943.