A Brief History Of Memphis University School
By Dr. John E. Harkins, Archivist
Messrs. Edwin Sidney Werts and James White Sheffey Rhea founded MUS as a college preparatory school for boys in the fall of 1893. (Contrary to popular myth, the school was never formally named "Werts and Rhea." The proprietors had named it Memphis University School even before it opened.) Their purpose was threefold: to prepare boys for competitive colleges, to provide them a liberal education, and to help them develop into cultured Christian gentlemen.
Patterned largely after Werts' alma mater, the University of Virginia, MUS embraced high academic standards, strong moral development, and an emphasis on athletics. In a short time the school's reputation was so sound that many of America's leading colleges began to exempt its students from entrance examinations or allow them to take the exams at MUS. Four of these competitive colleges gave tuition-free scholarships to leading MUS students.
After a disappointing initial enrollment, MUS prospered. Within three years it outgrew its temporary quarters in the old Bethel Building and occupied the Clara Conway Institute at 297 Poplar. When this rented facility was sold shortly afterward, the proprietors built their own building on a small campus near the corner of Madison and Manassas. There the school remained until 1936, when economic factors forced its closure. Rhea and Werts had died in 1917 and 1923, respectively. Over its last dozen years, the MUS principals were Howard G. Ford and Charles C. Wright, long-term teachers at MUS.
During its 43-year history MUS educated and influenced many young men who made strong contributions in a number of fields. In addition to numerous prominent professional, business, and civic leaders, the school produced literary figures like Richard Halliburton and Nash Buckingham. Its graduates also included military heroes like members of the Grider family. George Grider later served as Congressman for the Memphis district. Other MUS alumni served as city councilmen, judges, and members of the Tennessee legislature. Many more were community builders without holding office. Through such men the school's spirit and values survived the Great Depression and rose again after World War II.
During the economic boom of the 1950's, Memphis University School was founded anew. Its rolling, 94-acre site was made available at a bargain price by the Wills and May families, whose sons attended the new MUS. Growing out of Presbyterian Day School, which had absorbed the dying Pentecost-Garrison School, MUS began classes in 1955. Under the leadership of Col. Ross M. Lynn and a dedicated Board of Trustees chaired by Alexander Wellford, the school made amazing progress. By 1958 its physical plant was adequate and it graduated its first seniors. Like the first MUS, the new one emphasized academic excellence, high moral standards, strong athletic development, and gentlemanly conduct. Its student-enforced honor system became the moral heart of the school.
The 1950s seemed a time of conformity and self-indulgence, but seeds of cultural tension were beginning to appear. During the 1960s the new MUS grew to maturity. Seniors acquired off-campus lunch privileges; Hutchison School moved in next door; the Hyde Chapel was built; and sophisticated language labs were added. Leigh MacQueen became Academic Dean; Bill Hatchett guided annual student tours to Europe; and MUS worked at being more like its namesake. Clubs and other extracurricular activities proliferated as students increasingly helped run the school. The faculty became stronger academically and its membership more stable and interactive.
Nationally, the late 1960s were the days of student rebellion, civil-rights struggles, anti-Vietnam protests, "flower power," folk music, the Beatles, and the counter-culture. Such trends were slow to reach the Mid-South, but Memphis drew national attention in 1968 with its sanitation-workers' strike and the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Then, like the rest of the nation, most Memphians underwent a revolution in racial sensitivity.
The 1970s replaced the idealism of the previous decade with harsher realities. Utopianism gave way to Watergate, the Nixon resignation, energy shortages, "stagflation," the Iran hostage crisis, and mass disillusionment and cynicism. As the nation seemed to be coming apart, however, the 1970s provided an era of growth and consolidation for MUS. Early in the decade the Hull Lower School and the Hyde Library were erected. At mid-decade the school added the Fisher Fine Arts Wing to the Chapel, giving greater scope to students' creative impulses. As the 1970s phased out, MUS added the McCaughan Science Building, completing the school's basic physical-plant needs. The popular-electronics age hit MUS in force over the same decade. Evin Perdue introduced early stages of computer technology; MacQueen installed the television studio; and the Ham Radio Club presaged an electronics revolution.
Near the end of the decade, Col. Lynn and Alex Wellford both retired. Associate Headmaster Eugene Thorn then stepped in to run the school and MacQueen became associate head. "Buddy" Morrison chaired the Board for five years, then was succeeded by an alumnus of the new MUS, Kent Wunderlich.
The 1970s also brought MUS racial diversity, long-haired students, and the release from study halls for students without academic or deportment difficulties. Ellis Haguewood began his irreverent and hilarious school day picture day (SDPD) talks and sixteen-year stint as yearbook adviser. The school's academics became stronger in a climate of diversity. Both faculty and curriculum grew much stronger through the 1970s and the 1980s and enrollment crested at near 600 students.
The 1980s saw the school graying in some areas. It lost two beloved leaders, with the deaths of Col. Lynn and Lower School Principal John Murry Springfield. Growth, innovation, and academic excellence continued, however, under Headmaster Gene Thorn's leadership. In 1990 the school constructed the Sue H. Hyde Sports and Physical Education Center, symbolizing that it had become as much an athletic as an academic powerhouse. Thorn retired in 1992 and William Campbell served for three years as MUS Headmaster. Then, following a meticulous national search, the Board of Trustees selected MUS Upper School Principal and Interim Headmaster Ellis Haguewood to lead the school.
Under the leadership of Headmaster Haguewood and Chairman of the Board Ben Adams (1996-2004), MUS implemented a long-term strategic plan. This included a master plan for expanding and updating the physical plant and a massive capital campaign (more than $21 million total) to fund improvements. The Crump Firm's master plan included a new tennis center with a clubhouse, renovation and expansion of the Hull Lower School, erecting a commodious new Campus Center, and razing and replacing the Upper School and the Clack Dining Hall. Construction, including the new Dunavant Upper School, was completed by January, 2003. Alumnus Trow Gillespie, who had spearheaded the fundraising, replaced Ben Adams in 2004 as Chairman of the Board of Trustees. In 2008, Bob Loeb became Chairman of the Board of Trustees, followed by Sam Graham in 2013.
A great deal has changed since 1893, but MUS graduates continue to uphold the school's fine traditions and to furnish leadership locally and across the nation. The school's colors, the same red and blue patterned after those of Harvard and Yale in 1898, still adorn the shield of the school's crest. Surmounting it, the owl of wisdom proclaims the MUS motto, Veritas Honorque, "Truth and Honor." Like its namesake, the school's proudest legacy is its honor system and strong moral atmosphere. As at its founding, Memphis University School continues to keep its focus on its charges and to provide them with superb preparation for higher education and a purpose-driven life.
Haguewood retired in 2017 after serving 22 years as headmaster and a previous 26 years as a teacher and administrator. Under his leadership the school reached new heights academically, athletically, and in the arts. Additional major improvements to the campus included Bloodworth Music Studio, Stokes Stadium, Field House indoor tennis facility, Robotics Lab, and Kroeker-Petrosyan Fencing Center.
After a nationwide search, the Board of Trustees selected Peter D. “Pete” Sanders of Greenville, S.C., as headmaster, and he began his tenure in June 2017.
In the 2018-19 school year, MUS celebrated the 125th anniversary of its founding in 1893.
The MUS Century Book, a 250-page, illustrated history of Memphis University School, is available through the school's Schaeffer Bookstore.