Last fall I received an invitation to speak to the library staff on any topic, but the invitation came with a suggestion: how about telling us about the man for whom the Joseph W. Jones Room in Woodruff Library was named? This invitation coincided with a question from President Claire Sterk about the source of Robert Woodruff’s desires and aspirations for Emory that led to his historic philanthropy. Knowing something about Joe Jones and curious to learn about Woodruff’s motivations, I headed first to the Woodruff papers in the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library. This post and the next two are the result of what I found.
My talk was scheduled for January 9, three days after the Feast of the Epiphany, which in some Christian traditions marks the visit of the three magi, or wise men, to the infant Jesus. It happened that I had also discovered three wise men, including Joseph W. Jones, who helped to shape Mr. Woodruff’s vision for how he could help Emory achieve greatness.
The first of those wise men is in some ways largely forgotten at Emory. His name was Robert Cotter Mizell, and he came from little Rhine, Georgia, halfway between Atlanta and the Okefenokee Swamp. In the 2010 census, Rhine, Georgia, had a population of 394 — not many more than the town had in 1910, two years after Bob Mizell left it for Emory College.
Mizell very likely met Robert Woodruff during their first week at Emory in Oxford, Georgia, where they both enrolled in the fall of 1908. Woodruff did not last long, but he seems to have formed a lasting respect for the quality of an institution that would challenge him as Emory did. Perhaps he also learned in those first months at Emory something of the qualities of the man who would become a beloved and trusted friend.
Certainly, by the time Bob Mizell graduated from Emory in just three years, those around him recognized his many gifts. His classmates voted him the “Most Original Senior” in the 1911 yearbook, The Kinema. He helped shape the intellectual life of the campus as a member of the Phi Gamma Literary Society, and he was tapped for membership in the DVS Senior Society, today the oldest senior honorary society at Emory. He helped organize the first student government at Emory and was elected to serve as its first president. His classmates then chose him to speak for them at the 1911 Commencement.
After graduating, Mizell taught school and served as a high school principal but returned to his alma mater in 1915 to become the first principal of the Emory University Academy, which the University established on the Oxford campus while preparing to move Emory College to Atlanta. In 1935, after a decade in real estate, he returned to Emory again, this time with the title of secretary of the University and responsible for development of the University in a broad sense, from raising money to helping chart the direction. He oversaw Emory’s centennial celebration in 1936, and during World War II he stepped in as acting dean of the business school while continuing to serve as director of development.
Mizell’s greatest contribution to Emory, however, came through his friendship with Robert Woodruff. The papers of both men are filled with letters, memos, informal jottings, cards, and transcribed phone messages that reveal a close, confiding, and trusting mutual affection and respect. They also shared a sense of humor. In 1944, for instance, Woodruff received an invitation to the installation of Emory members into the Society of the Sigma Xi, a distinguished national scientific research society. Attached to the invitation in the archives is a note apparently typed by Woodruff’s secretary: “Mr. Mizell: What is all this about — I don’t know anything about it. R.W.W.” Mizell returned the note with his comment inscribed in his neat penmanship: “A learned group. An important affair. You ought to go. I am going if I can’t get out of it. RCM.”
It is this kind of advice, on matters large and small, that Woodruff came to depend on from Mizell. In his role of friend and adviser, Mizell may have had no more significant impact than in helping Woodruff see a way to improve the well-being of people in his city and his state. Mizell secured from Woodruff the initial gift of $50,000 that established the Winship Cancer Center, now the Winship Cancer Institute. This was the first of Woodruff’s great largess that would make the health sciences center one of the premier medical centers in the country. Mizell also traveled with Woodruff to New York City to recruit Elliott Scarborough as the first director of the Winship Center.
A 1946 article about Woodruff in Fortune magazine included a photo of Mizell with the caption, “He [Woodruff] is advised on charity by Bob Mizell of Emory University.” It is no accident that when Woodruff chose to step down from the Emory Board of Trustees in 1948, the board elected Mizell to replace him the next year — the only administrator in the history of the university to serve simultaneously as a trustee.
Through two decades, Mizell sent Woodruff a steady and full stream of missives, reports, and journal articles about the potential and promise of Emory. His constant theme was that the South needed at least one great university, that Atlanta was the logical location for that university, and that Emory was the best bet to become it.
When Mizell died in 1955, at the age of sixty-six, still fully engaged in trying to build a great university, Emory sought an appropriate way to memorialize his monumental but relatively unsung legacy. The bridge leading from Fishburne Drive toward the Quadrangle was named in his memory, and Mr. Woodruff provided the funds to build a grand stairway for easier access from the bridge onto the Quadrangle. He said he wanted a memorial to Mizell to be something useful, in keeping with Mizell’s lifetime of useful service.
The Mizell Stairway would disappear in the early 1990s to make way for the Michael C. Carlos Museum, but if you look to your right as you descend the stairs next to the museum, you will see the plaque that was preserved and set into the wall of the museum to continue the memory of this great Emory wise man.
Next installment: a man whose name once was misheard as “Waffle A. Jones.”