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Robert L. Stearns papers

Identifier: COU:1511

Scope and Contents

The Stearns Collection contains correspondence, financial and legal papers, as well as information collected during Stearns’ time served as President of the University of Colorado at Boulder, as well as his professional life before and after his career at the University. Various financial and legal papers can be found in boxes 1 through 4, along with correspondence spanning between the years 1888 and 1917. Also included are scrapbooks from the years 1926 to 1933 and personal notes on legal theory. There is a diary regarding Stearns’ military service from the years 1942 to 1944 in box five. A considerable portion of the collection consists of records regarding various military activities in which Stearns was involved. Also included are photographs and correspondence between Mr. Stearns and Dwight Eisenhower in the years 1952 to 1959 as well as photos, albums, and microfilms of Stearns’ later years. This collection is organized into nine sections. I. FAMILY AND EARLY YEARS contain financial, legal, genealogical, organizational, educational, personal, and family papers, scrapbooks, correspondence, and newspaper clippings. Included are records of financial and legal affairs regarding taxes, deeds, contracts, certificates, receipts, and stock bonds. Also contained are eight ledgers: Cash Ledgers beginning with 1872 and ending with 1959. There are six scrapbooks, and articles regarding Bishop David H. Moore, Amy Stearns’ grandfather. Correspondence includes letters from 1888, 1909, 1911 to 1919 and miscellaneous items mostly relating to fraternities, along with CU Biennial Report, Minutes of ASUC 1913, Colorado’s revenue system 1913, National Geographic Society membership certificate, personal ranking, insurance certificate of authority, addresses, Special Orders No. 156, and graduation notifications. Also included are a copy of the 1912 Coloradoan, and five scrapbooks of vacation, bar association activities, University of Colorado Law School, Law School Administration, and clippings. Also letters from Norlin to Denny in 1932, correspondence with Indiana University Law School, letters from family regarding his mother’s estate and agreement to practice law, four notebooks on legal matters in 1932.

II. UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO PRESIDENT, 1939 – 1953 contain correspondence, documents, books, and miscellaneous items related to the Stearns presidency [see also President’s Office Papers, restricted collection]. There are congratulatory correspondence from 1939 to 1940, information regarding the McCarthy era at the University, honorary degree correspondence, commencement programs, and four books: School of Engineering Alumni Congratulations, Student Tribute, Commemorative Letters, and Religion in Life. Also included are miscellaneous items such as invitations, Christmas cards, articles, theatre programs, songs, commencement program, American Airlines service award, and newspaper clippings.

III. MILITARY SERVICE AND RELATED INTERESTS contains a diary, military reports, academic related documents and notes, correspondence during and after World War II, notebooks, books, and speeches. Included are Stearns’ diary dating from 1942 to 1944 regarding military activities, military orders, report to General Saville, memoranda to Colonel Taylor, schedules for teaching, administration, curriculum, conference notes with students, projects, AAFSAT reorganization notes, post cards to Judith Stearns, clippings, and speeches. It also contains correspondence after World War II from 1949 to 1951 and an analysis in Korea, correspondence after 1960, a brief diary, notes, photographs of Korea in 1950, recommendations, photographs, booklets, nine books and four notebooks regarding the USFA, and twenty-six books regarding the Air Force.

IV. DWIGHT EISENHOWER MATERIAL contains correspondence, photographs, poems, clippings, and funeral service for Eisenhower. The correspondence ranged from 1952 to 1959 and the photographs are group photos during the presidential campaign.

V. LATER CAREERS AND INTERESTS contain correspondence, financial documents, scrapbooks and miscellaneous items from Stearns’ life after 1953. Included are correspondence during Stearns’ retirement in 1955 to 1973, from his family, the Boettcher Foundation, Adair, Barnes, Carpenter, Gerber, Hardy, Hertz Educational Foundation, Ilchman, Kaplan, Mccomb, Oberholtzer, Uemura, Wainwright, and Yoder. Also contains personal financial files from 1960’s to 1970’s, organization committees, and scrapbooks for commendations for public service. It also contains miscellaneous items such as invitations, programs, menus, poems, prayers, certificates, brochures, pamphlets, petition, CU News Release, Conrad Wirth obituary, and a book “In Memoriam” by Stearns.

VI. ADDRESSES, 1920’s – 1950’s contain books, commencements, speeches, and event documents. There are three books dated as 1927-1942, 1943-1952, and undated, and Christian influence books. Also included are papers addressing the graduates, government regulations, enforcement of criminal law, women in democracy, the alumnus, post war era, responsibility of a lawyer, morality and religion in universities, medical school baccalaureate, improving society, American Council on Education, values of education, leadership, women’s club, and Greek Independence Day. Also included are a historical sketch of St. John’s Church, memorandum, commencements from the University of Colorado, Columbia University, Regis College, University of New Mexico, Southern Louisiana Institute, Colorado A & M, and Northeastern Junior College. It also includes the documents of the University Opening, Denver Chamber of Commerce, Regional Conference of American Medical Association, CEA meeting, during the B’Nai B’Rith Award, a discussion of foundations, Colorado Conference of Social Welfare, Faculty retirement comments, New Day broadcast, Opening words at Memorial service for President Emeritus and Mrs. Norlin, a toast to George Norlin, and speeches by others.

VII. ARTICLES, JOUNALS, PAMPHLETS, MAGAZINES, BOOKS, ETC., contain articles, pamphlets, books, magazines, and journals for law, speech and language, legal education, military, and political affairs. The first bundle of papers contains US Department of the Interior, Teller, Study of Democracy and Communism, and the Method and Style in Restoration. Journals and articles include “The People of Israel vs. Jesus of Nazareth”, Law Library Journal, the World, Columbia Law Review, Westerners Brand book, Journal of Lancet, Reynolds George, Series in Language and Literature, Resilience of Ecosystems, School Science and Mathematics, Quarterly Journal of Speech, Studies in Speech and Drama, Speech Monographs, Langdell Lyrics of 1938, Queen’s Quarterly, Review of Legal Education, the Pharos, Economic Round Table, Duke Law Journal, Notre Dame Lawyer, Historic Preservation, American Journal of International Law, Character Training of Law Students, Columbia Law Alumni Bulletin, the Diplomate, Harvard Law Review, Rocky Mountain Law Review, Rule of Law in the United States. Another bundle included the Informal History of National Society of Colonial Dames of America in the State of Colorado. And the last bundle included Edith Mulcahy vs. James Johnson et al in the Construction of Will. Also included are eleven law related books and fourteen books on Legal Briefs and a book on foreclosure proceedings.

VIII. PHOTOGRAPHS contain albums, photographs, and negatives. There are six albums about Stearns’ family, the University, World War II, and the Hawaiian Islands. There are many photos of Stearns, his wife, and family. Some photos are of Stearns with others, some identified and others unidentified, there are also photographs of the CU campus and military personnel. Also included are miscellaneous photos of landscapes, war scenes, portraits, and Camp Funston. It also contains negatives of college life in 1916.

IX. CLIPPINGS consist of clippings of Robert Stearns and his family, correspondence, speeches, newsletters, reports, scrapbooks, photo album, books, microfilms, and miscellaneous items. It includes assorted items such as medals, gavels, bookends, paper weights, key chain, signature stamp, sixteen plaques, six capes and a gown. There are two books, one is Poems by Robert Stearns and family and the second book is Pen and Ink Drawings by Ann Jones. There are historical notes and family genealogy, songs, letters, and poems from Stearns to others and for him, correspondence from 1949 to 1952, and Amy Stearns’ Class Reunions. It also contains correspondence during World War II between Stearns and Dyde, Ellsworth, and the faculty. Also included are newsletters, speeches by Stearns, the university finance reports, reports regarding the university departments, the engineering experiment station, project proposals, programs, and certificates, and two microfilms. There are also two scrapbooks of Stearns and of Amy Stearns, an autographed photo of Eisenhower, and a photo album.


  • Creation: 1872 - 1977

Biographical Note

Robert Lawrence Stearns was born on October 3, 1892, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada to John Lloyd and Ella Powell Stearns. He attended the University of Colorado, where he made the acquaintance of classics professor George Norlin, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in 1914. He graduated from Columbia University Law School in 1916.

Robert Stearns’ occupational history primarily involved law practice and teaching. He was an Assistant in the History Department at the University of Colorado in 1913 to 1914. Stearns was a part of the faculty of the University of Denver Law School from 1920 to 1931. In 1921 he was an instructor of history; he became professor of law in 1924. Stearns was involved with the Legal Firm of Lewis and Grant (Denver) in 1922 until he became a professor of law at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1931, at which time George Norlin was already the University’s long term president. Professor Stearns soon replaced James Grafton Rogers as Dean of the Law School when Dean Rogers left the University of Colorado for a position at Yale University in 1935. In 1939, Dean Stearns became President of the University of Colorado, a position he held until 1953.

Dean Stearns was named to the Faculty Senate Ethnic Minorities Committee, when history chair Carl Eckhardt and history professor Earl Swisher joined him to perform an investigation of the treatment of ethnic and racial minorities in 1938. It was Dean Stearns’ legal interpretation of state and federal civil rights law that made the committee recommend a wholesale change in the manner in which the University of Colorado dealt with social problems both on and off campus in February 1939, from a laissez faire approach to direct social engagement and commentary. After the appointment of Robert Stearns to the University’s Presidency, the Faculty Senate Ethnic Minorities Committee had a well informed and powerful ally and former member in the President’s Office. President Stearns’ efforts in minority civil rights continued throughout his presidency in the areas of minority student housing, on and off campus eating establishments, minority treatment by the CU Nursing School, the Boulder Sanitarium, the Boulder Valley School Board, Boulder’s cafes and restaurants, and University societies, honoraries, fraternities, and sororities.

With the onset of World War II, President Stearns had to discover a method by which he could offset the departure of so many male students into the armed forces through enlistment and the draft. He managed to replace the missing men in student enrollment by coordinating with the US Navy to contract for Navy Training Schools at the Boulder Campus. About 1,800 to 2,000 men were recruited during World War II leaving the University of Colorado at Boulder with mostly female students remaining. By acquiring the US Navy Radio, Pre-Radar, Cooks, and Japanese/Oriental Language Schools, as well as the large V-12 Program, Stearns was able to maintain student enrollment as the Navy paid for housing, board, instruction, and equipment for all these Navy students. He successfully coordinated with Boulder’s civilian government and businesses to forestall any anti-Japanese backlash against the Japanese American instructors at the Navy Language School or the Japanese American students who arrived in four times their pre-war numbers at a time of heightened bias against that ethnicity during the war.

Robert Stearns served in the US Army in both World War I and World War II. During the First World War, Stearns was commissioned as an officer and was discharged with the rank of captain in 1918. During World War II, President Stearns took time off from his presidency to work as Chief of Operations Analysis Sections, 13th and 20th Air Force, in 1943. He assisted in planning B-29 attacks on Japan. Furthermore, Stearns was appointed to the committee charged with proposing the targets for the atom bomb attacks in 1945. He was also appointed as a special consultant to the research and development board of the National Military Establishment, and the Navy Educational Advisory Council from 1942 to 1945. During the Korean War in 1950, he served as the chairman of an Air Force Study Committee to provide ground support with tactical aircraft deployment.

After his return to campus in 1945, President Stearns dealt with many post war challenges. One of the first was an immediate expansion of student enrollment. Prior to the summer of 1945, student enrollment had peaked at roughly four thousand students. During the fall semester of 1945, more than eight thousand students arrived on campus. Stearns provided for these new students in a variety of methods. He had previously relocated much of the US Navy Japanese Language Program to Oklahoma A&M, freeing up dormitory space. He also pushed for several new student dormitories. Lastly, knowing that the bulk of these new students would be married veterans on the GI Bill, he directed the creation of “Vetsville”, an assemblage of Butler Buildings, Quonset huts, and trailers near Athens Court housing. Another issue was the changed academic climate after 1945. New faculties were substantially more research-oriented in their approach, requiring the President to support and endorse their new research agendas and the facilities those agendas would require. By 1953, the University had already begun its transformation from a teaching university to a research institution.

After the war, President Stearns and his advisors became aware of a rising anti-communist tide in the Colorado public, press, and the state’s Republican Party. Knowing that the developing Cold War would taint progressives, liberals, and Democrats among the University’s faculty and administration, Stearns and his fellow administrators endeavored to protect the university’s anti-communist credentials, through statewide speaking engagements and restricting hires to those able to say they were not current members of the communist party. He did this while attempting to preserve academic freedom on campus, promoting controversial speakers and allowing Marxist and left wing student organizations to operate without interference. However, after 1947, national and international events curtailed his freedom of action. He had to send a committee to New York City to investigate the national American Youth for Democracy. His committee found that the New York City chapter of AYD contained the same membership as had the now illegal Young Communist League. Therefore, the CUAYD lost its campus affiliation. In addition, other socialist and Marxist student groups were put under scrutiny. Paul Robeson who had stayed at the President’s house during his visit in 1943 was again invited to stay during his 1947 visit, when AYD asked him to speak at one of their meetings.

In 1951, Congressional anti-communist investigations caught up with CU Professor David Hawkins, who warned that the time had come for the Board of Regents to take decisive actions, or federal and state agencies would perform draconian investigations of CU faculty and students. The Board of Regents, acting on President Stearns’ suggestion, decided to run their own investigation rather than risk losing control of the process. They hired ex-FBI agents, Dudley Hutchinson and Harold Hafer, to perform investigations of faculty members and then conducted interviews, prior to deciding on retention or non-retention. As the investigation progressed, only two non-tenured-instructors were released. The entirety of the tenured faculty was retained. It is important to note that the 1940 AAUP proposal for academic freedom and the measures they suggested were not accepted by the Board of Regents until 1966. Prior to that date, tenure did not afford meaningful protection against firing for “the good of the university”. It should also be noted that another anti-communist probe of CU was proposed by a Colorado Republican in 1953. However, so successful had Stearns’ Board of Regents investigation been that in 1953 the state and federal Colorado Republicans failed to join the new effort and Colorado faculty now knew how to respond to the investigator, and nothing came of the new probe. Despite requests by the FBI, the Colorado Governor and the State Legislature, Stearns and the Board of Regents refused to release the Hutchinson-Hafer Report. Files from these anti-communist investigations and all records relating to accusations, denunciation and charges of communism, as well as all mitigating and exculpatory evidence were placed in a bank security deposit box, closed for more than 50 years.

Robert Stearns retired from the presidency in 1953. Soon after, the Alumni Association created a new award, named after the emeritus president, to honor faculty and staff members for their service and achievements. The Stearns Award was later given to David Hawkins and Joseph Cohen, prominent subjects of the 1951 anti-communist investigation. Both faculty members accepted the award, grateful for President Stearns’ efforts on their behalf.

President Stearns received honorary degrees from four different Universities including Columbia University in 1940, the University of Colorado at Denver in 1941, the University of New Mexico in 1946, Colorado College in 1947, and in 1953, the University of Colorado at Boulder. In addition he received many awards such as the Medal of Freedom, Exceptional Service Award, Order of Distinguished Auxiliary Service Award (1967), Regis College Civis Princeps Award, Adult Education Council Award, Brotherhood Award of National Conference of Christians and Jews, the Edward R. Loveland Award, in 1966 he received the Malcolm Glenn Wyer Award, and he was awarded the H.C. Van Schaack Citizen of the Year Award in 1970.

President Stearns held memberships in many different organizations, both before and during his presidency. From 1927 to 1928, he was a member of the Denver Bar Association. From 1933 until he assumed the position as President of the University of Colorado in 1939, he was a member of the board for the Control of State Home for the Dependent and Neglected Children. During 1936 and 1937, he was admitted into the Colorado Bar Association. Stearns was also involved in several other organizations such as the American Bar Association, the American Law Institute, and was a member of the Episcopal Church. Stearns was also a member of the Beta Theta Pi social fraternity, as well as a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and Phi Delta Phi honorary fraternities. Stearns also held memberships to clubs: Cactus, Mile High, Denver Country, Rotary, Town and Gown, and the University Club.

Robert Stearns married his first wife, Katherine Hanington in 1917; however, she passed away not long after their marriage. Stearns entered his second marriage with Amy Pitkin, granddaughter of a pioneer Colorado governor in 1920. Together, they had four daughters, Marion White, Amy Goodell, Judith Caughey, and Barbara Wootten.

After his retirement from the CU presidency in 1953, Stearns was engaged in various educational and non-governmental organizations. Although he had retired from the University, he was still involved with promoting educational and medical advancements. Directly after leaving his position as president, Stearns served nine years as president of the board of the Boettcher Foundation, granting funds to promising students in need. He also became the chairman of the American Council for Education until 1954. Afterwards, in 1955, Stearns was the director of the American Association for Allergic Diseases. In 1956, he was the chairman for the Colorado Committee for the Selection of Rhodes Scholars; four years later, he was a member of the Episcopal Radio and Television Foundation. A year later, he was the campaign chairman of the United Negro College Fund. In the same year, he was made head of the Citizens Committee on Modern Courts where he advocated judicial reforms. In his later years, Stearns became the president of the Webb-Warring Institute for Medical Research in 1971. And until his death, he worked as a counsel for the Davis, Graham & Stubbs Law Firm. On July 13, 1977, at the age of 84, Robert L. Stearns passed away in his home in Denver.


40.5 linear feet (24 boxes)

Language of Materials



Robert L. Stearns was the sixth President of the University of Colorado at Boulder and served from 1939 until 1953. Before he became President, he served as the Dean of the Law School at CU-Boulder. This collection includes financial and legal information, congratulatory correspondence for his appointment as President, documents concerning his military service, as well as correspondence from his later years.

Doris Mitterling, December, 1978
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the University of Colorado Boulder Libraries, Rare and Distinctive Collections Repository

1720 Pleasant Street
184 UCB
Boulder Colorado 80503 United States