This past week, as I was driving up Highway 41 from Cowan, I noticed that looming, white mansion sitting atop the plateau for the hundredth time. And for the hundredth time, I pondered its existence. Every time I drive up that highway, I feel as though an intimidating yet invisible force rests its white eye upon me. I have known what it was since coming to Sewanee a year ago, but I never understood where it came from or why it was there. Finally, my curiosity got the best of me. I took a trip to the Templeton Library and dove into its history.
Sir John Templeton’s tale resembles that of a Victorian-era magnate dropped in 20th-century America. He was born on November 29, 1912, in Winchester, Tennessee. His father was a failed cotton farmer, and he grew up in an environment stricken by poverty. Despite this, Templeton followed in his brother’s footsteps and attended Yale University. His time there was funded by his earnings as a poker prodigy, working multiple jobs, and his scholarships. He graduated in 1934. Templeton then studied at Balliol College in Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and graduated in 1936. In 1938, he swiftly began his career as a financial tycoon on Wall Street.
Templeton made his renowned wealth during times of global downfall. He invested in companies selling shares at one dollar during the Great Depression, and when the economy picked up during World War II, he sold them for high profit, kickstarting his fortune. The man lived by Baron Rothschild’s motto, “Buy when there’s blood on the streets.” To maintain his wealth, Templeton renounced his United States Citizenship in 1968 to avoid paying taxes. He then moved to the Bahamas and became a naturalized British citizen.
The unpredictability of Templeton’s life continued when he shifted his focus from finance to spirituality. He discovered “new spiritual information” valuing progress in understanding the deepest realities of human nature and the spiritual world. He used his fortune from Wall Street to establish the Templeton Prize in 1972. This became the world’s largest annual award given to an individual whose achievements combine science and religion to explore metaphysical questions of the universe and humankind’s purpose. The prize awards recipients with $1.4 million.
Despite his wealth, Templeton’s life was filled with tragedy. He married twice and survived both wives. His first wife, Judith Folk, whom he married in 1937, died in a violent motorcycle accident. He then married his second wife, Irene Reynolds Butler, who died in 1993. He had three kids from his first marriage, John, Christopher, and Anne, but only two survived his death in 2008.
After the death of Irene, Templeton began construction of the Templeton Library. He intended for it to be unlike any other library, serving more as a monument to himself and his success. It would never have established hours nor be open to the public. Instead of a collection of books, he intended for the library to be a repository for essays and literature devoted to science and religion, to promote his spiritual studies. But this collection never arrived, and his library remained desolate. After his death in 2008 from pneumonia, what was built as a library became a series of apartments available for renting.
Whispers of the tragedy of Wesley Mitchell’s death sweep through Sewanee’s campus. It contributes to the harrowing nature of the library. On October 11, 2001, a group of first year students decided to visit the library during its early stages of construction. In a fit of adventurous vigor, Mitchell wanted to explore the inside and entered through what he thought was a laundry shoot. Landing in what was actually a motion-sensitive trash compactor, he was crushed to death.
The Templeton Library’s history is both rich and confusing. Its founder was a multifaceted financial tycoon who dominated the world of economics and spirituality in the 20th century. The impact that the existence of this significant American figurehead continues to have on the Sewanee community makes his story worth telling.