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Nelson Dean Jay

An Alumnus Almost Forgotten

by Karl K. Taylor '60

Nelson Dean Jay, Class of 1904

Editor's note: Nelson Dean Jay is the namesake of Jay Rehearsal Hall in the Ford Center for Fine Arts. Knox named the rehearsal space in honor of Jay because of his affinity for music. When asked about himself, Jay would always say, "I graduated from Knox College and played in the band." Bands still rehearse in the Jay Rehearsal Hall on a regular basis.

On June 6, 1960, Dean Hermann Muelder '27 introduced the first honorary degree recipient of Knox's 115th Commencement: "Nelson Dean Jay, a [1904] graduate of Knox and faithful alumnus, we confer on you an honorary degree for achievements in international commerce, finance, and goodwill."

More than 40 years later, the name Nelson Dean Jay means very little on campus. There is no plaque describing his humble beginnings, his rapid success in banking, his awards from four nations for service in World War I, or his considerable reputation across the continent from roughly 1920 to 1960. Yet, between 1837 and 1905, Jay may very well have been one of Knox's most distinguished graduates

Born in 1883 to a teacher and the postmaster in Elmwood, Illinois, a small town east of Galesburg, Jay spent much of his youth working-lugging mail pouches from the trains, sweeping out the post office, and stacking hay on his uncle's farm. When he entered Knox in 1901, he drove a buggy for a bank president, ran a laundry route in the dorms, and sold pots and pans door-to-door. Somehow Jay squeezed in a social life, joining the mandolin and guitar club, singing in the choir, playing clarinet in the band, pledging Phi Beta Kappa, working on The Gale, acting in several plays, and participating in the popular debating societies of the day.

After graduating in 1905, Jay moved to Milwaukee, where he sold bonds for the First National Bank. When only 33-years-old, he was named vice president of Guaranty Trust in New York. During this time, he developed a network of friends who would enhance his career, including Charles Dawes, who would later be Calvin Coolidge's vice president, and several partners at J. P. Morgan. They liked him-his broad smile, his sincerity, and his enthusiasm.

During World War I, Charles Dawes worked for General John Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, and invited Jay to serve as his assistant in Paris. Jay performed well, was promoted from captain to lieutenant colonel in less than a year, and received decorations from England, France, Belgium, and the United States.

By this time, Jay had developed an international reputation. As a result, J.P. Morgan personally offered him a position at Morgan & Cie in Paris, one of the four major branches of the Morgan Banking Company. His job was to transform the branch from a convenience for individuals, mostly American travelers, to a more commercial bank. Under Jay's leadership, Morgan & Cie began attracting large French companies, international corporations, and governments as clients. From 1920 to 1939, Morgan was perhaps THE American bank in Paris.

As the bank succeeded, so did Jay. His personality and position brought him possessions, as well as entry into an eclectic, prestigious social circle, filled not only with bankers, but with businessmen, politicians, diplomats, artists, writers, and musicians on both sides of the Atlantic.  According to his wife's journal, they entertained at least eight or 10 times each week in their two homes.

Sometimes this "entertainment" consisted of small informal affairs with three or four couples, such as the Lindberghs and Rockefellers. At other times, the occasion was more formal:  Myron Taylor, president of US Steel; Thomas Watson, President of IBM; Allen Dulles, head of the CIA; among others. The Jays were frequent guests at the home of Jo Davison, a prominent Parisian sculptor, where they met Ernest Hemingway. Perhaps the most historic invitation was to President and Madame Charles DeGaulle's reception in 1962, honoring President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy. Jay's reputation was at a peak.

Jay's most unexpected recognition came in 1964, when his name appeared on the front of the New York Times Book Review in an article on Ernest Hemingway's Moveable Feast. Lewis Galantiere, the reviewer, who knew both Hemingway and the banker, said Jay "is one of the two most civilized and authentic Americans in Paris."

On June 6, 1972, Nelson Dean Jay died in Syosset, New York. Services were held in the East, but his ashes were buried in the Elmwood Township Cemetery. Surrounded by Jay's family, President Sharvey Umbeck of Knox spoke highly of Jay's services to the College's Board of Trustees, on which he served from 1936 until his death, to J. P. Morgan, to the War Effort, and to the United States.

More than 35 years later, I walked the long hallway of the Center for the Fine Arts to the Nelson Dean Jay Recital Hall. The last band practice was over. Except for the director, who was stuffing sheet music into his briefcase, everyone had left. When I walked to his desk, he looked up with a smile and asked, pleasantly, "May I help you?" I responded, "Who was Nelson Dean Jay?" His answer-"I don't have a clue."

Originally from Elmwood, Illinois, Karl K. Taylor is a 1960 graduate of Knox, where he majored in English. He plans to write a biography of Nelson Dean Jay.