Skip to main content

Riggs, Morris John ‘M.J.’

Published onOct 14, 2021
Riggs, Morris John ‘M.J.’

(January 14, 1862 - February 7, 1926)

Quick Facts

Alumnus who became the first president of the Memorial Union Board (1920-25) and President of the Alumni Association, responsible for the fundraising and creation of the Memorial Union.

“We come to college not alone to prepare to make a living, but to learn to live a life” – M.J. Riggs, 1883.

In the west entrance to the Memorial Union on second floor, over the door to Room 2630 is a quotation from M.J. Riggs.

Morris John Riggs was born in Horton, Iowa on January 14, 1862 and attended high school in Waverly, Iowa. He was an 1883 Iowa State College (now University) civil engineering graduate who was president of the Iowa State Alumni Association in the 1920s and took on the challenge of raising one million dollars for the college’s war memorial project – the Memorial Union. He became the first president of the Memorial Union Board (1920-25), but died before ground was ever broken. Though initially favoring a “pure memorial,” Riggs became a whole-hearted supporter of the Memorial Union idea.

In 1920 after a year’s discussion of what type of war memorial should be erected, students and staff pledged support for a building that would house the memorial and provide service to the college. The Student (newspaper) declared, "The students have acted—it now rests with alumni."

All pledges had been conditional upon alumni cooperation. Harold Pride, ‘17, of the Engineering Experiment Station, was appointed chairman of a committee "to secure action from alumni." Alumni leaders considered the challenge on June 8, 1920 at the Alumni Association annual meeting in Morrill Hall.

At that meeting, M.J. Riggs, was elected President of the Association, fully aware of the challenge facing Iowa State graduates. It was eloquently moved and seconded to approve the memorial union building as urged by the students. Riggs accepted the mandate to marshal sentiment and financial support for a “Memorial Union.”

Riggs, a large man of boundless enthusiasm and energy, was then manager of the American Bridge Company in Toledo, Ohio. He had a reputation for money-raising for civic projects. He went to work learning all there was to know about college unions.

Originally, campus leaders had thought in terms of $500,000 but Riggs per­suaded them that it would take a million dollars to do anything appropriate and adequately serve the cultural and social needs of the growing college.

He conceived a challenge. If a quarter-million dollars was pledged on campus, he would undertake to raise the remainder among alumni. At that time the College had graduated 5,354 and in 1920 they were not all living. The Alumni Office had done little to keep track of non-graduates.

The raising of a million dollars among fewer than four thou­sand students, a few hundred staff members and five thousand alumni was the challenge accepted by Riggs. There was talk of "eight thousand alumni" but that would have had to include many who had been short-term students.

Soon after classes opened in September 1920, ISC President Raymond Pearson announced that in spite of continued business stringency throughout the corn belt, enrollment was the highest ever. Riggs declared, "There never is a good time to raise money," so the campaign was launched.

In October, Riggs, Pearson and college staff drove around Iowa on the state’s notorious "mud roads." They appeared at 21 meetings in 12 days, urging alumni to get behind the Union with payment of the $100 life membership fee. Riggs and Pearson also traveled to the West Coast. Key alumni in Chicago, Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Minnesota and Delaware County, Iowa contacted fellow graduates and secured pledges.

By the middle of November 1920, Riggs was on campus "to direct final clean-up." While in Ames, Riggs missed no opportunity to speak to any student or staff member, singly or in groups. The sale of life memberships was pushed among students and alumni alike. He wrote to friends in all the early classes urging them to see that their classmates helped.

Because of limited finances, files had never been developed for alumni. Riggs, in his earnestness to have "every Ames man and woman" take part in the Memorial Union, soon discovered that there was little knowledge of those who had dropped out of classes before graduation and few mailing addresses for any but graduates.

Riggs wanted all possible former students to be located and invited into Union membership. The Alumni Association’s head was reluctant to expand his mailing lists as fast as Riggs desired. He did not think the alumni he knew could handle supporting the project – so he resigned.

Riggs and Pearson took the opportunity to bring the Union and the Association into close cooperation. Pride was appointed Association Secretary in addition to his duties with the Memorial Union and alumni files were made available.

With no state funding forthcoming, in 1922 the Memorial Union was incorporated as a non-profit under Iowa law so the college could raise the necessary money.

In 1923, Riggs was elected to continue both as Memorial Union Board President and President of the Alumni Association. He reported a total of $507,000 pledged and outlined his plans for securing the re­mainder of the million dollars. While the balance was being gathered, he proposed appointing a building committee to select the site, architect and plans. It was approved, but President Pearson was not present when the Board gave Riggs that broad authority.

When Riggs returned to campus later that year with A.B. Pond, Chicago architect and his sketches of a Gothic-style building, he took many by surprise. With little more than half the necessary funds pledged, and much less than that in cash, Riggs’ presentation provoked a crisis.

Riggs had not asked his fellow-officers, members of the Board of Directors or members of the building committee he had appointed for authority to select an architect, much less for approval of his action. And, President Pearson had other ideas about what should be built on the Iowa State campus and how that should be done.

Riggs, for all his love of alma mater, was not aware of procedure at academic institutions or the sentiments of his close friends and classmates on plans for campus growth and existing architectural patterns. The Pond design simply did not fit.

Herman Knapp, College and Union treasurer and Riggs’ classmate, knew him well and his affection for him and concern for the welfare of everything at Iowa State led him to try to reconcile the differences between Pearson and Riggs. Riggs asked to be relieved of the Presidency. Though an effort was made to persuade him to stay on, he didn’t change his mind but did not insist on immediate release.

Riggs had been hurt and lost his enthusiasm for the Memorial Union and Iowa State that had led him to invest so much of himself in the memorial project and to make a personal pledge of $5,000, the largest made by any alumnus to that date. But he remained interested in the final phase of fundraising and offered many suggestions. The final goal of one million dollars was surpassed in December 1925.

Riggs died unexpectedly of cerebral meningitis on February 7, 1926 in Toledo, Ohio. It was said of him, “In all of his diversified undertakings, Mr. Riggs not only was an indefatigable worker himself, setting a personal example of diligence and fidelity, but by his honesty, earnestness and enthusiasm, he inspired men to work for him and with him.” In addition to his support for Iowa State, Riggs was a long-time Toledo booster who championed the Chamber of Commerce and held leadership roles in the Y.M.C.A.

In the west entrance over the door to Memorial Union Room 2630 is an engraved quotation from M.J. Riggs that many Iowa Staters cherish: "We come to college not alone to prepare to make a living, but to learn to live a life." 

Excerpted largely from The First Fifty Years by Harold Pride, a history of the Memorial Union, with additional material from ISU Special Collections; edited by Katherine Svec

Selected Sources

Memorial Union Records, RS 21/5, University Archives, Special Collections, Iowa State University Library. (See also Harold E. Pride papers, 1924-1981)

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?