The Man Behind the Desk

By Brian Brennan

In 1932, Howard W. Jones was appointed director of Youngstown College by the trustees of the YMCA (his title was changed to president in 1935). Unknown to most is that Jones was preceded by another man as head of what would become Youngstown State University.

His name was Homer L. Nearpass, but few have heard of him. There are no statues or plaques in his memory. No rooms on campus have been named in his honor. His portrait does not adorn the lobby of Tod Hall.

As director of Youngstown College (and its preceding incarnations), he was basically the de facto president from 1928 through 1931. Yet, he left the college under circumstances that were concealed at the time.

Nearpass was a military school graduate and majored in secondary education at Western Reserve University, now Case Western Reserve University, where he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. His career in secondary education was interrupted by the First World War.

Afterward, Nearpass earned his Master of Arts degree from Columbia University. In 1923, he accepted a position with the Youngstown YMCA as educational director. In this capacity, Nearpass managed both the YMCA’s high school and college-level activities.

In 1928, the college division separated and moved to quarters on Wick Avenue. Nearpass was made its director. Nearpass worked well with Leonard Skeggs, general secretary of the Youngstown YMCA.

In his book “Steel Valley University: The Origins of Youngstown State,” Alvin Skardon portrays Skeggs as the association’s educational “promoter” and Nearpass, the “administrator.” More importantly, Nearpass was well liked by the students at YoCo.

Nearpass established an open door policy and was known as the kindly “man behind the desk.” He communicated to students through a regular column in The Jambar.

In January 1932, upon their return to classes after the Christmas break, students were shocked to learn of Nearpass’ sudden departure from YoCo. The Jambar reported that Nearpass moved to California because of his wife’s declining health.

The nature of her illness was not disclosed; however, Nearpass had one son already residing there, and another set to enter the University of Southern California. A gathering of the clan in the Golden State seems reasonable enough, regardless of his wife’s medical condition.

Yet, unknown to the YoCo student body, other forces were at work behind the scenes.

YMCA board member and local industrialist James L. Wick Jr. and others sought to emphasize the collegiate mission of the YMCA. To assist in this endeavor, Howard Jones was hired to oversee matters, bringing with him previous experience as the acting president of his alma mater, Hiram College.

Yet, Jones’ duties closely paralleled those of Nearpass. Conflict ensued. Wick argued that there was no need to retain both officials, so Nearpass was “released” by the Y board. General Secretary Skeggs, who was in Canada at the time, reportedly expressed anger at the board’s ruling.

Time has shown that the decision to appoint Howard Jones as director proved correct. Sadly, the role of Homer Nearpass in the foundation of YSU has never been acknowledged. It is long overdue.