Highland Park United Methodist Church gift honors former pastor, SMU president and alumnus Umphrey Lee

Highland Park United Methodist Church gift honors former pastor and SMU president Umphrey Lee.

Umphrey Lee

DALLAS (SMU) – Highland Park United Methodist Church (HPUMC) is providing a $1.5 million gift to SMU that will allow its longtime University neighbor to endow the Umphrey Lee Professorship in Methodist History, as well as support the HPUMC Future Church Leaders Program.

Presentation of the gift from HPUMC
by The Rev. Paul Rasmussen, senior pastor.

HPUMC is giving $1 million to establish the faculty position in the Perkins School of Theology, and $500,000 to support educational opportunities for individuals aspiring to serve in church leadership roles.  Recipients of “future leaders” funding may include students enrolled in graduate, undergraduate, certificate or continuing education programs or courses across the University, with students identified and recommended by HPUMC. 

The announcement of the gift falls on the date of SMU’s Centennial, allowing the University to celebrate its longstanding relationship with the church that held its first service on the SMU campus in 1916, as well as to underscore the legacy of a storied leader.

“When it comes to Umphrey Lee, it’s hard to know where SMU ends and Highland Park United Methodist Church begins, because Rev. Lee served us both for so many years,” said SMU President R. Gerald Turner.  “Our HPUMC neighbors are part of the SMU family and we feel a special sense of pride that this gift will support us in teaching the rich Methodist history that we share and help to prepare future church leaders.  It’s a wonderful way to celebrate our combined centennials.”

Lee arrived at SMU in 1915 (the year the University opened), was elected the first student body president, and received his master’s degree as a member of SMU’s first graduating class in 1916.  He served as pastor of HPUMC for 13 years, as SMU’s fourth president for 15 years (including during the World War II years) and as its chancellor after he stepped down as president. Over his lifetime he wrote 10 scholarly books on topics including Methodist history, the relationship between church and state, and pacifism in the context of the historic church. 

“Umphrey Lee was a scholar of Methodist history who believed that the liberal arts should make students think about their responsibilities in society, and that a successful experience at Southern Methodist University would help instill personal and social values,” said William B. Lawrence, dean of the Perkins School of Theology.  “This gift from the congregation that Rev. Lee loved to the University that he also loved is a wonderful tribute to a man whose influence on SMU was transformational.”

Highland Park United Methodist Church

“Our church history dates back to the founding of SMU, but our relationship is more than just an overlapping of time and geography,” said Paul Rasmussen, senior pastor at Highland Park United Methodist Church.  “It is our privilege to endow this professorship and to support the growth of future church leaders as we prepare for future generations of congregants.  The Perkins School of Theology is our partner in so many ways, and remains at the heart of the SMU tradition of outreach in the community and the world.”  

The gift to endow the Umphrey Lee Professorship in Methodist History in the Perkins School of Theology and to support the HPUMC Future Church Leaders Program counts toward SMU Unbridled: The Second Century Campaign, which celebrates today having reached its $1 billion goal to support students, faculty and academic excellence, and the campus experience.

“Achieving our campaign goal is vitally important to the future of this University,” said Brad Cheves, SMU vice president for development and external affairs.  “To be able to celebrate today that our friends and neighbors at HPUMC helped us reach that goal makes the experience particularly joyful. They have our thanks and affection.”

UMPHREY LEE, 1893-1958

As noted in the guide to Lee’s collection of SMU-related papers housed in DeGolyer Library, Lee enjoyed a long and unique relationship with SMU.

He was born March 23, 1893 in Oakland City, Indiana. His father, Josephus Lee, was a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church.  The family moved to Texas in 1909, and he received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Trinity University n 1914. 

Umphrey Lee

When Lee graduated from SMU with his Master of Theology degree in 1916, he went on to serve as pastor to several congregations (and as Director of the Wesley Bible Chair at the University of Texas) before returning to Dallas in 1923 to pastor Highland Park Methodist Church for the next 13 years. He briefly taught homiletics in the Perkins School of Theology, but left Dallas briefly to become Dean of the School of Religion at Vanderbilt University.

But his time away from Texas was brief, and he returned as the fourth president of SMU in November 1938. By that point he also had earned a PhD. From Columbia University in New York, making him the first SMU president to have earned a doctorate.

Lee’s 15-year tenure as president included the end of the Great Depression, the U.S. involvement in World War II, and the University’s dramatic changes to accommodate large numbers of veterans who returned from war to enroll at SMU on the GI Bill. Because the University did not have the facilities to house the returning veterans (and the wives who came with many of them), Lee directed the construction of temporary buildings on campus that became known as “Trailerville.”  The temporary trailers were located where SMU’s Meadows Museum stands today, and included a nursery school for the children of the returning veterans.

In the last years of Lee’s presidency, a campus building boom and greatly improved University finances allowed SMU to comfortably welcome an increased student population.

Following a heart attack in 1953, Lee resigned as SMU president in 1954.  But the Board of Trustees appointed him as chancellor, a position he occupied until his death in June 1958 – a month before he was officially scheduled to retire.

When Lee died, then-SMU President Willis M. Tate said, “More than any other man he is the symbol of the University.  To him we owe the stature and accomplishments of Southern Methodist University…He had great dreams for this institution, and it will be the purpose of every member of the University faculty and staff to see that those dreams are fulfilled.”


SMU is a nationally ranked private university in Dallas founded 100 years ago. Today, SMU enrolls approximately 11,000 students who benefit from the academic opportunities and international reach of seven degree-granting schools.