John Ward Studebaker

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For the car manufacturer, see John Studebaker.
President Truman greets winners of the Voice of Democracy contest in 1947, Dr. John W. Studebaker standing on the far left.

John Ward Studebaker (June 10, 1887 – July 26, 1989) served as U.S. Commissioner of Education from 1934 to 1948. He was also Chairman of the U.S. Radio Education Committee. His was the longest tenure of any education commissioner, and he devoted much of his time to children's literacy and arithmetic.

Studebaker was born in Iowa and grew up in McGregor, Iowa. Although he was small in stature and had lost his right eye in an accident at the age of 12, he was a "star all-round high school and college athlete" who was the quarterback of his high school and college football teams, as well as playing baseball and basketball in college.[1][2] He attended Leander Clark College in Toledo, Iowa, paying his way through school by working as a bricklayer.

After college, he served as principal of a public school, and in 1914 became assistant superintendent of schools in Des Moines, Iowa. During World War I he took a leave of absence from that position to become national director of the Junior Red Cross and to undertake graduate study at Columbia University, where he was awarded a master's degree in 1920. Returning to Des Moines, in 1920 he became the city's school superintendent. As superintendent, he started special education programs for children with disabilities and "slow learners."[1][3][4]

Studebaker was first appointed Commissioner of Education by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934. He served for the remainder of Roosevelt's Presidency and continued in the position under President Harry Truman, resigning in 1948 with the explanation that he could no longer afford to serve in a position that paid only $10,000 annually.[3]

Studebaker was best known, while Commissioner of Education, for his work on public forums.[1] Believing that public discussion as civic education was the key to renewing democracy, he first ran a series of forums in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1932 – 1934, then instituted the Federal Forum Project, 1936 – 1941 until just before the outbreak of World War II. Studebaker published The American Way (1935) and Plain Talk (1936), both of which were influential with Depression-era educators.[3]

Studebaker maintained his membership in the bricklayers' union long after becoming an educator. He was a member of the Methodist church, the Masons and Shriners, and Rotary International.[4] He died in 1989 in Walnut Creek, California, at age 102.[3]


  1. ^ a b c Education: Double & Triple Shifts, Time, July 8, 1940
  2. ^ Myron M. Stearns, Earning an Education, Boys' Life, September 1936, page 10.
  3. ^ a b c d Alfonso A. Narvaez, John W. Studebaker Dies at 102; Developed Educational Programs, The New York Times, July 28, 1989
  4. ^ a b Education: Studebaker for Zook, Time, May 28, 1934
Government offices
Preceded by
George F. Zook
United States Commissioner of Education
1934 – 1948
Succeeded by
Earl James McGrath