Charles Richard Sattgast (1899-1964)
College president and lifelong educator, Charles Richard Sattgast was born in Mount Vernon, Illinois on January 26, 1899. He began his studies at Southern Illinois University, receiving a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois and a Master’s degree from Stanford University. A doctoral degree from the Teachers College at Columbia University followed in 1938. Possessing a natural talent for teaching, he spent several years administering to small elementary schools in rural Illinois before accepting an appointment as Superintendent of Schools in Richfield, Kansas. In 1930 he became President of Sioux Falls College in South Dakota. At the time, Sattgast was the youngest college president in the United States. In February 1938 he began a long and successful career as President of Bemidji State Teachers College (today, Bemidji State University) in Bemidji, Minnesota, a post he would hold for the rest of his life.
In the early days of his tenure at Bemidji State Teachers College, Sattgast initiated numerous plans for the college’s expansion. However, he was soon inspired to join the war because of the growing number of Bemidji students who enlisted in the armed forces. Securing a leave of absence in September 1943, Sattgast undertook extensive training as an officer of the Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories (AMGOT). He was then transferred to the MFAA in Austria. As Fine Arts and Monuments Officer for Land Salzburg, he inspected numerous repositories for looted art in Austria. At Schloss Fischhorn, the Monuments Men discovered a large cache of items which included the oldest Polish prints from the University of Warsaw, furniture and paintings from the Royal Palaces in Warsaw, parchments and archives of the Polish kings from the collection of Prince Radziwall of Nieswiez, and works of art from many museums and private collections in Warsaw. In August 1944, SS troops shipped sixteen railway cars filled with looted art to Schloss Fischhorn, the residence of SS General Hermann Fegelein, Hitler’s brother-in-law. The objects were in complete disarray within the castle and neighboring warehouses, where they remained until May 1945, when the warehouses were opened by SS troops and looted by locals.
The first Monuments Man to inspect Schloss Fischhorn was Lt. Frederick Hartt, who made a cursory inventory of the castle’s contents in August 1945. Hartt placed responsibility for the collection in the hands of Sattgast, who arrived a few weeks later to prepare the contents for shipment to safety at the Property Control warehouse in Salzburg. In the months that followed,
Sattgast supervised a comprehensive inventory by Monuments Man Lt. Morris Grinbarg and directed a number of Polish workers recruited as packers. Progress was consistently interrupted by lack of transportation and packing supplies as well as snowstorms which made the mountain roads unsafe. Sattgast was sometimes forced to travel to nearby repositories on foot. Despite these obstacles, efforts to return the collections continued; in December 1945 alone, over five tons of archival documents were removed from Schloss Fischhorn.
In March 1946 the Polish collections arrived in Warsaw to the jubilation of hundreds of grateful Poles. At the time, a Polish representative estimated that nearly 80% of Polish libraries, museums, and scientific workshops had been destroyed, burned down, or looted during the war. For example, the Department of Medieval Art at the University of Warsaw had been reduced to only twenty-five books. Thus, the return of so many books, archival documents, paintings, and art objects signified a momentous restoration of Polish cultural property. In appreciation for his efforts, Sattgast was elected to life membership in the Warsaw Academy of Science, the same honor given to legendary nuclear physicist Marie Curie.
Sattgast resumed his duties as President at Bemidji State Teachers College in 1946. Under his leadership, the college experienced one of its most transformative periods. He significantly increased enrollment, expanding what began as a small campus for teachers into a large, modern college with a liberal arts program and graduate school. To accommodate these new course subjects, Sattgast broke ground on buildings for science, performing and fine arts, physical education, and dormitories, growing the campus from twenty acres to nearly seventy-four acres in the 1960s. Due in large part to Sattgast’s efforts, the college continued to grow in size and reputation. It was renamed Bemidji State College in 1957 and Bemidji State University in 1975. In his spare time, Sattgast nurtured a lifelong passion for the environment. He enjoyed gardening, beekeeping, and collecting all kinds of mushrooms.
At the time of Charles Sattgast’s death in Rochester, Minnesota on March 24, 1964, he held the record for the longest serving university or college president in the United States. Today, the Sattgast Hall of Science at Bemidji State University is named in honor of the leader who ensured the university’s continued success for generations to come.
Photo courtesy of Bemidji State University Archives.