Hartley Burr Alexander, poet, philosopher, and anthropologist, is the man whose genius is behind the symbolism and inscriptions for the Nebraska State Capitol. Born in Lincoln on April 9, 1873, Alexander grew up in Syracuse, Nebraska, and was educated at the University of Nebraska. Graduate studies took him to the University of Pennsylvania, then to Columbia University, where he received his doctorate in philosophy in 1901. He worked in Boston as a contributor to and editor of a revised Webster’s Dictionary.
In 1906 Alexander received an appointment to the University of Nebraska to teach philosophy. This resulted in a productive nineteen years in Lincoln, many of them as chairman of the philosophy department. A popular teacher and lecturer, he wrote articles, editorials, and poems for a variety of newspapers. He presented a number of his own pageants and a light opera. In the scholarly field he published several books on American Indian mythology and its symbolism, a field for which he was a recognized authority. He served as the president of the American Philosophical Association in 1919.
In 1922 Bertram Goodhue, the architect of the new state capitol, commissioned Alexander to originate and develop fully the capitol’s symbolic program of inscriptions, sculpture, and mosaics. His collaborator on Goodhue’s team was Goodhue’s architectural sculptor of nearly three decades, Lee Lawrie, who created the Sower, and over a hundred additional sculptures, bas-relief panels, and other architectural design elements that adorn the building. Alexander’s success with this project prompted offers to carry out similar projects elsewhere, notably for the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, the Los Angeles Public Library, the Oregon State Capitol, and Rockefeller Center in New York.
In 1927 Alexander moved to California to develop Scripps College, a new college for women in Claremont. He taught philosophy until his death in Claremont on July 27, 1939, and was buried there. He was inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame in 1988.