Who but a Kenyon president would ride a hundred miles on horseback in search of a Latin dictionary?
Once, according to a story, Philander Chase was presiding at a baptism where the parents had proposed a name that he found unacceptable. "Tut-tut! Away with these heathenish names!" scoffed the bishop. "I baptize thee Peter."
The baby was a girl.
Incredible? Outrageous? Or just a typically extraordinary gesture by a typically formidable Kenyon president?
Formidable and then some. While all of the College's presidents have been accomplished and impressive people, many have been truly remarkable characters. As founder, Chase may loom especially large--"a man of heroic mold," in the words of one early sketch, "a man of inflexible determination." But Chase's successors were often equally forceful, and equally fascinating.
Here, in the spirit of welcoming a new president with a nod to forebears, are some lesser known facts and unusual anecdotes about a few Kenyon presidents.
Charles Pettit McIlvaine, the College's second president (1832-40), spent two years as chaplain and professor of ethics at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where his students included Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. Bishop McIlvaine was so highly respected internationally (for his opposition to the Catholic-leaning Oxford Movement within the Episcopal Church) that, shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War, President Lincoln asked him to go to England to argue against British recognition of the Confederacy. He had coffee at Buckingham Palace, lunched with faculty members at Oxford, conversed with cabinet members, and influenced debate in the House of Commons. McIlvaine died in Italy in 1873. His body, carried through England on its journey home to Ohio, was honored for four days in Westminster Abbey.
David Bates Douglass, president number three (1840-44), the military engineer who created Middle Path, had earlier helped to design the famous water-supply system of New York City, which links reservoir, dam, masonry conduits, and aqueduct to bring New York residents the best-tasting metropolitan water anywhere. Also, as chief engineer of the Morris Canal in New Jersey, he helped to perfect the "inclined plane," which moved boats from one section of canal to another via railway carriage--taking less time, and using less water, than traditional locks. After leaving Kenyon, Douglass designed the supporting wall of Brooklyn Heights, which presumably prevents that community's shoreline bluff (with its spectacular views of Manhattan) from falling into the East River.
Sherlock Anson Bronson, the fourth president (1845-50), grew up on the Ohio frontier about fifteen miles from the huddle of cabins that would become Cleveland. He encountered wolves and bears, feared the British and their Indian allies during the War of 1812, and wore buckskin "pantaloons" that were extremely difficult to peel off when wet. His thirst for knowledge was so insatiable that he once sold a cow for eight dollars, mounted the farm horse, and rode for more than a hundred miles in the fruitless search for a Latin dictionary. Bronson, who graduated from Kenyon in 1833, was the first alumnus to become the College's president. The only other was William Caples of the Class of 1930, the fifteenth president. Lorin Andrews, number six, attended Kenyon but had to leave during his junior year because of financial difficulties. William Bodine, number ten, graduated from the Bexley seminary.
James Kent Stone, the scion of a prominent New England family, took time off from Harvard, twice, to travel in Europe, where his mountaineering ability earned him the distinction of becoming the first American member of the English Alpine Club. He was chosen as Kenyon's eighth president in 1867, at the age of just twenty-six. Although he developed a camaraderie with the students, his affinity for the theology of the Oxford Movement led to controversy, and he was forced to resign after a year. Following the death of his wife in 1869, he converted to Catholicism, became a Paulist priest, and gave up his two daughters for adoption. His outraged family referred to his conversion a "perversion," and his brother-in-law threatened to have him declared insane. In 1877 Stone joined the austere order of Passionist fathers, took the name Father Fidelis, and spent years in missionary work throughout North America, South America, and Europe. He saw his daughters again in 1921, just before he died.
William Foster Peirce, who was twenty-eight when he became Kenyon's twelfth president in 1896, served for forty-one years, longer than any other president. Nicknamed "Fat" because he was so thin, Peirce owned the first automobile in Knox County and learned to fly in the College's aeronautical school. His formal rhetoric was one of many traits that impressed and amused students. Every spring he would admonish them to refrain from making "incipient bypaths on the greensward," and they were tickled by his annual welcoming speech to the freshmen, in which he said that Philander Chase had "knocked up a log cabin in the virgin forest." Peirce faced the only student protest of his long Kenyon career in 1937, when the Kenyon men learned that "Fat" (who was retiring) would be replaced by the president of a women's college (Rockford College in Illinois). The students dragged old desks and other junk onto Middle Path and lit a bonfire. Peirce quenched the outcry by asking, simply, "Don't you think it would be wise to wait until you have at least met him?"
The man in question was Gordon Keith Chalmers, who would serve as Kenyon's president from 1937 to 1956, leading the College to national prominence for academic excellence and making it a renowned center for literary studies.
The Greenslade Special Collections and Archives have a wealth of information about Kenyon's presidents. Perry Lentz '64 of the English department has written excellent essays on Charles McIlvaine and Lorin Andrews, and Christopher Barth '93--a great authority on the College's history and its archives--has written profiles of all the presidents as well as a book, Kenyon Reborn, about the presidency of William Peirce.
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