Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the address, titled “Philander and a Half,” that Adele Davidson ’75, the Charles P. McIlvaine Professor of English, gave at the 2019 Founders’ Day ceremony on Oct. 31, 2019. Watch a video of the ceremony.
Earlier this semester, I purchased a half dozen letters written by someone for whom my “heart still holds a place of love”— the founder of Kenyon College, Philander Chase.
As his letters reveal, Philander envisioned a “great work in the West,” (1) a center of learning emerging from wilderness, deeply present to a wider world. Philander bequeathed to us a frontier college, a pioneering spirit, an inclusive community set apart among the loveliest of autumn leaves.
One hundred and forty-five years following his inaugural vision, the arrival of women students provided a second founding of a College on Gambier Hill. In 1969 the Dean of the Coordinate College for Women, Doris Crozier, announced to the Collegian, “The girls are pleased to have an opportunity to pioneer a college.” (2)
From the men’s south campus to the new north, two paths converged in a yellow wood, and that has made all the difference. As we celebrate half a century of coeducation and the Black Student Union, we honor and embrace our founders’ pioneering impulse. In this spirit we welcome the Class of 2023 and transfers, you, the still unwritten pages of our matriculation book.
In one letter I acquired, written from Gambier in 1831, Philander’s 7-year-old son observes, “my Dear Father fell down off the church (he is going on in building the New Church very nobly) and hurt himself and kept him in bed….” (3) And Philander himself adds, “what he says about me is but too true. But I am better today and now little fear of a Mortification in my wound, is entertained.” (4)
Philander walked across half-finished floor joists while working on his new church, Rosse Chapel, now Rosse Hall. He literally fell through the cracks in the floor, slicing his ankle almost to the bone and leaving his blood on the bare bones of the building. (5)
Wait a minute, look under your seat: can you see where Philander fell as Rosse was beginning to rise? He literally put foundations under our feet.
Unfortunately for Philander, a further fall awaited. He writes in the same letter, “we shall have a stormy Convention. The Boys [the students] have caught the spirit of the Professors’ letter and all is disobedience, defiance and delay. I have written my defense.” (6)
Philander and his faculty were at odds, professors resisting his single-minded, imperious authority. A couple of weeks later, at the Episcopal Convention held in Gambier, Philander, in pain from his fall, moving with difficulty, barely able to stand, barraged by antipathy and anger, resigned as president of Kenyon. (7) He left the Hill and never returned. The dream and determination of his lifetime no longer belonged to him. It is now in our mutual care.
“Our dreams / sneak up on us,” the writer Terry Tempest Williams observes (8), and sometimes, as for Philander, they turn on us and veer toward nightmare. But Philander succeeded beyond imagining in his half-finished dream. Miscarrying and misadventure — failure falling into grief — sometimes turn unexpectedly to good, and stories of loss and longing sow seeds of healing and future growth.
In one of the letters I acquired, Philander offers a job to the first professor of languages at Kenyon:
He shall be entitled to his house-rent, wood, meat, bread, and vegetables [sic]; and in short whatever is raised from the lands or the product of the mills; clothing, books & stationary [sic], the use of horses & groceries being excepted … . To the enjoyment of these priviledges [sic] was added the offer of Five hundred dollars as an annual Salary …. (9)
On the back of the sheet Philander offers the following qualification:
The embarrassments of the College may for the first year require some indulgence on your part in the demand of your salary: The Half shall, d[eo]. v[olente] [“God Willing”]. be paid you; and the balance as soon as may be. (10)
Philander and a half-salary? Who would take this job? Thankfully the first professors did; and not only for the vegetables. From initial rude huts and hog’s-lard lamps, committed teachers created space for liberal learning and spiritual growth. (11) One of Kenyon’s first graduates wrote in 1839: “indeed the situation of all the teachers in the institution at present requires much zeal and self-denial.” (12) (It still does today.) But on the remote frontier, early founders ultimately put aside contention and acrimony to focus on the urgent mission of frontier education.
Like Philander’s faculty, professors in the early days of women at Kenyon worked to turn conflict and struggle to understanding and insight. Before coming to Kenyon, Galbraith Crump, my Shakespeare professor, and later editor of the Kenyon Review, had Coke bottles thrown at him while marching with fellow soldiers: a crowd harassed white and black soldiers for marching together in a newly integrated army. (13) Professor Crump went on to teach one of Kenyon’s earliest classes on African American literature, “The Literature of Dissent.” (That was a great class!)
My parents appreciated that at times when they visited Kenyon, biology professor Alfred Wohlpart and his wife, Pam, kindly invited us to tea. As a child during World War II, Professor Wohlpart spent time in an internment camp for Germans in Crystal City, Texas, and subsequently was returned to Germany by the U.S. government. (14) (As you may know, along with Japanese Americans, some Germans were interned as well.) A hard way to learn hospitality. Today, Kenyon faculty continue to encourage learners, student by student, in and out of class, to confront ongoing, unsolved problems, like racism and the internment of perceived alien “others.”
One of my mentors, English professor Gerrit Roelofs, compared Kenyon’s isolation to the aircraft carrier he had served on as a Navy pilot during World War II: “You are a self-contained unit and you have obligations, and those obligations are made quite obvious to you, both in your failures and in your triumphs.” (15) In a tiny village, people see up close each other’s flaws and weaknesses, mistakes and quirks, but these circumstances also enhance camaraderie and encourage, as Gerrit stressed, “the discipline of mutual responsibility.” (16) (With our faults on view, we are also made aware, as the South African bishop Desmond Tutu affirms: there is “no future without forgiveness.”) (17)
In this small place, we are stewards of incredible beauty, on the site Philander chose: we find sources of creativity in the seasonal rhythms of, in Shakespeare’s phrase, “Great creating Nature.” We are created; therefore we create. Roelofs wrote of teaching at Kenyon, “It’s the best teaching job there is, and I wouldn’t exchange it for any other.” (18)
Despite its insularity, Kenyon’s small community has fostered, at its best, an inclusive and outward-looking reach. Philander sailed across the stormy seas less than 10 years after the War of 1812, his contacts for fundraising forged (among former enemies) from ties made at the treaty of Ghent. (19) One of the first 10 students to graduate from Kenyon, an international student from Salisbury, England, wrote in 1839 that the College and its attached preparatory school included “a few Irish and Welsh, one Greek, and one native of Hindustan. There have been also three or four American Indians….” (20) In a bleak and cold November, Philander traveled a hundred miles across Ohio to bring Mohawk students to Kenyon. (21) The indigenous learners did not stay. More work on inclusion remained to be done, and still remains.
Philander found inspiration in visiting Oxford, the “City of Colleges,” (22) where he met, among other educators and clergy, a young John Henry Newman, honored in 2019 as a Catholic saint, for whom Kenyon’s student Newman Club was named. (23) After Philander resigned, Kenyon’s second president, Charles McIlvaine, similarly cultivated British ties.
McIlvaine is, according to biographers, the only American ever to lie in state in Westminster Abbey, where a plaque honors his devotion to British-American friendship. (24) Philander and a half-English, half-American founding guaranteed the College a transnational outlook.
Before coming to Ohio, Philander pastored a church in New Orleans; he regretted living in a slave-owning culture, but for three months he reluctantly relied on a slave for household help; he emancipated the slave after the slave escaped and was, years later, recaptured. (25) Among the abolitionist British, this incident, as Kenyon author John Piatt wrote in 1906, “gained the Bishop a sudden tide of friendship and favor.” (26) A sad and sordid story: but Piatt argues, “In this way… the negro, Jack, became a founder — or a powerful instrument and lever in the foundation — of Kenyon College.” (27)
With the slave Jack’s suffering and courage to escape, Kenyon owes a debt of gratitude to Philander and a half a man, or technically, under the U. S. Constitution at the time, three-fifths of a human being. (28) Prominent Kenyon graduates taught by Philander later worked directly with Abraham Lincoln — in election campaigns, cabinet, and the Supreme Court — to advance the cause of freedom. (29) The words “free” and “friend” share a common word origin, from the Old English “freogan,” “to love”: (30) a liberal education frees us into widening friendships by expanding the inclusiveness of our capacities for love.
In the 19th century Philander “hurried homeward with the stuff”; in the 1960s problems arose in fundraising for the Coordinate College. Kenyon identified a prospective donor with an opportunity to name the women’s college, but as it turned out, this person actually opposed the inclusion of women. (31) No donor name was forthcoming, hence the name, “Coordinate College.” There was Philander’s college and an unnamed other half: Philander and a half. Members of the Coordinate College like myself — I was in the third full class of women — were not allowed to matriculate or participate in the first-year sing. Of the first full class of women at Kenyon, 1973, approximately half the members left and did not graduate.
After the Coordinate College folded into Kenyon in 1972, women did receive the opportunity to matriculate. At the first coeducational matriculation, students were asked to sing a song, “Mrs. Bishop Chase,” that portrayed a stay-at-home housewife, eager to reap the bounty of her husband’s labor. (32)
While he climbed hills and said that prayer
She was at home and working there.
He knocked at every noble’s door
While she stayed home and mopped the floor.
And when Philander had enough
What gift for her was in the stuff?
Can we imagine singing that song at Founders’ Day today? Here are some quotes from Philander’s letters:
“My dear Wife is all patience under the manifold difficulties and embarrassments occasioned by my taking her means to supply the wants of our plan in Knox County.” (33)
“You will be pleased to hear that my dear wife instead of taking the 100 [pounds] sterling which Mr. Bates of old England sent her for her personal use immediately remitted to me to pay the College debts with.” (34)
The early classes of women redefined for Kenyon what it means to be “at home and working there.” All over campus, women worked hard to prove that they belonged. Unpaid faculty spouses and women from the Gambier community facilitated these efforts. (They still do.) Women students inhabited the liberal arts; they shared lives of common purpose that quicken wisdom and skill in learners regardless of gender or sexuality.
Sophia Chase was, in current parlance, an “agent of transformational change.” So too was Lady Rosse, without whose generosity we would not be here.
Years after leaving Kenyon, Philander visited the nearly-nonagenarian donor; his letter praises her “sound mind and vigorous thought”: she kept her intellect sharp by playing chess every day. (35) This year we celebrate Kenyon’s women students who also have become agents of transformational change: a Congresswoman, Academy Award winners, scientists, authors, artists, activists, mothers — Kenyon parents. The first female valedictorian at Kenyon, Helene Shapiro ’75, taught calculus at Swarthmore College to a future Kenyon president, Sean Decatur. (36)
Among the founders of the Coordinate College, Doris Crozier is often remembered for her sherry parties — or, for non-drinkers, hot chocolate — for the “girls” to whom she was fiercely devoted. Like Philander, she also cultivated a rugged pioneering spirit. In Gambier Dean Crozier taught a non-credit course in anthropology while Kenyon debated whether to establish an anthropology department. (37)
Her teaching had taken her from a one-room schoolhouse in Vermont to post-war occupied Germany, and for three years to Cambodia, where she lived out in the countryside, eating meals from a banana leaf, “with jungle all around.” (38) For work in setting up a teacher’s college, she received the Order of Chevalier from the Cambodian government. Her car was once attacked by bandits in Saigon, where she watched with foreboding the increasing build-up of an American military presence. (39)
At the end of her first year at Kenyon, students wept in outrage at news of the shooting at Kent State University, less than 100 miles away — students killed protesting the spread of the Vietnam war into Cambodia, Dean Crozier’s former home. Throughout the country this was a time, to quote the late professor of religious studies at Kenyon, Donald Rogan, of “Campus Apocalypse.” (40) The kaleidoscope of history was shifting, realigning long-held values and altering the nation’s social fabric.
Like Philander Chase, Dean Crozier ultimately walked away from her founding role with the Coordinate College, but we honor her guiding vision in expanding women’s education. (41) In an interview after leaving Kenyon, Crozier stated, “I loved the students of the ’60s. … I loved the radical students. … They were really interested in trying to do something about changing the world.” (42)
I still remember a one-line prayer from an opening Convocation in my College days, spoken by Professor Rogan, to whose memory and legacy I dedicate this talk: “In the name of God let us go forth in peace.” Shocking in its simplicity, the prayer encapsulated the spirit of an age, as young people chanted, all over the country: “all we are asking is give peace a chance.”
In times of crisis and social change, people must pioneer. Philander’s letters link us to a history that can inspire and guide our common life. I will donate these letters to the Kenyon archive in honor of our day today.
Philander was a founder and a half: his courage welled up from a deep spiritual reservoir. Philander first journeyed to Ohio by sleigh, over a frozen lake. As his autobiography records, he literally skated on thin ice: one pitch-black night, terrified, ice cracking around him, he heard the “water pour over the runners of the sleigh … far out from shore”; by morning, however, “the scene … was exceedingly brilliant and even sublime … . The bald-headed eagles sat on … mountains of ice, with each a fish in his claw, fresh and clean … .” (43)
When Philander decided to go to England to seek funding for Kenyon, he was seized with a sudden memory of this moment. “Here the same angel of promise … which came to him when contemplating the eagles on the mountains of ice on Lake Erie, now whispered in his ear, ‘God will provide … ’” and he was “filled with … blessed hope.” (44)
Class of 2023, and friends of Philander, may the eagle of promise inspire your hearts and guide your path forward, and fill you with blessed hope.
(1) Philander Chase, Letter to Rachel Denison, no date.
(2) Doris Crozier, cited in “Crozier Reviews Rules,” interview in the Kenyon Collegian, Sept. 8, 1969, p. 4.
(3) Philander Chase, Letter to Rachel Denison, Aug. 29, 1831.
(5) Philander Chase, “Reminiscences” (Boston: J. B. Dow, 1848, c. 1847), vol. 2, p. 94.
(6) Letter to Rachel Denison, Aug. 29, 1831.
(7) Chase, “Reminiscences,” vol. 2, p. 109.
(8) Terry Tempest Williams, “Erosion: Essays of Undoing” (New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2019), p. 23.
(9) Philander Chase, Letter to Chauncey Fitch, June 1, 1829.
(11) Chase, “Reminiscences,” vol. 1, p. 486.
(12) Henry Caswall, “America and the American Church” (London: J.G. & F. Rivington, p. 33.
(13) Galbraith Crump, personal communication.
(14) “Manhattan Welcomes German-Americans Interned During World War II,” Manhattan Magazine, Spring 2019, -. 4-5; see also Jan Jarboe Russell, “The Train to Crystal City” (New York: Scribner, 2015).
(15) Gerrit Roelofs, cited in Stuart Leuthner and Oliver Jensen, “High Honor: Recollections by Men and Women of World War II Aviation” (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press), p. 48.
(16) Ibid., p. 40.
(17) Desmond Tutu, “No Future Without Forgiveness” (New York: Image Doubleday, 1999).
(19) George Smythe, “Kenyon College: Its First Century” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1924), p. 19.
(20) Caswall, p. 34. Caswall is listed as one of the first 10 graduates of Kenyon in William Bodine, “The Kenyon Book,” second edition (1891), p. 387.
(21) Chase, “Reminiscences,” Vol. 1, p. 459.
(22) Philander Chase, Letter to his “Dear, very dear Nephew,” Dec. 16, 1835.
(23) Laura Chase Smith, “The Life of Philander Chase” (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1903), p. 268-270.
(24) (This article does note that Winston Churchill, who lay in state in the Abbey, had received an “honorary” American citizenship from the U.S. Congress.) For the plaque see the Westminster Abbey website.
(25) Chase, “Reminiscences,” Vol. 1, p. 74, p. 160, p. 326-332.
(26) John Piatt, “How the Bishop built his College in the Woods” (Cincinnati, Western Literary Press, 1906), p. 35-36.
(27) Piatt, p. 36.
(28) Slaves were considered three-fifths of a person for purposes of Congressional apportionment.
(29) For example, David Davis worked on Lincoln’s election campaigns; Edwin M. Stanton was Lincoln’s secretary of war, and David Davis and Stanley Matthews were U.S. Supreme Court justices.
(30) Oxford English Dictionary.
(31) Bruce Haywood, former provost of Kenyon College, personal communication.
(32) Liesel Friedrich et al., Kenyon Collegian, letter to the editor, Nov. 2, 1972, p. 2.
(33) Philander Chase, Letter to Rachel Denison, no date.
(34) Philander Chase, Letter to Dudley Woodbridge, Sept. 4, 1826.
(35) Philander Chase, Letter to his “Dear, very dear Nephew,” Dec. 16, 1835.
(36) Private communication, Ellen Harbourt, Registrar, Kenyon College; private communication, Helene Shapiro, Sean Decatur.
(37) The Collegian Magazine, Spring 2016 Volume 2 Number 2; see also the Kenyon Collegian, Oct. 16, 1969, p. 1.
(38) “Adventure Her Companion” (PDF), The Ibis, Lindenwood Colleges Newspaper, Dec. 1, 1977, vol. 4, no. 5, p. 1.
(39) Steven Stettler, “Crozier reflects on Asian change,” Kenyon Collegian, Nov. 5, 1970, p. 3.
(40) Donald Rogan, “Campus Apocalypse” (New York: Seabury Press, 1969).
(41) See Kenyon Collegian, May 4, 1972, p. 4.
(42) Doris Crozier, cited in “Adventure Her Companion,” p. 1.
(43) Chase, “Reminiscences,” vol. 1, p. 124-25.
(44) Chase, “Reminiscences,” vol. 1, p. 185.