A look back at one of our most festive and significant inaugural ceremonies reminds us how important such occasions can be. An inauguration is a time of celebration and anticipation, a moment when an academic institution can affirm its past, define its purpose and interpret its role to a wide audience. The inauguration of President William Preston Few on November 9, 1910, was such an occasion for Trinity College.
In 1910 the school had existed for seventy-two years, eighteen of which had been in Durham. Despite annual support from the Duke family, financial problems always seemed close at hand. The college, nevertheless, was a growing, respected school and earning a solid reputation. Trinity was a leader in the South in educational reform. Nationally, it had won renown as well as praise from President Theodore Roosevelt in the celebrated case of academic freedom when the trustees stood by Professor John S. Bassett in 1903. A change of presidents offered the opportunity to invite the nation's educational leadership to visit the campus, meet the new president and assess the reputation of the college.
The small regional college clearly aroused curiosity among leaders in higher education. No less than forty-one percent of the official delegates who marched in the academic procession (photo) at the inaugural ceremony were college and university presidents who attended the ceremony themselves instead of sending representatives. Delegates came from all sections of the country, from large and small institutions, and from schools for men and women. A special Pullman train brought guests to Durham from the main east coast rail line.
Official ceremonies began with the dedication of the new West Duke Building, a magnificent gift of Benjamin N. Duke. The induction of the new president was marked by the presentation of the college charter and seal to Few by John C. Kilgo, the retiring president. Governor W. W. Kitchen of North Carolina and President Judson of the University of Chicago gave addresses of congratulations. Though he had been a Trinity faculty member for fourteen years and the college's dean for eight, Few's inaugural address served as an important introduction. Soft-spoken, introspective and even shy in comparison to Kilgo, Few, a Shakespearean scholar, had gladly worked in the background on the college's academic affairs. Everyone looked forward to his inaugural address with anticipation.
He began by stating it was appropriate to discuss the place of the college in southern history and to say plainly what Trinity College should undertake to do. The audience quickly grasped that his style was to speak in carefully considered generalizations. He inspired the audience with eloquent yet quietly stated grand ideals, not exhortation. The address stressed freedom, truth, the important evolving democratic experiment in government, courage both individual and institutional, and above all, service, religion and character. There was nothing narrow minded or sectarian in his plan for Trinity. He did have a prescription for lasting success. Concluding, Few said "The greatness of a college depends not upon the size of its plant or the number of its students, but upon the quality of the men who teach and the quality of the men who learn, upon its ideals and its influence.
The formal ceremony adjourned to an extravagant luncheon where Chancellor James H. Kirkland of Vanderbilt University presided as toastmaster. The published remarks illustrate that all enjoyed themselves immensely. Speakers at the luncheon included President Abbott Lowell of Harvard University, Dean Andrew F. West of Princeton University, the Honorable Elmer E. Brown, the United States Commissioner of Education, Dean John F. Downey of the University of Minnesota, Governor Kitchen of North Carolina, Dean Frederick Jones of Yale University and President Edwin Craighead of Tulane University. The day's festivities concluded with a tour of the city in automobiles provided by citizens of Durham, followed by an elaborate reception at the home of Benjamin and Sarah P. Duke.
The inauguration marked a high point in the history of the college. Amid a gracious serving of southern hospitality, the new president and the college impressed all. Ben Duke later confided to a friend, "I felt prouder of Trinity than ever before. There were representatives here from leading colleges and universities in the United States, and they were as much astonished at what they saw and heard as they were pleased at the reception given them. It was a great day for not only Trinity, but for the entire state."
This article is reprinted from If Gargoyles Could Talk: Sketches of Duke University by William E. King. Carolina Academic Press, 1997.