Wannamaker Knew How to Get Things Done

Dean Wannamaker

On August 2, 1958, one of the giant figures in the early years of Duke University died. William H. Wannamaker loomed large in the lives of both faculty and students at Duke in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. He, together with President William P. Few and Vice President for Business and Finance Robert L. Flowers, was one of the Big Three who got the new university off to a most auspicious start after its organization in late December 1924.

Born in the small town of Bamberg in the South Carolina low country in 1873, Wannamaker attended Wofford College in Spartanburg in the up country of South Carolina. Graduating with Phi Beta Kappa honors in 1895, he had among his teachers at Wofford both John C. Kilgo, who became president of Trinity College in 1894, and Few, who came to Trinity as a professor of English in 1896. Wannamaker would become, like both Kilgo and Few, one of Wofford College's valuable contributors to Trinity and Duke. (Much later, a popular dean of the Chapel, William H. Willimon, would be another link with Wofford.)

Wannamaker became a school principal for several years after his graduation, but, in 1900, Few urged him to enroll in Trinity College as a graduate student and instructor in English and German. After receiving a master's degree from Trinity in 1901, he went on to study at Harvard, where he received a second master's degree the following year. Although Kilgo then offered Wannamaker a professorship at Trinity, he chose to do additional study at Harvard and at several German universities before accepting the post of professor of Germanic language and literature at Trinity in the fall of 1905. An effective and conscientious teacher, Wannamaker gradually took on more and more administrative duties at Trinity.

When Few succeeded Kilgo as president in 1910, Wannamaker became a member of the college's administrative committee, and, in 1917, was named dean of the college. Although teaching German remained close to his heart, Wannamaker single-handedly took on administrative duties that would, in a later and perhaps more complex era, be handled by a dozen or more persons. Named as vice president in the division of education and dean of the university in 1926, Wannamaker held the primary responsibility (along with President Few) for faculty recruitment and development, a large task in a rapidly expanding, new research university. He also continued as dean of Trinity College, which became the undergraduate men's unit when the Duke Woman's College was established in 1930.

In other words, Wannamaker for a number of years performed the tasks that in later years would be divided between the offices of the provost (with a large staff) and the vice president for student affairs (also with a large staff). Talk about being a dean! The faculty knew Wannamaker as a well-organized and careful administrator who shared Few's deep concern that the conscientious teaching of undergraduates should, along with research, remain a top priority of the university.

The undergraduate male students, on the other hand, knew "Wanny" (as they privately referred to him) as a stern but fair disciplinarian, one who cared about students as well as about the rules and regulations under which they were supposed to live. While the men in Trinity College were by no means burdened with rules comparable with those that existed in the Woman's College (a double standard flourished!), student life before World War II was vastly different from what it later would be. In the late 1920s, for example, Wannamaker fought a losing battle against student ownership of automobiles. One male undergraduate had the extreme bad luck in 1926 of having an automobile accident near Wannamaker's home and receiving the following note from his dean:

"I want to suggest that you put more time on your studies and less on joy riding in U-Drive-It Fords at midnight. Looking from my window night before last at the time you participated in a picturesque wreck, I was glad to note that you were not hurt badly but by no means pleased with some of the inexcusable language audible at some distance from the Ford in which you were riding.... I wish to have a talk with you before you leave."

Talks with Wannamaker were no doubt quite bracing for students, but, as mentioned, he lost the battle against the automobile—although beginning in 1932, and continuing for many years, he did succeed in having permission to bring cars on campus denied to freshmen.

In addition to his mainline academic and disciplinary responsibilities, Wannamaker played a major role in Duke's athletic successes of the 1930s and early 1940s. Sharing Few's strong belief that the athletic tail should never be allowed to wag the academic dog, Wannamaker chaired the powerful Athletic Council committee and represented Duke in the Southern Conference, of which he was president for several terms. It was in that job that Wannamaker came to know Wallace Wade, then a Rose Bowl-winning football coach at the University of Alabama, and he helped Few bring Wade to Duke.

At a time when many Trinity-Duke faculty members felt a certain obligation to be involved constructively in civic affairs, Wannamaker made his key contribution in the area of public education. He served for two years on the county's board of education and for twenty-four on the city's. He served as chairman of the latter body from 1925 until 1947.

Although a dormitory and a road on West Campus bear his name, and his portrait hangs in Perkins Library, Wannamaker's role in shaping Duke University was such that he deserves to be well and gratefully remembered by all those who are interested in it.


For Further Research


This article, by Robert F. Durden, originally appeared in Duke Dialogue for August 21, 1998, and is posted here with Professor Durden's kind permission.
Robert F. Durden is professor of history emeritus in the department of history, Duke University, and frequently writes about the history of the university and its founders and benefactors.