On October 16, 1940, an extra edition of The Duke Chronicle informed the university community of the death of President William Preston Few at age seventy-two. Few's forty-four-year career at Trinity College and Duke University is without parallel. He came in 1896 for one year to fill in for a professor on leave. Few was so well-liked that President John F. Kilgo appealed to Benjamin N. Duke to pay his salary so he could remain. English thereby became the first academic department to have a second professor. In 1902, Few became the first Dean of Trinity College, expanding the administration by half.
When Kilgo was elected a Bishop in the Methodist Church in 1910, Few succeeded him as president. The students and faculty were delighted with the choice. As president for thirty years, Few presided over the transformation of Trinity College into Duke University. At his inauguration in 1910 the college had 363 students and 32 faculty. At his death Duke University had nine schools, 3,716 students, and 476 faculty. This growth of a small regional college into a nationally known university represented a greater transformation in a shorter period of time than had ever occurred in the South and perhaps in the nation.
One has to probe deeply in assessing the reasons for Few's spectacularly successful presidency. He easily could be underestimated at first impression. A typical reaction was recorded by a visiting official from Olmsted Associates, the renowned landscaping firm, when the new campus was being planned. His report to the home office praised several university officials but of Few he wrote, "He had little to say and seemed not a very forceful man."
Few led by the force of his commitment and by seizing opportunity and building upon success, not by dynamic personality. He was a complex man difficult to describe although Professor Robert H. Woody has written a thought-provoking, sensitive biographical appreciation. In Woody's phraseology, Few was slight of build with a certain gauntness. To some, he had an almost "Lincolnesque" appeal. He had large, luminous brown eyes, capable of a kindly twinkle, yet they were not without sharpness on occasion. Modest, timid and even diffident at times, he possessed a quiet charm most effective in small gatherings. He had to do a great deal of public speaking but his clear emphasis was on a thoughtful expression of ideas, not on dramatic presentation. To Woody, "Few, in short, looked like what he was: a college president, shy, earnest, devoted to the causes of education and the church, and anxious to do great good and little harm. He was a scholar yet, all in all, a man of sound judgment. . . . He was a student by preference, a scholar by training, and an administrator only by force of circumstances."
A large measure of Few's success was in articulating a vision and enlisting businessmen, academicians, students, and alumni in the quest. He firmly believed and won many to share his belief that historical circumstances developed a special role for Trinity College. When sought by a prestigious Midwestern university for its presidency in 1909 Few declined interest, writing, "I believe that circumstances have conspired to give Trinity College a rare opportunity to do a piece of constructive and lasting work in molding the life of a whole people." By 1910 Few was conscious that Trinity had a sense of mission, especially in its native region but also as a model in private higher education in the nation. The college also had a tradition of superior administrative leadership and excellence in faculty, a base of prideful support through the Methodist Church, and, at long last, a degree of financial stability through the benefactions of the Duke family. Few's special role was in understanding the larger framework and in enlisting others, especially James B. Duke, in fulfillment of a dream.
Another measure of Few's success is that he genuinely enjoyed what he was doing. Late in life he wrote that one of his great privileges had been living intimately with students since he was sixteen. As heavy as were his presidential responsibilities, he frequently was seen about campus. One student guessed that Few probably knew forty percent of the students on West campus and that he unfailingly greeted you by name with a polite "Good Morning" and tip of the hat. It was not unusual for him to be found umpiring practice baseball games, marking balls and strikes in the dirt with his cane.
At Few's inauguration, President Abbott Lawrence Lowell of Harvard University commented that much had been said congratulating Few, but, in truth, the college should be congratulated for selecting Few as president. Lowell's sentiment is more evident half a century after Few's death than it was at the time.
© 1990. William E. King, University Archivist, 1972-2002
This article is reprinted from If Gargoyles Could Talk: Sketches of Duke University by William E. King. Carolina Academic Press, 1997.
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