Founder’s Day originated when the students at Wheaton Female Seminary gathered each year to bring roses to the home of Eliza Baylies Wheaton on her birthday. That home was the building across the street from Mary Lyon Hall, which now serves as the president’s residence, and it was from there that Mrs. Wheaton carefully oversaw the development of the educational institution she had, in 1834, convinced her father-in-law, Judge Laban Wheaton,to found as a memorial to his recently deceased daughter, Elizabeth Wheaton Strong. After Mrs. Wheaton’s death in 1905, what came then to be known as Founder’s Day continued as an all-day celebration each fall on the Saturday closest to Mrs. Wheaton’s birthday, attendance at which was required of all members of the Wheaton community. In time the ceremony was shortened to an approximately two-hour event held in the chapel, coinciding with the annual Alumnae Day festivities in the fall.
By the time I arrived at Wheaton in 1957, Founder’s Day had been shifted to a Saturday in the spring, the reason given being that doing so would avoid conflicts with football weekends at the Ivy League colleges. But the event was still required of all students, and one of my memories of the Saturday morning Founder’s Day ceremonies that I also was required to attend is the sight of numbers of young men seated in the chapel balcony or lolling in the Dimple as they waited impatiently for the ceremony to end so that they could leave immediately with their dates for Cambridge, Providence, New Haven, Hanover or wherever.
Ultimately, Founder’s Day died an unlamented death sometime in the 1960s, and despite occasional attempts to reinstate it in one form or another, has never reappeared as an annual event. What our gathering here today represents is the latest attempt to breathe new life into one of Wheaton’s oldest historical traditions.
Let me begin and dispense quickly with several themes that over the years I heard used many times in Founder’s Day speeches. I am referring to lines from the Wheaton Hymn, such as, “They builded better than they knew,” or “They trusted where they could not see,” or most especially, “Yet early founders still are we.” In fact I must confess that I have been known to use all of these lines as takeoff points in one or another of the speeches I was asked to give during the last half of my career at Wheaton, when my research and writing involved creating an account of the first 120 years of Wheaton’s history. There are indeed many good points that can be made from those passages, they also provide strong ways to end a speech on an emotional high, and certainly the concept that we today are still “early founders” requires all of us to think about our own role in the continuum of Wheaton’s existence that not only extends nearly 175 years into the past, but just as surely marches forward into a multi-generational future.
But for today, at least, let me focus briefly on the one individual who was primarily responsible for getting the whole process started,and who guided and nurtured her beloved Wheaton for the first 75 years of its existence, Eliza Baylies Wheaton. She never sat on the Board of Trustees, but no major decision was ever taken by the Board that would have been counter to her wishes and views. She never held an administrative or teaching position, yet her views on teaching, religion, and administrative policies were the guiding standard for every principal or president of Wheaton, all of whom ignored Mrs. Wheaton’s opinions and wishes only at their peril. And ultimately, after the death of her husband in 1865, she used her family’s wealth year after year to balance Wheaton’s annual operating budget and to provide funds for scholarships, new buildings and other capital expenditures.
Married at age 19, and 13 years younger than her husband, Laban Morey Wheaton, she earned the undying gratitude of her father-in-law, Judge Laban Wheaton, by quickly turning his son, who up until then had been the “talk of the town” for his spendthrift ways and love of horse racing, gambling and drinking, into a sober, responsible, church-going pillar of the Norton community. Despite their age difference, it is clear that Laban Morey and Eliza’s marriage in 1829 was based on a strong and deep mutual affection, which continued unabated until Laban Morey’s death 36 years later.
Eliza’s initial reaction on arriving in Norton was delight in the house her husband had built for her and dismay at the town, which she regarded as “nothing but a swamp.” Yet in time she came to love Norton, and over the years contributed greatly to its growth and development, not only through her patronage of Wheaton Female Seminary, but also through her substantial fiscal backing of the Trinitarian Congregational Church; her donation of the land and building which served as Norton’s public library until the latter part of the 20th century; and her provision of the land needed to build Norton’s first public high school. Privately and very quietly she also provided aid and assistance to numbers of individuals and families in Norton who had fallen on hard times.
But her greatest love was for the educational institution across the street from her home, at times struggling, at others prospering, as it made its way through seven decades of the 19th century and well into the 20th. Since the Wheatons had no children, and thus no direct heirs, she utilized the Wheaton family wealth to the benefit of the seminary. It was she who handpicked Samuel Valentine Cole to serve as Wheaton’s first male president. And it was she who privately approved in advance his proposed plan to embark on the building and curriculum program that would enable Wheaton to gain its charter as a four-year liberal arts college in 1912. Even after her death in 1905, the seminary and college continued, in terms of student enrollment and academic facilities, to live for the next 50 years essentially within the limits of the endowment legacy provided by the Wheaton family. Only in 1955, with the decision to begin growing the college beyond the self-imposed limit of 500 students that had been established as policy in 1922, did the college begin to move beyond the gentle, but binding, fiscal and emotional ties that the Wheaton family, and especially Eliza Baylies Wheaton, had imposed,through their lives and their legacy, on the institution they had founded.
Yet in another sense, the Wheaton of today still is guided by the wishes and direction of Mrs. Wheaton. For it was she who provided the marching orders, the ultimate purpose, and the continuing goal for all those who have come to Wheaton for their education, whether decades ago or today. “It is my wish and hope,” she wrote regarding Wheaton students, “It is my wish and hope that as they come in contact with the world, the world shall be the better and happier for their having lived in it.” This was the task, the hope, the promise and the continuing challenge set for this institution and those who attended it, by the most important of the many founders of Wheaton. It is as valid today as it was when she uttered it well over a century ago, and it will remain equally so for the many generations of students, faculty and staff yet to become part of Wheaton. Truly it is well and appropriate that we pause briefly today to remember and honor the person who more than any other still represents the core, the rock, the very foundation upon which Wheaton has grown for what is now nearly 175 years.
This year, Wheaton will celebrate the 175th anniversary of its founding with several months of activities and events, starting with a Founder’s Day celebration during Homecoming Weekend in October. On Founder’s Day in 2008, Professor of History Emeritus Paul Helmreich told the story inCole Chapel of Eliza Baylies Chapin Wheaton, who guided and nurtured the school during its first 75 years of existence. We think this is the perfect time to present his remarks again, especially since Sept. 27, 2009 also marks ElizaWheaton’s 200th birthday. We pair an excerpt of Helmreich’s remarks with the social history of the Dimple, told in text and images.