The Man Who Would Be President
In the fall of 1873, the young son of a Wilmington pastor, and a future President of the United States, arrived at Davidson College as a freshman. Although he remained only a year, he maintained a lifelong fondness for the college.
According to Cornelia Shaw’s history of the college, Thomas Woodrow Wilson was the son of Reverend Joseph R. Wilson of Wilmington. When he arrived at Davidson, he was housed in room 13 on the first floor of the old Chambers Building. Students at the college at that time had fond recollections of him. Shaw reports that Wilson “established and maintained the record as regards the time required to wake and be in his seat in the chapel across the campus from his dormitory. His classmates state that he could be fast asleep when the second bell began, start to chapel with his clothes on one arm, dressing with the other, and be in place, neatly clad, when the ringing ceased, six minutes later.”
Another classmate recalls that Wilson had fond memories of Davidson, reporting that he [remembered] “nothing more clearly in his life than the events which happened while he was a student here.” The student went on to say “I recall the ‘cussing’ which he got from the captain of the baseball nine for not running fast enough for the home base…He did not have the reputation of being unusually brilliant in his class-room work, but he was an all-round man and recognized as a leader in college life and a specialist in current politics.”
This same student asked Wilson why he decided to transfer to Princeton after his first year. The conversation went something like this: “He was slow to argue the case and I became insistent. ‘Is it not a good College?’ ‘Yes’. ‘Is not so and so a good teacher?’ ‘Yes.’ And with this I called over the roll of the Professors, and in each case he conceded the case that there was no fault to be found. ‘Well,’ I asked, ‘Why are you going to leave?’ He was slow to reply. Finally he said, ‘I wish to go to a place closer to where History is being made.’”
Wilson went on to finish Princeton and do further work at Johns Hopkins University. He practiced law in Georgia, and then became president of Princeton University and Governor of New Jersey. He was elected President in 1912. According to Shaw, at his first inauguration in 1913, “a little band of students, seventy strong, went to Washington and were assigned a place in the great inaugural parade…This part of the parade passed the reviewing stand in the twilight. The President had stood for some hours and was, presumably, wearied to exhaustion. For some little while he had been seated, but when the little group of men, led by a Davidson banner, came near he rose, removed his hat, bowed his acknowledgement, and stood at attention until they had passed.”
When Wilson made a triumphant return to the South in October of that year, the Watchman and Southron reported that he was greeted by thousands of Southerners along the way. “At villages and hamlets, where the president’s train ran slowly, at cities where stops were made to change engines, there were huge crowds, enthusiastic and happy at their first glimpse of Woodrow Wilson, the first native of the South elevated to the presidency since the War Between the Section.” Some students from Davidson College walked 15 miles to Charlotte to see him. In 1914 in a letter to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, who was to speak at Davidson, Wilson asked “Will you not be kind enough to convey my cordial greetings and to say with how sincere an interest and affection I remember the college and wish it the best possible enlarging fortune.”
President Wilson returned to Charlotte in May 1916, to another enthusiastic reception. He asked, however, to skip the afternoon events. According to Shaw, “at 5 p.m. he and Mrs. Wilson drove to the college. A large part of the Faculty and student-body had gone to Charlotte to hear his address, but in some unknown way the news of his plan reached the surrounding country and the campus was fairly well filled with those who had been unable to go to the celebration. Mr. Wilson’s hope to see the campus in its normal, school-life condition was foiled but he did visit his old room and the spot where he had strengthened his muscles in cutting wood and the Eumenean Society Hall where he stated that he made his ‘first attempt to speak and failed.’…Mr. Wilson has shown an abiding interest in the College.”
Woodrow Wilson ultimately served two terms as President. He died in Washington in 1924.
Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989. After a career as an archives and special collections librarian, she retired to Davidson in 2015. She has published a number of books and articles on local history, and has just completed a history of the Ada Jenkins Center.