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Davidson History: Caleb Richmond Harding

by | Jun 27, 2022

Caleb Richmond Harding

In 1888 Davidson College hired a new classics professor. Caleb Richmond Harding, born in 1861, graduated from Davidson in 1880 and received a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1887. Over the years, he taught German in addition to the classics, Greek and Latin. He remained at the college until 1944, although he formally retired in 1934. During his last years, he taught an elective course in art appreciation. When he died in 1952, he was remembered not only as a college institution, but as a Davidson character.

According to Walter L. Lingle, former president of Davidson and one of Harding’s early students, “Dr. Harding never claimed to be a great teacher, but he was a good teacher for those who really wanted to learn Greek…In his earlier years students were inclined to tease Dr. Harding. For instance, on the first of one April they put a number of alarm clocks in the empty stove in his classroom, set to go off one after another. You can imagine the pandemonium that ensued. That and many other things of a similar nature they did, and he did not know exactly how to cope with them. He took their pranks good-naturedly and remonstrated with them in a Christian spirit.”

In his book David Played a Harp, Davidson barber Ralph Johnson recalled his friend and customer Caleb Harding as an “odd little man…possibly five feet six inches tall, and slight of build…He wore pince-nez spectacles with an air of distinction…fairly low over his nose so he could look over them entirely.” He was wont to dress in a shirt with a stiff collar, a black necktie or sometimes a string bow, a swallow-tailed coat, and striped trousers. He was “a true gentleman of the old school, both in manner of dress and in thought,” and had a reputation for being stingy. And, according to Johnson, “While he was held in highest esteem by all who knew him…had gained a reputation for doing ridiculously impractical and out-of-the ordinary things.”

Longtime Davidson resident Mary Fetter Stough agreed with Johnson’s assessment. In an October 7, 1998 article in the Charlotte Observer, she remembered “Dickie” Harding as “one of the authentic characters of my memory.” According to Stough, he was “small in stature, but as chipper as a bantam rooster.” On one occasion, apparently, he decided to leave a week’s worth of food and water for his cow, assuming it would consume one-seventh of it each day. The cow, however, had different ideas, and ate it all at once. Unfortunately, Dr. Harding’s miscalculation was fatal to the cow. On another occasion, when his barn cat had kittens, he cut four holes in his barn door: one large one for the cat, and three smaller ones for the kittens. According to Stough, Harding’s wife Mildred once shocked local residents by actually skating at a roller-skating party she chaperoned. Shortly after her husband died, she had a carpenter seal all of his books up in the walls of their home.

According to Stough, on one occasion Mrs. Harding, who was much larger than her husband, fell in their house. Unable to get her up, Dr. Harding went next door to Grey House, where work was being done, and asked some workers to come over to help him get Mildred up but said they could wait until they got off work. Apparently in his art appreciation courses, he used to fold the pictures of nudes, so the students saw only the “decent parts.”

The students had long ceased playing tricks on Dr. Harding, and when he officially retired, they dedicated the 1935 Quips & Cranks to him, indicating their respect:

“The class of ‘35 respectfully dedicates this Quips and Cranks to Dr. Caleb Richmond Harding. Throughout his forty-seven years as a professor, Dr. Harding has served Davidson men zealously and ably. In his classroom, they have come to have a genuine appreciation for and love of the classics and beauty. Personal contact with him has ever been a source of inspiration to higher purposes and purer motives, and he will long be remembered by the Class of ’35 as an example of how much learning can be made both useful and graceful.”

When he died in 1952, the faculty also expressed their respect: “His very eccentricities were lovable. Countless legends grew up about him, but in none of them was anything mean, spiteful or unkind. All the memories of Dr. Harding are good memories, filled with sunniness, geniality and buoyancy that characterized him throughout his long life.”

(Many thanks to Ruby Stroud, who shared Mary Fetter Stough’s article with me.)

Nancy Griffith

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.

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