Past Presidents

The photograph shows University of California President Benjamin Ide Wheeler and 28th President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, at the Greek Theatre in September 1919. Wheeler, then emeritus, had invited Wilson to visit during a tour he was making on behalf of the newly formed League of Nations.

Some students of history may remember that Wilson was himself President of Princeton University before ascending to the White House. We were reminded of the fact ourselves by an essay we found in our files, called “The Old-Time President—And Endangered Species.” The manuscript was from one George R. Stewart, an English Professor at UCB and author of many best-selling books, including Earth Abides, about the end of the world in Berkeley. (Stewart is the subject of a feature in the Summer 2010 issue of California.)

It’s a charming piece of writing, in which Stewart observes that the great university presidents have inevitably “vanished upwards” as the size of their respective campuses has increased. From the faculty perspective, Stewart wrote, they are “as far away as the governor used to be.” It wasn’t always the case, of course. Wheeler was famous for riding his horse around campus in the afternoons and knew many of his young charges by name, both faculty and students. It’s a fact that gives Stewart his best line—a quote from another president of the old mode, President Jordan of Stanford, who is supposed to have said, “Whenever I learn the name of a freshman, I forget the name of a fish.”

Jordan, it should go without saying, was an ichthyologist.

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