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D.K. Pearsons and Beloit College

In celebration of the centennial of the dedication of the
Pearsons Hall of Science at Beloit College, January 1893

D. K. Pearsons and Beloit College:
the partnership of individuals and
institutions in the nation's service

Parker G. Marden
Beloit College

 
We gather this afternoon to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the opening and dedication in January 1893 of the Pearsons Hall of Science, today the home of the Jeffris-Wood Campus Center. It is an occasion made possible, then and now, by the great generosity of Daniel Kimball Pearsons, M.D. his contributions to Beloit College transformed this special institution and greatly strengthened our ability to serve the national interest. Pearsons' generosity to Beloit and forty-six other small, independent colleges throughout the United States represents one of those marvelous, encouraging stories that make up much of the history of American philanthropy as individuals invest -- from their resources and of themselves -- for the common good.

There is so much that can be said on this occasion. We could celebrate this magnificent building, both in its original contributions and its present renewal, and acknowledge the distinctive work of Daniel H. Burnham and John Wellborn Root, the distinguished Chicago architects. We could review the contributions of the Pearsons Hall of Science to Beloit's outstanding record in mathematics and the sciences over the past 100 years and longer. But, this afternoon, I choose instead to focus on the lessons that we might draw from what gifts like those of D. K. Pearsons mean as acts of great generosity, as matters of proper stewardship, and as examples of appropriate commitment to the commonweal.

There is a brief text that clearly sets forward my intentions for this occasion. It is one that I am confident that Dr. Pearsons would have endorsed. It comes from Jean Monnet (1888-1979), one of the most influential designers of a post-war transnational European Community, now so nearly realized. Monnet wrote:

Institutions are more important than individuals. But only individual men and women, when they have the strength, can transform and enrich the things which institutions transmit to successor generations.

I assert that we have an obligation to use what strength we have for the common interest. This is an assertion that is illustrated and extended by the example of D. K. Pearsons who saw his work not as a matter of generosity, but simply as one of wise investments. It is an assertion that can empower us in our support of Beloit College today.

It is perhaps most appropriate to start the story of D. K. Pearsons at the end of his life for it is that time that takes his full measure. Pearsons died on April 27, 1912, thirteen days into his ninety-third year. He died alone in a small hospital room in Hinsdale, Illinois. His beloved wife and partner in philanthropy, Marietta Chapin Pearsons, had passed away six years earlier and there had been no children in their marriage of 59 years. Pearsons died in pain, challenged by rheumatism and neuralgia. Other than one good suit carefully stored in a closet for his funeral, his wardrobe consisted of frayed and mended garments that he had bought some forty years earlier. Most remarkably, while Pearsons was once a man of great wealth and influence, he died virtually penniless.

Yet the story is not a sad one. Pearsons' poverty at life's end was accomplished by design. It was his careful plan to distribute his wealth according to his wishes and not to depend on others to fulfill them. He achieved his ambitions. To Pearsons, his plan was simply good business. And while he had no direct heirs, he did felt that he had children: Beloit College and the other forty-six colleges that had received his support. Consider this self-assessment:

There never was a bigger mistake than called me benevolent. I have not a spark of benevolence in me. I'm a hard-hearted, tight-fisted, penny-squeezing old curmudgeon. I haven't a trace of charity or kindness in my whole being. I give my money away because I want to be my own executor, and because coffins were not made to hold it. I want to know where my money goes and what good is accomplished with it. I haven't any children except my colleges. I have taken care of my kinsfolk. I haven't any poor or deserving relatives. You can see my giving is business. (Pearsons [nephew], 1912: 255)

So, by making sure that he had personally discharged the last responsibilities of his great wealth, Pearsons faced his death calmly. Again, I use his own words.

I have had a lot of fun and am not a dollar poorer from the millions I have given away... The giving has made me richer, happier. No father was ever more proud of or took greater joy in his children than I do in my colleges. They are good and growing children and are my crown and joy. I have watched them, scolded them, nurtured them and loved them and they are a great and growing joy to me.... My career as a giver is ended. I have done the work I promised to do and my life has been spared to complete it. I have no more money for benevolence... every dollar that I now have is fully provided for. (Pearsons [nephew], 1912: 394)

And what a "career as a giver" Dr. Pearsons had! His gift to Beloit College of $100,000 at Commencement in 1889 was the first of several to our College and the first of many to small, independent colleges throughout the nation.1 By the time of his death nearly 23 years later, Pearsons had given more than $5,000,000 (perhaps $75 million in today's dollars) to higher education. Beloit received nearly $500,000 from Dr. Pearsons - more than any of its sister colleges - and was directly challenged to raise an additional $520,000 from other donors. His gifts and challenges were transforming ones, crucial in the building of Beloit as a strong and useful educational institution.

The full story begins on April 14, 1820 in Bradford, Vermont with the birth of Daniel K. Pearsons, the second of the seven children of John and Hannah Pearsons. Daniel learned about the virtues of hard work, thrift and good stewardship on the family's hardscrabble farm. He was formally educated in the common schools of Bradford and at the Bradford Academy.

In one of life's coincidences, young Pearsons had an early encounter with Beloit. At the College's Commencement in 1898, he recalled the story that occurred some six decades earlier while he was still at home in Bradford. In July 1838, some covered wagons stopped at the water trough on the family farm. In one, there was a young woman accompanied by four pretty, young girls bound for the West. Pearsons was quite taken with the group and inquired about their destination. Mrs. Moore and the four Cheney girls were part of the New England Emigrating Company's band from Colebrook, New Hampshire, headed westward to settle Beloit, Wisconsin.

Following his schooling in Bradford, Pearsons attended Dartmouth College for a year, but he was simply too poor to continue longer. He then taught for a time and read medical books in preparation for resuming his education. He was able to complete his studies at the medical school at Woodstock, Vermont -- one of the better ones in the mid-nineteenth century. This was only possible, however, because of the generosity of Dr. Alonzo Clark, a prominent physician from New York City then teaching at Woodstock, who lent Pearsons $100 when he was about to drop out of school again. It was an act of generosity that he never forgot and when he had the means, Pearsons created a loan fund of $150,000 that allowed many poor students to continue and complete their education.

After graduation, Dr. Pearsons practiced medicine in Vermont for one year before moving to Chicopee, Massachusetts, where he lived for twelve years. Here he prospered reasonably in his profession and became a civic leader. He met and married his wife, Marietta Chapin Pearsons, who was to be a major force in his life and a philanthropist in her own right until her death in 1906. One friend and frequent house guest of the Pearsonses was Mary Lyon, who was working in nearby South Hadley to make advanced schooling available for women. Her dreams became realized as the first college for women, Mouth Holyoke. Surely, the Pearsonses' conversations with Mary Lyon and the opportunity to observe her travails in winning a place for women in higher education provided good lessons to them. As we shall see when we connect Pearsons directly to Beloit College, these lessons in word and example offered by Mary Lyon, one of the great pioneers in American education and women's rights, were to be to the College's great advantage.

After twelve years in Chicopee, Dr. Pearsons became restless. His life and work seemed restrictive. His wife is credited with the words that moved them westward: "You are meant for something better that this. We must get out of here." (Morris, 1901: 581) With $5000 accumulated through his medical practice and some family monies of Mrs. Pearsons, the couple set off for new opportunities, first in Janesville, Wisconsin, where Mrs. Pearsons had some relatives. It was a trip that was to hold great importance for Beloit College, and for independent higher education, as the nineteenth and twentieth centuries came close together.

Permit me to have D. K. Pearsons to tell the story in his own words, taken from a speech in October 1898 in Battle Creek, Michigan.2

In 1851 my wife and I took our first trip to the West. Our destination was Janesville, Wisconsin. We passed through Michigan on a strap rail, and traveled to Elgin, Illinois, which was the terminus of the railroad, and there we took a much wagon to our destination passing through Beloit. We traveled through cold and mud -- rich mud too -- but on reaching Beloit there was a river. Our horses had to swim the river, and we had to stand on the seats to get over. We stopped at a little wooden tavern to rest. Beloit was but a small hamlet then. When we started on for Janesville, one of those big, burly fellows who always get into a new country, climbed into the wagon for a ride.

As we drove along we saw a brick building going up, and I asked the man, 'What are they doing there?' 'Why, there are some Yankee cranks building a college,' he answered. That rather hit me. When they call me a Yankee, I take off my hat and bow; and when they call me an old Puritan, I make three bows. On the way to Janesville that man cursed everything that was good, and I stood up for Christian education the best I knew how. When we got to Janesville, I shook my fist in his face, and said, "Old fellow, I am going to get rich, and when I do, I am going to help lift up these colleges that these 'Yankee cranks' are building up." I had my eyes on Beloit at that time. (Pearsons, 1898: 6)

The story now needs two ingredients. We know the outcome, of course, because we can come together today in this magnificent building that carries Pearsons' name. To move to the construction of the Pearsons Hall of Science in 1892 and 1893, D. K. Pearsons -- a man of thirty-one when he and his wife first saw Beloit College from the bed of that muck wagon -- needed first to accumulate great wealth and then to remember the rest of his promise on behalf of the "Yankee cranks" up on the hill.

Dr. Pearsons describes the time between 1851 to 1860 as his "preparatory years." He ranged widely in his travels, especially in the Midwest and the South, and he journeyed to Europe -- a trip that was very uncommon in that day. He supported himself by giving lectures around the country on physiology, anatomy and hygiene and he sold books on that subject by Dr. Calvin Cutter, a noted Boston physician. He purchased and sold timber. He farmed for awhile, but discovered that he enjoyed the buying and selling of land more. Above all, he prepared himself for what was to come by understanding the economic realities of a closing frontier.

In 1860, Dr. and Mrs. Pearsons moved to Chicago. It was here that Pearsons acquired his great wealth, principally through the sale, and resale, of land. There were great opportunities in real estate in the developing West and they meshed well with Pearsons' integrity, and soon his reputation for honesty, in an area of commerce then not noted for either. His business acumen and perception served him well, especially in a field where the titles to land were, at best, often confused. Once in Chicago, Pearsons became an agent for major land barons, first selling 40,000 acres for Michael Sullivan and 20,000 acres for Solomon Sturgis.

His reputation and growing success in selling land where others had failed led him to become the agent for the Illinois Central Railroad Company. The Railroad had millions of acres to sell in a land that was only beginning to fill with settlers. The land was on each side of the railroad right of way, and it extended for several miles in every other section (640-acre tract). This land was not selling well because newcomers preferred to settle near rivers where the land was already partially occupied. Pearsons realized, however, that time was on his side in a growing country and the railroad's land had one great advantage: flawless title. If a buyer found the purchase a burden, then Pearsons would buy it back at a modest gain and resell it. If a buyer needed a loan to effect the purchase, then Pearsons would extend it, knowing that it was guaranteed by the land. If a group of Baptists or Presbyterians or Methodists wanted a large tract of land for a new settlement, then Pearsons would furnish it, lend them funds for the purchase and donate money for a new schoolhouse or a church. Tremendous returns went to the Illinois Central Railroad, and Pearsons made five percent on each transaction and even more through the interest on his loans. (Williams, 1911: 19-23, 40-43)

In a land filled with unethical speculators and charlatans, Pearsons made his reputation based on his honesty and integrity. He was better-known away from Chicago for his character and skills and he became the agent for various Eastern interests, including the Aetna Life Insurance Company. One example suggests his business acumen -- and frequent good fortune. In the late 1860s, Pearsons began to buy pine lands in Michigan against the advice of friends who saw the supply of timber as virtually endless. He eventually accumulated 16,000 acres of the best timber in the state. In 1871, he lost twelve rental properties in Chicago during the Great Fire, but when large amounts of timber were needed to rebuild the burned city, he had it for sale. Between 1860 and 1890, D. K. Pearsons became a man of tremendous wealth.

There is much more that can be said about Pearsons' life in Chicago, but let me offer just a few observations here. After the Great Fire, Chicago seemed to become wealthy almost overnight for many of the reasons, especially location, from which Pearsons himself drew advantage. It would be fascination to have visited him in that setting, however, to see how a man of great parsimony and financial self-discipline lived in a city that symbolized "sudden and vulgar wealth," even as it revealed the great gap that existed between the rich and the poor. (Bevington, 1992: 16; Ginger, 1958). What might have Pearsons thought, for example, when Marshall Field spent $75,000 on a birthday party for his son at a time when a very skilled worker might earn only 1/100th of that amount in a year? (Bevington, 1992: 16)

It is ironic, then, to learn that in 1875, on one of the few occasions that he became a public figure, it was Pearsons who was hailed, rightfully, as the "savior of the city's credit." (Morris, 1901: 582) Chicago was then, as so often since, in a difficult financial situation. There was a question if it could, or should, repay its debts. Bondholders in the East were in a very suspicious mood. Pearsons went to New York City and Boston and satisfied the city's creditors by pledging his personal fortune as a guarantee for redemption of the bonds. In a wry statement in 1901 that nicely understated life in the "Gilded Age," one biographer summarized Pearsons' first fifteen years in Chicago in the following way:

From 1875 to 1890 he was one of the many wealthy and good men in Chicago who prospered, who gave on a fairly generous scale to worthy causes, and who labored for ideal ends in a city where materialism is not difficult to adopt as a philosophy of life. (Morris, 1901: 582)

In May 1889, the life of D. K. Pearsons took another turn, and Beloit College moved to the center of his attention. On the tenth of the month, a letter arrived in President Eaton's morning mail:

Pres. Eaton: If I will give your college $100,000, can you raise $100,000 more before July 1st? I mean business. Truly, D. K. Pearsons.

The letter, and its promise, arrived at a very fortuitous time. To the leaders of the College, then men firmly rooted in their religion, it must have appeared as a sign of divine Providence. In 1889, Beloit was struggling as a college, threatened in many ways. Edward Dwight Eaton, '72, was in the third year of his thirty-one as the College's President. He later assessed the challenges of the time in this way:

Adequate buildings for carrying on the work of the College were urgently needed. Instruction in the physical sciences was especially hampered by lack of suitable accommodations and facilities. The department of Chemistry was housed in a temporary wooden building, which had been hastily constructed in 1868 to afford additional dormitory accommodations but had ceased to serve that purpose. Here there was such imperfect protection against cold weather that in winter liquids in the laboratory were frequently frozen. The classes in natural science had but a single microscope which had to be engaged by appointment days in advance. A gift of microscopes on the day of [my] inauguration relieved this particular need, but many others remained.

The most exigent problem of all was the financial one. The endowment was perilously small. Annual deficits were unavoidable; yet expenses must rapidly increase if the College was to meet in any adequate degree its educational responsibilities. There was no body of friends accustomed to help in carrying the financial burdens. The University of Wisconsin, which had been little more than a college of moderate size, had now entered upon its great career and seemed possibly destined to absorb the other educational institutions of the state. Large universities were projected in Chicago and its vicinity. Some staunch friends of Beloit seriously questioned whether it must not expect to limit itself in the future to a narrow and subordinate sphere of educational service. (Eaton, 1928: 104-5.)

Eaton had made some progress in his first three years, but much more was needed, especially at a time of an economic recession.

It was in this context that D. K. Pearsons extended his unexpected support to Beloit College. Indeed, with his shrewd sense for business, Pearsons' timing was undoubtedly intentional. He preferred to invest at times of economic challenge because his dollars went further, especially when paying for construction.

In the demand that the College raise an amount that matched his contribution, Pearsons -- as a man who really did mean business -- offered a second gift. He looked carefully at a possible recipient's financial circumstances and the promise for its future, and did not extend support when that promise was uncertain. He demanded sound business practices by the colleges who received his investments and advised them on how to structure their finances and other operations. In the College archives, for example, there are letters that encourage President Eaton to make the campus look better to visitors and counsel him on other matters.

Because of the burden placed on the various colleges and their supporters, Pearsons was criticized for his practice of making his contributions conditional on raising additional amounts that were equal or larger. But Pearsons knew full well of what each college was capable and he clearly ensured that much more money was raised on behalf of independent higher education. Andrew Carnegie took Pearsons' strategy and made it an even more extensive philanthropic approach in his support for America's colleges and universities.

To receive Pearsons' $100,000 in 1889, Beloit needed to raise another $100,000 in just seven weeks. Fortunately, James Scoville, a former parishioner of President Eaton's church in Oak Part, Illinois, had just pledged $25,000 to construct a building for the Academy of Beloit, the College's preparatory school, on the condition that the citizens of Beloit give $10,000 for an endowment for the building.3 Because of the depression, it had been difficult to raise even this amount. That is, it was difficult until Pearsons made his proposal. The $10,000 to match Scoville's gift was quickly raised in Beloit. The remaining $65,000 (or the equivalent of over $1,000,000 in today's dollars) needed to be found in a very short time by a college without a sophisticated fund-raising program.

The effort to raise these funds is a story in its own right, but President Eaton and Louis Holden, '88, Eaton's new assistant (and later professor at Beloit and President of the College of Wooster and Millikin University) raised the full amount with just hours to spare. Trustees, alumni, students and friends of the College, some of them newly-made, were key contributors. (Eaton, 1928: 107-108; Holden, 1935)

D. K. Pearsons was not done with the College. He next donated $25,000 to build a dormitory required to address a serious problem. In the 1880s, many students attending Beloit -- still all men -- needed to live in the village, and increases in their number had inflated rents, thereby hurting the poor students who then came to the College. Pearsons' dormitory would reduce their costs from $3.50 to $1.50 a week. He pledged the money on the two conditions that the source of the funds not be revealed and that he furnish the money as construction progressed. Since Pearsons did not want to sign checks that would indicated his identity as the donor, President Eaton often returned to Beloit from a trip to Chicago with $5000 or $6000 stuffed in his pockets! (Eaton, 1928: 111)

At Commencement in 1891, Dr. Pearsons was acknowledged as the donor of the new dormitory. He asked that it be named Chapin Hall to honor Beloit's first President, Aaron Lucius Chapin.4 (Chapin Hall is now gone, having been located on the site of what is now the Chamberlin Hall of Science.) Pearsons that complimented President and Mrs. Eaton for keeping his secret and announced a secret of his won: he would give Beloit $60,000 for a science building, provided that $120,000 was raised for an endowment in the sciences.

One-half of the matching funds had already been provided through a recent gift from William E. Hales, and the rest was quickly found. The cornerstone for the Pearsons Hall of Science was laid on May 12, 1891 -- the same day on which construction on the new chapel began. The magnificent new Hall of Science, dedicated with the Pearsonses' wishes to the founders of the College, was opened twenty months later -- just 100 years ago.

Commencement in 1896 was the highlight of the College's 50th anniversary. Dr. Pearsons again visited Beloit. He spoke with great feeling about the College and announced another gift. He pledged $50,000, this time to be matched by $150,000, to be used in part to construct a dormitory for the young women of the College, who had been first admitted in 1895. The dormitory was to be named in honor of the senior member of the Faculty, Joseph Emerson, who would complete 52 years at Beloit in 1900.

There is an interesting story about fund-raising here, although the full details must await another occasion. Pearsons was absolutely opposed to co-education at Beloit and with this attitude, it seemed out of the question to ask him for the funds for the dormitory that was needed for women. Louis Holden, however, had just finished reading a book on the life of Mary Lyon, the Pearsonses' friend from their years in Chicopee. He thought that if he could meet Pearsons in the presence of Mrs. Pearsons and her sister, who was a graduate of Mary Lyon's Mr. Holyoke, he might just have a chance to seek his support. He intercepted them at a railroad station in Atlanta, Georgia as they were returning home to Illinois. Holden picks up the story here with his response to Pearsons' question about the great "coincidence" of meeting in the Atlanta train terminal:

I came down... for the purpose of asking the Doctor, just why he was opposed to coeducation at Beloit, when it was so successfully carried on at Oberlin and elsewhere, and to ask that you ladies help me to interest him in giving to the young womanhood of Wisconsin, all the opportunities Beloit gives to their brothers. Mrs. Pearsons spoke up at once and said, "Why doctor, I didn't know that you opposed Beloit's opening to women! Do you, and what are the reasons?" Miss Chapin [Mrs. Pearsons' sister] then started in and told what Mount Holyoke and Mary Lyon had meant in her life. Believe me, the battle was won! The Doctor surrendered then and there... (Holden, 1935: 6-7)

Even after supporting the new dormitory for women, D. K. Pearsons was still not done with Beloit. In 1901, when President Eaton was seriously ill, Pearsons offered the College $200,000 for the endowment if the Trustees would raise an additional $150,000. This time, he added a second condition, insisting that the President, by now his good friend, remain at Beloit and return to his work after taking a suitable rest. These conditions were quickly met.

In 1905, Pearsons contributed $25,000 to a campaign underway to add $200,000 to the endowment. At that time, President Eaton reviewed Dr. Pearsons' contributions to Beloit College, now totaling $460,000 and matching amounts of $520,000 (representing a total of more than $15,000,000 in today's dollars):

For twenty years now, Dr. Pearsons has been the dynamic of Beloit's new life; at every critical point in the history of the college his moulding and energizing spirit has been embodied in the development which has characterized the epoch. (Williams, 1911: 139-140)

What Pearsons first did for Beloit College, he quickly began to do for other small colleges, especially in the Midwest. The list is one with familiar names, including many of the institutions that we would still identify today as Beloit's sister colleges: Lake Forest, Know, Colorado, Illinois, Northland, Marietta, Olivet, and many others. He favored those with a special story of a struggle or challenge to tell: Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, founded as a monument to the missionary Marcus Whitman, who settled with his wife among the Indians in 1842; Berea College in Kentucky with its mission of service to the mountain youth of the Appalachian region; and Mt. Holyoke College, founded through the great efforts of Mary Lyon and challenged in 1896, when Pearsons extended his help, by a dormitory fire that displaced its 400 students. (Pearsons, 1899; Edwards, 1992: 505-7)

D. K. Pearsons' investments in higher education, eventually exceeding $5,000,000 to 47 colleges, were transforming ones. They allowed small struggling institutions to survive and flourish. Beloit College's story is a good example. Between 1889 and 1896, Dr. Pearsons' first gifts to Beloit added to $235,000 and involved challenges to raise $370,000 more -- a total of $605,000. This amount would be equivalent to more than $9,000,000 in today's dollars. This figure, however, surely underestimates the impact of Pearsons' investments. In the decade that centered on 1890, Beloit's student body grew to 158, a gain of more than 150 percent in ten years with a doubling of the male enrollment alone. The ability to house students on campus at less expense to them was an important consideration in this growth. The faculty grew from 12 to 16, and the curriculum had become more elaborate, especially with the introduction of a scientific course of study in 1893. The Pearsons Hall of Science was the antidote to the situation that President Eaton described in 1889, when chemicals would freeze and students needed to reserve the single microscope in advance.

Because of the help from D. K. Pearsons, and others, Beloit became a more confident college, attracting the support of many in its immediate family and from those beyond, including Andrew Carnegie and other important benefactors who sought to strengthen higher education. By 1907, President Eaton could reach the following conclusions:

[The past ten years] were years of continuous growth in the life of the College. There was a sense of increasing strength in all of its departments. There were important additions to its financial resources. A developing consciousness of the College's place in the educational world was manifest and multiplying evidences were afforded of the regard in which it was held among educational institutions.... Heavy loses were endured in the deaths of members of the Board of Trustees and Faculty, but in these very losses there was won a new realization of the richness of the life of the College and the privilege of incorporation into its history. (Eaton, 1928: 101)

As Eaton suggests, there was much more to the story of a growing Beloit in the 1900s than the investments and other benefactions of donors. The College was realizing that it was an institution with a life beyond that of its founders and that it had an important role to play beyond its immediate region.

Today, colleges and universities hope for the magic of "a transforming gift" -- that one benefaction, or investment, which allows the institution to become measurably different. Such gifts are now measured in multiples of millions of dollars. Beloit received a gift with such impact from Daniel Kimball Pearsons at a time when few others, especially in the West, were assisting higher education. Beloit College is what it is today because of Pearsons' investment.

There is just one remaining question: Why did D. K. Pearsons first support Beloit College in 1889 and then the other 46 independent colleges that he came to view as "his children"? Surely, the answer involves more that the fulfillment of a 38-year-old promise made during a chance encounter with "a big and burly fellow" on a much wagon passing through Beloit, Wisconsin.

There are many answers to this question. They begin with Pearsons' deep and abiding belief in the power of knowledge and the great contributions of education. Consider these observations by Pearsons drawn from his many reflections on such topics.

As knowledge is power, not only are the dignity and happiness of man increased by his progress in literature and science, but his capabilities for good are multiplied, his sphere of usefulness is enlarged, and he wields a new and wide influence. The love of virtue, the zeal of benevolence, will strengthen the desire of intellectual greatness. To seize the most difficult and important subjects and to bring them down to the comprehension of the unlettered; to penetrate as with a ray of light the darkest and most involved questions, which concern the duties or welfare of men; to vanquish error by invincible force of argument; to shame vice by the reproofs of wisdom...; to strengthen the principles of wavering virtue; ... to expand the narrow views of the covetous and selfish into generous and exalted purposes -- this is a kind of power more honorable and elevated than the dominion of arms or the authority of kings. (Pearsons [nephew], 1912: 42-43)

To Dr. Pearsons, knowledge was empowering because it made men and women more useful and increased their capacity for doing good. Education was the source of such power and in it could be found honor, opportunity, and privilege.

Apart from the common school that had made education available to the general citizenry, Pearsons considered the small college -- the "freshwater college" -- to be the "greatest educational institution in America." He placed his faith in these "agents of civilization" and demonstration that faith with the full force of his investments. (Pearsons [nephew], 1912: 47) We can understand why Pearsons gave specifically to colleges like Beloit, Lake Forest, Knox, Colorado, Berea and Mt. Holyoke by first considering his reflections on a new Chicago entry into the collegiate scene and then by looking to his specific interests in these colleges themselves.

In 1892, the University of Chicago was founded, fueled by a gift of $10,000,000 from John D. Rockefeller. Pearsons offered the following assessment of Rockefeller's gift that says just as much about the schools that he considered "his children:"

It is an attempt to create an intellectual aristocracy; to monopolize higher education by restricting it to the chosen few; to close the doors of colleges to the masses, and eventually to stifle an expression of liberal thought in American universities. The announcement means that the oil king will attempt to monopolize higher education and centralize it in a few universities. He will attempt to manipulate education as he has oil and railroads. He will endeavor to drive out the little fellow, his greatest competitor. When this is done, Mr. Rockefeller will be able to mould the minds of students to think as he would have them think; to give great questions of the hour little independent thought.

The $10,000,000 is not for the education of the masses. A comparatively small number of the more fortunate young men and women are the ones who are to benefit and not the sons and daughters of the toilers. The higher tuition fees of the great universities and the enormous cost of living make it impossible for the poor to attend. The small colleges near their homes are the only schools that reach out and give the working class college advantage. People should rally to the defence of the small college. This gift should open their eyes to the impending danger of the encroachment of the university upon the domain of the college. It will result in more endowments -- small in comparison to Rockefeller's millions, but great in the aggregate. In the end, our small colleges will be the gainers. (Pearsons [nephew], 1912: 113)

If these goals were truly Rockefeller's, he did not anticipate the independence of those who would inhabit the new university. But here, we can hear reflected Pearsons' commitment to the small college as a democratic force, both in its support of students with limited resources and as a bastion of free expression, not to mention his concerns about the restraint of trade. How bemused Dr. Pearsons would be if he could see the full sweep of American higher education today!

D. K. Pearsons often spoke directly about the ambitions and contributions of "his children," extolling the specific virtues of what he called the "fresh-water college." It was a very specific and special institution. Listen again to Dr. Pearsons.

First, let us define the term "freshwater." I understand it to mean, as applied to an institution for instruction in the higher branches of learning, that such establishment is laid out upon collegiate lines, but is far more unpretending than the big university or the large college. It may, according to my understanding, be located on the seacoast or be dignified by the name of university and still be a "freshwater" college. Therefore, let us take this term -- very likely first applied in a contemptuous sense -- to mean a college that lacks the proportions and pretensions of those great institutions of higher education to which those can have the pick of the land are sent.

The big colleges and universities with world-wide reputations are all right; I have no quarrel whatever with them. They are fulfilling their own purpose well; but I believe that this country could better afford to see them wiped off the list of her educational facilities then to have the struggling "freshwater" colleges... removed from the reach of the common people. (Pearsons [nephew], 1912: 47-48)

While Pearsons allowed that "freshwater" colleges could be located anywhere, he was partial to the ways in which they might serve the West and the South. Beloit, Drury, Guilford, Pomona, Whitman and the others were to be to their regions what Bowdoin, Amherst and Hamilton were to the East. As they were strengthened, so was thought elevated and character toughened in these growing areas. (Morris, 1901: 584)

To Pearsons, the freshwater college had several special strengths. First, they were established to meet local needs. As the West began to "settle up" and the pioneers became successful as farmers through their hard work, they sought to provide their children with a better education than their own. The region also needed ministers, lawyers, merchants, physicians, teachers, editors and other leaders. Distance and cost required that local colleges be established to satisfy local needs. Again, I offer Dr. Pearsons' own words:

These humble institutions are direct products of the true pioneer spirit, and still have in them the vital breath of high moral purpose breathed into them by their founder; because the foundation of every 'freshwater college' in the land is laid deep in the rock of sound, practical Christianity; because these are the only schools of higher education within the reach of a very large and a very respectable class of young men and women -- those who make up the moral backbone of this nation. (Pearsons [nephew], 1912: 48)

But to Pearsons, there was another specific strength in the freshwater college that we should find still familiar.

It affords opportunity for a closer relationship between instructor and pupil than is possible in the larger institutions where the number of pupils is much larger. This ministers to both the moral and intellectual progress of the pupil. Each student receives a larger share of individual attention from the teacher, and the latter has a more intimate knowledge of the conduct and the character of each of his students than he could have in the big institutions.... As it looks to me, the "freshwater" student does more studying, has more pleasure, is closer to his teachers and his mates, and suffers less from high pressure athletic distractions than does the student at the big institution. (Pearsons [nephew], 1912: 52)

Today, Dr. Pearsons' argument still sounds appropriate to describe Beloit and the other "freshwater" colleges that he supported.

Finally, we know specifically why D. K. Pearsons made his gifts to Beloit College, his first-chosen. It was a question that he was often asked, sometimes by those who led more-established colleges to the East who could not understand why it was Beloit that he favored. His response, summarized in a focused statement in 1893, still reflects well on our College a full century later.

I give to Beloit College because its past history indicates that the institution is to be perpetual. President Chapin and his fellow-workers had the sagacity to found a college in the best location in the country and the faith and courage to stand at their post for over forty years. They kept the curriculum up to the highest standard never lowering it to catch the whims of others, less far-seeing than themselves....

I give to Beloit College because it believes in the poor boys who are going to make the great men of the future, and it offers them the best education at the lowest cost. The country is the best place in which to educate boys, and I want to see a college in the country within one hundred miles of Chicago, as good as the city affords....

I give to Beloit College because its friends believe in it, and show their faith by their works. Its alumni love it and are ready to make sacrifices for it. Its trustees are energetic and generous. What I have given the college has not made them inactive, but has increased their own exertions.

I believe in a man's being his own executor. I long ago made up my mind that I could not carry a cent out of this world with me, and I determined to see for myself where the money was going to. What I have given to Beloit no court can get away from me. It is safe. I have planted it, and have seen a great deal of fruit from it already, and expect to see a great deal more during my life, and am sure that it will go on bearing fruit for ages to come. I am satisfied with the investment. (Pearsons, 1893)

I conclude with an anecdote that is surely familiar to some of you, but one that may seem far-removed from the life and times of D. K. Pearsons.

It is the story of the rebuilding of St. Paul's Cathedral in London after the Great Fire. A visitor asked workers what they were doing. A stonemason replied, "I am building a pediment." "I am carving a pew," a carpenter responded. "I am building a screen," an ironworker answered. The visitor then turned with the same question to a man who was sweeping up after the other workers. He said, "I am helping Sir Christopher Wren build the Cathedral."

When we retell this story, we usually do so to make the point that there are no contributions that are too small and that one does whatever she or he can. But it is a tale that also reminds us about shared contributions and an appropriate sense of higher purpose. We need to remember that -- like D. K. Pearsons -- each of us in our own way can offer lasting gifts.

We are here this afternoon in the Moore Study Lounge, in the Jeffris-Wood Campus Center, in Pearsons Hall -- all well-appreciated gifts and investments -- because of something that we hold in common: a great college. We are bound to Beloit in different ways -- some by gratitude for their education, some by nostalgia, some by the responsibilities and possibilities of employment, and some by the wise choice of where to spend their first years of adulthood. But together we can find in this College the same opportunities that D. K. Pearsons did: the opportunity to share in the nation's common interests and to invest wisely in its future. We can invest our talents, we can invest our ideas, we can invest our resources, we can invest whatever we best can offer.

Daniel Kimball Pearsons, M.D., offers us an example about such investment. From a century ago, he still gives meaning to our presence here today. But there is more: we are bound together with Pearsons by possibilities.

Pearsons served a new and raw country and, through the careful and wise contribution of the rewards that he gained there toward the support of small independent colleges, he helped to transform that frontier.

Today, there are still many important frontiers. No longer are they defined principally by terms of geography; now they are straight-forwardly sociological. They involve the challenges of inequality, injustice, ignorance and indifference. They are located in Somalia, at Cabrini Green, in Beloit's Merrill neighborhood, on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, at battered women's shelters, in the rain forests of Brazil, and in the hearing rooms of those interested in health care policy and the welfare of children. These frontiers still require the full force of a strong education. They still define the agenda for our investment.

As we move to enter the next century, please appreciate what we must do together in the interests of our society. It is a task that D. K. Pearsons so clearly understood when he supported Beloit and our sister colleges as they entered this century. Please consider again the words of Jean Monnet:

Institutions are more important than individuals. But only individual men and women, when they have the strength, can transform and enrich the things which institutions transmit to successor generations.

Remembering the example of Daniel Kimball Pearsons, M.D. -- perhaps whenever we come into this splendid building -- let us each identify our own strengths and how we might deploy them effectively through our College in the service of our larger society. It is not a matter of simple generosity; it is our investment in the future on behalf of those who will follow us.

Thank you for your attention.

 

Notes

1. To understand the magnitude of Pearsons' investments in higher education, it is useful to consider his benefactions in today's dollars. While the calculation understates the importance and impact of such gifts made when few others were doing so, it is reasonable to multiply 1890 dollars by a factor of 15 to estimate their equivalent a century later. $100,000 in 1889 would roughly equal $1,500,000 today. I appreciate the help of Emil Kreider, Allan-Bradley Professor of Economics, with this estimate.

2. Pearsons' account centers on one work, "crank," that we need to understand in its meaning in the mid-nineteenth century. Thanks to the help of Lisa Haines Wright, Assistant Professor of English at Beloit, we can understand the term as applied to the founders of the College in this way: "unbalanced" persons who are overzealous or eccentric in the service of a cause not widely regarded as worthy of such enthusiasms.

3. Scoville Hall was located at the present site of the Scoville Center Apartments directly across Bushnell Street from the College's Neese Theatre.

4. Chapin Hall is gone, having been located on what is now the site of the Chamberlin Hall of Science.

 

References

Bevington, David. M. 1992. The 426th Convocation Address: Only in Chicago. The University of Chicago Record.

Eaton, Edward Dwight. 1928. Historical Sketches of Beloit College. New York: A. S. Barnes and Company.

Edwards, G. Thomas. 1992. The Triumphs of Tradition: The Emergence of Whitman College, 1859-1924. Walla Walla, Washington: Whitman College.

Ginger, Ray. 1958. Altgeld's America. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.

Holden, Louis Edward. 1935. typed letter to Hiram D. Densmore, February 13 (entitled "How Louis Edward Holden Did His Work For the College). February 13th.

Morris, George Perry. 1901. Dr. D. K. Pearsons, The Friend of the American Small College. Review of Reviews, November: 580-585.

Pearsons, Daniel Kimball. ca. 1893. Some Reasons for My Gifts to Beloit College. (other title: Glimpses of Beloit College As Seen by Representative Men.)

Pearsons, Daniel Kimball. 1899. Gold Transmuted into Life or A Lesson in Practical Philanthropy. An address to the Civic-Philanthropic Conference at Battle Creek, Michigan, October 1898. (Pamphlet published by Western Department of the Congregational Education Society, Chicago, Illinois).

Pearsons, Daniel Kimball. [nephew]. 1912. Daniel K. Pearsons: His Life and Works. Elgin: Brethren Publishing House.

Williams, Edward Franklin. 1911. The Life of Dr. D. K. Pearsons, Friend of the Small College and of Missions. New York: The Pilgrim Press.

 

Parker G. Marden is the Dean of the College and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Beloit College. The assistance of Fred A. Burwell, Beloit College archivist, in gaining access to information on D. K. Pearsons, was invaluable in the preparation of this presentation. His help is greatly appreciated. The author, however, remains fully responsible for all errors of commission and omission.

The cover picture of Daniel Kimball Pearsons, M.D., comes from the Beloit Codex, 1892