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Charles Milhauser

William Fletcher King was Cornell's president for 45 years, one of the longest presidencies in the history of American higher education. King Chapel was named after him.

Oct. 21, 2001, marked the 80th anniversary of the death of William Fletcher King, 45 years president of Cornell College but chiefly remembered today for the chapel he built and the prestigious scholarships he endowed.

King was born in 1830 near Zanesville, Ohio. After graduating from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1857, he joined its faculty as a tutor, teaching mathematics through calculus, English, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, natural sciences, ancient and modern history, geography, political economy and
science, and rhetoric. After the Civil War began, he drilled with the university’s ad hoc military company, the Lenape Grays.

In the spring of 1862, he received an unsolicited offer to teach Latin and Greek at Cornell College, a school hitherto unknown to him. He weighed his options: “the one the possible call of the country, the other the actual call of Christian Education.” He chose the latter and arrived in Mount Vernon in August, became acting president the following year, and president the year after. While a bachelor, he purchased what is today the President’s House and then married the cousin of the wife of Gen. (later President) Rutherford B. Hayes. Mrs. King and her daughter would spend
a month in the White House as guests of their cousins.

In January 1865, King met with President Lincoln and obtained permission to solicit money from Iowa troops in the field for scholarships for disabled soldiers and war orphans. On the 29th he arrived by steamer in Savannah and accompanied Sherman’s army for a month-and-a-half to Fayetteville, N.C., during which he saw much of the fighting close up and observed sympathetically the plight of former slaves and impoverished whites. He rode horseback when he could, slept in a makeshift tent or on the ground, sloshed through mud, got soaked with rain, ate hardtack and fat bacon, and occasionally had a bullet whistle past him or cannon shot miss him by inches. He witnessed the fire that destroyed Columbia, S.C., and was thrown off his horse when the powder depot at Cheraw exploded. Despite many hardships, he succeeded in addressing 18 of the Iowa Volunteer regiments and obtaining pledges totaling $30,000.

On the march King was invited to dine with Gen.William Belknap ,a former Keokuk lawyer and Iowa legislator and destined to be President Grant’s secretary of war. In 1873 Secretary Belknap readily consented to King’s application that Cornell become the first school in Iowa to install military training under the supervision of a West Point officer whose salary, King made certain, would be paid by the Army.

King lived to be almost 91. The accounts of his military adventures and later world travels suggest he had an extraordinarily robust constitution. He seems, however, to have been slightly hypochondriacal. He writes in his autobiography that he suffered debilitating sunstrokes during the three consecutive summers he was soliciting funds in Iowa for the construction of the chapel. “The fourth summer was only saved from another attack by going to California, where they do not have sunstrokes” [author’s italics].

Charles Milhauser is classics professor and registrar emeritus.

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