Morse, Stiles beat out Taft and Webster

Some of the letters were addressed to “Whit,” others to “President Griswold.” They came from offices just a floor away in Woodbridge Hall, summer homes on Jupiter Island and even a table at the Links Club in Manhattan.

But the missives, now part of Yale’s archives, all shared a common purpose. The year was 1958, and influential Yalies were weighing in on what the University’s two new residential colleges should be called.

Augustus Silliman Blagden 1901 and Betty Hotchkiss wanted a college named Webster, after Noah Webster 1778 — “the speller.” Richard Dwight Hills would have had Taft College sit across from the Payne Whitney Gymnasium. Then-University Secretary Reuben Holden ’40 put forth the names of numerous literary giants, from James Fenimore Cooper 1806 to Thornton Wilder ’20.

Of course, it was Samuel F. B. Morse 1810 and Ezra Stiles 1746 who were granted the eponymous honor in the end.

Yale historian Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61 said in an interview that the selection of Stiles was almost a given.

“Stiles was overdue,” Smith said. “He was in many ways the most distinguished early Yale president and more important than other Yale luminaries who had colleges named for them.”

As Yale’s seventh president, serving from 1777 until his death in 1795, Stiles was known as one of the most educated men of his day and corresponded regularly with the likes of his friend Benjamin Franklin.

But if Stiles was an obvious pick, Morse certainly had the most fervent — or at least prolific — supporters.

Theodore Sizer, who was known as “Tubby” and designed coats of arms for Yale’s schools and colleges as the University’s first and only Pursuivant of Arms, wrote President A. Whitney Griswold in favor of choosing Morse three separate times in the course of just one month in late 1958.

His letter dated Oct. 4, 1958, was especially keen: “At the risk of belaboring the point,” Sizer began, “let me ask you this question: what other Yale man has there been whose name has become a noun?”

Indeed, Morse was famous the world over by the time Griswold’s plan to add two new colleges was becoming a reality. A renowned painter, inventor of the telegraph and co-inventor of Morse Code, Morse’s work had supported much of the industrialization in the 19th and 20th centuries.

“If you were a boy scout like me, you knew Morse Code,” Smith said. “If you were anyone, you knew about the telegraph. Morse was terribly important.”

Although Morse had little involvement with Yale after his graduation, Griswold was no stranger to his prominence; his writing shows that he favored Morse over even Stiles.

Whit and Tubby had more than just splendid sobriquets in common. In a letter that must have buoyed Sizer’s spirits immensely, the president wrote, “To me you are preaching to the converted as [Morse’s] was the first name I tossed into the ring.”

But there may have been another reason Morse was so much on Griswold’s mind. Emeritus History professor Howard Lamar GRD ’51, who served as acting president of the University from 1992 to 1993, noted in an interview last week that Morse’s prominent family still resided in New Haven at the time.

And, records show, Morse’s descendants were major Yale donors, endowing various fellowships and programs over the years.

“I think the fact that Morse money was so abundant at a time when there wasn’t an awful lot of money coming to Yale helped push that name forward,” Smith said. “But even without the money, it was a reasonable choice.”

Reasonable not least because some of the most inflammatory aspects of Morse’s personality were overlooked at the time. Although Morse was not a slave owner like John C. Calhoun 1804, for whom Calhoun College is named, he was a public defender of slavery.

One name that was never considered at the time — or at least not publicly — was that of Paul Mellon ’29. Mellon was the main benefactor of Morse and Stiles colleges, as his Old Dominion Foundation provided a $15-million grant to support the expansion project.

In keeping with tradition, current University officials have announced that Yale’s next two residential colleges will not bear the names of any donors, no matter how generous their offers may be.

Judging by the sheer bulk of related correspondence from the 1950s, Webster and Taft were the two runners-up in that day.

Webster, though a famed lexicographer, had almost no connection with Yale after his graduation. The same cannot be said for the Tafts.

Taft College would honor a family that gave Yale William Howard Taft 1878, who was the first graduate elected president of the United States. Taft — who, at over 300 pounds, was a different kind of tubby — taught law at Yale after his presidency, served on the Yale Corporation and was later the chief justice of the United States. His son became a senator and his grandson dean of Yale College.

But, Smith was quick to point out, Taft might not be the best pick for a simple reason.

“He was boring.”

Comments

  • Hubert

    Boring or not, Taft would be a great choice for one of the new colleges.

  • BulldogRoar

    Could Yale not honor its Nobelists in one of the new colleges? Perhaps with an "Onsager Gateway" or a "Sinclair Lewis courtyard"? Other than that, I throw my vote to honoring Kingman Brewster, the President who did more to transform Yale in the 20th century (as President Levin may well for the 21st), from a white, rich, New England prep school to a co-ed, diverse and global presence today. Besides, as anyone from my era knows, when he couldn't be bothered to get off the can to be tapped by Skull & Bones, he cemented his legend forever. That, and when Spiro Agnew called him "dangerous." Who better?