University of Vermont

Installation of 26th President - E. Thomas Sullivan

Rev. John Wheeler (1833 - 1849)

Rev. John WheelerJohn Wheeler, the second Vermonter and Dartmouth graduate to serve as president of UVM, possessed leadership qualities that beautifully supplemented Marsh's academic interests. Specifically, Wheeler was an astute administrator and fundraiser who was able to secure the students and financial resources necessary to strengthen the university.

John Wheeler was born in Grafton, Vermont, on March 11, 1798, the son of Hannah and John B. Wheeler, a prosperous merchant. He enrolled in Dartmouth in 1812 at the age of fourteen and received his degree in 1816 before entering Andover Theological Seminary where he graduated in 1819. He was installed as pastor of the Congregational Church in Windsor, Vermont, on November 1, 1821. He married Sarah Hopkins of Hadley, Massachusetts, and remained in Windsor for the next twelve years, during which time he was appointed as a trustee of both UVM and Dartmouth.

The corporation elected Wheeler president on September 6, 1833, a few months after a prudential committee issued a bleak report that indicated the university was facing yet another major crisis. Nearly three years salary was due faculty members, there were too few instructors, and the lack of library books and scientific apparatus was a handicap in securing students. There was no regular system of bookkeeping, no stock account, no accurate knowledge of the universitys indebtedness or assets. Although UVM had an innovative curriculum, it lacked resources and skillful management. As the prudential committees report mournfully concluded, Bankruptcy and ruin must come inevitably and very soon unless [conditions] are speedily relieved.

In 1828 the university's charter had once again been amended to do away with the legislative election of trustees and to authorize the existing trustees and their successors to fill vacancies on the corporation. This was a clear signal that the university would have to secure funds on its own rather than look to the state for financial support. As soon as Wheeler became president, Professor George Benedict was elected treasurer. In 1834 Wheeler and Benedict completed a successful fund drive that raised thirty thousand dollars. Instead of using this entire sum to pay back debts, Wheeler persuaded the corporation to allocate twelve thousand dollars to purchase philosophical apparatus and library books. This courageous decision marked a giant step forward for the university.

Professor Torrey went to Europe to buy the books. As one observer commented, So economically was the money expended that about seven thousand volumes were obtained at an average cost of $1.25 a volume. Other colleges had larger libraries, but none in the country at that time, with the possible exception of Harvard, had one of equal value for the purpose of collegiate instruction. After he returned from abroad in 1836, Professor Torrey supplemented his regular teaching duties with a new position as faculty librarian at a salary of twenty-five dollars a year. Students were assessed seventy-five cents each term for library use.

Although the medical college was closed in 1836 due to a shortage of students, President Wheeler managed to guide UVM through the panic of 1837 when the university narrowly averted a sheriffs sale to satisfy back debts. The financial situation began to improve in 1839 when Azariah Williams of Concord, Vermont, arranged, for a consideration, to leave his landed estate, with an estimated value of twenty-five thousand dollars, to the university after his death. In 1842 Elijah Paine of Williamstown made the first direct legacy to UVM of five hundred dollars, and in 1844 President Wheeler was able to raise more than fifty thousand dollars through a second fund drive. A plan for future growth was prepared, and more than twenty acres of new land were purchased during Wheelers term as president. In 1847 serious negotiations were begun to merge UVM with Middlebury, but the move was forestalled by legal technicalities. Wheelers wife, Sarah, passed away in November 1847. She had borne ten children during their marriage. Several had died in early childhood, and others suffered from tuberculosis which required much care. Less than a year later, in September 1848, President Wheeler tendered his resignation, explaining that illness in his family had seriously interfered with his college duties.

When Wheeler resigned, UVMs finances were still tight, but the library was excellent, and the university was now attracting promising students. Among those graduating during this period who were to hold prominent positions in later life were: W. H. A. Bissell 36, Episcopal bishop of Vermont; Calvin Pease 38, president of UVM; James Forsyth 39, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; William Shedd 39, first professor of English literature at UVM; John G. Smith 41, governor of Vermont; William Highby 40, Frederick Woodbridge 41, R. S. Hale 42, and John A. Kasson 42, all members of Congress during the Civil War; Frederick Billings 44, president of the Northern Pacific Railroad; and Henry Houghton 46, one of the founders of Houghton Mifflin. Perhaps the most remarkable group were four journalists in the class of 1840 — Henry J. Raymond, founder of the New York Times; James Spaulding, founder of the New York World; Benjamin Tenney, editor of the Richmond (Virginia) Dispatch; and John Taylor, publisher of the St. Albans Messenger.

After he retired, President Wheeler lived in a commodius house on the corner of Main and South Prospect streets, now occupied by the Department of History and the Historic Preservation  Program. In 1852 President Wheeler married Mary Rignall. They had one son, James, later a professor of Greek at UVM and Columbia. President Wheeler died on April 16, 1862, at age sixty-four. Like his predecessor, James Marsh, he had served the university faithfully and well.

Last modified September 28 2012 11:21 AM

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