Benjamin Ide Wheeler (1854-1927), joins James Burrill Angell as a significant contribution from the Ocean State to the world of university administration. Angell, born in Foster, Rhode Island, was the editor of the Providence Journal before becoming president of the University of Vermont and serving thirty-eight years as the president of the University of Michigan (1871-1909).
Wheeler was born in Randolph, Massachusetts on July 15, 1854. He became a graduate of Brown and studied classical literature and Greek and Latin in several German universities before a thirteen-year teaching career of these subjects at Cornell University. In 1899, he became president of the University of California. During his twenty years at Berkeley (1899-1919), he put this western school on a path of academic excellence, leading it to become one of the best of its kind in the United States.
Wheeler’s father was a highly regarded Baptist minister who served a number of congregations in New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts. He also served a stint in Pawtucket, the home of Wheeler’s mother who had family roots in Rehoboth and South Attleboro. The family background in Biblical studies pointed Wheeler in the direction of classics which he pursued during his high school years, and his student days at Brown University (1871-1875), where he was also an accomplished athlete. Following graduation he taught at the Providence High School, tutored at Brown, and served for a year on the Providence School Committee before going off to Germany for graduate study in the years 1881 through 1885. His Ph.D was a German degree earned summa cum laude.
In the course of his life he received honorary doctor of laws degrees from Princeton, Harvard, Brown, Yale, Johns Hopkins, Wisconsin, Dartmouth, and Columbia. He was the author of various scholarly works in the field of philology (the study of literary texts), as well as a biography of Alexander the Great and studies about higher education and democratic institutions.
Throughout his life he occasionally left the lofty towers of academia and high-minded discourse to engage in the more muscular tussles of politics. This diversion first occurred while at Brown when Wheeler and some of his cohorts set out to topple the Rhode Island Republican political triumvirate of Henry Bowen Anthony, Charles “Boss” Brayton, and Nelson Aldrich. He participated in the second presidential campaign of Democrat Grover Cleveland and continued in the political arena through his active friendship with Republican Theodore Roosevelt. In the aftermath of the great San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906, he participated prominently in the emergency efforts to help the recovery of the city.
Wheeler was the recipient of numerous academic recognitions from collegiate institutions; the University of California named one of its major buildings in his honor; and a World War II Liberty ship also bore his name.
His Rhode Island connection was made stronger through his 1881 marriage to Amey Webb of Providence granddaughter of Jabez Gorham, founder of the Gorham Manufacturing Company. Wheeler died in Vienna, Austria on May 2, 1927 after a long illness and was survived by Amey and a son.