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William B. Angell Funeral, Ann Arbor, 1916

Death of an Angell

By James Tobin
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President Angell’s funeral

Michigan’s most consequential president died a century ago.

At mid-afternoon on Monday, April 3, 1916, the hushed campus waited. Then, at 2:30, the bells in the west tower of the University Library chimed, and the doors opened at the President’s House on South University. Four pallbearers bearing the casket of James Burrill Angell, the University’s third president, stepped out into the sunlight.

In the street the funeral cortege was waiting, a line of closed carriages each led by a white horse. On the lawn, members of the Glee Club sang “Laudes Atque Carmina,” the bittersweet Michigan melody that had been Angell’s favorite. Across Michigan, state offices closed precisely at 2:30. Flags were lowered to half-mast. Ann Arbor’s stores and businesses shut their doors.

“Today everything’s all wrong,” Sam Bayliss, Angell’s butler, told a reporter. “We all feel it.”

Angell had retired in 1909 after 38 years in the office, the longest and most consequential term of any Michigan president. But no one could imagine “Prexy,” as the students called Angell, leaving the house he had occupied since Reconstruction. So the regents had invited him to stay on, and he had done so. “I cannot be too grateful for what they have done,” he said. “I can thus hope to spend the days allotted to me near to…my beloved colleagues in the faculties, and to the great company of students whose presence has long been, and still is, one of my great delights.”

Silent streets

James Burrill Angell

James B. Angell (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

On Jan. 7, his 87th birthday, Angell had been deluged with cables and cards. He started the work of responding to each by hand. To one well-wisher he wrote: “Don’t wish me many happy returns. Don’t you realize what it is to live on beyond one’s time and one’s friends?” Writing so many letters put a strain on him, and he suffered a stroke that left him partially blind.

He sank and rallied two or three times. Pneumonia set in, and on March 29, his doctor summoned his children — his daughter, Lois McLaughlin, married to a history professor at the University of Chicago; his older son, Alexis Angell, former Michigan law professor and U.S. circuit judge; and his younger son, James Rowland Angell, a professor of psychology who would soon be named president of Yale. Angell’s wife, the popular Sarah Caswell Angell, had died in 1903. The former president died at home just before noon on Saturday, April 1.

Now the horse-drawn carriages moved slowly west on South University through two close-packed rows of male students, standing in silence with bared heads. At State Street the horses turned right and plodded slowly north past Alumni Memorial Hall (now home to the Museum of Art), built near the end of Angell’s term, and University Hall, which had opened just when Angell was beginning his presidency in 1871.

The crucial figure

He had been barely in his 40s then, but Angell had already accomplished a good deal. Directly descended from a dissident Puritan who had helped Roger Williams to found Providence, Rhode Island, Angell had left the faculty of Brown University (his alma mater) to edit the Providence Journal during the Civil War, speaking out for emancipation and Abraham Lincoln. Then he accepted the presidency of the University of Vermont, where his reputation attracted the notice of Michigan’s regents. He held out until the regents raised their salary offer and promised to install a flush toilet in the President’s House, the first in Ann Arbor.

At North University the funeral cortege turned to the east, still moving between silent lines of male students, passing massive buildings constructed to accommodate U-M’s great expansion during Angell’s tenure — Hill Auditorium, Natural Sciences, Chemistry, Waterman and Barbour Gymnasia.

In Angell’s era the student body had grown from 1,100 to more than 5,000. He oversaw reforms that set the example for all state universities — the melding of liberal arts with the sciences; the institution of an elective system of courses; the successful implementation of co-education. He induced Lansing to give U-M a yearly appropriation. He hired crucial faculty who put Michigan on the map among American thinkers and scientists, including the philosopher John Dewey, the sociologist George Herbert Mead, and the economist Henry Carter Adams. One colleague said Angell had “an ability…to let the right men alone, never harrying them in their work.” (Choosing a new professor in political science, he had once decided against hiring the young Woodrow Wilson, who occupied the White House when Angell died.)

“Instinctive sympathy”

Angell Family

The Angell family at the President’s House, 1890/1900. (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

All this had been done with no fireworks, no cult of personality. Angell moved people with “a certain sweet reasonableness,” said Robert Mark Wenley, a professor of philosophy and close friend. Henry Carter Adams remarked that “the secret of Dr. Angell’s power is found in his keen instinctive sympathy with life in all its phases and in the faith he was ever ready to show in his fellow men.”

Gifted more as a leader and administrator than as a scholar, Angell (who took leaves of absence to serve as U.S. minister to China and Turkey) nonetheless taught popular courses in international relations. “The teacher’s profession is a fountain of youth,” he once said. “I have seen many a teacher with gray hairs and some with bald heads, but I never saw an old teacher yet.” For many years he personally handled the registration of every student in the Department of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

He was popular with students but no pushover. One day when law students were close to rioting at a public assembly, Angell finally stood and raised his hand for quiet. The “Laws” obeyed. Angell then remarked: “There are just two institutions in this state that are self-supporting. One of them is the Law Department.” This set off a new explosion among the law students. Again Angell raised his hand for silence. Then he said: “The other is the state prison at Jackson.” That quieted the “Laws” for good.

Legacy to the state

At the corner of North University and East University, the long lines of men gave way to the women students, standing hand in hand in tribute to the president who had supported Michigan’s early embrace of co-education. They watched as the cortege turned south on Washtenaw Avenue, then east on Geddes toward Forest Hill Cemetery.

Angell was often credited with saying that Michigan aimed to provide “an uncommon education for the common man.” The words, it turned out, had not been his, but the idea certainly was.

In his memoirs, written at the urging of friends, he said he had tried “to induce every citizen [of Michigan] to regard himself as a stockholder in the institution, who had a real interest in helping make it of the greatest service to his children and those of his neighbors,” and to ensure that “the young pupil in the most secluded schoolhouse in the state should be encouraged to see that the path was open from his home up to and through the University.”
 
 
Top image: Thousands of students lined the route of James Burrill Angell’s funeral procession on April 3, 1916. Here the cortege moves north on State Street, past University Hall (the domed building at left) which occupied the approximate site where Angell Hall, named in the president’s honor, would be constructed in the 1920s. (U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

Sources included the Michigan Daily, Ann Arbor News, Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, Clippings: Death of James Burrill Angell (U-M’s Bentley Historical Library); and Shirley Wheeler Smith, James Burrill Angell: An American Influence (1954).

James Tobin

James Tobin

JAMES TOBIN, an author and historian, is a Michigan alumnus and professor of journalism at Miami of Ohio. His latest book is The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency ( Simon & Schuster, 2013). He contributes regularly to the U-M Heritage website, an online repository of historical stories and images about the University. For the story "Hair down to there," he delivered this alternate profile picture to showcase his own long locks, circa 1974,