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William Oxley Thompson, Class of 1878

William Oxley Thompson was the fifth and one of the most influential presidents of The Ohio State University, having served in that role from 1899 to 1925.

He was born in Cambridge, Ohio, November 5, 1855. At the age of 14, he began working as a hired hand on a Brownsville farm and, a year later, entered Muskingum College. He alternated working on the farm, tutoring, serving as a college janitor, and attending college. He later recalled that he lived for a time with the Harpers in their New Concord log cabin. This is a remarkable coincidence, since William Rainey Harper went on to become the founding president of The University of Chicago.

William Oxley ThompsonAlternating work and attending college delayed completion of his degree, which eventually was awarded in 1878. He attended Pennsylvania’s Western Theological Seminary, graduated in 1881, was ordained, married, and took a position as a home missionary in Iowa. His wife fell ill and he sought an assignment in a more suitable climate.

In 1885, he moved his family to the Colorado Rockies to accommodate his wife’s tuberculosis and became the president of Longmont College and minister of Longmont’s Presbyterian Church. It was there that his wife and their infant daughter died in 1886. A year later he remarried and in less than four years, his second wife died at the age of 24 following the birth of their second son.  In 1890, he was a 35-year old widower with three children when he was offered the presidency of Miami University. Here, he took a third wife.

He developed a solid reputation as an administrator and an educational innovator.  In 1899, he was offered the presidency of The Ohio State University. He presided over the university’s most important changes. Under his watch, OSU was transformed from a mostly agricultural Land Grant College to one of America’s great universities.  At the age of 65, he submitted his resignation, arguing that the position would be better served by a younger man. The trustees disagreed and convinced him to remain. He then embarked on a vigorous campaign to build facilities, most notable among these facilities was the Ohio Stadium. He retired in 1925 at the age of 70.  He died in 1933.