Woodrow Wilson ’79.
Nuggets on Life and Learning From Princeton’s 13th President, Compiled by Playwright William McCleery...

In 1987 a Princeton newspaper headlined a story on William T. McCleery “75 – and Still Going Strong.” McCleery, who taught playwriting at Princeton for 12 years and edited the old University magazine for 13 years, had just published The Story of A Campaign for Princeton 1981-1986, an official history of the university’s recently completed fund-raising effort. He was also working on a new play called Straight Man as well as a book about what Woodrow Wilson had to say about education.

In 1997 the headline could well read, “85 – and Still Going Strong.” McCleery’s new book, Wit & Eloquence of Woodrow Wilson, Teacher, was recently published by the Office of Communications and Publications in connection with the university’ s 250th Anniversary. Straight Man, now rewritten, just had a staged reading at the Mill Hill Playhouse, in Trenton; McCleery is working on several other books, one about playwriting; and he’s helping a distinguished person, whom he declines to name, write his autobiography.

William McCleery.
The idea for the volume on Wilson came to McCleery in 1986, when he was working on still another book, The Character of Princeton, for which he interviewed faculty luminaries such as Carlos Baker *40, Marvin Bressler, J. Douglas Brown ’19, Natalie Z. Davis, Aaron Lemonick *54, and Alpheus T. Mason. (This book won a 1986 gold medal from the Council for the Support of Education.) When many of his sources kept bringing up Wilson, McCleery decided to take a closer look at the university’s 13th president. He sat down with the appropriate volumes of The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, edited by Arthur S. Link, the George Henry Davis ’86 Professor of American History emeritus and waded through the speeches Wilson made while he was an educator. “I found the best gems buried in the longest speeches,” he said. “In one 15-page speech to the Association of Colleges and Preparatory Schools of the Middle States and Maryland in 1907 I came upon this: ‘It is a great deal better to see one thing than merely to look at a thousand.’ Isn’t that marvelous?”

At the University of Nebraska, where he graduated in 1931, a professor told him, “McCleery, you are intoxicated with words.” “It’s the absolute truth,” he said. After college he became a journalist for the Associated Press, Life, PM, and Ladies Home Journal. He also wrote plays, two of which made it to Broadway in the mid-1940s, Hope for the Best and Parlor Story. His dramatic version of Good Morning, Miss Dove, a book by Frances Gray Patton, has been published by Samuel French and is a perennial favorite with high-school dramatic groups.

Another of his comedies, Match Play, was produced in 1978 by Summer Intime and by several other theaters. He has high hopes for his Straight Man, a story “about a man involved with three strong women.”

He wrote a children’s book, Wolf Story, for his son when he was five years old – and the son is now 50. It was first published in 1947, reissued by Simon & Schuster in 1962, and reissued yet again in 1988 by the Shoestring Press of Hamden, Connecticut. It’s still in print.

McCleery has been officially retired from the university for 20 years but still goes to his office in Mudd Library every day. And although he hasn’t taught at the university since 1977, he still considers himself a teacher. “I just read Wolf Story to two fourth grades at a school in town,” he said. “That was one of the most thrilling things I’ve ever done.”



From William McCleery’s preface:

Many of the scholars I interviewed for a book on Princeton told me that Woodrow Wilson, during his presidency of the university (1902-1910), had had a far greater effect on Princeton – and on American education in general, at all levels – than is commonly appreciated today; that his contributions as an educational philosopher and innovator have been largely washed out of the public mind and the history books by the waves he made as a wartime President of the United States.

I was also told some stories suggesting that in his educator years (at Johns Hopkins, where he lectured and earned his Ph.D., and at Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania and Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he taught before returning to Princeton), Wilson was a much warmer and wittier person than in later life. When, for example, after soliciting Andrew Carnegie for a large cash gift to Princeton and getting instead the lake that bears Carnegie’s name, Wilson said, “I asked for bread and he gave me water.” On losing a hard-fought battle to downgrade Princeton’s Prospect Avenue “eating clubs” in favor of more egalitarian colleges or “quadrangles,” he told a friend, “I didn’t get the quads but I got the wrangles.”…

The reader cannot escape noticing that Wilson seldom used a gender-neutral word such as “person” or “student” or “youth” when he could say “man” or “lad” or “boy.” In his attitude toward women he was of his time, not ahead of it. And he was, after all, during most of the period covered here, president of an all-male university fed mainly by all-male preparatory schools.

But the ideals he expressed…suggest that if he were living today he would be strongly gender-democratic…Wilson’s reforms and policies shrank the distance between professors and students at Princeton, making it a more hospitable place for women and nonwhites when they did finally arrive. And he brought the first Jew, the first agnostic, and the first Unitarian to a faculty dominated up until then by conservative Presbyterians.

Wilson to graduates at Miss Hersey’s School commencement, Boston, June 1907:

Luckily we are not the first human beings. We have come into a great heritage of interesting things, collected and piled all about us by the curiosity of past generations…Education consists in learning intelligent choice.

To high-school students in Kansas City, Missouri, May 1905:

You are not as beautiful as some animals or as cunning as others, but you have the one great power of mind and the power tod raw from the reservoir of the minds of all the men and the women in the world. The cultivation of the mind is the best and most profitable thing you can do.

Princeton baccalaureate, June 1905:

The most trivial occupation may be dignified by the spirit in which it is undertaken and the manner in which it is pursued. Nothing is ignoble to which a noble man may in good conscience devote his energies.

To members of the Princeton Press Club, April 1907:

The world is always new to those who will look upon it as such; the ignorant man does not realize how much he has to learn. The greatest scholars realize how little they really know.

To the New Jersey State Teachers’ Association, December 1909:

Youngsters…who do the irregular things are…apt to keep on doing things all their lives; and the youngsters who do the regular thing day in and day out are apt to be merely the hewers of wood and the drawers of water…

Information, I dare say, is the raw material of education; but it is not education…Some of the best informed men I ever knew were among the most useless…and inconvenient, because they were always throwing at you some chunk of information which you could not deny and by which you felt floored, but which you knew in your heart was perfectly irrelevant to the matter you were discussing. These men who go about carrying encyclopedias in their heads…are useful to be referred to upon occasion…but they make very poor reading…You know the famous remark of the old lady who said the dictionary was very interesting, but it [kept changing] the subject? That…is the characteristic of…most of our school processes – that they change the subject about every forty minutes…

There is a happy coincidence between the spirit of learning and the true spirit of American life. They are both essentially democratic. Learning knows no differences of social caste or privilege…Genius comes into what family it pleases, and laughs at the orders of society, takes delight in humble origins, and yet will appear in palaces if it pleases.

To the New York City High School Teachers’ Association, January 1909:

There is one sentence with which I always open my classes, a sentence quoted from Burke…[who] says, “Institutions must be adjusted to human nature; of which reason constitutes a part, but by no means the principal part.” You cannot develop human nature by devoting yourselves entirely to the intellectual sides of it. Intellectual life is the flower of a thing much wider and richer than itself. The man whom we deem the mere man of books we reject as a counsellor, because he is separated in his thinking from the rich flow of life…

It is a great deal harder to stimulate other minds to do things than it is to do the thing yourself…If a subordinate keeps asking for instructions rom his superior, and the superior says, “Never mind, I will do it myself,” I think that man is unfit for the job…And a teacher who cannot find a means of making a pupil do the work is unfit for the job.

Address at Union College, Schenectady, New York, June 1909:

It is a pleasure to teach things that nobody else understands. It is a very difficult matter to teach things that everybody else understands. I have often thought of the extraordinary position of Plato, who for a whole life time had Aristotle for a pupil.

I am happy to think that our pupils last only four years.

From the manuscript of an article for Scribner’s Magazine, 1910:

And so every college man thinks of his college with his eye over his shoulder. The past is its domain in his thought. He dreads to see it changed. Those who are responsible for the administration of the colleges, on the other hands, are only too keenly aware that they must in some degree ignore this sentiment. It is their duty to look forward, not backward…not to please the passing generation, but to recruit and invigorate the next.

This was originally published in the May 7, 1997 issue of PAW.