The Michigan Alumnus 506
Robert Mark Wenley
By Roy Wood Sellars, ’03, Professor of Philosophy
A great loss has befallen the University, and the Department of Phlosophy has a second time within the short space of two years been robbed by death of a distinguished teacher. Last Friday, March 29, marked the passing of the man who had been its head for over thirty years.
The death of Professor Wenley was sudden and quite unexpected. He had been taken sick the night be fore at about ten o'clock and died at twelve-thirty in the afternoon. The cause of his death was heart failure. He was sixty-seven years old. These are the bare, external facts of the case.
Expressions of sorrow and regret were spontaneous. They were recognitions of the man's standing and service. I quote a few typical lines. From President Little: "He will stand in Michigan's an nals for all time as one of her greatest teachers and scholars. The University has added a lasting figure to its history but at the cost to many of us of a good and true friend whose passing leaves us in the most pro found sorrow and with a sense of enduring loss." From Dean Hugh Cabot: "Profes sor Wenley was, I believe, one of the very great figures on this Campus. In his death, the University has suffered a staggering blow." From Dean J. R. Effinger: "His definite personality and his broad interests have made him a conspicuous figure in the life of the University for more than a quarter of a century, and he will be greatly missed." From Shirley Smith, Secretary of the University: "No one can take the place of Professor Wenley. We have lost a truly great personality." Just as emphatic tributes came from his former pupils; I take the following from Professor Edson Sunderland: "His students, of which I was one, were thrilled by his wonderful power of analysis, the dramatic and impressive manner in which he was able to present the great movements in philosophy, and the remarkably beautiful literary form of his lectures. " Statements similar to these will, I know, be made throughout the length and breadth of this land and also in other countries.
Professor Wenley was a living force among the alumni. Field Secretary Tapping has sent me the fol lowing letter: "At the very hour that Professor Wenley died I received a telegram for him sent in my care from the University of Michigan Club of Los Angeles, clos ing arrangements for his ap pearance at the annual ban quet of that club. As you know, Professor Wenley was about to leave for the West and was to speak to the clubs of Kansas City, Denver, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. It will be a terrible shock to all of these clubs." It is pleasant to know that the University of Michigan Club of Detroit purchased a por trait of him by Percy Ives as a token of honor, respect, and affection.
As I write this formal announcement of his death, pictures of the past arise in my mind—just as they surely will in the minds of the greater number of those who read it—pictures of Professor Wenley lectur ing in Room 205 of Mason Hall, the old North Wing. He is on the platform in his prime, walking up and down and speaking as he walks, a vigorous, impressive man, full of wit and telling illustrations. I was a sophomore at the time, which I am recalling, impressionable, as he was impressive. It was a new world of thought that he was opening up. This is not the only picture that comes to me. I remember him at banquets as an after-dinner speaker, at his home, at athletic rallies. The dead inevitably live for us again in our memories. I recall these things just as others will recall them.
Generations of Michigan students came under Pro fessor Wenley's influence. Gradually he became al- most an institution. To take Course One under his guidance was the established thing. As the years passed, the sons and daughters of his former students took their places, in turn, in the seats before him. To many, philosophy meant Professor Wenley. To say this is a tribute to the man and his work at the Uni versity.
As everyone knows, Professor Wenley was a Scot. He was born sixty-seven years ago at Edinburgh; to be precise, July 19, 1861, the son of James Adams Wenley of the Bank of Scotland. He studied at Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities and in the latter came under the influence of the Cairds, John and Edward, who were then effectively spreading the gospel of Hegel. Both of these men were great teach ers and lecturers. Edward Caird afterwards became the Master of Baliol. We have in these men a lasting in influence in Professor Wenley's life. He remained essentially an objective idealist throughout his philosophic career. He broke with his teachers on de tails, allowing more weight to science, yet remained to the end an idealist.
After securing his A. M. at Glasgow in 1884 with the first class in philosophy, he traveled and studied in France, Germany, and Italy. Lotze had just died in Berlin, and there were no outstand ing figures in either France or Italy. Returning to Scotland, he was Assistant Professor of Logic at Glas gow from 1886 until 1894, and from 1888 until 1895 in charge of courses at Queen Margaret College, which bears somewhat the relation to Glasgow University that Radcliffe does to Harvard. It was in 1896 that he was called to the University of Michigan.
It was in the days of President Angell. John Dewey had gone to Chicago, taking with him Tufts and Mead. It seems that Professor Orr, a theologian of merit in the Free Church in Scotland, was lecturing in this country and was asked by President Angell to recom mend some man for the position here. He named Pro fessor Wenley. Craig was in Europe and was asked to discuss the situation with him. Michigan was known to Wenley because of the work of Tappan, Morris and Dewey. Finally he consented to come, and so his life work was cast here.
It was not a bed of roses. He worked hard, much harder, I think, than is usual today. There were many hours of teaching with no assistance. He himself marked the bluebooks for all his courses. And he went out of his way to develop new subjects appealing, on the one hand, to those interested in science, and, on the other hand, to those working in the classics.
The range of his knowledge was always remarkable. He took pride in the detail of his memory. He was a fine Greek and Latin scholar and he also knew his physics. Jebb and Sonnenschein had been his teach ers in the classics and Lord Kelvin in physics. He was always proud of this intellectual heritage.
The University was much smaller in those days, and one man could exert more personal influence than seems possible at present on our crowded Campus. From the first, Professor Wenley was an outstanding teacher. He also mixed with the students. Thus, he was one of the founders of the Quadrangle Club. This he used to attend regularly and enter into the lists with the more daring students. Most were just a little afraid of him—or shall we say in awe of him?
But teaching and personal contacts were not enough. He wished to make contributions to his subject. He had begun to publish early. Thus his first book, Socrates and Christ, has the date of 1889. It was followed in 1894 by Aspects of Pessimism. Then came rapidly from the press his study of the University Extension Movement in Scotland and Con temporary Theology and Theism. His first years on this side of the water were marked by the publi cation of his little book on Kant, a book which the students of Course One of long ago will remember. All through the years he kept on writing and publishing. A little while before his death, in an interview in the Daily, he said that the total of his printed con tributions was well over 500. I have never been afraid of intellectual labor but I have sincere admiration for the man who taught, lectured throughout the state and nation, and wrote all these books and articles. He spent himself freely. Perhaps it is no wonder that he died at the comparatively early age of sixty-seven. It is difficult to pass judgment but I hazard the suggestion that his Life and Work of G. S. Morris will be found most remarkable for its insight into the history and at mosphere of America. He became an authority on the idealist movement in the United States.
In connection with his contacts with students I mentioned the Quadrangle Club. But I am sure that he would like to have me mention his connection with the Senior Research Club, an organization within the Faculty for the encouragement of research. He was a charter member and one of its early presidents. Research did not then have the standing it now has. Its furtherance was near his heart.
It is pleasant to note that Professor Wenley received recognition for his achievements during his lifetime. The list of honorary degrees is an impressive one and includes an LL.D. from Glasgow.
These are a few of the things that it is natural and fitting to say about Professor Wenley and his work at Michigan. His death is a great loss but we, fortunate ly, have the inspiration of his love of scholarship. This he leaves behind. "In reality then," he (Socrates) con tinued, "those who pursue philosophy rightly study to die; and to them of all men, death is least formidable."