Wesleyan Facts and Trivia
Foss Hill got its name from a professor, Archibald Foss, who lived in a house next to the College Cemetery in the mid-1800s. The house, purchased by Wesleyan in 1880, was demolished in 1955 to make room for construction of the Foss Hill dormitories.
The College Cemetery, on Foss Hill, was established in 1837. The first burial, in 1837, was John Mott Smith, professor of Latin and Greek; the final one, 1980, was Philip B. Brown ’44, former chairman of the Board of Trustees. Among the 40 or so graves are the Wesleyan’s first president, Willbur Fisk, and third president, Stephen Olin, and their families, two members of the original faculty, two early trustees, faculty sons and daughters who died in childhood, several students who died while on campus, and several alumni.
Wesleyan had a student vegetarian club as early as the 1830s. The Physiological Society, as it was called, followed the teachings of Sylvester Graham, the inventor of the graham cracker.
From 1847–1949, several Wesleyan graduates went to China as missionaries and educators. As a result, a number of Chinese students came to Wesleyan in the early 20th century. Two of these students are buried in the College Cemetery. One died in 1918 of the flu; the other had left Wesleyan and died in Norwich, Connecticut in 1923.
In 1865 Wesleyan's first intercollegiate game was played. Yale won the baseball game, in New Haven, 39–13. It also was Yale’s first intercollegiate game.
In the latter part of the 19th century, Wesleyan was a pioneer in coeducation. In September 1872, four courageous women entered the previously all-male university. All graduated in the Class of 1876 and were elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Although three other New England colleges admitted women at about this time, the Wesleyan “experiment” was the most viable because it was the first time in the region that more than one woman continued beyond her first term. Male alumni pressured the administration to stop accepting women in 1912. In May 1968, however, trustees voted wisely for the resumption of coeducation.
One of the very first forward passes completed in a collegiate football game was thrown by a Wesleyan student in fall 1906 in a game against Yale. Wesleyan is among several colleges and universities that may hold this honor. No one will ever really know for sure which was first.
Woodrow Wilson, president of the United States from 1913 to 1921, taught history and political economy at Wesleyan from 1888 to 1890. Before Wesleyan, Wilson taught at Bryn Mawr, where he felt “overworked, underpaid, and much less than enthusiastic about the higher education of women,” according to David R. Potts, author of Wesleyan University 1831–1910: Collegiate Enterprise in New England.
Andrus Field opened in 1898 with a baseball game against the University of Virginia. Trustee John Andrus had provided the funds to turn the swampy “rear campus” into the athletic field.
Gertrude Stein lectured at Wesleyan on her grand American tour in January, 1935. She later wrote in Everybody’s Autobiography that of all the men’s colleges she visited, she liked Wesleyan the best.
Undefeated football teams at Wesleyan? Yes, indeed! From 1946 to 1948, the Wesleyan team was never defeated or tied.
Graduate Liberal Studies at Wesleyan, founded in 1953 as the Graduate Summer School for Teachers, was the first graduate level liberal studies program offered to adults anywhere. The master of arts in liberal studies (MALS) degree was first granted at Wesleyan. Today more than 100 institutions have Graduate Liberal Studies programs.
In 1961, the Highwaymen, a group of Wesleyan undergraduates, hit the top of the pop charts with their single, “Michael (Row the Boat Ashore).” They performed for alumni/ae at the 2002 Reunion/Commencement. Popular singer-songwriter Dar Williams ’89 also performed a free concert for alumni at the same Reunion.
In 1964, The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. gave the baccalaureate sermon from Denison Terrace.
My Weekly Reader, once read by legions of school-aged children in the United States, was published by American Education Publications, owned by Wesleyan from 1949 until it was sold to Xerox in 1965. The sale of AEP helped to finance Wesleyan’s graduate programs and the Center for Advanced Study (now the Center for the Humanities).
Three famous marathoners are Wesleyan alumni: Bill Rodgers ’70, Amby Burfoot ’68, and Jeff Galloway ’67. Amby Burfoot was a student when he won the Boston Marathon. He went to classes the next day.
John Cage, famous for his avant-garde music, was affiliated with Wesleyan from the 1950s until his death in 1993. Cage collaborated with members of the Wesleyan music faculty, composed and performed on campus, and was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in 1960–61 and 1969–70. Several of his books were published by the Wesleyan University Press.
On May 3, 1970, the Grateful Dead gave a free concert at Wesleyan. John Perry Barlow ’69, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, co-wrote several Dead songs with Bob Weir, including “Hell in a Bucket” and “I Need a Miracle.”
In October 1989, Steven Berman ’72 became only the third contestant in the 1989–90 season to win five days in a row on the TV quiz show Jeopardy! On the night of his first appearance, Berman defeated another Wesleyan alumnus, Jay Wish ’71.
O'Rourke’s, Middletown's all-metal diner, was featured in Gourmet magazine. “Have a good sniff when you enter,” the article advised. “If you are a student of dinerology, or if you are the slightest bit hungry, you are bound to swoon with pleasure.”
Four volumes of the Wesleyan University Press poetry series have won the Pulitzer Prize since 1959, including 1994’s winner, Neon Vernacular by Yusef Komunyakaa.
A number of Hollywood’s highest-grossing films have been directed by Wesleyan graduates, including Michael Bay ’86 (The Rock, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor), Jon Turteltaub ’85 (While You Were Sleeping, Phenomenon), and Paul Weitz ’88 (American Pie).
The Davison Rare Book Room in Wesleyan’s Olin Library includes more than 125 books printed between ca. 1455, when printing with moveable type was invented in the West, and 1500. Books from this period are called incunables, from the Latin word for cradle.
Russell House became a National Historic Landmark in 2001 in recognition of its role in the China trade. Wesleyan acquired the house in 1937 from the descendants of Samuel Russell, the founder of the import-export firm, Russell & Company, about 1812.
Many Wesleyan graduates have written best-selling books, including the late Robert Ludlum ’51 (The Holcroft Covenant, The Bourne Identity), Robin Cook ’62, (Coma, Chromosome 6), Michael Palmer ’64 (Natural Causes, Extreme Measures), Sebastian Junger ’84 (The Perfect Storm, Fire), and Daniel Handler ’92, using the pseudonym Lemony Snicket (A Series of Unfortunate Events, children’s book series).
Wesleyan’s alumni have won two Academy Awards: Allie Wrubel ’26 was awarded the 1947 Best Song Oscar for “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” from Song of the South, which he wrote with Ray Gilbert. Akiva Goldsman ’83 received the 2001 Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for A Beautiful Mind.