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Ferris Cooperative Association. Address

1909

Madam President, members of the F.C.A. and friends:

During the short time allotted to me I shall be obliged to exercise a little more sense than usual in order to keep voice enough to make myself heard. Possibly my bronchitis is a sort of compensation for the boast that I have made during the year that I have had no colds and ailments until this beautiful month of June arrived.

This afternoon my talk will be distinctly personal. It may be a breach of good taste to venture along this line, but there are current errors that I should like to correct. I haven't had time to prepare a manuscript, therefore my address will be naturally more or less rambling, more or less unsatisfactory to you and quite unsatisfactory to me. Very often my friends say to me, "Tell me all about it."

Tell me about it, is my subject, it, is referring to the Ferris Institute. In order to explain the institution, it is necessary that you should know something about the temperament of the man who is responsible, in a measure, for its origin and growth.

Plant a kernel of corn wherever you please, whenever you please. If it reaches fruitage it will be corn, nothing else. On that basis, this spring, the farmers of Michigan have done their work. This is a simple fact of science. My father was a man of wonderful physical strength, six foot one inch in height, a man of tremendous energy, of imperious temper, of surprising impatience. I am my father's son, not my mother's son. This relieves her of a very great responsibility. I inherit in a degree the characteristics I have mentioned. I might wish them otherwise yet no change would come. . I have given you the key to the situation, my temperament, my attitude toward life. No use of arguing with me, "Everything after its kind." That is all there is of it.

My education was not unlike that of thousands of boys and girls of my time. At the age of four I was sent to school. For two long years I listened patiently to the names of the twenty-six letter and I repeated them as well as I could. For ten years I was imprisoned in the rural school of my native township, in New York, getting nothing, so far as I can recall. I must have been affected more or less, however, by my environment although I hated school. I only hoped that the time would come when I would be absolutely rid of it.

At the age of fourteen I entered the Spencer Free Academy, Spence, New York, four miles from my home on the farm. So far as the early part of my life is concerned, I am not going to give more of that history because I do not wish to weary you. I think I attended the Academy three months, then I returned to the country school for a year. The next year I went back to Spencer Academy for another term. Awakened by that time, I made up my mind that I would like to do something in the world. I did not know exactly what.

From the Spencer Academy, I went to the Candor Free Academy eight miles from home. Just why I made the change I do not know. After remaining there a term and a half, I went into a country school to teach, not because I had any thought of becoming a teacher, not because I wanted to teach, but because I needed some money.

After teaching two or three months I announced to my father that I would like to take a medical course, but he decided at once that I would not attend a medical college. Had I attended one I would probably be today, if alive, a county practitioner.

After four months teaching I enrolled at the Oswego Free Academy, Oswego, New York, the county seat eighteen miles from home.

After finishing a term I went back to my former country school where I taught another four months. At the close of the term I concluded I had had enough of country school teaching. My father came after me on the last day. If I had time, I could entertain you with a description of our closing exercises, because even in that country school there were orators, actors and poets. Father inquired how I happened to get into such a part of the earth. I explained that it was simply an illustration of one's desire to be something and do something. Then he inquired, "what next?"

I said, "On Monday, I shall start for the Oswego Normal and Training School." He did not give his assent, but at that time I had grown stronger in my inherited characteristics and I thought it was wise for me to have my way. I entered the Oswego Normal and Training School and remained there three years. I haven't time to describe my experience at this institution nor its immense value to me. Having used up all of the borrowed money I had gotten hold of, I proceeded to borrow more and came over to the University of Michigan, in 1873-1874. I spent one entire year in the Medical Department of the University of Michigan, and received my credits without a single examination, the same as all the others did; no failures, everybody passed, no tears, just sunshine and joy.

I did not return to the university. Going back to southern New York I was engaged within a week after my arrival home to take charge of the Spencer Free Academy where I had previously been a student. I finished out the year and was re-engaged for the next year.

In December, 1874, I went up to Fulton, New York where Helen Gillespie became Helen Gillespie Ferris.

On Monday, following our marriage on Wednesday, we resumed teaching, not because we wanted to, but because we had to.

After finishing the year at Spencer we concluded that the salary was altogether too small for our talent, so gong to Freeport, Illinois, we organized a business college and academy and remained their eight or nine months.

In April 1876, I became infatuated with a Methodist D.D. He persuaded me to join the Rock River University at Dixon, Illinois, where I occupied the important chair of Professor of the entire school. After a year and a half in this institution we decided to organize a school of our own, the Dixon Business College and Academy. This we conducted for two years.

If you will take the trouble to figure up, you will see that I left Spencer, New York at twenty one years of age, arrived in Freeport, Illinois in 1875, remained there nearly one year and went to Dixon remaining there two years.

Then we decided, not because we wanted to but because we had to, to take charge of the public schools of Pittsfield, Illinois. There we remained five years. Some of the best work I have ever done as a teacher was done in Pittsfield. After being there four years I made up my mind that I would leave the public school work. I craved freedom. I do not wish any condemnation. I would not advise any young man to do as I did. Beyond a doubt, I could have remained in public school work and rendered more or less valuable service.

At the end of four years I came with Henry Mills of Pittsfield to Kalamazoo and looked over the city. From there I came to Big Rapids and to Traverse City and then returned to Pittsfield, Illinois, where I remained another year. At the end of the year I decided to settle in one of three cities, Fargo, Duluth or Big Rapids. The choice, as you know, was given to Big Rapids.

It is not strange that the good people of Big Rapids looked upon me with suspicion. I do not blame them. I do not see how they could have done so otherwise. I think that out of the entire city only one man had the kindness to tell me that he believed this a good place for a school. I told the citizens I did not come here to antagonize the public school. I was here to organize a school for a definite and specific purpose.

The attitude of the city soon revealed itself. This is not a pleasant thing for me to speak of. One day while wandering around the county picking up prospective students, I dropped into a Democratic convention at Mecosta. Somehow, someway, somebody found out that I was a Democrat. I presume I looked like one. When they had practically finished their work they called upon me to speak for a few minutes. I did so.

On my return to Big Rapids I was asked by a group of Republicans this question, "Mr. Ferris are you really a Democrat?" I said, "As nearly as I can find out I am a Democrat."

They said, "Do you now that this is a Republican state, a Republican county, a Republican city?"

I answered, "Yes."

"Now Mr. Ferris, if you want to organize a school we would advise you, if you are a Democrat, to keep quiet politically. Of course, if you were a Republican, you could share with us the privileges that are ours."

I said, "Gentlemen, when I find your county, city and state as partisan as you represent them to be, I shall take very great pleasure in locking my doors and seeking a more pleasant clime."

When I came here I attended the Unitarian Church. For several years I had charge of the Sunday School in that church. I have two friends in the audience who will remember these good days. One day a committee of three called upon me and said, "Mr. Ferris you attend the Unitarian Church, are you a Unitarian?"

I said, "I am a Unitarian as near as I am anything."

They replied, "Mr. Ferris, if you would attend the Baptist, the Methodist or the Presbyterian Church it would help you greatly in your work of organizing a school."

I answered, "Then character doesn't count?"

They did not like to answer that question. I added, "When I find that your city is as narrow religiously as you seem to think it is, I shall lock my doors and move to another city."

For several years preachers and orthodox church members advised the young folks not to come here because it was not a safe school for any young man or young lady to attend. Insomuch as I was a Unitarian, it would be impossible for me to be upright and moral. Thank God, the religious feeling has changed. That little church ought to have a tribute that it never received. It is closed now and used for other purposes, but the other churches of this city have been humanized through the influence of this one vigorous church. Political prejudice worked against me until in this city the joint debate settled for all years to com my political liberty.

The attitude of the state institutions was anything but friendly, I am sorry to say. Year after year I dropped into educational meetings. I was not invited to read a paper or to take part in a discussion. Once in a great while I would venture to offer an opinion or a suggestion. But, as a rule, the Ferris Institute, or the Ferris Industrial School as it was then called, was spoken of in terms of ridicule. I find no fault. I do not see how they could have looked upon it in any other way. Educational prejudice, in narrowness, is precisely like religious and political prejudice.

I now have reached two or three features which will only take six or eight minutes to discuss. I am not finding any fault this afternoon with the attitude of the city. In fact, I had been here only a little over half a year when I was offered, not officially, the superintendency of the schools, Mr. Crombie a man of splendid character, having resigned. I declined. Some years later I was tendered, not officially, but indirectly the superintendency of Grand Rapids at a salary of $3,500.

I said, "No I have a plan to test and I am going to test it. I am not going to allow any temptation to take me from it."

I am frequently asked this question, "Did you plan this school, that is, the school, as it is?" No, no, I did not do that. This school is purely and absolutely the fruitage of the inherited temperament of the man that stands before you. That is all there is of it.

Mrs. Ferris and myself first organized the English, Normal and Commercial Departments. Gradually, we added department after department without any preconceived notion of what we should accomplish. You can simply say that the Ferris Institute grew, that is all. We did not so much as dream that we would ever enroll more than two or three hundred pupils at any one time. This school has been just like the life of an individual. Through these twenty-five years there have been a series of adjustments from year to year. Watching the needs of the people, we have adapted the school to meet these needs. What the school is to be I do not know, except that I hope to keep it a great secondary school. Once in a while our townspeople express the wish it become a college. If it were a college our expenses would increase to a degree that would eliminate all profits. I haven't time to explain this fully. It must remain a great secondary school. That is its only hope for growth and prosperity.

Has it paid? I do not know. This declaration may sound strange to you. But what do you mean by the expression "has it paid?" My dear friends, you, young men and women, I would be exceedingly sorry to wish you to undertake an enterprise, the successful prosecution of which would force you to endure the hardships I have passed through. Only a cruel man would extend to you such a wish. Year in and year out I have struggled and fought hardship, poverty and deprivation.

I am not a pessimist. I am not an optimist. It is true, that I inherited the characteristics from my father which I have told you about. It is a very unfortunate inheritance, extremely unfortunate. I presume that nine-tenths of all the heartaches I have caused in the twenty-five years can be traced to my one characteristic of impatience.

My father was a melancholy man. I am not using the word melancholy as medical specialists use it, not at all. Father always found it exceedingly hard to call black, white; to say the sun shone when it did not shine; he always found it exceedingly difficult to think he had a dollar in his pocket when he did not have a cent; to think that the world was wholly strewn with flowers; he found it extremely difficult to believe that there is no such thing as human suffering.

I only speak of these things in order that you may understand that when I have been seemingly unkind and unsympathetic you may know that it is simply a matter of temperament. When you know the temperament of Dickens you will understand his matchless stories. When you understand the temperament of Thomas Carlyle, you will understand his hatred of sham.

In conclusion I wish you to bear in mind that it has not been my purpose directly or indirectly to give you the impression that I have accomplished a great work. In my humble opinion, there are few men before me this afternoon, who if born with an iron constitution, with unwavering determination, with towering ambition, with ordinary ability, could not accomplish what I have accomplished. I wish no commendation. I have done no more than my inheritance compelled me to do.

This world has human beings who are different from animals in one respect, people aim at something. This school has been an awakener. That is all there is of it. My friends, sitting here you can enjoy the sunshine, and the exquisite beauty that is outside. You should do that, it is the proper thing for you to do, but you must not forget that life is a battle and you cannot escape it. I want you to go out into the world to see what you can accomplish in some line of work. I hope this school may continue to awake and inspire young men and women. I hope you will go out into the world to help young men and young women realize their best possibilities.


Source: Newton, Roy, editor. Life and Works of Woodbridge N. Ferris. (Big Rapids, Michigan: n.p., 1960), 248-260.


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