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Governor Ferris:a character sketch by a businessman

1914

A man who has reached his sixty-first year, and who, having commenced to work for his living in his childhood, is still engaged in the occupation which he undertook as a youth and in which he has made a remarkable success- such a man is the present Governor of Michigan.

A man who has had more than his share of the hard work and the hard knocks of life, who by sheer determination and industry did the one and overcame the other- such a man is the present Governor of Michigan.

A man, bred in the profession of teaching and keeping everlastingly at it for more than four decades of years, who still found time to broaden himself with a knowledge of the world's work, to make himself a good business man, and who can turn from the management of a great school for young people to the supervision of the affairs of the local bank which honored him with its presidency- such a man is the present Governor of Michigan.

A man who, despite all the temptations to pessimism that come throughout a life devoted to the pursuit of high ideals and the contemplation for the many who fail to achieve them, still preserves his faith in the innate goodness and reliability of the great majority of the people, and who believe that they will come out all right in the long run if they are given their honest way, who is a real apostle of optimism- such a man is the present Governor of Michigan.

A man who was called from the quietude of the teacher's life, spent in one of the smaller cities of the state, to the highest executive position in the gift of his fellow-citizens of Michigan; who came into official contact with a legislature whose majority was politically adverse and with other executive officers similarly opposed to him in their political views; and who so conducted himself and his office as to merit and win the affectionate friendship and esteem and the cordial co-operation of these elected representatives of a hostile party- such a man is the present Governor of Michigan.

Woodbridge N. Ferris came to the chair of the Governor of Michigan two years ago, after a life devoted to the profession of teaching, and he has not given up his educational connection even while administering affairs of the state. Born under the harshest pioneer agricultural conditions one and sixty years ago in Tioga County, New York, he saw the light of day in a real log-house, in a real hemlock forest which was being destroyed to reduce its site to the purposes of agriculture. He began his schooling at four, at the local school. From childhood he had to work, not under present day conditions of children's work on the average improved farm, but to do work of the hopeless, never ending, uninspiring kind that seems ever to go with pioneering. At twelve a local teacher, happily met, inspired in him the ambition for more education than the ordinary farm boy of his period craved. At fourteen he attended the Union Academy in the neighborhood of his home. At sixteen he achieved enrollment at a still better school, some miles from home. Vacation times meant a return to home and to the strenuous work on the farm. At seventeen we find him taking a teachers' examination, passing it and getting employment as a teacher for the winter term at Fairfield, still staying in Tioga County as a field of endeavor. School term over, he is off to Owego Academy, at the county seat, for more schooling, paid for with money which he earned himself. Here he got a Regent's Certificate under which he could have entered Cornell University had he so minded. But he was set on school teaching and he taught another term at Fairfield. This time the proceeds of the winter's work went to pay his way through the Oswego Normal and Training school, took a year of its advantages, learned how to speak and debate in public, and went back to the farm for the agricultural season of 1873.

There wasn't any more idling in Woodbridge Ferris' youth than there has been during his term of office as Governor. He was working or studying enough to fill an ordinary youngster's time up, yet he himself records that he was, in spite of his earnest quest for learning, a good deal like other boys, enjoyed and participated in their games, and was no namby-pamby; just as in the discharge of duties in his years mature, he sees the bright side and the humorous side of life, and has an appreciate of the gayeties as well as the gravities of a man's work.

In 1873 Woodbridge Ferris first saw Michigan. We used to make doctors at the University in two years then, and the youthful teacher entered the Medical School at Ann Arbor in 1873 to study medicine. Looking back over his life, Gov. Ferris nowadays says that he did not then have any definite idea of becoming a physician. He did think the medical training would make him a better and more broadly-equipped teacher. At any rater, after a term of it, he was back to the teaching life, in his old home at Spencer, where he became principal of the school. Here he married, his bride being Miss Helen Frances Gillespie, a sweet-heart of his school-days, a student with him at the Normal School and herself a teacher. They two began teaching together after their marriage, in Spencer Academy, thereby beginning a life career of education for both of them which has never been interrupted.

This career carried Mr. Ferris and his wife through many experiences. In 1874, he organized a business college at Freeport, Ill., maintaining it successfully for two years, when he became a principal of the Normal Department of Rock River University at Dixon in the same state. Rock River wasn't much of a university, to be honest about it, proved to be a failure and the future Governor and his wife didn't get all the money that was coming to them. In 1877 Prof. Ferris organized a private academy in the same city, maintained it for two years, and gave it up when he was appointed superintendent of schools at Pittsfield, Ill.

Here success came to the stripling who, at 26 had training and nerve enough to manage the school systems of a typical growing Illinois city. His relations were pleasant. Some means were laid away, and for five hears he was happy and enthusiastic over his work.

At 31 he grew more ambitious. A taste of independent school management had made him ambitious to operate a school of his own once more. After much canvassing of the ments and dements of locations he finally decided to establish himself at Big Rapids, Michigan, which he did in 1884. This was the year in which the Ferris Industrial Institute was born.

The Ferris Institute began with 15 pupils. Prof. Ferris and his wife were the entire teaching staff. It occupied two rooms over a store. It grew. More room was added. Then a new location was found. With these evidences of growth more teachers were hired. The school spread and spread. In 1893 a new building was commenced with the money in the bank to pay for it. The bank failed and Prof. Ferris, in the language, of the period, was "up against it." However, he found a way out. The savings of the former pupils, put at his disposal, provided for the completion of the new Institute and the earnings from later success paid them back. Today an average of 1,500 pupils are taught continuously, and Professor- now Governor- Ferris manages its affairs with as much attention as he gave the little class of 15, thirty years ago.

So much for the schoolmaster.

Now for Ferris, the Democrat.

Away back in 1876- which is some time ago- while in Dixon, Ill., teaching school, Prof. Ferris campaigned for the peerless Democrat, Samuel Jones Tilden, in his contest for the Presidency. Maybe Gov. Ferris has let this episode pass from his mind, but there are people in Dixon who remember it yet, and who declare that the young school teacher of 23 was a rattling good political talker and made some effective addresses. He had little to do with politics after that until 1892, when the Democrats of the Eleventh Michigan District were in need of a banner-bearer in the way of a congressional candidate, to help keep the organization together, even though it was a foregone conclusion that he would get licked. Prof. Ferris was the kind of a Democrat whom a prospective licking couldn't terrify, provided some other good came out of it. Dr. Avery, of Greenville, his Republican opponent, administered the expected chastisement and Prof. Ferris had only the consolation of a duty well performed as a reward for his race.

A somewhat similar experience came to him 12 years later, when in 1904, the Democratic State Convention chose him to be the party's candidate for Governor against Fred M. Warner. The Republican general assembly that year in Michigan was over 200,000- but Mr. Warner ran 169,337 behind his ticket in his contest with Prof. Ferris. This established the Democratic candidate's qualifications as a campaigner and a vote-getter for what was the minority party, and he was called out again in 1912 to be the party's banner-bearer for the same office.

The fact that he won is part of the history of the state.

Nearly two years of experience with Gov. Ferris as the Chief Executive of Michigan has taught the people of this State these things:

That Gov. Ferris is an industrious and workful man, who has kept in personal touch with every department of the state's activity and with each of its institutions; and that even where membership on state boards is honorary and without remuneration, he has required of board members that they pay close attention to the affairs of their respective institution and attend the stated meetings of the board.

That Gov. Ferris was bequeathed a collection of deficits in the funds of every state institution as a result of the widely heralded, inconsiderate and flamboyant cutting of appropriations by his predecessor- had the courage to advise the legislature to provide for these deficits and that he would take the responsibility, encouraging the representatives of the people to adequate appropriation, while carefully guarding against extravagances.

That Gov. Ferris found no occasion to use his veto power on legislation, because for the first time in many years, he put into practice the theory that the Executive and Legislative branches of the state government were co-ordinate, and that they should co-operate in the preparation of legislation affecting public expenditure. Gov. Ferris practiced his belief that an election to the legislature represented an honorable delegation of power to a selected representative, however humble or of whatever party, and that such an election did not constitute a warrant to hold up the delegates of the people, either singly or collectively, to public obloquy, thereby taking the first step in upsetting the public faith in representative government.

That Gov. Ferris discovered that the duties of the Chief Executive of the state could be performed in quietude and modesty, and that there was no constitutional requirement that they should be performed to the accompaniment of a brass band, or as the motive power of an intensive literary campaign or the continuing texts for a correspondence bureau.

That Gov. Ferris found the only warrants for official action in Michigan to be his oath, the provisions of the Constitution, and the Laws of the State, and has not considered it he duty to inject into the government of the state theories drawn from the immature experience of other states; the unpractical minds of people who have not borne the burden of responsibility; or his own observations among the wild and untutored savages of distant continents.

That Gov. Ferris, when confronted with an unhappy difference of opinion respecting industrial conditions which might have ripened into civil war, intervened, not with a feeble and irritating show of power of the state, but with its full military force, to keep the disputants apart, until the passions of both sides cooled, and wiser counsels than those of destruction on the one side and the black-list on the other could be mad to prevail.

That Gov. Ferris, in the performance of his public duties, has so carried himself in his relations with the press as to lead it to become the historian of his accomplished official acts, rather than the ever-blaring trumpet of plans conceived for advertising purposes and never carried out; that what he had to say to the public he said bravely and plainly, so that he who ran might read and understand; and that his plainness and directness of speech required no constant reference to the dictionary to discover the meaning of the language in which he clothed his ideas.

That Gov. .Ferris, while he may rightfully claim that he was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, may also claim that other and greater qualification for sober consideration, that he was not born with a tin horn in his mouth either.

That in no public act performed during his career is to be found the evidence that the act was performed to satisfy personal vanity, or to gain the public applause, or to "get" some personal or political enemy, or to cast over some erstwhile friend whose availability or usefulness had passed away; but solely because the act was dictated by what he interpreted to be the binding forces of his official oath, the mandate of the Constitution and the direction of the laws.

That Gov. Ferris had no other tests of the duties of a public official other than those set down by one of the Great Commoners of his own political faith, whose life is now a part of the public history of the United States, namely:

That he be honest;

That he be competent; and

That he be faithful to the Constitution.

It is upon a record measured by these tests that Woodbridge N. Ferris this year asks the electors of Michigan to endorse his official career, that the political party of which he is the head presents him as its standard-bearer, and that both he and it appeal to the sober consideration of their fellow-citizens to support him in his honorable ambition.


Source: Governor Ferris: a character sketch. Addresses and Writings, Box 6. Woodbridge N. Ferris Papers. University Archives. Ferris State University.


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