William Wilcox Edel (1894-1996)

Portrait of WIlliam Wilcox Edel

William Wilcox Edel was born on March 16, 1894 in Baltimore, Maryland. His mother was Annie Wilcox, and his father was John Wesley Edel, a prosperous dairy retailer. Edel attended high school at Baltimore City College and then entered Dickinson College, where he graduated in three years as a Phi Beta Kappa member of the class of 1915. While an undergraduate, Edel became a member of the Belles Lettres Literary Society and the Alpha Chi Rho fraternity. He also contributed illustrations to the 1915 Microcosm.

After graduation, Edel and six other members of the class of 1915 enrolled in the School of Theology at Boston University. Edel graduated from that institution in 1918. The outbreak of war caused him to enlist as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy on July 11, 1917. During his thirty-year career, Edel saw service at sea in the Atlantic, served as superintendent of education in American Samoa, and was area chaplain for the South Pacific during the Second World War. In 1935, he received an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from his alma mater. Ten years later, Edel was nearing retirement as a captain, the highest rank then open to a naval chaplain. The Dickinson board of trustees, having been unable to secure other earlier choices, turned to Edel on June 7, 1946 and elected him as the twenty-second president of the College.

On October 1, 1946, Edel retired from the U.S. Navy and took up the position he would hold for the next thirteen years. He first oversaw the swift postwar growth in the size of the college and its accompanying need for new facilities. In 1947, the new South College building was swiftly completed and put to use. New dormitories followed, namely Drayer Hall for women in 1952 and Morgan Hall for men in 1955. Following this, the new chemistry building, Althouse Hall, was completed in 1957. Edel also sought to continue the modernization of the curriculum, begun under Fred Pierce Corson, with the creation of four new academic departments in drama, geology, music, and fine arts. In 1952, a Reserve Officer Training Program was created. Edel also increased the size of the faculty, regularized and improved salaries, and put in place an unprecedented faculty tenure policy and sabbatical leave plan.

With a long-held affection for ceremony, Edel was responsible for the inauguration of many occasions and distinctions in the life of the college. Ceremonies were enhanced with tokens such as the College Mace, which made its first appearance in 1951. Top scholars among the student body were recognized with the title of Junior or Senior Sophister, and, in 1952, the first Priestley Celebration was held. Sir Hugh Stott Taylor was the earliest recipient of this honor. The Edel Arts Award was also established in 1959, recognizing achievements in the humanities as the Priestley Award acknowledged accomplishments in the sciences. The first recipient of the Edel Arts Award was Robert Frost. That same year, Edel submitted his resignation to the board of trustees and retired to California, though he continued to work as a Methodist minister.

Observers may note that Edel's earlier years as president were more successful than his later years. At that point, Edel ran afoul of the atmosphere of the times with the disastrous administration of what came to be known as the "LaVallee Case." This dismissal of a faculty member for political reasons depressed faculty morale and gained Dickinson the censure of the American Association of University Professors.

Edel married Nancy Louise Billingsley of Virginia in 1917. The couple had three daughters and remained married for 49 years, until Nancy's death on July 3, 1966. Edel married his second wife, Joscelyne, who died after a marriage of twenty-one years. During his retirement, Edel became the oldest living graduate of the College, surviving a stroke in December 1992. On September 16, 1996, William W. Edel died in his home at the age of 102. He is buried in Westminster Cemetery near Carlisle.

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Dickinson College Archives
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