Retrospective: American Tobacco Campus

Proud of Few: Celebrating a president’s legacy

On November 9, 1910, William Preston Few accepted the presidency of Trinity College, vowing “to keep the future worthy of the past.” This turned out to be no hollow promise: Few deserves much of the credit for Trinity’s transformation into Duke University.

Mr. President: Few in his iconic top hat, 1921. Credit: Duke University Archives

In 1921, Few drafted a handwritten proposal to James B. Duke requesting support to expand the college into a “fully developed university organization” that would include schools of law, education, religious training, engineering, and business administration, as well as a “Coordinate College” for women. Talks progressed, and in September 1924, Duke asked to have survey maps made for the Trinity campus as he considered making his gift and expanding the size of the campus. Three months later, J.B. Duke established The Duke Endowment and made the donations that launched the rebuilding of the Trinity College campus (today’s East Campus) and the new West Campus.

Few, a graduate of Wofford College with a Ph.D. from Harvard University, joined the Trinity faculty in 1896 and became its first dean in 1902. He served as president from 1910 to 1940 and oversaw an expansion of the school that is still difficult to imagine: A college comprising 363 students and thirty-two faculty members in 1910 became a university consisting of nine schools, 3,716 students, and 476 faculty members by the time of his death in 1940.

This year marks the centennial of Few’s inauguration. An exhibition dedicated to his legacy is on display in the Rare Book Room through January 10, featuring, among other things, the original 1921 handwritten proposal; a seldom seen photograph of the president with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, taken on the chapel steps; and his iconic top hat.

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