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Billy With the Red Necktie

ISSUE:  Autumn 1943

The President of the College was a short man and

somewhat rotund. His massive head was bare on

top, and his features would have been heavy and formidable had it not been for an irrepressible twinkle in his eyes that usually defeated his best effort to look solemn. On the day the college opened he made the customary address of welcome attired in a suit of dark gray smartly cut, carefully pressed, and accented with a wine-colored bow standing out sharply against immaculate linen.

Two hundred uncurried freshmen, drawn from the remotest fastnesses of North Carolina, regarded him doubtfully. Could this be the great Dr. Poteat, that William Louis Po-teat whom most of them had heard discussed all their lives? He did not fit their preconceptions. They had heard him lauded to the skies, and they had heard him denounced with the bitterest invective, but they had never heard him discussed in any mood but one of the utmost seriousness. This man looked—well, “worldly” was probably the word that occurred to most of them, for they were products of pious homes. It is a word now fallen into disuse, but current among all the godly at the time—you can guess the year closely enough by the fact that the popular song hit of the moment was concerned with the whereabouts of one Kelly, alleged to be from the Emerald Isle.

The freshmen left the hall puzzled, and a few hours later most of them were scandalized; for upper classmen had attended the assembly, too, noting the President’s habiliments, and shortly after darkness had fallen upon the campus, the freshmen, immured by tradition in their rooms, heard the night made hideous with a roaring chorus that ended, Sure, his head is bald and his eyes are blue, And he’s a Dutchman through and through— Has anybody here seen Billy? Billy with the red necktie?

Of course, he wasn’t a Netherlander; he was an American of English extraction, but at that time and in that locality “Dutchman” had a special significance. It was a generic term for one regarded with mingled ‘amusement and amazement, comparable to the “dabster” of New England, and the “buster” of the Middle West. Thus the ditty was thoroughly ribald and added to the confusion of young gentlemen newly arrived at the seat of learning known as Wake Forest College, located seventeen miles from Raleigh, the capital of North Carolina. We were simple youths who swarmed over the lovely old campus, with its great oaks and innumerable magnolias, in the early days of the century. We were little given to scrutiny and analysis; we sang with tremendous emotion,

Oh, here’s to Wake Forest, A glass of the finest,

Red, ruddy Rhenish filled up to the brim,

all untroubled bv the fact that the finest Rhenish is invaria-bly white; doubtless half of us thought it was something like mead, or hydromel, anyhow. But the least introspective, the least reflective youth could not accept Dr. Billy Poteat merely as part of the established order, therefore not to be questioned. He was always questioned, for he was always j unexpected, always surprising, usually troubling. On the very first day of the term freshmen found him loudly and publicly jeered by upper classmen who privately adored him and swore fervently that he was the greatest man in the State. It was upsetting.

Nor did that condition alter with the passage of time, Through the four years that followed, Dr. Poteat continued to be upsetting, never quite what one expected, always adopting an astonishing point of view. In the class-room—for throughout his presidency of the college he continued to teach a class in general biology—he was not merely polite, he was courtly; but he had developed the ability to make, with the most deferential air, the most shattering observations. “But I have a right to my opinion,” cried a rash and argumentative youth. “No man has any right to an opinion, Mr. Blank,” returned Dr. Billy, blandly, “until he has first made himself acquainted with the facts.”

That this, the first principle of the scientific method, should have astonished us may reveal the abysmal depth of our ignorance; but before you smile too broadly, stop to consider how many men in high places—say, on the floor of the United States Senate—consistently accept and abide by it. If no Senator in this year of grace ever expressed an opinion until after he had familiarized himself with the facts, it is probable that debate in that august assemblage would be sharply restricted.

When we were a little older, and a little more accustomed to scholastic terminology, it was easy for us to classify Dr. Poteat as a master of the Socratic method. But that explained nothing but his technique. The man himself remained a question, uncatalogued and unclassified, a little troubling. Even on the great day when he welcomed us, in one of those polished, gem-like, baccalaureate addresses which he delivered annually for twenty-two years, into the fellowship of men of letters as Bachelors of Arts, he was still unexplained; and even now, thirty years later, when Poteat has been dead five years and retired from his college presidency for fifteen, at least one of his old students, thinking of him, still feels a trace of the confusion that filled the mind of a freshman when sophomores were making the night resound with inquiries for “Billy with the red necktie.”

Certain of his colleagues, wise and learned men with great names in the scientific world, have explained to me that he was a man who threw his life away. I can follow their argument without difficulty, even though I do not accept it fully, In 1883 William Louis Poteat, twenty-seven years old, returned to this country with glowing testimonials from his instructors in the Zoological Institute of the University of Berlin, where he had been doing graduate work in biology, It was a golden moment for a brisk young American scholar with German training. Only seven years earlier the famous Daniel Coit Gilman had begun, in Baltimore, an enterprise that was already revolutionizing the academic standards of the country. With what was, for the time, an immense endowment, Dr. Gilman had organized the Johns Hopkins University, not on the English philosophical model, thitherto followed by American schools, but on the German scientific model. The time was ripe for the innovation, and the new school was such an immense success that by 1883 all the universities in the country were reorganizing their curricula to conform more or less closely to the new pattern. The demand for young American scholars with German training suddenly became immense. Into this situation young Poteat stepped, with credentials good enough to be virtually a passport to any sort of academic position. Naturally, the scholarly world was open to him. I know that he received an offer from Yale, and I think he had others from rich and powerful universities in the North and West.

It was then, his colleagues declare, that he threw his life away. He refused the flattering offers from the great schools, and accepted, instead, the professorship of biology in the obscure and starveling college where he had taken his B. A. degree. He returned to Wake Forest, and remained there until his death, fifty-four years later.

The sacrifice involved in this is obvious. It is the other side of the ledger that bothers me. William L. Poteat was a highly intelligent man and anything but a fanatic; therefore he must have balanced his life’s accounts in some fashion. But what were the items on the credit side? They must have been of considerable importance, at least in his eyes, for what he gave up was certainly important. We may dismiss the monetary consideration at once, for that was not important to him. I do not think his salary ever exceeded five thousand dollars a year, and I am not sure it was that large. Today a first-rate man in a big university may be paid two, or three, or four times as much; but this factor, I am sure, is literally irrelevant to the problem for the reason that the man, once he was assured of a frugal living, simply was not interested in making any more money. The financial consideration did not operate, either to keep him at Wake Forest or to draw him away.

Yet he did make a sacrifice that even in his eyes was tremendous. It was the sacrifice of a career. There were three elements in this sacrifice, the lowest of which is honorable, yet comprehensible even to people whose eyes are never lifted high. It was the sacrifice of that good name, which the Wisest Man regarded as rather to be chosen than great riches. It takes no very elevated spirit to understand that fame is desirable, sometimes, perhaps, even more desirable than riches. The hope of fame went when Poteat made his choice. The second sacrifice was on a loftier plane, but to men of a certain type it is worse than the surrender of fame. This was the loss of constant, daily association with his intellectual superiors. He was not deprived of intellectual companionship, for there were cultivated men around him; but rarely, indeed, did he encounter a finer mind than his own, yet intellectual sword-play with a fencer who is just a shade better than you are is certainly one of the supreme delights attainable by an intelligent man. Finally—and this is one that can never be fully understood by those of us who have felt no inclination toward scientific research—he yielded his opportunity to extend the boundaries of knowledge. This was probably by far the worst of all, for the man who feels within him the ability “to pick a little path of light into the surrounding darkness”—Poteat’s own phrase—can turn his back upon that work only at cost of a throe that is akin to the pains of death.

Wake Forest had once held a reasonably good position among American colleges, and seemed on the way to bettering it. But catastrophe had intervened. Endowment, books and equipment, students and faculty had all been swallowed up in the maelstrom of the Civil War. The very buildings had been converted into military hospitals, and at the end of four years were almost completely wrecked. In the ensuing eighteen years the college had been able to re-open its doors and to keep them open only by dint of the most heart-breaking struggle in a State that was as completely wrecked, economically, socially, and politically, as Wake Forest itself.

All this was well known to the young scholar in 1883. Had he not spent his undergraduate days there and seen with his own eyes how poor was the equipment, how meagre were the opportunities, how desperate was the struggle? But nevertheless he turned down the brilliant opportunities, and chose that place. There is a type of man to whom the most powerful appeal that can be made is the appeal of bitter need. All the academic world was open to Yale; failing Poteat, she could, and did, call in whole platoons of scientists as able, or abler. But if Wake Forest had missed him, what had she to offer a stranger? She must have gone indefinitely with no adequate instruction in modern biological science. Daniel Webster gave to the name of Dartmouth a lustre that a hundred years have not rubbed away when he declared, “It is, sir, as I have said, a small college. And yet there are those who love it.” But did not this man’s act endow the little Southern school with something of the same glory?

It was not poverty alone that Poteat faced when he decided to return to the South. He knew he would encounter active opposition, as well. But on which side of the ledger should this item be entered? A fight is not always a misfortune. Poteat did battle for forty years, almost without cessation. There were times, no doubt, when he wearied of the fight, finding it onerous and painful; but it is impossible to believe that this was always the case. On the contrary, there were undoubtedly times when he gloried in it, for he had no doubt at all that he was fighting for the release of the human spirit from the thralldom of superstition and falsehood. This is certainly not a misfortune, and it is my belief that in the ledger of his life the man set down the opportunity to fight a good fight for many years as one of the compensations for the sacrifices he made.

But it was a bitter fight. It was part of the long contest that men commonly referred to as the combat between religion and science. This description always irritated Poteat. He asserted that neither science nor religion was in reality involved, and that the fight was between dogmatic theologians and arrogant scientists, each presuming to lay unhallowed hands on things not belonging to his sphere of life. Nevertheless, the fact that he deprecated the strife never prevented him from laying about him right heartily whenever the theologians undertook to dictate what he should say in his class-room.

In the early years he had plenty of opportunity. Wake Forest College is a denominational school belonging to the Baptists. It is true, as Allan Nevins has pointed out, that from Roger Williams to Harry Emerson Fosdick the Baptist clergy has always included some men of extraordinary intellectual distinction, perhaps as many as any other sect has furnished the country. But it is also true that, on account of the non-episcopal organization of the denomination, its most distinguished men have no power over their less capable brethren other than that of moral suasion. A Cornelius Woelfkin, a William Herbert Perry Faunce has no more authority in matters of faith and doctrine than is possessed by the semi-literate pastor of some Little Bethel in the remote backwoods.

In North Carolina, Poteat had no great difficulty with the abler men in the denomination that controlled the college. Even when they cherished personal doubts as to the intrinsic value of that man Darwin and his novel ideas, they conceded the right of a scholar to search for truth, no matter where the search might lead him. But hardly a year passed without the organization of a sort of jehad among the shallower minds among the Baptist clergy. They would come to the Baptist State Convention, year after year, with resolutions denouncing the man and demanding his instant removal from the college.

Poteat’s method of meeting these attacks was an interesting one. North Carolina, always prolific of orators, has produced few more eloquent than he was, when he chose to be. Warned in advance that an attack was coming, he would take the floor shortly before it was to be launched, ostensibly to speak on education; but education was for him on these occasions merely a springboard, which he hit once in the beginning and never touched again. It merely gave him impetus in diving into his real subject, and within the first five minutes his address would develop into a gospel sermon, so gorgeous in its imagery, so musical in its phrasing, so charged with passionate conviction that when he sat down at the end of an hour even his adversaries would be weeping and anyone who dared attack Dr. Poteat would have been howled down. Then he would return to Wake Forest and resume the teaching of the hypothesis of organic evolution as before.

In the course of time the personal attacks dwindled and almost stopped. As the years passed, and class after class was graduated from Wake Forest, most of the better Baptist pulpits in the State came to be filled by Wake Forest men; so, at length, the charge that the college was being converted into a hot-bed of atheism began to be absurd on its face. Then came 1910 and the convention, not of Baptists, but of Episcopalians, not in North Carolina, but in New York, that launched upon the world the Fundamentalist manifesto, and the old battle was suddenly resumed, but this time in the political field. Within a few years the Fundamentalists were gunning, not for mere college presidents, but for whole Legislatures, and seeking to establish their doctrine, not by canon, but by statute law.

When the fight was transferred from a religious convention to the State Legislature, Poteat was no longer the principal victim. The man pilloried now was the president of the University of North Carolina, at that time Harry Wood-burn Chase, at present Chancellor of New York University. The fainthearted begged Dr. Chase to follow the example of the presidents of other State universities where the same fight had come up and crawl into the storm-cellar until the tornado had passed. Already half a dozen States, including Tennessee, next-door neighbor to North Carolina, had passed laws forbidding the teaching of the hypothesis of organic evolution in tax-supported schools. A similar measure— the so-called “monkey bill”—was pending in the Legislature of North Carolina, and if Chase opposed the bill publicly, they told him, the Fundamentalists in the Legislature would pass it anyhow, and would take their revenge by cutting the university’s appropriation. “If this university stands for nothing but appropriations,” was Chase’s reply, “I no longer want to be connected with it.” He went down to Raleigh and at the committee hearing made a resounding speech against the bill, more than half expecting to lose his position as a result.

But then the life of William Louis Poteat suddenly counted. Chase felt that he could rely on the university graduates in the Legislature, but they were not enough, and he did not know where he could get the rest of the necessary votes. What he overlooked was the fact that, since there are half a million Baptists in North Carolina, the Legislature was studded with Wake Forest men, all former pupils of Poteat; when the test came, they rallied to Chase and the university. The “monkey bill” was knocked cold. There was no Scopes trial in North Carolina, with William J. Bryan and Clarence Harrow fighting each other, but uniting to make a buffoon of the State; and one of the main reasons for that deliverance was the fact that a young scholar had “thrown his life away” by coming back to the State in 1883.

Not long ago the college collected Dr. Poteat’s baccalaureate addresses and published them in a volume with the title, “Youth and Culture.” I have been looking over that volume recently with growing amazement at the fact that certain persons once charged this man with being irreligious, He was- a scientist who rejoiced in each new penetration of the microscope and of the telescope because, as he told his students, “we have to thank them for a greater universe and a greater God.” He was a teacher who dismissed what most of the students regarded as progress with the withering comment, “A small man may make big money.” To the taunt that science is forever repudiating its own beliefs of yesterday he made the superb reply, “The discovery of a mistake is not ignorance, however wholesome a restraint it may prove upon our pride. It is discovery, an item of new knowledge. The moment between the discovery of a mistake and its correction may be a moment of darkness, but it is a prophecy of light.” He was a believer who said, when the Fundamentalists were raging against him: “If A or B or C or D intervene and protest, ‘Who are you to ignore the succession of the rabbis and set aside the ancient formula?’, I shall answer, ‘Only a lover of the Truth, bent upon lighting my taper at the Master light, only a limping follower trying to keep in sight of Him, only a happy slave responsible to his Master alone and not another.’ ” That phrase, “a happy slave,” is of the sort that sticks to a college boy’s memory; and even a middle-aged man finds it curiously moving.

In the late twenties, as Poteat was reaching the end of his active career, disorder reigned in the scientific world. Bohr and Rutherford and Einstein had dive-bombed the science of physics until it was as complete a wreck as the city of Rotterdam when the Nazis were through; the old distinction between matter and energy was dissolving. The idea of emergent evolution, which nobody understood, was shaking not biology, only, but also the logical proposition that the whole is equal to the sum of its parts. Chemistry was spinning deliriously back toward something strangely like the alchemical theory of the transmutation of metals. In every field of science the foremost men were acknowledging that in the moment when they seemed to be approaching an end they had only uncovered another mystery, deeper and more obscure than any they had penetrated.

But in this confusion Poteat found, not disappointment, but justification of his faith; thus he was able to make to the class of 1926, his last but one, the serene declaration, “So I think of science as walking to and fro in God’s garden, busying itself with its forms of beauty, its fruits and flowers, its beast and bird and creeping thing, the crystals shut in its stones and the gold grains of its sands, and coming now at length in the cool of the long day upon God himself, walking in His garden.”

Thus he threw his life away, sacrificing not wealth and ease, only, but also reputation and that greater thing, the joy of extending the boundaries of knowledge in his own field. For what? Only to introduce a little gleam of light into some thousands of young minds that went darkling. Only to arrest the progress of materialism in certain young men and to make it forever impossible for them to reject utterly the things of the spirit. Only to lift somewhat the level of intelligence and to reduce somewhat the prevalence of bigotry in the most powerful sect in his commonwealth. Only to contribute to saving the intellectual honor of his State. For these, his life was thrown away—perhaps. But I was one of those who profited by the sacrifice, and so I cannot repine. Nor am I prepared to deny the possibility that, for all his apparent folly, he ended by coming at length in the cool of the long day upon God Himself walking in His garden.


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