Being William Denison

Being William Denison
Continuum - Being William Denison - Summer 2007

What do John Harvard, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and William S. Denison all have in common?

Most obvious is that all three have institutions of higher education named after them. all three were benefactors at crucial moments for the schools that received their aid. a little less well known is that each of the three never set foot on the respective campuses that ended up bearing their names.

One thing that makes William Denison stand out from peers John h. and Cornelius v. is that the other two probably never took on a bear, armed with nothing but a knife. the son of a pioneer family in Muskingum County, Ohio, whose father fought in the revolutionary War and whose older brothers fought in the War of 1812, William Denison helped to carve a homestead and a farm out of the woods of salem township, where he would live out his life and be buried (the first time).

The story in Adamsville, the village up the road from the Denison homestead, is that William was out tending his father’s hogs, when a bear with an apparent taste for pork suddenly set on the herd. William was unfazed by this development, and went after the bear, which would not release his rightful prey. so he killed it with the tools he had in hand. literally.

This is not so surprising when you read that his brother, Warren, “was almost a giant in size, and many anecdotes are told which illustrate his remarkable physical strength.” one was that a large, injured steer, needing a careful examination, was grasped by Warren Denison “by the nostril with one hand, while with the other he threw the animal upon its side, and secured it in that position until he was ready to let it go.”

The Adamsville register speaks of William Denison with the respect one would expect in regards to a Fellow who ended up the wealthiest man in the township. listed as a “business farmer & stock raiser” in the Community directory at his death in 1880, he came to Ohio in 1810 from Connecticut with his parents, two brothers, and three sisters. William, born November 13, 1794, was 16 on arrival, and as his brothers and sisters quickly married, he became his father’s business partner, buying land and managing the growing acreage.

William may have put marriage on the back burner, but not his family’s role in the community. he helped his parents build the township’s first frame house (as opposed to log cabin) around 1814, and then shortly after his father died in 1820, William built for his mother and himself salem’s first brick home, which still stands. the Denison family also built the first school building in the township, known as “Denison’s school,” which closed in 1832 when a larger and newer building was erected for the whole township. the school was built next to the salem township baptist Church, which was built on land donated by William’s elder brother, Gurdon Denison. We may well suspect that there was a Denison hand in arranging the land for the school, too.

William S. stood for “Slack,” his mother’s family name, and the Slack family was involved with the establishment of Marietta College. When Anna Slack Denison died on June 19, 1841, at the age of 86, William S. was close to 47 years old, elderly by the standards of his time and place. Whatever distractions of family obligation and business success had kept him from raising up heirs, his day for doing so was clearly past.

Two years before Anna’s death, a new pastor took up service at Salem Baptist Church. Named William Sedwick, he came from a family active in Ohio Baptist affairs. His brother, George Sedwick, was a key player in the group that urged the formation of a Baptist college in Ohio, following a rash of defections from Baptist churches in the northeast part of the state in 1830. Some had taken up the Restoration Movement of Alexander Campbell; others splintered to the group led by Sidney Rigdon—a Baptist preacher-turned-student of a young man named Joseph Smith—and built a temple in Kirtland for what they called “Latter Day Saints.”

When the Granville Theological and Literary Institution opened in 1831, the hope was to educate both future clergy and lay leaders for Ohio Baptists, keeping them more aware and astute versus the growing threat of Campbellites, Rigdonites, Mormons, Methodists, and Presbyterians. Theological and social distinctiveness in a Baptist setting were thus among the aims of what quickly became known as Granville College.

But by 1853, the young college was in dire financial straits. Support that had been assumed or hoped for had not come in the doors, and those doors were very near closing. 

So why did the 59-year-old William S. Denison choose to make a $10,000 gift (the equivalent of $233,831.88 in 2007) to a school that was two days’ ride west of him, where he had never visited and no relative attended?

No account exists, but there is a likely connection in the fact that one of the college’s founders, George Sedwick, had a brother, William, who served as pastor at Salem Baptist Church, where the Denisons attended. Even more tenuous, but logical, is that William Denison, who was about to pass 60 years of age and whose family had already begun to scatter across the Midwest to Iowa and Missouri, was looking for a legacy. He was a bachelor farmer with success, but no sons, and no wife to give him sons.

And along with Granville College’s call for help came an interesting offer from the trustees: if someone would give them $10,000, the school would be named for that person.

So it was that a pledge was made, and in 1856 Granville College became Denison University. The name was bestowed, but the money…

What most people know about the college’s name-sake, if they know anything about him, is that the trustees ended up having to sue to get their pledge, which was spent well before the first payments arrived, and which had received full value as to naming rights.

What happened? The mists of time and legal maneuvering shroud much of what was going on, but this much is clear. William Sedwick left the pulpit of Salem Baptist in 1857 (as a result, or as cause?), and Mary O. Fisher entered Mr. Denison’s life, joining him in marriage in 1860. (Public documents published during Denison’s life indicate that she was 29 at the time of their marriage, but official biographical records actually state that she was just 19.)

So at age 66, the college’s namesake started a family, likely to the amazement of his neighbors. William and Charles, the sons who would carry forward the Denison name, arrived in brisk succession, along with a daughter, who was of course named Anna. The historic brick home got an even finer wing in the 1860s, with room for a nursery and an indoor kitchen.


So why did the 59-year-old William S. Denison choose to make a $10,000 gift to a school that was two days’ ride west of him, where he had never visited and no relative attended?


You can still see the house W.S. Denison built in Adamsville, including the addition for the unexpected, late-in-life family. He died on New Year’s Eve, 1880 at the age of 87, and was buried on the hill behind the family homestead next to his honored father and beloved mother. Mary Denison continued to live there until the death in Zanesville of Charles, her youngest, when she not only moved to the larger county seat, but arranged to have her husband, and his parents, exhumed and reburied in Greenwood Cemetery. There, she prepared a 15-foot-tall granite obelisk with inscriptions around the base for her family.

The fact that a place named Denison University exists is not mentioned on the Denison’s epitaph. Clearly, there was still some ambivalence about the gift, which was finally paid in full.

Or it may have been that the existence of Denison University was so secure and well known it needed no further space on William’s gravestone. Whatever the reasons, there is no memorial to W.S. Denison in Granville, either. Even so, the connections between a true Ohio pioneer and a pioneering Ohio educational institution are made every time we sing:

To Denison, we raise our song, ?Fair college on the hill, ?The name that sets our souls on fire ?And makes our senses thrill… And when our steps have feeble grown,?Our journey almost done, ?E’en then with fleeting breath we’ll praise,?Our dear old Denison. 

Some of that praise can go to dear old W.S. Denison, as well.

Published August 2007