Project Canterbury

Life of the Reverend James de Koven, D. D.,
Sometime Warden of Racine College.

by William C. Pope, M.A.

New York: James Pott & Company, 1899.

VII. Reminiscences.

"MY most delightful reminiscences of him were in the early years, when I visited the College, and when he visited by Grandmother de Koven (his mother) at the 'old Homestead' in Middletown, Connecticut. Then he was at his best, being free from care, for the nonce. I especially recall one visit, when Grandmother was an invalid upstairs, and he and I had our meals together alone. We used to entertain imaginary visitors, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Tennyson, various Cardinals of note, Thackeray, Dickens, etc., etc., and the conversation was always adapted according to the rank or profession of the guest of honor. When 'the Laureate' was with us, we talked entirely in rhyme. I remember, one day, Uncle James came hurrying in, and said he had 'just me Queen Victoria and the Pope at the station, and had asked them up to take a bite.' I shall never forget the horrified look of a new domestic, who heard him make this announcement to me with a perfectly grave face, and saw me receive it as a matter of course, and state that I would 'have two extra chops put on to broil at once!' We had great amusement out of all this, as you--who know Uncle James' keen sense of humor--may easily imagine, but it came to an abrupt end, when one day we returned to the house, to find the parlor filled with curious neighbors, who wanted to hear Uncle James 'talk to the celebrities.'

"Speaking again of that particular Christmas Eve, I remember our all going in processing (tiptoeing and with our shoes off) to visit the dormitories of the Grammar School boys, professors, visitors, each one armed with a basket of apples, or oranges, or nuts, candy, etc., and our filling the boys' stockings. Some of the boys, I recall, snored preternaturally loud, (being very obviously awake) but one little fellow was genuinely asleep, with his mouth wide open, and Uncle James--who brought up the rear of the procession--took a long stick of candy, and put it securely between the little fellow's teeth, where it was said to have remained safely until he found it, to his delight, the next morning! Then the Christmas tree, with all the amusing gifts--each one accompanied with a witty speech from the warden to the lucky recipient--and the Christmas dinner, when I, as 'the warden's niece,' occupied a post of honor at the Faculty table!--Can it be that so many years have passed since then."

Dr. de Koven wrote to his niece under date Oct. 23, 1870.

"Our imaginations at Middletown about distinguished people, I find rivalled here, by the daughter of one of our Professors, who, having to beat something a good deal, to make pie-crust, amused herself by calling it, now, the King of Prussia, and now, the Pope, and thus kept up her courage for her arduous labors."

"Easter Even, 1874.


"I have only time to write a line to thank you and H., both, for your kind letters. The 'Defence' can be had at Pott and Young's. I am receiving kind letters from all sides. Dr. Dix, Dr. Haight, Bp. Doane, Bp. Clarkson, and others, have written. Before 'the Defence' appeared, Bp. Potter wrote me a most kind letter. Yours affect.,


"March 20, 1875.


"I feel very sorry for all the family and especially for my nieces, that they should have lost a family mitre and the privilege of contributing to my lawn sleeves! For myself, I do not suffer, and am quite good-natured. It will come right, somehow, and Illinois might not have been a bed of roses! But I am far too busy, except to beg you to assure every one that I am peaceful and content with what is God's will, and only fearful that the popular notion that somehow 'doctrines' have been condemned, may disturb some tender hearts.

"Your affect. Uncle,


"He dearly loved a joke upon himself, and always enjoyed telling it to his students. One day, when his library was being swept and cleansed, he told the char-woman if any one called, to say that he had 'Gone to the Observatory.' A clerical friend who called shortly afterward was somewhat aghast at being told that--'Dr. de Koven had gone to Purgatory!"

When Dr. Locke was young, he once asked for a second piece of pie, at the College table. The boys were allowed only one piece. The Warden tapped the bell, which called the boys to order, and said: "Boys, what is to be done? Mr. Locke has asked for a second piece of pie." There was a dead silence for a moment, and then a small boy piped out, "Let him have it." A shout of laughter followed, which aided the College digestion, and obtained for Mr. Locke the coveted dainty. If it was Racine College lemon pie, he was not reprehensible in wanting a second piece.

The moral standard of the students was high. Of one of them the Doctor wrote: "He has done more for the College than money can repay, by the example he has set, and the high standard he has enabled me to maintain among the students." That does not mean that there were not bad boys, or that they were always punished for their misdeeds. One night a dozen of them invaded his garden and stole a lot of melons. The next morning the students were bidden to remain in chapel after service. He said: "Last night some students entered my garden and stole some of my melons. I ask a good price for those melons. I have learned the names of five of the students in question. Unless they come and apologize before noon, I shall take measures against them." The students were in a quandary. Who were the give men? They made a merit of necessity, and all went in a body to beg his pardon. The Warden smilingly reminded then he only knew of give of them, and let them off.

If any one does not see the fun in the following, let him ask some one to explain the joke.

"D., have you been smoking?" D. replied: "Now, Doctor, do you ask this as a Priest, or as head of the school?" The Doctor smiled grimly, and said, "As the head of this school." D. replied, "No, sir." The Doctor said, "Now I ask you as a Priest, have you been smoking?" D. said, "Yes, Doctor; but you cannot punish me for saying so." The Doctor said, "No, but I can give you penance, (twinkle in his eye). You may deny yourself of pie for six weeks." Exit.

Speaking seriously, it was an immense assistance in maintaining a high moral standard, to have a number of young men and boys, who considered breaking rules as an offence against God, and sought His forgiveness by confession to the Reverend Warden, and absolution from God, though him. The Doctor was very careful not to hear Confessions without the willingness of parents being known to him. A certain student, soon after beginning his course, went to Confession, but the Doctor would not hear it until he had asked him a series of close questions touching the matter. "Had he been to Confession before? Did his parents know and approve? Was he sure of this?" etc., etc.

He insisted upon punctuality on the part of those who would receive at the week-day Celebrations. His words were, "Never presume to take the Lord's Body into your mouth, when you have been too late to make your general confession and receive the general absolution."

By a gradual process of elimination, accretion and training, a body of men had been brought together and fitted for their respective spheres of work of much more than average efficiency. The discipline of the institution both on the side of the students and instructors was so thorough that every one knowing his place and loyally fulfilling his duties, the college, at the time of his death was, as he had striven to make it, in a condition to go on independent of him. The harmony existing was not due to his administrative ability alone, but to his greatness of soul. He seemed incapable of animosity.

The fierceness with which he had been attacked seemed to those near him, as almost too great to be passed by unnoticed, but it was an interesting sight to witness him meet an enemy, making the first advances to the evident confusion of the other party, though he, with apparent unconsciousness, omitted nothing which might set him at ease. One person who had sharply opposed him in the public press was afterward provided with a position in the college, and comforted in his sorrow. A person living in the college precinct wrote a treatise to refute his defence of the Real Presence, which he read to the Doctor chapter by chapter, and which was amicably discussed by them. A year or so before his death an attempt was made at conciliating factions in the diocese, one feature of which was the election of certain men to official positions. Some of them were men whom he had no reason to love, but he was warmly in favor of the measure and probably its author. He strongly urged it upon the clergy of the college, but it is though that not a single one of them voted for his ticket. Yet it used to be said that he brought to the Diocesan Convention a train of followers who would vote at his dictations. That was not the stamp of men who coƶperated with him to make Racine great.

His graceful reception of visitors was very marked. Many a lady has felt an honest glow of pride at the distinguished way in which he escorted her to the dining-hall.

A poor, lonely old woman was accustomed to come several miles to the chapel services. He had a cottage fitted up for her near the laundry, and himself supported her during the remainder of her days. Woe to any one who made fun of her eccentricities; and if any sickness troubled her, every one had to stand around and administer to her needs. She naturally worshipped the ground on which he walked.

Easter, 1874.

Taking the 5 o'clock train from Chicago on Easter-Even, I found myself, at half-past seven o'clock, at Racine Junction, where a carriage awaited my arrival. A short drive brought me to the entrance of the College grounds, and the carriage drew up before Kemper Hall. The hall-door was open. As I entered, the Rev. Doctor stood inside the doors of the reception rooms, and, stepping forward, greeted me in the most kind and cordial manner. A good supper, a few pleasant words exchanged with my host, and the announcement that a servant would awaken me at six o'clock for the early service, were the only incidents of the evening.

"The next morning I needed not the summons to awaken from slumber, being ready before the appointed hour.

"Leaving Kemper Hall, I walked across the grounds to the chapel. The new-fallen and still untrodden snow covered the earth like a bridal veil, giving to all without a look of exceeding freshness and purity; while within, on entering, I was forcibly struck by the simplicity and beauty of the floral decorations.

I have been in many foreign churches on this joyous Easter morn, and I do not remember ever to have been so impressed by their fitting preparations for that holy Eucharistic feast, in which, with loving hearts, we were so soon to commemorate the sacrifice and death of Him who, as on this day, 'rose again for us,' and to receive Him with adoring reverence. If, therefore, these outward symbol seemed to me so expressive, what shall I say of the service which followed? Two by two entered first the students, in the Oxford cap and gown; then the younger boys composing the grammar school; and, when all were seated, a solemn silence pervaded this assembly of 200 youths, until the Easter processional hymn was heard, commencing low in the distance, and growing louder and louder, until the choristers, in white surplices, appeared, followed by the different clergymen belonging to the institution,--each wearing the 'hood' which is always worn by the priests of the Church of England.

"Dr. de Koven being the celebrant, took his place before the altar, and read in a very impressive manner the Ten Commandments, Epistle and Gospel for Easter-Day. The Easter hymns were sung by one and all. Such a chorus of song, and such a burst of melody when the 'Hallelujahs' and the Easter anthem, 'Christ is Risen,' were rendered, would bring forth a response in any save a heart of stone.

"As the Communion service proceeded, the priest waiting to administer 'the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ,' and I saw kneeling before the altar, in continual succession, such numbers of young men in the first blush of youth, many of them not more than fifteen or sixteen years of age, and noticed their solemn, reverential manner, as, with bowed heads, they received the loving tokens of a Saviour's passion and 'forgiveness of all their sins,' the great solemnity and dignity of their bearing,--I felt my heart rise in earnest prayer to the Great Father of us all to implore His blessing upon these, His children, who thus early in the first freshness of their youth welcomed their risen Lord.

"At the close of the services in the Chapel, we all proceeded to the large dining-hall, where Dr. de Koven presided at the Easter breakfast, which is a meal of intense excitement to the juveniles. To each one of the boys is given six colored Easter eggs. The Doctor calls for the youngest boy in the school to come forward and break the first Easter egg with him. A fine-looking little fellow advances, followed by several others. Then ensues a very merry scene, in which none join with more enthusiasm than the Rev. Doctor himself. Herein, I think, lies one of his greatest charms, and one among many other reasons for his deserved success. It is in the perfectly genial and even caressing manner toward his pupils. It really seems to be the love of a parent for a child and a child for a parent.

"The Easter breakfast concluded, a short service--consisting of Morning Prayer and Litany--was read at ten o'clock. At eleven o'clock there was the full choral Communion Service, with a most eloquent discourse by Dr. de Koven on this text: 'Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, by is risen.' At two o'clock the Easter dinner was partaken by 200 youths, whose fair, manly appearance does full justice to the regime of the College. Dr. de Koven again presided at this repast.

"In the afternoon there was no service until half-past give o'clock, and, by invitation, I paid the Doctor a visit at his own private suite of rooms. This consists of a large and commodious study, with full and valuable library, a small and unostentatious bedroom, a reception-room, and very pretty dining-room. Here I partook with him of his evening meal. At eight o'clock I entered the large public library belonging to the College. This, as well as the Doctor's suite of rooms, is in Taylor Hall,--a very handsome building, where the Doctor holds his Sunday evening receptions, at which every boy and students and Professor is expected to be present. The Doctor stood in the centre of the room, which is a very large one, and each pupil, as he passed before him, stopped and shook hands. Here I again remarked the close intimacy and confidence existing between them. No fear, no awkwardness; by affectionate and kind inquiries from one, and gentleness and manly politeness from the other; a mutual kindness so rarely found to exist. The reception lasted one hour, when the Doctor read a hymn,--the last verse of which, by changing a word, absolves the erring boys from their merited tasks,--being the closing scene of Easter-Day. This is received with loud acclamations by the delighted children, and, with a fond good-night, 'the Warden of Racine College' retires to his study to seek his well-earned repose. Here I, too, bade him farewell."

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