• Miami University Presidency
• Ohio State University Presidency
• Time Line
When fourteen he began working as a hired hand on a Brownsville farm and a year later entered Muskingum college. He alternated working on the farm, tutoring, serving as a college janitor, and attending college. He later recalled that he lived for a time with the Harpers in their New Concord log cabin. This is a remarkable coincidence, since William Rainey Harper also went on to become the president of a great university (The University of Chicago). Alternating work and attending college delayed completion of his degree, which eventually was awarded in 1978. He attended Pennsylvania's Western Theological Seminary, graduated in 1881, was ordained, married Rebba J. Allison in 1882 and took a position as a home missionary in Iowa. His wife fell ill and he sought an assignment in a more suitable climate.
In 1885 he moved his family to the Colorado Rockies to accommodate his wife's tuberculosis and became the president of Longmont College and the minister of Longmont's Presbyterian Church, nine miles from Estes Park. Here, his twenty-four year old wife and then their infant, second daughter died in 1886. A year later he remarried. In less than four years his second wife, Starr Brown Thompson, died at the age of twenty-four following the birth of their second son.
Motivated by the fund raising implications, Thompson institutionalized Miami's sports program. He appointed a Miami athletic board of control and endorsed the establishment of the pioneering Ohio Inter-Collegiate Association which included Cincinnati, Denison, Kenyon, Marietta, Miami, Oberlin, Ohio State, Otterbein, and Wittenberg.
Thompson was instrumental in the development of a science curriculum along with the more traditional course of study. In 1893 the first B.S. degree was offered. On his watch Miami began offering students the additional choice of Greek and modern languages programs of study. And, an honors program was introduced. Departmental honors were available to students who maintained superior grades, passed a comprehensive examination based on collateral reading, and wrote a thesis.
In June 1899 when offered the presidency of The Ohio State University, Miami President Thompson resigned.
Thompson's experience as a preacher made him an effective leader and combined with his solid judgment, he became an important national figure. In 1917 with our national involvement in World War I and in the midst of his tenure as OSU president, he was asked to serve on several government commisions. In the spring of 1918 he was sent by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture on a speaking tour in the American Northwest to rally citizens to increase food production in support of the war effort. In the summer of that year, as chairman of the "Agricultural Commision" he journeyed to Europe to complete a special study of the allies' food supply. President Woodrow Wilson appointed him to the "Industrial Commision" to consider labor and capital relations and the "Anthracite Coal Commision" to arbitrate wage and conditions disputes within the anthracite coal industry.
At the end of the war, the University was celebrating it 50th anniversary and Thompson was 65 years old. He submitted his resignation, arguing that the position would be better served by a younger man. The Trustees disagreed and convinced him to remain. For the next several years he embarked on a vigorous, successful campaign to build facilities, most notably Ohio Stadium. He retired in 1925 at the age of 70.
In his memory, the campus houses four portraits and a bronze bust. And, The William Oxley Thompson Memorial Library (built in 1912) is named in his honor. An 11 foot statue of Thompson created by fine arts professor Erwin Frey was dedicated in June, 1930. It is positioned out front, facing the University Oval. Today, the library is linked with 10 departmental libraries and the Health Sciences and Law libraries and holds over 4 million volumes.
Thompson remained active after his resignation, serving on committees, traveling and making presentations. In early November of his 78th year, he returned to Zanesville to make a presentation at a teacher's conference. And, he visited his alma mater in New Concord to give an address to the Muskingum College student body. A month later, he suffered a severe heart attack and four days later died in a Columbus hospital on December 9, 1933.
In 1937 during the William Rainey Harper Memorial Conference held at Muskingum College's centennial celebration, OSU President George W. Rightmire said of Thompson, "It is given to few to have four careers, but Dr. Thompson was eminent as a minister, very successful as a businessman, distinguished as a democratic citizen, and renowned as an educational administrator."