Centre notables in history
December 9, 2010 By Tyler Woosley
Phi Delta Theta members with “Dead Fred” Vinson
Founded in 1819, Centre is rich in history, and many key events have gained Centre College national attention: obviously C6 H0, Centre’s 6-0 upset of then-football powerhouse Harvard University in 1921 (which created a national sensation—Centre went on to be undefeated in regular season play); the 2000 vice presidential debate; and most recently the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance in the Norton Center, led by world-famous conductor Gustavo Dudamel. But who attended Centre College? Who are those dorm buildings named after? Centre’s tradition goes far beyond events; it has also graduated or been otherwise closely associated with some of the key players in the history of America.
Although Dr. McDowell wasn’t a graduate of Centre, he was one of the College’s founding fathers. McDowell was married to the daughter of Kentucky’s first governor, Isaac Shelby, and his contributions to the world of medicine paved the way for modern abdominal surgery.
McDowell studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in the 1790’s. Considered the father of operative gynecology, he was the first doctor to successfully remove an ovarian tumor. However, this was completely unexpected. In 1809 he was called to deliver Jane Todd Crawford’s baby. It was after he arrived at her home that he discovered Mrs. Crawford wasn’t pregnant; in fact, she had a large ovarian tumor. McDowell offered to attempt to remove the tumor, although he was quick to warn Mrs. Crawford that such a surgery had never been attempted. She agreed and on Christmas morning of 1809, he successfully removed the 22.5-pound growth. Mrs. Crawford made a full and quick recovery, and actually lived for nearly 12 years after Dr. McDowell passed away. In 1819 McDowell helped found Centre College, and was a member of the College’s first board of trustees.
John Todd Stuart
Stuart, who graduated from the college in 1826, is one of the Centre’s most storied alums. A distinguished U.S. Congressman and lawyer, he was considered the leader of the Republican Party during the mid-1830’s. As a major in the Army during the Black Hawk War, Stuart met a soldier with whom he would maintain a lifelong friendship. This soldier went on to become one of America’s favorite Presidents and sons, Abraham Lincoln. During this war Lincoln told Stuart of his ambition to become a blacksmith. However, Stuart saw potential in Lincoln far greater than that of blacksmithing. He convinced Lincoln to study law and actually lent him some of his old law books. Lincoln, after passing the bar, became Stuart’s law partner from 1837 until 1841. In 1842, Stuart introduced his cousin, Mary Todd, to Lincoln, and they eventually married. In 1860, Stuart’s prodigy was elected 16th President of the United States, defeating Stephen Douglas and another former Centre alum, John Breckinridge. After Lincoln’s assassination, Stuart headed up the National Lincoln Monument Association, which constructed a monument on the site where Lincoln and his wife were buried. Without Stuart’s presence in Lincoln’s life, it’s quite possible that the story of America would be greatly altered.
John Breckinridge graduated from Centre in 1838 at age 17. He would become not only one of the College’s most well known graduates, but one of the most colorful as well. From 1851-1855 Breckinridge served in the United States Congress, and before that was a member of the Kentucky House of Representatives. In 1856, he became the youngest Vice President in the country’s history, serving under President James Buchanan. In 1860 Breckinridge ran for the presidency, finishing third in the popular vote, second in the electoral vote, losing to Abraham Lincoln. He was later expelled from the country for supporting the newly formed Confederacy, and became a major general in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. (Breckinridge opposed slavery but sided with the South because of his support for states’ rights.) He was named Confederate States Secretary of War by Confederate President Jefferson Davis in 1865, a post he held until the Confederate’s final defeat. After the war, he fled the country, for fear of being put on trial for treason. He was granted amnesty in 1869, however, and he returned to America to practice law in Lexington.
A member of Phi Delta Theta while at Centre, Stevenson married Letitia Green, whom he had met while at the College. (Her father was President of Centre at the time.) In 1875 he was elected to the United States Congress as a Democrat. He was reelected in 1878. Under Grover Cleveland’s first administration, Stevenson was named Postmaster General, where he fired 40,000 Republican workers and replaced them with Democrats. In 1892, after Cleveland’s reelection, the president named Stevenson Vice President. He was extremely close to becoming President in 1893. Cleveland subsequently developed cancer of the mouth that required immediate surgery. He had his entire upper jaw removed and replaced with an artificial device. Had anything at all gone wrong, Stevenson would have taken over as President. In 1900, Stevenson ran for Vice President once again, this time with William Jennings Bryan for President, a race that was lost easily to William McKinley and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1908, at age 72, Stevenson narrowly lost the race for Illinois Governor, prompting his retirement. Stevenson was the first of a long line of accomplished Stevenson politicians that is still strong today, all of whom have been named Adlai. (His grandson—also named Adlai Stevenson—ran twice for president against Dwight Eisenhower [1952 and 1956] and was defeated both times.)
Vinson was also a member of Phi Delta Theta while at Centre. In 1924, he won a seat as a Kentucky representative in the U.S. House of Representatives, a seat he held until 1937, when he was appointed by Franklin Roosevelt as Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals. From 1945-1946 Vinson was the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, nominated by President Truman. Truman then appointed Vinson as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1946, a position he held until his death in 1953. As Chief Justice, he swore in President Truman for his second term and Dwight D, Eisenhower for his first. As of 2010, Vinson is the last Chief Justice appointed by a Democratic President. A portrait of Vinson hangs in the Phi Delta Theta house at Centre College. Members of the fraternity take “Dead Fred” to every Centre football and basketball game.
These are only a few noteworthy graduates. Each year the College puts more alumni out in the world, and each year more success stories are written. Will Centre have another chief justice in the future? What about yet another vice president? Maybe a U.S. President is in store for Centre—and certainly more CEO’s and company presidents. But no matter what the next story is, it will become part of the rich stage of extraordinary success at Centre.