Reprinted from "Editors' Table: Dr. William H. Payne" in The Peabody Record v2 n3 (December 1893): 83-87.
William H. Payne was born at Farmington, Ontario County, New York, May 12, 1836. His home was on a farm, and his early years brought him the happy and hearty development peculiar to that manner of life. At that time, and in that section of the country, educational advantages were none of the best. There was a district school during the winter months -- that was all. But he made the best use of that and rapidly acquired the rudiments of an education.
At the tender age of thirteen he had the manly courage to undertake a course of solitary study. In this way he mastered English grammar and algebra, and at the same time laid well the foundation of that habit of unaided, individual study, which is the only road to real learning, and which, in his case, has led to the profound scholarship of maturer years.
Two years at an academy and three months at a seminary completed the brief period of his school days. The rest of his vast education was acquired, like his knowledge of grammar and algebra, by his own industry and enterprise, and without the aid of schools or teachers.
On the second of October, 1856, he was married to Miss Eva S. Fort, and for the next year and a half he and his wife taught the village school of Victor, New York. That school was well taught.
In 1858 they removed to Michigan and in the fall of that year Mr. Payne, not yet twenty-three years old, was made principal of the Union School, at Three Rivers. Here for six years he gave himself to study and teaching and organizing. These years laid the foundation for his brilliant reputation as an educator. The fame of his work went abroad. In 1864 he was called to the head of the schools at Niles, and two years later to the principalship of Ypsilanti Seminary, then the most popular union school in the State. In this position he succeeded Joseph Estabrook, one of the best known and best loved of Michigan's public school men.
Few tasks are more trying than to follow a rarely popular and successful man. Yet the new principal more than matched the achievements of the old, and grew into the deepest affection and esteem of the pupils and the whole community.
At the end of three years the offer of an increased salary and other advantages induced him to accept the superintendency of the schools of Adrian, Michigan. This position he filled with distinguished ability for ten years, and in that time the schools of Adrian rose to the front rank, and gained almost universal confidence and respect in the city.
Through all these years of teaching and organizing, Mr. Payne had never abandoned the early formed habit of solitary study. Tireless industry made him master of the most important ancient and modern languages, especially of Latin, French, and Italian. He had attained great proficiency in chemistry, and had made a profound study of psychology with special reference to its bearing upon pedagogy.
In these years his pen had been busy like his brain. During the five years from 1864 to 1869 he edited and published The Michigan Teacher, in which he displayed the graces of a facile writer and the powers of a deep and true thinker. By the end of this period he had become one of the acknowledged educational leaders of the State of Michigan. His was the plan adopted for the educational exhibit of the State at the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia, and he wrote large portions of the report of the Centennial Educational Board.
In 1875 appeared his "Chapters on School Supervision," which at once gave him rank among the leading teachers and thinkers of the United States. At intervals since then he has published "Outlines of Educational Doctrine," "Contributions to the Science of Education," and edition of "Page's Theory and Practice of Teaching," and translations of Compayre's "Histoire De La Pedagogie," "Elements of Psychology," "Psychology Applied to Education," "Lectures on Teaching" and Rousseau's "Emile."
His own works have made the author famous in America and Europe, and are distinguished for their clear thinking and the certainty and directness with which they strike the center of the great questions they discuss. It may well be doubted whether any other living man has made such valuable contributions to the science of education.
In June, 1879, the Regents of the University of Michigan created in that institution a chair of "The Science and Art of Teaching" and elected Mr. Payne to fill it. This was the first chair of Pedagogy established in an American University. Professor Payne filled it with conspicuous ability for nine years. He was called upon to create a new department in a great university, and he had no experience of other men to guide him in the task, for he himself was the pioneer. How well he accomplished the difficult and delicate work, the great success of that department, and the general respect in which its organizer is held at the university, will abundantly prove to any who may wish to search his record there.
In 1887 he was sought by the Peabody Board of Trust to take the Presidency of their great Normal College at Nashville, Tennessee, which had fallen vacant by the death of Dr. Stearns. At first he declined to heed the call. But he was induced to visit Nashville, and magnificent prospect afforded him here, of enlarged influence and usefulness, overcame his reluctance and he accepted the place. October 5, 1887, he was inaugurated Chancellor of the University of Nashville and President of the Peabody Normal College. The same rare order of success that has followed him elsewhere has crowned his work here also. Since his coming the number of students has increased from 153 to 560 and faculty from 12 to 28. New departments have been created, and in many lines the institution has taken long steps toward the accomplishment of its great design. Here Dr. Payne remains, going from strength to strength, and giving the best years of his matured culture and ripened experience to the advancement of one of the greatest educational enterprises ever undertaken in the United States or any other country.
It will be readily supposed that all these years of work and triumph have not passed without bringing their share of honors and distinctions. And so, indeed, they have not. Mr. Payne was twice elected President of the Michigan State Teachers' Association, a distinction very rarely conferred upon one man. In proper recognition of his masterly scholarship he has received the degrees of A.M. and LL.D. from the University of Michigan, and that of Ph.D. from the University of Nashville.
Commendations of the warmest kind from the highest sources in this country and in Europe have been showered upon his works, and to-day he enjoys the unquestioned distinction of being one of the foremost educators upon the American continent.
To attempt an analysis of Dr. Payne would be futile. He defies analysis. Yet some of his characteristics may be stated. His manner inclines toward reticence and reserve, and he sometimes impresses one as a trifle cold. His self-poise is admirable. And underneath his calm exterior beats a strangely generous and sympathetic heart. That fact explains the other fact that everybody loves him. It is scarcely too much to say that he is a universal favorite with both faculty and students. That is so here, was so at the University of Michigan, and as far as one can discover, has been so wherever he has worked. Plainly then it is no accident. He possesses in a marked and unusual degree, the qualities which endear a man to his fellow men.
Again, he knows how to awaken in his students a burning ambition for higher things. This seems to cost him no effort. One can barely see how he does it, but he does it. The subtle qualities of his personality are so pervasive and persuasive that their touch falls with quickening power upon many hearts. In nothing is he greater than in this.
Still again, he is modest and sincere -- a man absolutely without pretension or pretense. His kindly nature makes him always lean to mercy's side, and a trembling student is sure to find a friend in him. Yet he is a man of tremendous firmness and commanding will. He is extremely cautious -- slow to take a position, and equally slow to abandon the ground once chosen.
Once more -- and perhaps this is his most prominent quality -- he is eminently broad minded and catholic.
Coming to the South from a lifetime in the North, he found himself at once a Southern man. Or rather because he knew no North, no South, no East, no West, he was instantly at home with Southern men, and they with him. Littleness of any kind, political, sectarian, personal, is utterly foreign to his nature. Probably he looks upon any exhibition of it with a species of surprise, and finds it hard to comprehend.
Such, in brief, is Dr. Payne. Rarely do a great scholar, a great teacher, a great organizer meet in one man as they have met in him. He is in the thick of a struggle fit for only such a man, and everyone who reads these words will hope that he may long be spared to push it to a triumphant end.