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Wynn, William Hillis

Published onNov 09, 2021
Wynn, William Hillis

(September 9, 1832 - October 22, 1917)

Quick Facts

Lutheran minister, teacher, Iowa deputy superintendent of public instruction, professor of English and history at Iowa State as well as chair of both departments, poet, and newspaper columnist.

William H. Wynn was born on September 9, 1832 at Blairsville, Pennsylvania, a town about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh, and he was one of nine children of Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan Wynn. His father was quoted as saying that young William was born with a book in his hand, and so he was determined to provide schooling for the boy to the extent of his financial means. Their son was extraordinarily gifted and was studying Greek, Latin, and mathematics by age ten. At age fourteen, Wynn entered Wittenberg College in Springfield, Ohio, received an AB degree from the college in 1852, and then received an AM degree from the theological seminary there in 1854. He would be awarded an honorary PhD degree from Wittenberg in 1877, upon which The Aurora, then the student publication at Iowa State College (now University), commented that “Being wholly unsolicited it expresses the just estimation of his ability as a thorough scholar and the respect in which he is held by eastern men.” Wynn also was granted a DD degree from Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Upon graduation with the AM degree, Wynn was ordained into the English branch of the Lutheran Church and served at Hamilton, Butler County, Ohio for a total of nine years. During part of his time in Hamilton, he also served as principal of Hamilton Academy from 1856 to 1862. Over the years he slowly gravitated toward teaching and away from the ministry. He taught in all grades in public schools and served as school director, county commissioner, and as a city board examiner. He also served as superintendent of schools for Butler County and superintendent of schools for Middletown (also in Butler County.) He moved to Mendota, Illinois in 1865 and served as president of Mendota College (now Aurora University) until 1868.

Wynn married twice, but the date of his first marriage is unknown. He first married Mary Ann Caruthers, but she died young leaving one child, Robert Wynn. While living in Middletown, Ohio, he married Elizabeth Coles in 1862. They had five children, of whom three, Gertrude, Mary H., and William H. Wynn Jr., lived to adulthood and survived both William and Elizabeth.

In 1868, Wynn came to Iowa and took up the post of Iowa Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction in Des Moines. Three years later, in March, 1871, he was called to the Iowa Agricultural College and Experimental Farm in Ames (now Iowa State University) to become chair of English literature, Latin, and history. He was also given the responsibility for laying the foundation of the literary side of the curriculum and having charge of chapel exercises. He would remain with the faculty at Iowa State continuously until 1887 and then return in 1894 and stay until 1900.

During his first stint at Iowa State, Wynn appealed favorably to the students due to his emotional enthusiasm for his subjects rather than for a particular method of teaching. He was a scholar of English literature and known for his lectures and articles in The Aurora on Shakespearean characters, especially Juliet and Hamlet. He was frequently quoted in the student paper with approval. His abilities as a master of languages, sociology, literature, and philosophy became so established that he received a letter of commendation late in life from Henri Bergson, the famous French philosopher. However, Wynn could be controversial as well. In 1879, he issued a series of pamphlets critical of the prevailing trend toward materialism in scientific thought which brought a strong reaction from some of his scientific colleagues. In the 1880s, he published a number of books, including Poetry in Its Relation to Religion and Science (1884), Morals in the Meshes of the Brain (1885), and Beauty Reconsidered (1887.)

One major controversy at Iowa State in the 1880s was over whether the college should branch out and include more liberal arts studies. Although Wynn's position is not definitively known, he could express strong and critical opinions privately. He was a supporter of Iowa State President Adonijah B. Welch, but he became a critic of President Leigh S.J. Hunt, accusing the latter of academic deficiencies and poor public address skills. In a letter in 1885 to a friend, William H. Fleming, he scathingly referred to Hunt as an impostor, “a man of no attainments, and one whose career thus far has been one protracted shame...”. In November, 1885, he resigned in protest to take effect the following year.

In 1887, Wynn left Iowa State, moved to Atchison, Kansas and became acting president of Midland College. Two years later, he became professor of literature and history there, and remained with the faculty for the next five years.

In 1894, Wynn returned to Iowa State, was reinstated in his old chair, and was given his old classroom. His second stint with Iowa State lasted until 1900. In the History and Reminiscences of I.A.C. in 1897, Wynn was described as one who “although his hair has become gray in propounding to the numerous classes, the doubt of Hamlet's madness and the faithfulness of Juliet, is still at work, uplifting and guiding those with whom he comes in contact.” Although remaining popular among the students, problems again occurred between Wynn and college administration, and Wynn was forced to retire. In June, 1900, in another letter to his friend Fleming, he blamed President William Beardshear for, “making a reign of terror here among the faculty. He lacks education, and like most uneducated men who get power in their hands, he easily becomes over conscious and despotic in its exercise.”

Wynn then moved to the west coast and settled in Tacoma, Washington. He taught at Tacoma High School and wrote columns for the editorial page of the Tacoma Sunday News-Ledger. He also wrote for educational and religious publications and published Bergson, Sage of the Age (1910).

William Hillis Wynn died at Tacoma on October 22, 1917, just four months after the passing of his wife, Elizabeth.

Selected Sources

There is no central repository of information on William Hillis Wynn. A number of Iowa State yearbooks carry articles and photographs of him, including The Bomb. Ames, Iowa, 1896, p. 52; History and Reminiscences of I. A.C. 1897, pp. 228-229; and The Century Bomb. Des Moines, Iowa. Kenyon Press, 1900, p. 13.

Information on his early years in the Lutheran ministry can be found in Rev. William F. Ulery, History of the Southern Conference of the Pittsburg Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Greensburg, Pennsylvania. Church Register Company, 1903, pp. 140, 151-152, 412.

There is a short article on him in Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Story County, Iowa. Chicago. Goodspeed Publishing Company, 1890, p. 189.

Numerous references to Wynn can be found in Earle D. Ross, A History of the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts. Ames, Iowa. Iowa State College Press, 1942, pp. 71, 105, 108-109, 134, 136, 143-145, 150-151, 186, 207-208, and a photo following p. 92.

He is mentioned in L. David Weller, Jr., A History of Undergraduate Teacher Education Programs at Iowa State University 1869-1968 (doctoral dissertation.) Ames, Iowa. Iowa State University, 1975, p. 78.

Two articles by Edward A. Goedeken about early growth and academic controversy at Iowa State and which provide a broader background for Wynn's tenure include “An Academic Controversy at Iowa State Agricultural College, 1890-1891,” Annals of Iowa, Volume 45, Number 2, Fall, 1979, pp. 110-122; and “Four Men with a Vision: The Founding Fathers of the Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm and Cornell University.” 2013 Collections and Technical Services Publications and Papers, 67.

Examples of Wynn's passionate writing can be found in his article “Keene As Hamlet” in The Aurora (Iowa State),Volume 12, Number 6, August, 1884, pp. 123-125; and in his eulogy of President Adonijah S. Welch in The Aurora, Volume 18, Number 1, April, 1889, pp. 2-6.

His two scathing letters to William H. Fleming in regard to Hunt and Beardshear are located in the William H. Fleming Papers, Box 1, Folders 9 and 13, Iowa State Archives, State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines.

Obituary information can be found in The Washington Newspaper (Department of Journalism, University of Washington, Seattle), Volume 3, Number 1, October, 1917, p. 64; The Alumnus (Iowa State), Volume 13, Number 4, January, 1918, pp. 159-162; an obituary from an unnamed newspaper source in; and a brief self-bio by Wynn himself, written very shortly before his death, which is also found on that website. Some family information, including the names of his children with Elizabeth, can be found in the 1880, 1900, and 1910 federal censuses on

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