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                         Philander's Well

        Kenyon College was founded about 1827 by the Episcopal Bishop Philander Chase on an isolated hilltop in Ohio, the village becoming known as Gambier after an early donor. According to the college myths, the college was started as very much a one-man show.  A college song says of Philander that he not only built the college and dug the well, ‘He taught the classes, rang the bell, and spanked the naughty freshmen well."  He remained as college president, the story goes, only until he was so foolish as to hire a faculty member enough stronger than he was that sheer physical strength would no longer enforce his policies.  Philander then left to bring the blessings of higher education further to the west.
       Many memories of Philander Chase remain. Since he is quoted as having said that the young men at Kenyon College would get to wine, women, and song "over my dead body", the hill between Gambier and the small nearly metropolis of Mount Vernon, Ohio,  became associated in local legend with the good Bishop. To this day the Mount Vernon newspaper will report a traffic accident as having occurred "at the west end of the Bishop's backbone".
       And the well he dug may have survived for a long time.  When I was an undergraduate in the early 1960's, there was pothole in the town road where the pavement crossed the gravel path which runs one mile from the north end to the south end of campus.  It was a good-sized pothole: your foot could go in if you didn't watch out, and it went down at least a foot or two before curving out of sight, usually with some water in the bottom.  Sometimes as freshmen walked back from the fraternity parties at the south end of campus to the freshmen dorms at the north end  (wine and song, at least, having arrived in town despite the Bishop's efforts), we would deposit our glasses in the pothole, wondering that it never filled up. And, the seniors told us, this hole, so centrally located in town, was the site of Bishop Philander Chase's original well.
         But in the mid 1960's, trouble loomed.  In the early 1960's, Ohio State Route 229, which passed around the foot of the college  hill south of the campus, washed out in a storm.  The town road over the hill was designated as Temporary State Route 229, and it remained so for several years. (This lapse of a few years may give you some hint of how unimportant a thoroughfare this was, or at least of how far off the beaten track the college is still located.) But in the Spring of 1965, the State of Ohio found a solution: they would simply abandon washed out old Route 229 and redesignate Temporary State Route 229 as permanent State Route 229.
         This would seem like a reasonable solution, except for one problem. The pothole.  When the road passed from town maintenance to being a state highway, the state sent out a road crew. They patched the pothole.  And the students tore up the patch.
       So the next week the road crew came and patched the pothole. And the students tore up the patch.
       And the next week the road crew came and patched the pothole. And the students (all together now:) tore up the patch.
       Now the state started to get serious. They sent in a road crew, patched the pothole, and set a state highway patrolman to guard the patch while it hardened. The students came out in force, chased the patrolman away, and tore up the patch.
      The state was feeling a challenge to its power, not a small issue in the mid 1960's. And it responded with a serious threat.  The State Highway Department told the college administration that,  if they could not patch the pothole,  they were simply going to take away the state route number from State Route 229 altogether, and no prospective student would ever be able to find the college again.
           I know that colleges had a lot of demonstrations in the 1960's and that this was probably not the most serious conflict ever to arise between student desires, campus traditions, and governmental authority, but it loomed very large in the life of Gambier, Ohio.
        Luckily, Kenyon College was still blessed in those days with an institution that may be less common in larger places and in this day of political correctness and less carefully restricted sex roles. Kenyon College had a very creative, and very activist, committee of faculty wives. And they had a vested interest in solving major crises, especially crises that kept their husbands at work late for extra faculty meetings, student judicial board hearings, or the other things that go on when a college campus is in turmoil.  They passed the hat. They purchased a large round bronze plaque, inscribed "Philander's Well     / ? /     1824-1965". And they placed it over the pothole.
         I believe that State Route 229 has since been rebuilt and rerouted, and again runs around the south end of the campus rather than through the center.  The College has become coeducational, and the undergraduate men no longer have to travel the length of the Bishop's backbone to get to the nearest women. But the plaque is still there, just off center in the road where the gravel path crosses the pavement. You have to know about it, and look for it. Many passers-by simply suppose that it is just one more insignificant manhole cover.

Edward Ordman  (C)  2001

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