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Professor D. S. Sheldon


Posted By: Annette Lucas (email)
Date: 7/15/2021 at 10:44:05

SOURCE: Biographical History and Portrait Gallery of Scott County, Iowa. American Biographical Publishing Company, H. C. Cooper, Jr., & Co. Proprietors. 1895


THE Sheldon family were people of consequence in England. One of Professor Sheldon's ancestors in direct line was the highest prelate in the Church of England. The first family of the name in this country came about the middle of the seventeenth century and settled in Massachusetts, whence many of their ancestors emigrated to adjoining States. About 1780 Hon . David Sheldon moved to Rupert, Vermont. His eldest son , also named David , married in Rupert. He was a man of scholarly attainments, high character and unusual ability. His wife was fully his equal. He had a large farm on which he resided, but had various other interests there and also at Troy, New York , where he was a heavy stockholder in different banks, and was interested in other enterprises. He was a member of the Legislature of Vermont, in which he rendered valuable services to the State.

He had four children, of whom David Sylvester (" little David ” as he was called ) was the third , born December 6, 1809. From his infancy he manifested an unusual gentleness of disposition and remarkable intellectual qualities. He early exhibited a great love for books. Even before he could read he would take a Latin book and assuming the pose of an orator, would “ read ” by the hour, much to the amusement of his audience. The fact that the book would frequently be upside down did not disturb his equanimity or interfere with his flow of language. As soon as he could read, his favorite books were those treating of the old hero kings or the mysteries of mythology. He went to school for a time to one of his elder brothers, and in his sixteenth year he went to Castleton Academy to fit himself for college. This by earnest application he did in one year. In August of his seventeenth year he entered Middlebury College. It was during his college course that he made a profession of religion and determined to fit himself for the ministry. During vacations he taught school at Bennington, Vermont. He graduated in 1831 and a few months later entered Princeton Theological Seminary to prepare for the sacred calling he had chosen . He remained there one year, then taught school two years in Bennington, after which he spent a year at Andover, where he graduated in 1834 and received his ordination . He then went to Potsdam , New York, as professor in the famous academy at that place. His success as a teacher was so great that he thought his life might be most usefully spent in that work and determined to adopt teaching as his profession instead of the ministry.

During his college days, while at a social gathering one evening, he observed a young lady among those assembled , and turning to a companion at his side, remarked : “ There is the lady I should like for my wife.” She was an entire stranger to him , but before leaving college he managed to form her acquaintance. This acquaintance ripened into a mutual attachment and on March 23, 1836, they were married . The lady's name was Miss Mary Foote, daughter of Captain L. Foote of Middlebury, Vermont. Captain Foote was a man of wealth and had given his daughter the best of educational advantages. She was a woman of brilliant intellectual qualities, keen perceptions and lovable disposition, and never were two people better fitted to travel the journey of life together. Shortly after his marriage, he with his bride visited his father's family in Vermont, where they remained six months, when he returned to Potsdam , purchased a house and established an ideal home. Here one daughter was born to them , the only child with which their union was ever blessed.

Professor Sheldon met with such success as a teacher that it was proposed to found a college at Potsdam with him as its president. This honor he declined on account of failing health . He had never been robust and his close application , as student and teacher, had so undermined his constitution that he felt it an absolute necessity to find rest and recuperation. Consequently he returned to his father's home with his little family, where he spent two years in the endeavor to reëstablish his health . Eitherto he had given no special attention to science, but his active mind would not allow him to remain intellectually idle. During this period of rest he took up physiology and anatomy, experimented in chemistry and gave considerable attention to philosophy and botany. He collected and classified all the known plants of Northern New York. Twenty - five years later he donated this herbarium to Essex Institute.

In 1840 he went to Northampton, Massachusetts, as principal of the high school at that place, but had to give up this position at the end of six months on account of ill health . He then determined upon an extended trip, with the hope that a change of climate and scene would restore his bodily vigor. He traveled extensively through the South and as far west as Burlington, Iowa, where one of Mrs. Sheldon's brothers resided . Here he spent some months, returning home in the early part of 1842. About two months later death claimed their little daughter, a blow from which neither of the parents ever fully recovered. In the autumn of that year he returned to Northampton as principal of a select high school, and was also appointed Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State of Massachusetts. During the time he taught in the schools of Northampton he instructed numerous pupils, who afterward became famous in various walks in life. He spent four years and a half in constant labor, when he again had to yield to physical infirmity and the next three years and a half he was unsettled , teaching only occasionally.

About this time there was great demand for teachers in the West, and with an eye to duty, not emolument, Professor Sheldon determined that in that field his duty lay, and, in spite of the earnest protestations of his mother who could not bear the idea of her " little Davy” going so far away, Professor and Mrs. Sheldon left behind them the comforts and charms of the East and cast their lot with the pioneers of the West. After two years' service in a school which he opened in Burlington, and which he made famous in Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois, he, in 1852, accepted an invitation to the chairs of chemistry and natural science in Iowa College then located at Davenport, Iowa.

Soon after his connection with this institution he took charge also of the preparatory department, thereby increasing his labors many fold. His vacations were devoted to scientific pursuits. He took up conchology, made collections, and sent specimens to scientists in the East, receiving other specimens in return, and soon formed a splendid cabinet. He gave a fine collection of shells to the Academy of Sciences in Davenport, and when Professor Agassiz visited Davenport the latter expressed such unbounded admiration for the cabinet that Professor Sheldon set to work and made another similar collection, which he sent to the celebrated naturalist as a gift.

In 1859 it was decided to remove the college to Grinnell, and Professor Sheldon was solicited to continue his connection with the institution ; this he declined to do. He had become attached to the city of his adoption and determined to spend the remainder of his days in the enjoyment of the society of the numerous friends he had made during his sojourn here.

In 1860 Bishop Lee purchased the college grounds and buildings, and it was determined to establish a new institution of learning on the site of the old Iowa College. Griswold College was opened December 12 of that year, with Professor Sheldon in his old position. This new college became his idol and its success his chief ambition . To its advancement he gave his entire energies, and with such success that he soon had the satisfaction of seeing it on the high road to prosperity and He was its most unselfish friend , and gave from his means all he could possibly afford to help it forward in its various departments. Its invaluable cabinet in geology, conchology, entomology and other departments of science is due almost wholly to his efforts and liberality, and a large number of the seven thousand volumes in its library can be credited to him.

Some years after Professor Sheldon came to Davenport the wife of one of Mrs. Sheldon's brothers died, leaving two motherless children. These were adopted by Professor Sheldon. One of the children lived but a few months; the other was reared by her adopted parents with all the tender care and wealth of affection that would have been bestowed on one of their own offspring.

Professor Sheldon continued his connection with the college up to the time when the increasing infirmities of a constitution, never too rugged, made it impossible to fully discharge the duties of the position. He died June 5, 1886.

In the limited space allowed in a work of this kind it is impossible to do more than outline the leading events in a life like Professor Sheldon's. The foregoing sketch attempts nothing more. He was one of those grand, noble, pure and exalted characters of whom much might be written. He was an instructor and educator rather than a mere teacher.

He made a careful study of the mental and moral qualities of every student who came under his charge, and it was his constant aim and purpose to develop, stimulate and foster the best there was in them. He had in a most remarkable degree the power of winning the con fidence and love of those with whom he came in contact, whether child or adult, and he was the personal friend of each of his students. Under the influence of his example and presence noble aspirations and qualities of mind and heart, which had hitherto lain dormant, were developed in almost every pupil with whom he came in contact ; he caused them to see life and nature in a different and noblerlight, and each went forth from under his influence with loftier purposes and strength: ened resolutions. Possibly no vocation in life offers so much in the way of opportunity for doing lasting good to the race as that of teacher. Professor Sheldon, with his pure and poetic temperament, had an exalted idea of the duties of his position, and discharged every duty with all the ardor of an enthusiast.

After his demise one of his former pupils in writing of him said : " He was the first instructor who commenced training me for the sacred ministry. I can say with hundreds of others that his was one of the most ennobling influences that ever came over my life.” Another says : “ And the boys—his students ; there is not one who is not the better for having met him and who does not cherish his memory like the fragrance of some sweet flower whose purity and sweetness have crossed our pathway in early life and linger on, never to be forgotten.” Another: “We shall not soon see his like again. His influence for good will not end with his death . Though dead his character will speak powerfully for truth and righteousness unto the end of time.” And another : " His example affected for good the whole life of any one connected with him . Would that every life could be as useful as his has been. Considering his unselfish devotion to his race one is filled with admiration and love, and finds grief giving place to the thought that he is occupying a position among the redeemed to which few of his fellow -men can ever hope to attain . "


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