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William Tenney Brewster

Professor, Columbia University

Centurion, 1904–1961

Born 15 August 1869 in Lawrence, Massachusetts

Died 27 March 1961 in Scarsdale, New York

Proposed by James R. Wheeler and James G. Croswell

Elected 1 October 1904 at age thirty-five

Seconder of:

Century Memorial

“I’m feeling awful tickled about something,” wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay in a letter home from Barnard College. “It isn’t that I have another poem accepted. . . . It just has to do with Barnard.” She had just submitted a theme in verse to her English professor. Mr. Brewster, she explained, usually read the verse themes aloud to the class “with a gentle cynicism which would spoil even good verse. . . . If he takes a dislike to anything he delivers it accordingly.” In this case, however: “He read it beautifully. I was never so astonished in my life. He had really got hold of something he liked and he was a changed man. He seemed to understand every bit of it. Nothing struck him funny. . . .”

This letter, published in the Ladies Home Journal in October, 1952, delighted “Billy” Brewster’s many warm friends in the Century. It confirmed what they already suspected that the girls at Barnard hung on every word, watched every expression, responded to every inflection of voice of this beloved teacher. “I noticed,” wrote Miss Millay, “that there wasn’t even the twitch of a twinkle in his eye, and you may be sure I was watching for it.”

Every Tuesday at lunch at the oval table in the southwest corner of the Century’s dining room, the same group came, year after year, to meet with Billy Brewster, to be delighted by his wit and to know the rare experience of true conversation. And even those Centurions who did not know him were aware during lunch time Tuesdays that something special was happening at that table. For one thing, the tremendous exuberance of Leonard Bacon’s laugh, which used to penetrate every corner of the clubhouse, told them that his special friend Brewster had made some arrestingly humorous comment. In the old days, William W. (“Beowulf”) Lawrence, George Odell, Ashley Thorndike, Paul Reynolds, and Harry Lydenberg were also members of the Tuesday group.

William Brewster was born in 1870 [sic: 1869] and graduated from Harvard in 1892. He came to Barnard in 1894 and taught there for forty-nine years. He was appointed Professor in 1906; was Acting Dean from 1907 to 1910 and again from 1920 to 1923. He was Provost of the college from 1910 until 1923. He retired in 1943.

A friend and colleague says he “was a New England gentleman, an intellectual, a wit, a Harvard product of the exciting years of American humanism. His students will remember his marvellous memory. He could quote long scenes from Shakespeare. His own comic verse was the delight of the university department dinners. He was an excellent teacher of composition.”

With his wife, a painter, Brewster traveled much in Europe. After her death, he collected her sketches and paintings and reproduced them (some in color) in two beautiful volumes which are cherished by his friends and hers.

He died at ninety-one after fifty-seven years in the Century.

Roger Burlingame
1962 Century Association Yearbook