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  • Jack Bowerman

Warren Ortman Ault – Baker’s First Rhodes Scholar


Warren was one of seven children in the Ault family who graduated from Baker, was Baker’s first and America’s second Rhodes Scholar, a classmate and friend of T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) and a world renown historian.


Warren Ortman Ault was born January 8, 1887 in Lenexa, Kansas to Addison and Mary McElwain Ault. He was the fifth of eight children living on the family farm near 119th and Antioch in Johnson County. Shortly after he was born his family moved with his grandparents to a farm in Jefferson County just west of Valley Falls. His mother and father were country school teachers as well as farmers and Warren was sent to school at age four because “he had become a nuisance at home” in his eagerness to read. When he was eight years old, Warren’s grandfather gave his father $2,000 to buy a 50 acre farm outside of Baldwin adjacent to the southwest city limits which would allow the oldest kids to start attending Baker. The family established and ran a small dairy, the boys tending the cows and delivering milk before and after school. His father joined the faculty of Baker in 1897 in the Commercial Department and four of his brothers preceded him in graduating from Baker. Two of his sisters graduated from Baker following him.


Warren entered the Baker Academy in 1902. In a 1989 interview with Jerry Weakley, Warren recalled his first impressions of the Baker campus: “I can even go back to 1895 because as a schoolboy, eight years old, I traversed the Baker University campus daily on my way to school entering it from the southwest about where the President's residence is now and coming across the campus to the Old Stone Church (Stone Hall), and then going off for another block to the school (Baldwin City school) which was in a brick building of two stories with three rooms on each floor, which housed the elementary, intermediate and high school classes. So, I was at one with the Baker University campus from an early age in that way.”


Warren’s impressions of Baker continued: “Now, there were only two buildings on the campus itself when we arrived, I say we meaning me and my family. One was the building now called Parmenter, a stone structure, and the other was a building which has vanished like a dream, the Centenary Hall for which I looked even for traces of it in vain when I went out to Baldwin, as you said twenty years ago. Centenary Hall was a large brick structure. . .. where all of our activities were centered. Well, almost all. Also, the administrative offices were there: the office of the President, the dean, the registrar and many classrooms. Most of our classrooms were there. Of course, a little later in 1902, they organized three science departments: chemistry, physics and biology, and those classes and laboratories were held in the old stone structure (Stone Hall) and before I left in 1907, the college library was always in the basement of Old Stone Hall. Otherwise, everything went on in Centenary.”


Warren continued: “We had chapel daily with rolls called to insure everyone was there and our inter-society debates, our intercollegiate debates, our oratory contests, and all the assemblies were in the main floor which was the second floor in Centenary Hall. Now, aside from those two buildings, there was also a pond in the southeastern corner of the campus. Well, it was really a frog pond, not much more water than was sufficient for a frog, actually, but it also had a swampy area from which we drew specimens for the microscopes in the biological laboratory. That was called Parmenter Lake. . . . I should say also that before I got through college, they built a gymnasium, the first gymnasium Baker University had ever had, and they introduced the game of basketball in which Baker often had a superior team, which I believe is still the case to this day.”


In an interview with the Lawrence Journal-World, Warren talked about his Baker experience: “I had four brothers who graduated from Baker ahead of me, so my path was made pretty smooth.” Having his brothers’ textbooks and notes was a big help, he said. “We had a full liberal arts curriculum,” he said. We thought very highly of our professors. They were persons of high character and distinction. . .. They had a great deal of influence on me.” Warren was a member of Zeta Chi fraternity while at Baker. His older brother, Harwell “Harley” Ault was one of the founding members of that fraternity in 1905. As Warren approached graduation in 1907, the family moved to Ottawa and Warren moved into the fraternity house. He slept for the first time in a heated room (he caught a bad cold) and for the first time was free of farm work and able to live “the life of an ordinary undergraduate.”


In the fall of 1907 Warren went to Jesus College, Oxford University as a Rhode Scholar. From Wikipedia: “The Rhodes Scholarship is an international postgraduate award for students to study at the University of Oxford. Established in 1903, it is the oldest graduate scholarship and is considered among the most prestigious international scholarship programs in the world. Its founder, diamond magnate Cecil John Rhodes, wanted to promote unity between English-speaking nations and instill a sense of civic-minded leadership and moral fortitude in future leaders, irrespective of their chosen career paths. . .. In his will, Rhodes specified that he did not want his scholarships to go to "merely bookworms." He wanted each candidate assessed in regard to:

  • his literary and scholastic attainments

  • his fondness of and success in manly outdoor sports such as cricket, football and the like

  • his qualities of manhood, truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for the protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness, and fellowship

  • his exhibition during school days of moral force of character and of instincts to lead and to take an interest in his schoolmates for those latter attributes will be likely in after-life to guide him to esteem the performance of public duty as his highest aim

Prior to Warren’s Rhodes scholarship award, there had been only seven such scholarships awarded in the entire world including only one American. In Warren’s class of 1907, there were three Americans (Warren and two from Harvard) and an Australian.


Warren’s life at Oxford was made richer by becoming friends with one of his classmates, T. E. Lawrence, who later became known as “Lawrence of Arabia.” From his review of a book about Lawrence by Malcolm Brown Norton: “"I was better acquainted with Lawrence," he recalled in a recent letter, "than with any other student of my time at Oxford. He taught me how to make professional-class brass rubbings of the small brasses in the churches around Oxford. We made one large rubbing of a brass (an image of the Archbishop of Dublin) that is in the chapel of New College. It took us about two hours, each of us making a copy. Mine now hangs on the landing in front of the Mansell Room in the front quad of Jesus College where the fellows eat their lunch. His has disappeared. "Lawrence also sat with me in a seminar on the first three crusades and, at his instance, I was invited to join a group in a seminar studying medieval armor and weapons. It was a workshop where we handled bits of chain mail and plate armor. I still have the handbook of our youthful instructor. I think Lawrence sought me out partly out of the goodness of his heart, but I think also it was because neither one of us fitted at all into the Victorian class system then rigidly in place in England. We were both of us outsiders, he because of his technically illegitimate birth (Lawrence’s parents never married) and I because I was an American." Warren was awarded a bachelor’s degree from Oxford in 1910 and later received a masters degree.


After his studies in England, Warren returned to Baldwin where he taught history at Baker for a year. In 1911, he entered Yale University to study history. That same year Baker’s President, Lemuel Murlin, became President of Boston University and in 1913 Murlin invited Warren to become the University’s first full-time historian. He was a popular teacher from the very beginning, but in 1917 he was the first faculty member to enlist in the Army. His students gave him an engraved watch (Warren later said “I still have it; it runs pretty well. It’s lost all its luminosity, but don’t we all.”). He served as a second lieutenant in the Army’s field artillery during World War I. After the war in 1919 he received his PhD from Yale and returned to Boston University. The class of 1920 dedicated its yearbook to him “as a token of our esteem for a discerning student of history who lives in his own day and faces to the future, a sympathetic counsellor, a loyal friend.” In the 1924 yearbook, the students had a little fun with him: “Being pretty certain of the past, having passed his PhD requirements, and not worrying unduly about the future, Professor Ault can afford to spend some of the present in such trivialities as tennis, volleyball and student socials. We wonder if he used a megaphone when he conducted that tour through England last summer.”


In 1926, he received the Guggenheim Fellowship which allowed him to continue his research in England during the summer of 1927 and to hire typists to transcribe the photostats he brought back. One of the typists was a Boston University senior, Myrtle Wilcox. Warren later said: “Her Latin and typing were excellent, and, in addition, I discovered that she had qualities which attracted me very much. In my 16 years at Boston University (to that point), I had never asked a student for a date, and in the case of Miss Wilcox I waited until classes were over. Myrtle received a bachelor’s degree in English in 1928 and then spent the next two years as a graduate assistant in the Geology department, conveniently located next door to the history office. Warren and Myrtle were married in 1931 just after she received her master’s degree. They had two children: Addison Ault (named after his grandfather) taught at Cornell College, Mount Vernon, Iowa as Professor of Chemistry for 50 years retiring in 2012; and Mary Ault Harada retired Professor of history and government at Northern Essex Community College, Haverhill, Massachusetts. After she retired Mary became a world class runner in senior competitions.


In 1927, he became the William Edwards Huntington professor of history and chairman of the growing history department. His scholarly work focused on the self-governance of medieval villages in England. His published works include:

  • Private Jurisdiction in England, 1922

  • Europe in the Middle Ages, 1932

  • Europe in Modern Times, 1946

  • Open-Field Husbandry and the Village Community: A Study of Agrarian By-Laws in Medieval England, 1965

  • Open-Field Farming in Medieval England: A Study of Village By-Laws, 1972

  • Boston University: The College of Liberal Arts, 1873-1973, 1973

Warren retied in 1957, ending the year with a sabbatical – his first. He taught full-time the next year and one course each semester for the following seven – a total of 52 years at Boston University. An article in the Alumni News said, “Dr. Warren Ortman Ault is described by members of the faculty as ‘the best teacher Boston University ever had.’” In 1960, Ault became the only College of Liberal Arts professor to be awarded an honorary doctor of letters degree by Boston University”


In 1971, his Oxford College, Jesus, named him an honorary fellow, one of only 17 Americans to receive this honor. In 1983, he was elected a fellow of the Medieval Academy of America. In 1985, the Zeta Chi Fraternity at Baker honored Warren by naming him Zeta Chi Alum of the Year. In a letter they extolled his numerous accomplishments and honors, and they emphasized his contributions to Baker: “On two occasions across the past half century, Warren has returned to Baker: in 1937 when the University conferred on him the honorary degree, Doctor of Laws (L.L.D.), and in 1968-69, when at the age of 81 years he served as Distinguished Scholar in Residence.


Warren died May 14, 1989. From the Baker Orange obituary: “You run out of superlatives when you talk about a man who’s lived to 102 and who has helped shape two universities” Baker President Daniel Lambert said today. Earlier this year Baker (1989) Baker presented a new award, the Baker University Medallion, to Ault and Baker’s other surviving Rhodes Scholar, Dr. Raymond Pruitt. The awards were for distinguished service to education. Ault had previously received an honorary degree from Baker, “so he’s had every honor this school can bestow,” Lambert said. The astonishing thing about Dr. Ault in throughout his life, he had a teacher’s mind,” he said. “He was perceptive, he was articulate, he was the epitome of the mentor in higher education.”

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