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  • Jack Bowerman

William Alfred Quayle - The Skylark of Methodism



William Alfred Quayle’s parents, Thomas Quayle and Elizabeth Gell, were from the Isle of Man. While they were cousins, it is not clear that they knew each other when they grew up, but they met each other when they both settled in a Manx community in northern Ohio after they had immigrated to the United States in the 1850’s. They were married on October 6, 1958 in Cook’s Corner, Erie County, Ohio. His mother had a gift of language and his father was deeply religious. (2)


In 1860, William’s father decided that he and his pregnant wife should seek their fortune in the goldfields of Colorado, and they joined a wagon train headed West. The stopped in Parkville, Missouri and William was born on June 25, 1860. Because of his anti-slavery views, Thomas was not popular in Missouri and he decided that they would be safer in Kansas. They crossed the Missouri River a Leavenworth. Quayle liked to tell the story that they crossed the river at night “not to escape the paying of bills but because my father had the audacity and the perversity to vote for Abraham Lincoln for President. They had a string of definite length and they were going to tie one end around my father’s neck and lay the other end of the string over the branch of a tree and were going to pull on the north end of the rope while my father stood on the south end.” The family spent a little while in Leavenworth and then proceeded to Colorado. (2)


In 1863, William’s mother, Elizabeth, died in Colorado and Thomas felt unable to take care of 3-year-old William by himself. Thomas took him to live with his deceased wife’s brother, Edward Gill, who was in the army and living with his wife, Rebecca, at Fort Leavenworth. Edward was a blacksmith, but during the Civil War he was a 2nd lieutenant in charge of an artillery unit with the 15th Kansas Volunteer Calvary Regiment. His Company H saw action in eastern Kansas and western Missouri and was attached to the 16th Kansas Volunteer Calvary Regiment on the Powder River Expedition in the Black Hills against the Indians. The 16th was commanded by former Baker President Werter Renick Davis. Edwards company was mustered out in December 1865, and he returned to civilian life with his wife and nephew.


After the war, the Gills moved to a farm near Auburn, Shawnee County, Kansas. Times were hard for the family and they were quite poor. Things went from bad to worse when Edward decided to abandon his trade as a blacksmith to become a Methodist preacher. Quayle later wrote, “. . . For four years, during my early boyhood, I lived with my uncle on that farm, a red-headed, freckle faced youngster with blue overalls on . . . William was known as Willie Gill during this period. When Edward’s wife, Rebecca, died in the early 1870’s, William went to live with another Methodist minister, James Boicourt and his wife Sarah and when William left to briefly attend Baker Academy, Boicourt found him a home in Baldwin where he could live and work while he was going to school.


Homer Kingsley Ebright, in his 1951 “History of Baker University,” eloquently summed up Quayle’s early years: “Lonely, not remembering his mother, his father in Colorado hunting for gold, the lad lived with nature and grew in his own way. With the first money he earned, he bought a copy of Shakespeare. And when he was converted in a country schoolhouse he walked to the front of the room and kneeled down with his head upon an old dictionary, there being no chancel. He had a strange passion for books.”


After over ten years in Colorado, William’s father finally returned to Kansas. After the death of William’s mother in 1863, Thomas had married Catherine Fowler in 1867. The couple had a daughter, Mona, the following year, but in 1872 Catherine died. Upon his return, Thomas settled on the family farm near Auburn and married Eunice West in 1874. William continued in his duties as a plowboy on the farm, but his desire for an education was strong. In 1874, at the age of 14, William entered Baker University’s preparatory department. At this time, Baker had a two-year course of study to prepare students for college, called the Baker Academy, as well as a four-year college course. However, William ran out of money within a year and returned to the farm. In 1977-79, he continued his preparatory studies at Kansas State Agricultural University and the University of Kansas, but again ran out of money


It was during this period that he experienced a religious conversion at a Methodist evangelical meeting in a rural schoolhouse. He bowed down, not over a Bible, but over the only book in the house ,“an old dictionary. . . . I met Jesus. I experienced religion, as we say, and Jesus became to me the Poet of my life and the Preceptor of my spirit.”


In 1880, he headed back to Baker to finish his preparatory studies, and in 1881, he began his college studies at Baker. He worked his way through college when it was uncommon to do so as a woodcutter, farm boy, janitor, and table waiter. In his last two years, he was a tutor in English and Latin. In 1885, he graduated as valedictorian of his graduating class of six, and in 1886, Baker hired him as an Adjunct Professor of Ancient Languages.


On January 28, 1886, William married Allie Hancock Davis, daughter of Baker's first president, Werter Renick Davis. Allie had been married twice before, first to Andrew Jackson Perry, the son of a prominent Lawrence grocer, in 1873. They had one child together, Mabel M Perry, but Andrew died in 1877. Mabel later married Charles S Parmenter, who taught at Baker for 40 years and for whom Parmenter Hall on the Baker campus is named. Allie then married Joseph William Robbins who became the Surveyor General of the State of Arizona in 1880. The had one child together, Elizabeth Margaret Robbins (born 1883). Joseph died in 1883. William and Allie had three children together: Wilfred Russell Quayle (born 1888); Lida Quayle (born 1890); and Allie Gayle Quayle (born 1893).


He then joined the Kansas Conference of the Methodist Church and entered the ministry and was assigned to be the pastor at Osage City, Kansas. But in 1887, he was lured back to Baker to become Professor of Greek Language and Literature. In 1889, he was named vice president. In 1890 he became the president of Baker and was hailed in the press as “the youngest college president in the world . . . a living demonstration of the fact that the West has become educationally and intellectually self-supporting.”


The 1890’s were prosperous times for Baker as they were for most of the country. Enrollment at Baker increased during Quayle presidency. Quayle had honed his skills as a public speaker while a student and teacher as Baker. He was in high demand and took on speaking engagements in many major cities and small towns across the country. As his reputation grew, the reputation of Baker University did as well. He was supportive of the academic development of Baker students and the literary societies became an important part of University life. The four college classes, House of Hanover, Columbian Commonwealth, Senatus Romanus and King Arthur’s Court, which still exist today were organized during Quayle’s tenure.


During Quayle’s presidency, Baker was a football powerhouse. The first recorded football game in Kansas took place on November 22, 1890 at Baldwin. The Topeka Capital reported that football "had its first introduction into Western colleges today. Baker University defeated Kansas University, 22 to 9.” Later that year Baker defeated Washburn and KU again this time in Lawrence. Baker, KU and Washburn formed a new league in 1891, and KU defeated Baker twice and became the new state champion. In 1892, KU and Baker split the two games they played, and Baker finished with a record of 2-3. In 1893, Baker had an undefeated season, which included victories over KU, Missouri, Nebraska and the Denver Athletic club. Months after Baker was named “Champions of the West”, the Kansas Conference of the Methodist Church met and adopted a resolution banning football because of some accidents that had occurred. Quayle polled a number of other Methodist schools, including Northwestern, Syracuse, Illinois Wesleyan and Ohio Wesleyan to try to defeat the ban, but Baker’s Board of Trustees supported the Methodist Church’s view and football was abolished. The star players scattered to other schools for the next year and football did not return to Baker until 1908.


In 1894, Quayle decided that his next calling was to reenter the ministry. Over the next 14 years he was assigned to a series of increasingly prestigious churches: Independence Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church, Kansas City, Missouri (1894-1897); Meridian Street Methodist Episcopal Church, Indianapolis, Indiana 1897-1900); Grand Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church, Kansas City, Missouri (1900-1904); Saint James Methodist Episcopal Church, Chicago Illinois (1904-1908). His rise in church circles finally culminated in his being named bishop in 1908. His bishopric residences included: Oklahoma City (1908-1912); Saint Paul (1912 1916); and Saint Louis (1916-1924). Quayle’s 30 years as a Methodist minister and bishop came to an end in 1924 because of declining health.


Quayle traveled extensively during his lifetime and lived in more than a half a dozen cities during his ministry, but Baldwin was always his home. Driven by his love of nature and having grown up on a farm, he began acquiring land north of Baldwin in 1896. By 1901, he had acquired 80 acres and he often wrote about his enjoyment of nature while walking around his property. The Quayle farm was located on property once owned by John Baldwin after whom Baldwin City is named and it was just north of where the Signal Oak used to stand and where Kibbee’s cabin was located. In 1913, he began building what he hoped would be his retirement home on the corner of what is now North 6th Street and Quayle Street in the Palmyra section of Baldwin. He called the home Dreamhaven and it still stand today.


In addition to his fame as an orator, Quayle was a prolific author. He wrote 28 books, most of them dealing with religious topics, but he also wrote about his love of nature. He was also well acquainted with the social issues of his day. He was stridently anti-German during the years preceding and following World War I. In an exchange of opinions with President Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor, he upheld the right of labor to organize, “but I do not believe in the right of organized labor or organized capital to do unjustly by any man or set of men of the United States people.” H was fearful that organized labor could have undue influence on the outcome of elections.


Quayle’s health went into decline while he served in St. Louis. He suffered a series of setbacks in 1921 and 1922 and was forced to retire in 1923. He returned to Dreamhaven and while he stayed active, he did sustain a fall on the streets of Baldwin and was told to remain in bed. However, on March 9, 1925, he spent the morning dictating letters and writing and about 4 p.m. he fell in his home. He died of heart failure without regaining consciousness. The main address at his funeral service was delivered by Dr. Merton S. Rice, his student, friend and biographer. He was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Baldwin.


Rice’s biography of Quayle is subtitled “The Skylark of Methodism.” - “I saw a skylark spring from the furrow of a field, with its strange circling climbing flight, wing its fascinating way into the very concealment of the sky above me, while it thrilled my soul with the melody of its song. For that reason, as I have watched this fascinating friend of mine, starting from his humble place soaring to the heights of genius, and leaving the world a-flood with his song. I have chosen to call him THE SKYLARK OF METHODISM."


One of Quayle’s legacies, of course, is the Quayle Rare Bible Collection now housed in the Baker Library. He applied the royalties from the books he wrote and lecture fees from his public speaking engagements across the country toward the purchase of rare books, especially Bibles. His travels as a much-acclaimed orator, minister, author and college president aided him in his search. When Quayle left the collection to Baker in his will, it included 250 volumes, but donations by others since then have increased the collection to over 700 volumes.

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