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Douglas Wilson Honorary Degree Presentation

Presented by Rodney O. Davis, Szold Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History

June 02, 2007

President Taylor, the first honorary doctorate ever given by Knox College was conferred on Abraham Lincoln in 1860. It is therefore appropriate that we should similarly honor a man who has become one of the foremost interpreters of Lincoln's life and career on this day, nearly 150 years after Lincoln was so distinguished. It is my very great pleasure to present Dr. Douglas L. Wilson, for the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.

We have but a limited amount of time for these citations, and such draconian requirements preclude my even beginning to properly list and evaluate all the reasons why Douglas Wilson should be on this platform today. When he came to the Knox College English Department in 1961 Mr. Wilson hit the ground running. Almost immediately he became well known as one of the most rigorous teachers on the Knox faculty. And what he demanded of students he more than demanded of himself in extraordinary measure. He mastered the canons and the techniques of not one but several fields. Among other things he became a potter so accomplished that his wares were for sale in several area shops in the late 1960s. Better known is the fact that he mastered the attendant literature and became a respected scholar of George Santayana, Mormonism in Illinois, and the agrarian tradition in America (something that he pursued and is pursuing experientially as well as academically). He has been an academic innovator, co-founding the interdisciplinary American Studies Program at Knox, and instituting and co-directing Knox's Farm Term in 1971, the direct ancestor of the successful biennial spring term academic program that is now located at Green Oaks. Between 1972 and 1991 he directed the Knox College Library and made it what it ought to be, the intellectual center of the Knox campus. And he developed a research interest in Thomas Jefferson that produced upwards of two dozen scholarly articles and at least three books, and led to his appointment, in 1994, to a four-year tenure as the first director of the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello.

All this sounds like the stuff of a whole career already, but only now are we finally getting to Abraham Lincoln. Mr. Wilson's interest in what Thomas Jefferson read in his formative years led him to ask the same question about Abraham Lincoln, and one thing so led to another that Mr. Wilson had already published several articles on Lincoln's pre-presidential years before leaving for Monticello. While in Virginia he continued work on Lincoln, and upon returning to Knox in 1998 he co-founded what he has since called "a failed retirement project," the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College. For retirement has hardly been the game at the Lincoln Studies Center. In the nine years of its activity, Lincoln work done by Mr. Wilson and his co-director has led to the publication of yet more articles, five more books, and a project to transcribe and annotate the bulk of the material in the Library of Congress's Abraham Lincoln Papers. One of these books is the first in the Lincoln Studies Center's new publication series, and two of them, authored exclusively by Mr. Wilson, have been awarded the Lincoln Prize, one of the most prestigious and the most lucrative prize that is conferred on an American historian. Of the most recent of these books by Mr. Wilson, Lincoln's Sword, which was published this past November, Doris Kearns Goodwin has written that it "is so good that it will shape Lincoln scholarship for generations." Can there be a higher accolade than that?

Mr. President, in recognition of these extraordinary scholarly and academic contributions to the life of the mind at Knox College and the world at large, I am proud to present my friend and colleague for over 40 years, Professor Douglas Wilson, for the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.

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