Unearthed early portrait shines new light on Monmouth College’s first president
MONMOUTH, Ill. — The name David Alexander Wallace is legendary at Monmouth College, in no small part because its flagship building — now 112 years old — was dedicated in his honor. Many Monmouth graduates retain a visual image of the College’s first president from the formal oil painting commissioned by alumni following his retirement in 1878, showing a portly, serious man, gray at the temples, who had toiled more than two decades to advance the struggling young Presbyterian institution on the prairie.
In fact, David Wallace is so synonymous with Monmouth College that we tend to forget he had a life prior to assuming the presidency in 1856, and a very vigorous life at that. The earliest image of Wallace in our archives is a “salt print” taken in 1859, which depicts a somewhat disheveled president, already somewhat careworn and beginning to put on some pounds. But just before this past Christmas, a surprise gift arrived — the first image we have seen of Wallace before he came west to take the reins at Monmouth.
An oval lithograph 16 inches tall, the portrait was executed in 1856 by the renowned French lithographer Leopold Grozelier, who in 1860 had drawn a popular lithograph of the smooth-shaven presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln. Grozelier originally worked as a portrait artist in New York City before locating in Boston in 1854. Working for S. W. Chandler & Brother of that city, he was renowned for creating lithographic portraits of famous Americans from daguerreotypes. It is possible that the Wallace portrait was modeled after a daguerreotype, which were still in use during the late 1850s.
The portrait, which is hand-signed “Yours fraternally, David A. Wallace,” shows Monmouth’s young future president, with dark hair, sideburns and a faint smile. The 30-year-old is wearing a suitcoat with plush lapels, a ribbon perhaps suspending his Phi Beta Kappa Key and a fashionable high collar. An air of confidence is reflected in his brown eyes, while the cares of a college presidency that would destroy his health and contribute to his premature death at age 57 were still in the future.
It’s rather remarkable that the 165-year-old portrait that sheds a new perspective on Monmouth’s first president still survives. For years it had been collecting dust in a Boston-area Presbyterian church’s storeroom, which was originally a bowling alley during Depression days. The church was organizing its archives and the pastor, the Rev. Allen Fairfax, contacted Monmouth College to see if it had an interest in the portrait.
Fairfax said it is somewhat of a mystery why the church had the portrait, as his congregation is not directly connected with the East Boston church that Wallace served. That church closed in the early 1990s, he said, but he is continuing to investigate possible connections.
Born in Ohio in 1826, David Wallace began his schooling at age 4 and entered Madison College at age 12. When his education put too great a strain on family finances, he dropped out and taught school for several years, before finally enrolling as a junior at Miami University. In 1846, he graduated at the head of his class, and before even receiving his diploma was asked to become president of Muskingum College.
Wallace remained at Muskingum until 1849, when he accepted public school administrative post in Wheeling, West Virginia. But a longing for the ministry soon led him to the seminary and he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1851 — the same year he married Martha Findley. The young couple entered a pastorate in Fall River, Massachusetts, and his success in quickly turning around that disorganized congregation caused his presbytery to assign him to a missionary church in East Boston in 1854.
Two years later, Wallace’s growing reputation as a dynamic preacher and able administrator caused the board of trustees of the new Monmouth College to invite him to become its first president. Reluctant to leave the civilized comforts of the city for a frontier outpost, he initially declined, but his wife had been suffering lung problems and her doctor advised that a change in climate would be beneficial, so the decision was made to move west.
Although Monmouth had just erected a new college building, it was quickly outgrown, and after a gift of land east of the city limits, Wallace found himself in charge of campaign to construct a new building on a 10-acre campus. However, the Civil War soon intervened, causing most of the male students to leave school, and financial pressures worsened. In addition to his duties as president, Wallace served as a professor, fundraiser and bookkeeper, as well as a pastor in the local church. He traveled the United States, preaching and raising funds to build an endowment. As the institution began to strengthen, his health declined.
A memoir by the Rev. Matthew Gault, who enrolled at Monmouth in 1865, provides a compelling sketch of President Wallace — the person — at that time:
“Though I had never heard of Monmouth before and was not acquainted with anyone there, yet under a new impulse I started for Monmouth,” he wrote. “Arriving in the morning from Chicago, I found my way to the home of Dr. Wallace, which was at that time out on the edge of the timber northeast of the college. Mrs. Wallace told me to turn to the right-hand door at the head of the stairs. The Doctor, in his most executive tone, said: ‘Come in.’ I was impressed with his noble appearance, and felt that I was in the presence of a great man. When I introduced myself, his manner changed, as he said in a tone of apology, ‘Did you write me for a catalogue, and I forgot to send it?’
“He made the kindest apology, made me stay for dinner, and afterward took me over to the college, and introduced me to a number of the students, among which was Joe McLean. I sat with Joe during chapel exercises, and we were intimate friends ever afterwards. Dr. Wallace could not have shown me greater kindness, and I have been thankful ever since that he forgot to send me the catalogue, for he more than made up for it by showing me special kindness. I was a poor forlorn youth, among entire strangers, and had never been away from home before. But from the first day I felt at home in Monmouth. The whole atmosphere was most congenial. Half the students had just returned from serving in the army, and they were a noble set of men. I can never forget their inspiring singing of the Old Psalms, without any instrumental music. The students prayer meeting, too, was full of inspiration. It was attended by almost the whole student body. The sermons and short addresses of Dr. Wallace I can never forget. He was the best and most inspiring teacher I ever had. I was so taken with Monmouth that I wrote my older brother, Thomas H. Gault, who had just returned home, after serving four years in the army, and he came and joined me in Monmouth, where we roomed together four years and graduated in 1870.”
In 1868, Wallace was granted a leave of absence and sailed to the British Isles, where he was warmly received by academics in Ireland, England and Scotland. Although the purpose of the trip was to regain his strength, he observed and undertook studies at the various universities. Thomas Gault was one of a committee of six students who prepared a citation welcoming Wallace back from his travels in September 1868. The citation read in part: “When you left these halls our hearts were pained to see the strong man become weak and to reflect that in your love for this institution and us, you had almost sacrificed your life; now our hearts are gladdened to see you restored to us again in fresh vigor of body. May our God see well long to preserve you to us is the hearty wish of your pupils.”
Wallace labored at Monmouth for eight more years before his health again declined and he offered his resignation. Instead of accepting it, the board offered him another period of rest, and he returned to Fall River, where the sea air reinvigorated him. He returned to Monmouth for one more year but became so weak that he was forced to retire in 1878, moving to Ohio. His health gave out for good in 1883, and his body was returned to Monmouth for burial.
The Grozelier portrait was not the only image of Wallace to also find its way back to Monmouth. During the last decade, two nearly identical oil portraits — commissioned posthumously by the family — were donated to the College by Wallace descendants. The newest — and earliest — portrait of Monmouth’s pioneer president will proudly take its place alongside them in the Monmouth College archives.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 40 years.