How are the mighty fallen

‘Whatever else may not agree in this disagreeing world, a verb must agree with its noun.’ Ephraim smacked his fist into his palm and then laughed. His new patron, President Pendleton of Bethany College, had the grace and perception to laugh with the just-arrived professor of Hebrew, Greek and Biblical exegesis.

From dry, spare prairie to cradling green hills, the jolt in setting was as if the Epsteins had been picked up and put down in the panhandle of West Virginia by a tornado. After the bitterness in Dakota Territory Ephraim was buoyed with vindication. From being founding president of a university there the house, pay and privileges here are a diminishment from his previous glory, but now he has utter academic freedom. A new book project, a new geography, and, aged 56, yet again a new life awaits — with the loyal Helena and their four daughters to support.

Once again Ephraim lands on his feet, with a post at Bethany College: ideal for him as it was founded by free-thinking Disciples of Christ who believed in no sects, no denominations. His literate and independent style of Christianity surely won’t get him in trouble here. But why not support his family by doctoring? In Chapter 34, Resurrection, in the seventh year of mourning for his little son he still feels unable to return to practice. Bethany College, click  here , flourishes to this day. The home of its second President, William K Pendleton, had been a station in the underground railroad for escaping slaves some 25 years before Ephraim’s time at Bethany. 

Political chicanery

Ousted! He was Founding President of the University of Dakota, but the second academic year was bittersweet for Ephraim. He could not regret that the institution was flourishing and his imprint was on every aspect of its success. But the Board of Regents of the university wanted a different president.

He campaigned for it, was invited to set it up and run it in 1882 until (in his own words) ‘sectarian and political chicanery ousted me.’

From the now University of South Dakota archives: [he] ‘held controversial religious views. Eventually Epstein was removed as president due to political motives by certain members of the Regents of Education when the territory assumed control of the university in 1883. There was also speculation that Dr Epstein had amassed a significant debt for contracting a house in Vermillion.’

A Baptist historical report says: ‘Many friends of the institution deeply regretted the discourtesy and ingratitude exhibited towards its founder.’

Pictured here, from usd.edu archives, the University of Dakota President’s House, North Yale Street, Vermillion. Was this the cause of ‘significant debt’? Normally in this blog-of-his-life I give passages from my biographical fiction, but this true event may yet be contentious today! So I have quoted here from the sources I found, and had a wonderful time imagining our way into Ephraim’s devastating experience (and the birth of another daughter, my grandmother Naomi Epstein) in Chapter 33, The Stone Rejected by the Builders. Will he recover from this? Oh yes — but how, where?

Father of a university

Father of a university. Ephraim was fired with purpose — he accepted the offer: Founding President of Dakota University. He swore that no inquiring mind would be silenced in his university, he would ensure this would be written into the bylaws. Its motto would be Veritas.

Students! Books! Learning! The passionate campaigning of Ephraim and his fellow educationalists around the Territory had resulted in an enrolment of sixty-nine students. With University Hall not yet ready, on a clear day in early October 1882 the University of Dakota’s classes opened in Clay County Court House in Vermillion’s Main Street. The crowning joy of this first academic year came in June 1883 with the opening ceremony for University Hall. Six-year-old Frieda Epstein, in a new white dress, led a cortege of twenty children strewing daisies and pink roses to carpet the path to the hall.

At last Ephraim has faith and trust in a cause, and the cause has faith and trust in him. Since he abjured medicine on the tragic death of his son four years earlier this is the first position that fully utilizes his mental powers, experience, qualifications and knowledge. In Chapter 32, Veritas: President and Founder, he is flying high. But will it last?

University seal courtesy of usd.edu For link click Here

Ephraim was hooked

Ephraim was hooked. Education, fine minds, the good of all — this work had to be done. He offered to join the campaign to start the University of Dakota, for his Baptist circuits provided an ideal opportunity to build support. Mr Kettering gladly welcomed the respected, highly-educated Dr Epstein. The founding trustees were tough, intelligent men and Ephraim savoured working with them as equals conferring over petitions, deadlines and charter requirements. With a cause to fight for Ephraim became fully his old self. His dispirited determination ceased, his withdrawals to his desk were now charged with energy. Helena rejoiced in his zeal; at last her husband was the confident, enthusiastic man she had fallen in love with.

Finally, two years after the awful death of his little son, Ephraim regains purpose in life, though he still feels unable to practice medicine. In Chapter 31, Orion Rising, his engagement in the new cause of a university for the raw Dakota Territory is interrupted by the devastating Great Flood of 1881. By mid-April 400 miles of the Missouri River had been inundated and the worst destruction is in the 25 miles between Yankton, where Ephraim lives, and Vermillion — the town designated as home to the university. The whole settlement of Vermillion has been washed away. Lesser men would be fazed, but Ephraim?