William Rainey Harper: Lending a hand in Bradley’s foundation

photo by Special Collections, Bradley University Library
photo by Special Collections, Bradley University Library
photo by Special Collections, Bradley University Library

William Rainey Harper, the man behind the name of Bradley’s Harper Residence Hall, was born in New Concord, Ohio, in 1856. From a young age, it was clear Harper was bright. He could read at age three and developed a natural knack for languages. He couldn’t enroll at Yale until he turned 17, but the wait was worth it – Harper earned a doctorate at the ripe age of 19.

After earning his Ph.D., he married his long-time girlfriend Ella Paul, with whom he had three sons. Harper moved to Chicago, where he taught at Morgan Park Seminar for six years. He absolutely loved teaching and preferred to be called “Mr. Harper” rather than “Dr. Harper.” He was a clean-shaven, stocky man who lived each day by a strict schedule and a Christian who embraced all people. In 1886, Harper returned to New Haven to be a professor of languages at his alma mater. At Yale, he taught courses in Latin, Greek and Hebrew.

In 1891, John D. Rockefeller selected Harper to help organize the University of Chicago. At 35, Harper was the guiding force behind the university and was the visionary of its founding. While in Illinois, he quickly became friends with Lydia Moss Bradley, who was looking to found a school of her own and needed advice.

Lydia originally wanted the school to be established after her death, but it was Harper who convinced her to charter the school beforehand so she could have the privilege of seeing it grow. Harper suggested making Bradley a two-year school that fed into the University of Chicago, but Lydia was set on making it a four-year school that would provide a modern approach to higher education. Thus, Bradley Polytechnic Institute was chartered in 1896.

Harper, along with his handpicked delegates and faculty, staffed Bradley when it opened its doors in 1897. Harper guided the university through its foundational years as the first president and served on the university’s board until he died of cancer in 1906 at age 50. According to Joanne Glasser in her 2012 Founder’s Day remarks, his last words were, “God always helps.”