Some Features on the Life of Charles Bessey

by Raymond J. Pool

Professor Bessey was notified in June 1884 that he had been elected professor of botany in the University of Nebraska. He was then at Ames College, Iowa. The selection had been made by the regents of the University without Professor Bessey’s knowledge but he was sufficiently interested in the incident to come to Lincoln “to look the place over”. During that first visit to the university he found that nothing had been done along botanical lines and he was therefore naturally reluctant to leave the accumulation of his fifteen years’ labor at Ames to go to a new state to build up a new department from the very beginning. So he told the regents that they were not ready for him and declined the offer of the professorship. A second offer, extended in August of the same year, included deanship of the industrial faculty or college as well as the professorship of botany. After another trip to Lincoln and a consultation with the board of regents Professor Bessey accepted the second call and his inaugural address was delivered at the University in September 1884. He did not move to Lincoln, however, until November 18, 1884 after the completion of the college term at Ames. He began his active class work at the university in January 1885. His first thought was always with the work of his classes in lecture room and laboratory and except for a few brief interruptions he continued that work to the beginning of his final illness.

The moment that Doctor Bessey crossed the Missouri River on this way to his new work in the university he became a Nebraskan. As he once remarked to me: “When I came to Nebraska I became a Nebraskan. I stopped by Iowa papers and subscribed for the corresponding Nebraska papers and in every possible manner I began to make myself at home in the new position.” In doing this he was being true to the request of his mother expressed many years before when Bessey as a boy was leaving his old home in Ohio to go to Michigan. Upon that occasion his mother said to him: “Charles, wherever you are, be one of the people of the community; act as though you intended to live their always, and make yourself so useful that they cannot spare you”. The full measure with which he honored that maternal wish when he went to Michigan, to Iowa, and finally to Nebraska must have been one of the most gratifying recollections of the aged mother as she reviewed the career of her boy especially at the time of his visits to the old home which were made annually until the mother passed away at a ripe old age only a few years before her illustrious son.

Much of Dr. Bessey’s energy was devoted during the earlier years of his work in Nebraska to the collection of the grasses and other economic plants of the state. He made many talks on grasses, weeds, plant diseases, the methods of improving plants and the possibilities of a better agriculture. He soon became acquainted with Governor Furnas and with him organized the first series of Farmers’ Institutes which were thereafter periodically enlivened by his presence. His first address to the Farmers’ Alliance was in December 1884, and to the State Horticultural Society in January 1885. Then followed years of pleasant and profitable association with these and all of the other agricultural organizations of the state. His interest in tree planting and his relation to that work in the state and nation attracted wide attention at home and abroad. The remarkable work that the U.S. Forest Service has done and is now doing in the Nebraska sandhills is but one of the many important undertakings which were directly inspired by Dr. Bessey’s enthusiasm and far-sightedness.

During the later years of his life Dr. Bessey was particularly delighted to observe the rapid progress that his adopted state was making along the various branches of agricultural endeavor. This was interpreted in a modest way as a result, in part at least, of the labors he bestowed in that direction in his earlier years in Nebraska. No more fitting tribute could have been rendered, nor one more gratifying to him, than was done in January 1913 when hundreds of people representing all of the agricultural and many other activities of the state gathered in his honor and when numerous speakers helped to recall the incidents of his long period of service which was then in its twenty-ninth year.

The state of Nebraska loved Professor Bessey and he reciprocated that affection to the fullest but that was merely one of the many directions toward which an overflowing measure of devotion and enthusiasm carried him. His broad-mindedness and the many-sidedness of his personality made Bessey a valuable citizen of the state because his intellectual horizon was broad enough to include the great and the small affairs of the state and the nation and to stimulate the highest scientific achievement as well. That his sterling qualities were esteemed by his associates was strikingly illustrated by the great number of important offices to which he was elected, both at home and abroad. The highest scientific honor of this kind which came to him was probably the presidency of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His name occurs in the list of presidents of that famous organization along with such names as Agassiz, Gray, Dana, Torry, Le Conte, Mendenhall, Newcombe, Remsen and Jordan.

Professor Bessey always took a great interest in the development and progress of the agricultural college and experiment stations. During the early eighties he had considerable to do in connection with the plans of the U.S. Department of Agriculture looking toward the establishment of state agricultural experiment stations supported in a measure by federal aid. He finally defined the duties of such experiment stations in a paragraph which was later adopted verbatim as a part of the law known as the Hatch Act. It is also of local interest that he wrote the first and second annual reports of the Nebraska Agricultural Experiment Station in 1888 and 1889.

At about the same time there was considerable agitation in the state to sell the Experimental Farm of “State Farm”, but Dr. Bessey threw the full weight of his influence against that movement and after a vigorous campaign the agitation ceased and the movement was defeated.

Professor Bessey was the author of many technical and semi-popular books and papers. Besides his books and numerous technical papers he wrote much for the agricultural press and for the more or less popular audience. For considerable periods of time he was associated editorially with a number of botanical and other scientific journals. In this capacity he was often called upon to review the published work of others. He held very decided opinions as to what constitutes a review of a scientific book or paper. He felt that what the botanical world wanted was a glimpse of what such a book or paper contained rather than a criticism of the bad points which he might have pointed out. He very seldom wrote and adverse note. Enthusiastic in hid praise of good work he was occasionally somewhat harsh in the condemnation of obviously worthless or grossly misleading material. Even this infrequent tendency was not altogether unpleasant for the victim, however, because everyone knew the kindly spirit in which Professor Bessey issued even his criticisms. He always sought to temper criticism wherever possible and he seldom spoke or wrote an unkind word. He tried to do the good and the pleasant and to leave undone and unsaid the unpleasant. This was a feature of Bessey’s general life and in thus living he performed a service the extend of which is probably not appreciated by those unfamiliar with its magnitude and significance.

But Bessey was best known to Nebraskans and to those in the university as “Professor” Bessey, the vigorous enthusiastic and devoted exponent of the cause of education and the fatherly friend of the student. Except for a few hundred dried specimens, many of which indeed were poorly prepared and even in-correctly named, there was no botanical equipment in the university when he entered upon his second and last professorship in this institution. Truly, Bessey was all that there was to the department of botany in the University of Nebraska in 1884. But it was not long until there were students, laboratories, library, microscopes, herbarium and other equipment in abundance. As a result of his labors and the stimulus of his teaching the herbarium has grown until now there are more than 35,000 specimens in the herbarium of the Botanical Survey of Nebraska and the general collection contains more than 300,000 additional specimens which represent nearly all of the floras of the world. The botanical library has grown from nothing in the beginning to a very useful collection containing several thousand botanical books, thousands of pamphlets, and nearly all of the leading botanical periods of home and foreign publications in complete files. The laboratories have grown from a room or two in University Hall or in the Old Chemical Laboratory and later to several rooms in Nebraska Hall. His department was always crowded and it is especially sad that he did not live to enjoy more commodious quarters in the new building which bears his name.

Bessey’s student were numbered by the thousands. One of his keenest delights was to page over the lists of former students of his department and to picture their lives and their labours, often in distant lands, all contributing of their thought and effort to the advancement of science and the betterment of mankind. He was never too busy to drop all of his work instantly for a hearty greeting which often lengthened to a real visit with his “boys” when they chanced to returned to Lincoln for a few hours. He was an inspiring advisor to the student. Many times the homesick or discouraged student left his office rejoicing and with fresh courage and real inspiration for his work. This was true not only for the botanically inclined but also for others whose primary inclination had drawn them into other fields.

As a teacher Professor Bessy had no superiors. His methods in the class room and laboratory were so full of boyish enthusiasm, he was so companionable, that the students were simply “infected” with the matter with which he dealt. It was the personality of the man which made his teaching such as strong factor in student life for nearly a half century. The quaint paternal cordiality, so marked during the last decade of his life, won the admiration of many students who really cared little for botany but who took his courses merely to come to know the man, or because their father or mother had had work with him and they wanted their sons and daughters to come under the same benign presence regardless of what they might learn of the wonders and beauties of plant life.

The stimulating methods of the man the esprit de corps that were always conspicuous about his department were reflected in a particularly interesting and important form in the institution of the Botanical Seminar by a few of his advanced students in 1886. The “Sem. Bot.” soon became and has always been one of the most enthusiastic and useful departmental clubs in the land. The organization was largely apart from his supervision but yet his was the guiding spirit from which the members drew their enthusiasm whether that factor led them out of a dark night to attach the “Lits and Phillistines” or sent them into a remote section of the state in search of some new element of the flora.

Doctor Bessey was deeply religious, as all understand who knew him best. This fact is beautifully portrayed in his own words spoken upon the occasion of the death of a long-time friend who was dear to him. “At the table of life we sit with our friends, enjoying their presence, their conversation, their counsel; and it seems to us that this pleasant company must continue indefinitely. and then — — — one goes into another room, and does not return. His vacant chair reminds us of his absence, and we stare in sorrow at the place where so recently he sat among us. So has gone from us our longtime friend, and so we sit in sorrow that we shall see him no more among us. When we father again in the places where we were wont to see him we shall miss his genial countenance whose very presence was a benediction. To that other room to which he is gone we ourselves shall go, and there will be gathered again the company of congenial spirits that learned to love each other here. He has gone before and left us here a while, but we shall follow him very soon and find him there awaiting us.” No better words or phrases than these could be chosen to describe the deep, burning sadness in the hearts of Dr. Bessey’s admirers as he was laid away. The words reveal, in their very simplicity, much of the life and philosophy of our steadfast friend, of our inspiring teacher, of our fatherly associate.

Dr. Bessey’s last illness covered a period of four weeks beginning during the last week of January and culminating in his death on the evening of February 25, 1915. Yes, he is gone, but to have met him was to honor him; to have been taught by him was a priceless privelege; to have been intimately associated with him was a benediction; to have walked with him into the fields and woods and to have received from him a glorious view of the realm of which he was master was to have been led very close to the great throbbing heart whose pulsations will never cease in the breasts of those who sat at his feet until they too shall have passed into that “other room”.