Greatness consists not in the holding of some future office, but really consists in doing great deeds with little means and the accomplishment of vast purposes from the private ranks of life. To be great at all, one must be great here, now.
Most famous for founding Temple University (just about single-handedly), Russell Herman Conwell was an accomplished minister, orator, philanthropist, soldier, lawyer, entrepreneur, writer and more. When he was 18, he enrolled at Yale University but didn’t stay there for long. After the Civil War began, he returned to his home state of Massachusetts where he became a recruiter. Even at such a young age, he was an accomplished speaker as his stirring and patriotic speeches inspired young men to immediately join the Union army.
After the war, Conwell earned a bachelor of laws degree from the University of Albany and later was ordained at the Newton Seminary in Newton, Massachusetts. He had been gaining fame as an orator and lecturer, so when he moved to Philadelphia in 1882 to pastor the Grace Baptist Church, he was already relatively well known. His most famous speech “Acres of Diamonds” drew many crowds. The part lecture, part sermon, part autobiography focused on the value of education and the importance of service to both family and community. He argued that success could be obtained through education and that it was the duty of educated, successful individuals to serve the less fortunate. He also encouraged people to invest in their own community. “Your diamonds are not in far distant mountains or in yonder seas,” he said. “They are in your own backyard, if you but dig for them.”
His dedication to hard work and education is most evident in the founding of Temple University. In 1884, a young printer had no money for education but was interested in joining the ministry. He asked Conwell for advice on how to overcome this financial obstacle, and Conwell offered to privately tutor him for free. Soon several students joined Conwell’s informal classes until the number reached 40. Conwell enlisted volunteer teachers to help educate these young people in his church’s basement. This went on until 1887 when Conwell officially announced his intent to create the formal institution “Temple College.” He personally spread the word about the new school, with a building strategically placed within walking and riding distance from many factories, making education convenient and easy for the workers there. In the first month, 200 interested people signed up, and by 1888, Temple College was incorporated and chartered by the state of Pennsylvania. The purpose of the school was “the support of an education institution, intended primarily for the benefit of working men” (later “and for men and women desirous of attending the same” was added). There was no tuition, and prospective students did not have to have previously studied anywhere to get in. Conwell did not want anything to come between hardworking individuals pursuing knowledge and an education.
In 1892, Temple held its first commencement with eighteen graduates, including four women, receiving a bachelor of oratory. Fifteen years later, the college was incorporated as a university. Today, Temple University is a public research university with nearly 40,000 students and 3,000 academic staff. Conwell served as president of the faculty at Temple until he died on December 6, 1925. He is buried, with his wife, Sarah, in the Founder’s Garden on Temple’s campus.
Hero of Liberty image attribution: R. Campbell Tibb and Henry W. Ruoff (1867-1935) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons