Oates, Whitney Jennings

Oates, Whitney Jennings (1904-1973), successively Ewing Professor of Greek, West Professor of Classics, and Avalon Professor of the Humanities, was a prime mover in the founding and development of a number of important University programs. Mike, as he was known to his colleagues and students, first came to Princeton from the Evanston Township High School in Illinois as a member of the Class of 1925. He graduated summa cum laude in classics, earning his A.M. in 1927 and his Ph.D. in 1931. As student and teacher, he was associated with Princeton for forty-nine years.

Chairman of the classics department for sixteen years, Oates published extensively in his special fields of interest, Greek drama and philosophy, and played a leading role in the teaching of the classics in translation. He was frequently voted a favorite preceptor and lecturer in annual senior class polls.

In the 1930s he was a principal organizer, and from 1945 to 1959 was chairman, of the Special Program in the Humanities, an interdisciplinary plan of study that exerted lasting influence on the form and spirit of education at Princeton. According to the seniors' Faculty Song, the Program was concocted over coffee mugs in the old Baltimore Dairy Lunch:

``Here's to Princeton's esthete band.
Making culture's final stand.
In the Balt they all convene,
Hinds, Godolphin, Oates, and Greene.''

During World War II, Oates served with the Marines in the Southwest Pacific. Soon after he came back to Princeton in 1945, he conceived and found the money for a plan to attract returning servicemen into college teaching; under his dynamic guidance this project eventually became the National Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Program.

Carrying further the essential ideas of the Special Program in the Humanities, he was largely responsible for the establishment in 1953 of the Council of the Humanities -- as a means of fostering significant teaching and research throughout this field -- and was its chairman until his retirement from the faculty in 1970.

Outside of Princeton, he showed similar leadership as a founding member of the National Commission on the Humanities, whose 1963 report did much to secure the establishment by Congress of the National Foundation for the Arts and the Humanities. He was also president of the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa, a senior fellow of the Center of Hellenic Studies in Washington, and a director of the American Council of Learned Societies.

Oates's ardent advocacy of humanistic learning nationally was matched at Princeton by the stimulating example he provided generations of Princetonians through his own humanity -- his good humor, kindheartedness, and unfailing cheerfulness. Robert F. Goheen, in turn Oates's student, colleague, and president, said that ``In his person and in his work he stood in the long, strong line of Christian humanists who have helped give spiritual as well as intellectual quality to this university down through the years. . . . He was imbued, in Professor Osgood's phrase, with `an affectionate concern, incorrigible and dominant, for his fellow men.'''

From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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