While researching a reference question recently, we came across an envelope marked “Notes written to Thomas A. Edison on Founders Day, February 24, 1930, during the program.” These appear to have been written by Pres. Hamilton Holt, who presented Edison with an honorary degree of science that day.
At the time of the ceremony, Edison had just turned 83. One newspaper reported that while he could not hear the “words of tribute paid to him, Mr. Edison took an active interest in the two-hour exercise that ended at high noon,” though he was escorted off the platform during the first part of the ceremony to rest in the shade for a time.
Since Edison had difficulty hearing, Pres. Holt wrote notes to him throughout the day. Here are some of them:
George Cartwright served as the College’s Superintendent of Grounds and Buildings from 1927 to 1961, and received the Rollins Decoration of Honor 1941. A native of Sheffield, England, he lived in Canada before coming to the United States in 1919.
During the ceremony, a $5,000 donation to the College’s Endowment Fund from Mrs. A. M. Young of Mountain Lake was announced, as well as the gift of a new women’s dormitory from former New York congressman and philanthropist Cornelius A. Pugsley ’29H, a Rollins trustee.
According to The Sandspur, Pres. Holt “announced that a pet raccoon had been donated to any group on the campus that would guarantee to give it a comfortable home and proper attention. Mr. Edison, who had displayed keen interest in the other gifts, chuckled heartily at this last announcement.”
The story of Edison’s visit to Rollins was covered by several newspapers. The New York Times reported that 3,500 people attended the ceremony and that Edison “was acclaimed by several hundred schoolchildren along the street as he marched in the academic procession to the campus.” The Times also reported that President Holt read aloud a telegram sent by a friend of Rollins alumnus Rex Beach. The friend asked, “What’s Rex Beach doing there? Are you giving golf degrees?” It was signed, “Yours intellectually, Will Rogers.” (Humorist Will Rogers was a friend of both Rex Beach and his brother-in-law, actor Fred Stone.)
Following the ceremony, the Edisons were guests at a luncheon hosted by Pres. and Mrs. Holt. Edison’s brother-in-law, Halbert Hitchcock, later wrote about this event to his nephew, Theodore: “At the luncheon which was held directly after he got his degree from Rollins College, President Holt sat at his right hand and wrote out for him the salient points of what was being said and the questions they were all anxious to have him answer, and he entered into the matter with a marvellous [sic] amount of zest, and one could hardly appreciate that he could not hear anything that was going on. President Holt was so skillful in writing out the things that were important for him to know and the questions that were being asked” (letter dated March 21, 1930, from The Thomas Edison Papers, Rutgers University).
Thomas Edison died the following year, in October 1931. In April 1940, Mrs. Edison returned to Rollins to plant a tree on campus. According to a clipping from an unnamed newspaper, she explained that “the ebon tree from India had weathered Florida tornadoes, cold and other vicissitudes characteristic of the career for her husband,” which was why she had chosen it for Rollins. She said, “May this tree be destined to grow and flourish and give joy to all as it gives me joy in presenting it to you.”
Thomas and Mina Edison’s home, Seminole Lodge in Fort Myers, features a Friendship Walk that is modeled on the College’s Walk of Fame. Its first stone came from their friend, Hamilton Holt.
~by D. Moore, Archival Specialist