CWU’s third principal (the title bestowed on the head of the school in its early years), William E. Wilson, is remembered for having brought stability and professionalism to the normal school.
Hired in July 1898, Wilson was considered an educational progressive during his time at the school. He embraced the idea that teachers should, above all, be well-educated, scholarly persons with a firm grounding in academic disciplines.
This was counter to prevailing theories supported by many that held that normal school teachers should focus on the professional aspect of teacher training and serve more as a vocational school.
Historian Samuel Mohler described Wilson as a “man of unusual courtesy, kindliness, charity, and breadth of understanding. His relationships with faculty members and students evinced a genuine interest in each individual as a person. His desire to believe the best of everyone occasionally betrayed him, but he seems never to have become disillusioned about human nature.”
Wilson, he added, had idealism and faith in people that inspired loyalty that helped keep the faculty together during sometimes difficult years.
Wilson was born in western Pennsylvania in 1847 and attended Edinboro Normal School and Jamestown Seminary in Pennsylvania. He spent several years alternately teaching and going to school before earning an MA degree from Monmouth College in Illinois.
After teaching for several years in the (Peru) Nebraska State Normal School, he traveled for a year and studied at the University of Edinburgh and Free Church College of Divinity in Scotland.
During the next 17 years, Wilson taught at Coe College in Iowa, and later at the Rhode Island Normal School in Providence, where he served as principal from 1892 to 1898.
In 1898, he was hired to serve as principal of the new Washington State Normal School (now known as CWU), replacing Pharis A. Getz, who had resigned.
During his eighteen years as head of the normal school, Wilson brought great stability and continuity to the school’s operations. Mohler described him as a person of “unusual courtesy, kindliness, charity, and breadth of understanding.”
Wilson’s tenure also saw the school successfully improving the rigor of its curriculum, introduce student athletics programs, and establishing many lasting activities and clubs (such as a school paper). Enrollment grew from 220 students and 11 faculty members to more than 700 students and 30 faculty.
Wilson resigned in 1916 and was replaced by George Black. He died in 1930 at the age of 93.
In 1955, Wilson Hall was constructed and named in his honor. The two-story structure, built in the Modern-style, originally served as a men’s-only dormitory.