shortstop positions on the baseball team, coached
for the students baseball team, then managed the girls
During the 125th anniversary of the founding of Northern
Illinois University, I plan to write occasionally about some
lesser-known history around campus. Some I discovered while at
NIU and other research was done with the assistance of the NIU
Archives and Regional History Center, as well as the Joiner History
Both those sources were a big help in uncovering the history
behind the Fred L. Charles Memorial Bench nestled under some
pine trees between Swen Parson and Lowden halls. As far as I
know, there is no other faculty member so memorialized on campus.
Fred Charles was one of the original faculty chosen by
NIU's first president John Cook when the college opened in 1899.
His field of teaching was in nature study and biology. He was
the only faculty member in the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa honor
society and had graduated from Northwestern University. He distinguished
himself in several areas, publishing a book of his poetry, organizing
the first campus publication, serving as adviser to the Northern
Illinois campus magazine that later became the Northern Star.
He was also a standout in athletics. Among the staff, he was
captain of the tennis team, filled both pitcher and
Professor Fred Charles stands with the NISNS womens
basketball team which he coached in its early years. In lower
photo is the bench commissioned in his memory with part of Lowden
Hall showing in background. (Photo courtesy of the NIU Archives/Regional
By 1909 his academic achievements caught the attention
of the University of Illinois, which needed someone to teach
in the fields of biology, agriculture and nature study. He left
Northern to accept that position. Once established there he also
accepted the editorship of the American Nature Study Society
But the additional workload and related pressures affected
his health and he became depressed. One day, in May 1911, his
wife found him hanged in their bedroom with a note to her that
read in part: my life has been a failure as reported
in the May 11, 1911, DeKalb Review. The article added, his
DeKalb friends were horrified with the loss of such a young
man at age 38 with so much talent and promise. I can imagine
if he suffered from severe depression 50 years later and certainly
now, modern anti-depressants and therapy would have saved him.
There was a memorial established in his name for science
student loans, which continued for years. Much later, in 1943,
his widow requested that any remaining funds be used for a memorial
and the bench was commissioned. Some former students attended
the dedication and recalled a quote from Aldous Huxley that Charles
kept on his blackboard. It read Assertion that outstrips
evidence is not only a blunder; it is a crime.
His name was inscribed on the front side of the concrete
bench in ornate lettering and around the periphery on the pad
one can barely make out the other inscriptions: Gift of
Wife and Children, then Member Original Faculty NISTC
and on the third side Teacher of Nature Study. There
is more information about his career at Northern in Earl Hayters
history of NIU, Education in Transition.
I passed by that bench many times to classes in the biology
building but never stopped to even read his name. Now I have
a greater appreciation for the man memorialized there.