William Preston Few portrait
Centennial Spotlights

William Preston Few

A quiet, studious man with deep roots in North Carolina history, William Preston Few used his vision and leadership to turn a small college offering classes in classics, law and engineering into a world-class university with a hospital, medical school, graduate school and women’s college.

The greatest accomplishment of Few’s 30-year tenure was surely the J.B. Duke Indenture of Trust in 1924, a $40 million financial cornerstone ($725 million in today’s dollars) that made Trinity College into Duke University. But Few left his mark on our campus in myriad other ways as well. A bas-relief of his likeness is installed in the lobby of the Allen Building.

With J.B. Duke, Few laid the plans to acquire large holdings of woodland and abandoned farms west of Durham to build an entirely new campus in the gothic style. Schools of medicine and divinity would be integral to the campus and directly connected to the undergraduate spaces. A school of forestry and a marine lab would come later.

An 1889 graduate of South Carolina’s Wofford College, Few earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in modern languages at Harvard. He joined the Trinity College faculty in 1896 as a professor of English at the invitation of President John C. Kilgo and quickly became “Manager of Athletics” as well.

Recognized, Kilgo said, as “as a man of superior ability,” Few was named the first dean of Trinity in 1902, essentially Kilgo’s right hand. And upon Kilgo’s return to the Methodist Church in 1910, Few became Trinity’s fifth president.

From 1910 until Few’s death in 1940, the university grew from a college of 363 students and 32 faculty to a university consisting of nine schools, 3,716 students, and 476 faculty.

William Preston Few died of a heart attack at Duke Hospital and was buried in the crypt of Duke Chapel.