Fred Wilmot Wellborn

History Faculty

Fred Wilmot Wellborn was born on October 14, 1894 in Trinity, North Carolina.  Two of his great-great-great-great grandfathers, Thomas Welborn and George Parsons, were among the ringleaders of the Regulators War (1771), which was a precursor to the American Revolution.  His great-great-great-great grandmother, Martha MacFarlane McGee Bell, was a noted American patriot, and is recognized as one of North Carolina's heroines during the American Revolution.  His grandfather, Joseph Johnson, was one of the founders of a school which became Trinity College and subsequently grew to become Duke University. His mother died in 1899 when he and his twin brother, John, were five years old.  Five years later, his father and new wife moved with the family of one sister and four brothers to Eudora, Kansas, where Fred Wellborn grew up. Fred and John played varsity basketball at Pomona High School, Pomona, Kansas, where, according to the Ottawa Herald, February 3, 1962, "they just got out and played under whatever conditions they found."   They practiced outdoors at school or downtown in a converted building, had no coach, and for one game, "they played Melvern on a court in an old garage which had a floor that was half wooden with the other half part cement and part cinders.   A player really knew it when he hit those cinders." Fred entered Baker University, Lawrence, Kansas in the fall of 1914 on an athletic scholarship.  He worked while at the University "mopping the gymnasium," and graduated in 1918.  While at Baker, all four Wellborn brothers were on the varsity track and basketball teams.  Fred was captain of the track team in 1918, anchor man on the relay team, holder of the Kansas Conference half-mile record of 2 minutes, and set a Missouri Valley Conference half-mile track record of 1:58:25.  (Since the half mile is 804.672 meters, the equivalent time for the 800 meters would be 1:57:32. According to a local newspaper of that time, circa 1918-1919, Fred had "never been pushed in the half-mile.") As a matter of interest, Fred's time for the half-mile can be compared with these Olympic Gold Medalists for the 800 meters: 1920 - Albert Hill, U.S.A. - 1:53:4, or 0:03:92 faster than Fred; 1924 - Douglas Low, Great Britain (the Chariots of Fire Olympics) - 1:52:4, or 0:04:92 faster than Fred; 1984 - Joaquin Cruz, Brazil 1:43:0, or only 0:14:32 faster than Fred after approximately sixty-six years, with more scientific training and faster tracks! Fred's brother Rankin also won the Kansas State half-mile two years after Fred's remarkable record, with a time just 3 seconds over Fred's time.  Rankin wrote, "I believe if I had had some competition I might have equalled Fred's time." The four Wellborn brothers were all members of Zeta Chi fraternity.  They lived together in a little house they rented, where, "Bob did the cooking as his share and we three paid for the food.  Remember there was lots of corn bread with oleo, which at that time was like lard," according to Rankin, the youngest of the four. During World War I, Robert was commissioned a Lieutenant at Fort Sheridan S. A. T C. and stationed at the University of Wisconsin S. A. T. C., John was with Machine Gun Company, 20th Division, Camp Funston, and Fred and Rankin were in the S. A. T. C. at Baker.  (The S. A. T. C. was probably the equivalent of the modern R. O. T. C.) The war was over before Fred reached active service. In 1986, Baker University officially inducted the four Wellborn brothers as one into their Athletic Hall of Fame, describing them as "some of the most famous in Baker University athletics . . . All four lettered in basketball and track, with Fred setting a conference record in the half mile, among his many conference wins . . . ." Fred graduated from Baker University, Lawrence, Kansas, in 1918, after which he worked as an accountant for the Kansas City "tramways" so he could run for the Kansas City Athletic Association (now defunct) and to save enough money to attend Harvard University Graduate School. He studied for two years at Harvard, 1920-1921, and then returned to Kansas to help his father, whose farm was suffering from a severe drought.  He completed the master's degree at the University of Kansas in 1923, and then attended the University of Wisconsin from 1923 to 1926, where he received his Ph. D. in history. The morning after Dr. Wellborn was awarded the Ph. D. in history, he awakened in Madison, Wisconsin, with a strange man sitting on the edge of his bed. "How do you do?  Thompson!" said the man with his hand out and a smile on his face.  Dr. Merle Thompson had come from the Iowa State Teachers College purposely to recruit this new young historian before he slipped through his fingers.  "Wellborn," Fred replied as he sat up in his pyjamas to shake hands. Dr. Wellborn was Professor of History at the Iowa State Teachers College, Cedar Falls, Iowa, from 1926 to 1946.  During the World War II years, in addition to his teaching responsibilities, he was a weekly member of a campus radio broadcast, "Questions and Opinions," designed to teach students about world events, and a volunteer air raid warden.  He was also a highly competitive golfer (for fun) and an avid gardener (to help the War effort).  He maintained three large vegetable and strawberry gardens, a small apple orchard, and 450 chickens to provide fresh food and eggs for his own and for other college faculty families.  The Wellborn Shetland pony was for fun. The football coach, Mr. Starbeck, lived with his family across the street.  He also had gardens and two cows that provided the milk for what became the daily homemade cottage cheese in the Wellborn household. Dr. Wellborn was the author of The Growth of American Nationality 1492-1865, published by MacMillan Company in 1943.  It was one of only two non-fiction books chosen for publication that year, due to World War II restrictions on printing materials.  Before the actual publication date, the book was nominated by McMillan for the Pulitzer Prize in history.  The book was an immediate and huge success as being among the first true American histories.  It was reprinted many times over the next twenty years and for many years became required reading at over seventy major universities in the United States as well as being used in countries as far away as Thailand.  At the University of Maryland it became a requirement for every student entering the university.  The book is still on library shelves around the world, including the National Library of Australia.  MacMillan Company now offers it as part of their Open Library online. In the preface to the book, Fred wrote: "History, therefore, is not dead--a mere catalog of dry facts which, like bones, may be named and tabulated, memorized and forgotten.  If this were so, then better that the bones be left in peace.  Actually, history is a living thing; it is the factual bones clothed with flesh and blood, housing the spirit of man with all his aspirations and strivings, successes and failures, the embodiment of everything which, through the ages, has had a part in lifting humanity above the dead level of animal existence.  History, then, is the great drama of life--the sum total of human experience, the joyful and the drab.  It is the glory of music, of ideas beautifully expressed, of sacrifices nobly made, of lives heroically lived or basely squandered.  It is the story of mankind . . . To what extent I have succeeded in this task of combining the woof of human experience with the warp of chronology and politics the reader is at liberty to decide for himself.  And this high privilege, let us not forget, is but one of the glories of being a sovereign citizen of the United States of America.  Assuredly he who drinks from the fountains of the past can hardly be insensible to the great (if still imperfect) boons of freedom and justice, nor can he lightly consider putting them in jeopardy even in time of international turmoil . . . The growth of this fine spirit of nationality--a spirit which, somehow, gives Americans a distinctive quality among free men during the formative years of our history should, therefore, be of great moment to all who prize the liberties, under law, which our fathers have won, and which we are highly resolved to keep . . . " Dr. Wellborn thoroughly enjoyed his teaching and his peers in the Social Sciences Department at I. S.T. C. and would probably have happily stayed for his entire career.  Unfortunately, the campus needed to grow, and the State of Iowa decided to acquire the entire side of Campus Street on which the Wellborn house also stood, for the location of the future Sadie B. Campbell Hall.  Because of his highly successful book, Dr. Wellborn was being recruited by several major universities in California, Texas, and the University of Maryland.  And it was at the last that he decided to accept a new position. In 1946 Dr. Wellborn became Full Professor of History at the University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, retiring as Professor Emeritus in 1964.  The University then invited him to remain "as long as he chose," and he continued to teach until 1969 when he reached the age of 75. Although the American history book was something of which he was very proud, his real field of expertise was the history of American diplomacy (now known as foreign relations).  In fact, when Littlefield, Adams & Company searched in the late 1950's for its national expert in this field to write for its "Quality Paperback--Student Outline Series," my father was chosen.  His book, Diplomatic History of the United States, was first published in 1960, reprinted five more times in the 1960s, and revised at least once in 1970.  It should be available still at the Library of Congress.  In later years, Dr. Wellborn felt that although it had been an honor to be chosen, it had been a mistake to agree, because the subject needed far more expansive treatment than he was permitted in the allotted number of pages; and the copyright terms to which he had agreed precluded publication of a more complete work. During many of the years at the University of Maryland, his favorite (and for him most stimulating) classes were the extension courses he conducted in American and diplomatic history at the Pentagon, at the U. S. Naval Academy, at Fort Meyer, Virginia, at Fort Meade, Maryland, and at various other military installations near Washington, D. C. and Baltimore, Maryland.  These classes were organized for higher level military officers whose educations had been interrupted during World War II, or who were studying history "for the fun of it." One of his favorite stories related to a time when he was officially made an "Honorary Shirt Tail" of the U. S. Marines. During one of his lectures at the Pentagon he had stated something to the effect that so-and-so, when "a young shirt-tail... " when what he really meant was "a young shave-tail"--the official slang for a very new Marine.  At the end of the semester, the military officers invited Dr. Wellborn to a farewell reception at the Pentagon, and to his surprise and glee they presented him with an official framed citation from the United States Marine Corps making him, in perpetuity, an Honorary Shirt Tail for his service to the Marines. During one of those classes at the Pentagon in 1947 (or perhaps 1948), Dr. Wellborn was discussing the bombing of Pearl Harbor and what was known about the facts leading up to this.  In particular, he noted that Admiral Husband E. Kimmel was held to have been in dereliction of duty to have allowed the attack to occur without warning.  During a break, an Army Major told Dr. Wellborn that he could verify some of the facts, but could also tell what had happened to him and what had really happened. The Major had been a Colonel on General George Marshall's staff, and was directly involved with the intelligence group that was decoding and handling the diplomatic messages to and from the Japanese Embassy in the period leading up to Pearl Harbor.  At least ten days before the December 7 bombing of Pearl Harbor, the messages were coming in and being decoded, stating the day that an attack was to occur.  Each day the messages would come, providing more about the attacks.  The day before the bombing a message came, giving the day, the time, and the place of the attack--Pearl Harbor.  General Marshall was fully advised of this information, and was supposedly providing all this information to President Roosevelt.  On the day and at the time of the attack, General Marshall was out riding horseback and had to be "informed" about the attack--even though he was fully aware that it was scheduled to occur. This former Colonel was included in a group of people who were selected as scapegoats, and permanently demoted to the rank of Major.  Although his name is not known, it could undoubtedly be traced back through records at the University of Maryland and at the Pentagon, matching enrollees in Dr. Wellborn's courses with job positions in the intelligence/cryptography staff of General Marshall's office in November/December 1941. Dr. Wellborn was extremely upset, and when he returned home he told his wife and three children what he had heard.  His daughter Jennifer was about 14 at the time, but never forgot this.  Dr. Wellborn was the soul of honor and honesty and would never have invented such a story.  He vouched for the Major as well. It may be useful to note the two entries Dr. Wellborn made in his Diplomatic History of the United States. On pages 340-341 of the 1961 edition, he listed nine "Additional Readings" about this matter, and stated: "Evaluated with the advantage of hindsight, the intercepted dispatches, together with other bits of circumstantial evidence, make a rather damaging indictment of the President, but thus far utterly fail of proof." But in his 1970 revision of the book, Dr. Wellborn had included fourteen "Additional Readings" -showing that he was pursuing this matter, particularly because he was distressed by what he had learned from the Major.  And this time he wrote: "Evaluated with the advantage of hindsight, the intercepted dispatches, together with other bits of circumstantial evidence, make a rather damaging indictment of the President; but in 1968 proof of guilt had not yet been published." Dr. Wellborn belonged to the Mississippi Valley Historical Association (now the Organization of American Historians), where from 1947 to 1949 he served as a member of its Governing Board.  He served on its Membership Committee from 1957-1959.  He also belonged to the Southern Historical Association from 1947-1961 and to the American Historical Association, 1948-1961. Dr. Wellborn was included in Who's Who In the East, Volume 7, 1959, and in North Carolina Lives: The Tar Heel Who's Who, published by the Historical Record Association, Hopkinsville, Kentucky, 1962. In his younger years he played tennis, was an avid golfer all his life, taught himself to play the piano, loved animals and the outdoors, and maintained a delicious sense of humor.  At the age of 80 he still ran every morning about two hundred yards each way to the mailbox at the end of his property to collect the morning paper. He died on March 15, 1982, in Olney, Maryland.  His ashes are interred in Cedar Falls, Iowa, along with those of his wife, in the place he had so thoroughly enjoyed and where he had so many dear friends.  Written by Jennifer Wellborn and sent to Gerald Peterson, University Archivist, September 2009.