John Carlisle Kilgo is probably better known for playing a leading role in the transformation of Trinity College into Duke University, but he learned much about higher education as a student and faculty member at Wofford.
Born in Laurens in 1861, the son of a Methodist minister, Kilgo enrolled at Wofford in 1880. He soon had to leave, however, as his poor eyesight made it difficult for him to study. He entered the South Carolina Methodist Annual Conference in 1882 and served churches for several years, and in 1888, he was called back to Wofford to become the college's financial agent. He studied privately with Professor Henry Nelson Snyder, and though he never took a bachelor's degree, the college gave him an honorary master's degree in 1892. He was appointed acting professor of metaphysics and political science, a position he held from 1891 to 1894.
As financial agent of the college, he functioned primarily as the college's fund-raiser and public spokesman. The college's president in those days was Dr. James H. Carlisle, who was a revered teacher and ethical leader on campus and in the state. Carlisle, however, was very much averse to raising money and refused to do it. Partly due to their age differences, Carlisle was in his mid-60s and had been on campus longer than anyone else, and Kilgo was in his 30s, and partly due to their difference in outlook, there were tensions between Kilgo and some of the younger faculty and Carlisle and the older professors. Carlisle began to believe that Kilgo wanted his job, and was heard to tell friends that if he wanted it, he could have it. Despite these tensions, Kilgo was successful as a financial agent, as the faculty in 1890 received their full pay for the first time in over 25 years.
Kilgo's role as financial agent brought him into contact with Methodists all over the state, and perhaps got him noticed outside of the state as well. In 1894, the 33-year old Kilgo received an offer from Trinity College that he could not refuse when the growing North Carolina Methodist college elected him as its president.
From 1894 to 1910, Kilgo helped build the college, which had moved to Durham with a very small endowment only two years earlier. By the time he left Trinity to become a bishop in 1910, Trinity had the largest endowment of any southern college, thanks in large part to Kilgo's cultivation of the Duke family.
Some of the lessons Kilgo learned as a fund-raiser at Wofford informed his views on education in the south. He believed that the Methodist Church was neglecting its historic duty toward education and that the church had become lukewarm toward its college. He felt that raising money from large numbers of people in the south was difficult because southerners could not visualize the large amounts of money needed for higher education. He felt that education in the South was handicapped by weak preparatory schools and low collegiate standards. Still, he believed strongly in church-related higher education and worked tirelessly in that cause.
Kilgo believed Trinity and other colleges should make public opinion, not follow it. He became a critic of southern conservatism and believed that the colleges in the region should help break the stranglehold that the past had on the region. He believed in industrialization in the region and was also an early liberal on racial issues. He championed academic freedom, defending faculty members who took unpopular stands on issues.
Elected a bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South in 1910, he continued to work in support of Methodist higher education. He served as chair of Trinity's board of trustees, and remained a forceful preacher and public speaker until his death in 1922 in Charlotte.