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James A. Chiles: Teacher and Scholar

Written By: information_management - Feb• 10•09

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When James A. Chiles came to Wofford in 1914, he joined a faculty of thirteen professors. He became part of a core group of faculty members who, with only a few changes, taught together for a generation. Seven of these thirteen professors, Chiles included, retired together in 1947. Through difficult economic days all of these professors were devoted to the college, to their students, and to teaching. All of them influenced their students’ lives, but a handful of the faculty members distinguished themselves off campus as well. Upon joining the faculty, Chiles was one of only four Wofford professors to hold an earned doctorate. (The others were David Duncan Wallace in history, Coleman B. Waller in chemistry, and William L. Pugh in English.) Chiles was a noted scholar of the German language, the founder of a national German honorary fraternity, and had influence that extended well beyond the city’s northern border. 

Born in Missouri in 1877, James Alburn Chiles graduated from Central College in Fayette, Missouri in 1895. He attended graduate school at Vanderbilt, studying German, French, and classics and earning his M.A. in 1898. One of his professors there was James H. Kirkland, a member of Wofford’s class of 1877. Chiles followed a well-trod path among young scholars in the 1890s when he traveled to Europe for additional graduate study at the University of Leipzig and the University of Paris. He returned to St. Louis to teach French and German at Washington University for a year, and then spent four years as a journalist on the staff of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. He also studied law and was admitted to the Missouri bar.
While in St. Louis, he met and married Marie Theresa Dunckel, a member of a prominent ethnic German family in the city. Appointed to an instructorship at the University of Illinois, he undertook studies toward the doctorate in German language and history. After earning his Ph.D. in 1908, he continued teaching at Illinois, published his dissertation, and in 1910, accepted an appointment at Southern University in Alabama. After three years there, and a year at the University of Wisconsin, he came to Wofford to head the department of modern languages. 

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Before arriving at Wofford, Dr. Chiles had written his first textbook, German Prose Composition. Earlier copies identified him as a faculty member at Wisconsin, but subsequent printings recognized him as a Wofford professor. His second textbook, German Composition and Conversation, appeared in 1931. In 1935, he and one of his graduate school mentors wrote First Book in German. The book went through two revisions and was republished in 1942 and 1948. In 1940, Chiles wrote Intermediate German Readings, a reader for more advanced college German students. Chiles’ textbooks had wide influence. The American armed forces adopted German Composition and Conversation as a text during World War II, and the book was used in England as well. One of Chiles’ faculty colleagues noted that First Book in German had become a classic, useful both as a reference source and as an elementary textbook. 

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Chiles is perhaps best remembered for a group that he, with 21 Wofford students, formed in February 1928. Known simply as Deutscher Verein, or German Union, the organization promoted the study of German language and culture. The club became an active literary organization on campus. Chiles used his contacts at other colleges and universities to promote the idea of a national German honor society. Within a year, he and student John O. Eidson ‘29, later a dean at the University of Georgia, had organized Delta Phi Alpha National Honorary German Fraternity. Wofford became home to the alpha chapter, and Central College, Chiles’ alma mater, became home to the beta chapter. For the rest of his life, Chiles worked to promote Delta Phi Alpha and watched it grow to some 9,000 members at his death. 

Chiles retired from the faculty following his 70th birthday in 1947. His students and colleagues all spoke highly both of his character and his scholarship, recognizing the disciplined approach he took to his research and teaching. One student, Herbert Hucks ’34, who became college librarian and archivist, noted that “from the moment I entered Dr. Chiles’ classroom, his scholarship, his sense of humor, and his interest in having every student do his best impressed me.” Another student who became a colleague was Professor W. Raymond Bourne ’23, who remembered that “He loved German and transmitted something of this love to generations of students.”

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