David Duncan – a Wofford original

David Duncan came a long way to take his chair as Professor of Classical Languages on Wofford’s first faculty.

Duncan, the oldest of Wofford’s original professors, was the only one of the first three professors not to be born in South Carolina – or in the United States.  Born in 1791 in County Armagh, Ireland, his father was both a Presbyterian elder and a Methodist class leader before the Methodist Church became an independent denomination.  Duncan studied at the University of Glasgow, in Scotland, and then in 1810, entered the British Navy as a midshipman.  Within a few years, he’d become ship’s purser, on a warship which made him responsible for the ship’s financial affairs.  It was but the first time that he became responsible for maintaining someone’s finances.

He received an offer to become a teacher in a preparatory school in Norfolk, Virginia in 1817, and went, only intending to stay a year.  He never went back to Ireland.  He soon became principal of a classical school, then in 1836, was elected professor of classical languages at Randolph-Macon College in Boydston, Virginia.  There he served under Stephen Olin, the college’s president and a leader in Methodist educational circles, William Wightman, who was the future president of Wofford, and Langdon Garland, who was later chancellor of Vanderbilt University.  No doubt his association with Wightman, who returned to South Carolina and became the leading member of Wofford’s original board of trustees, led to his invitation to join the college’s original faculty.

Duncan was the first of the new faculty to arrive in Spartanburg, and he took the house that is now the Hugh R. Black House as his home.  The Carolina Spartan noted his early arrival, and said that by the time the others had made it to Spartanburg, he and his family had already made themselves at home.  Duncan became the college’s first treasurer, a duty he had also held at Randolph-Macon.  One of the earliest ledgers has information on both Wofford and Randolph-Macon in it – no doubt the thrifty Duncan didn’t want to waste a ledger.

James Carlisle Jr., the son of one of the original professors and third president, made the odd observation that Duncan had a small frame, but a large, well-proportioned head.  He had the habit of keeping the names of everyone in the class in a small box, and when he wanted one of them to read, would shake the box and pull out a name.  Students sometimes found ways to take their name out of the box and thus avoid reciting.

Duncan, at 63, was by far the oldest of the three original professors.  It might be said that his appointment was designed to give some age and seasoning to the faculty.  It is rather amazing that he remained on the faculty and in Spartanburg until his death in 1881.  He had been released from most of his teaching duties when he was 86 years old, which would have been around 1877.  President Carlisle noted that he had fewer of the failings of extreme age – physical, mental, or social – than anybody he had ever known.  He also had one of the best private classical libraries, Carlisle thought, of anybody in the South.

The Duncan family tradition remains with the campus and the city.  Two of his sons were later Wofford trustees.  One of these, William Wallace Duncan, was a minister, a Wofford professor himself, and a Methodist bishop.  His home, now relocated, sits on the campus of the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine in Spartanburg.  The other, David R. Duncan, was an attorney and community leader.  He owned much of the land that became Spartanburg’s Duncan Park, and some of the street names bear the names of family members.

By Phillip Stone

I've been the archivist of Wofford College and the South Carolina United Methodist since 1999. I'll be sharing college, Methodist, and local history, documents, photographs, and other interesting stories on this blog, which I've been keeping since December 2007.