It’s one of the great traditions of the college: rubbing the “I” in the mis-spelled word “benificent” (it should have been spelled “beneficent”) for good luck before taking a test. The plaque was a gift of Dr. Herman Baer, but who was this mysterious donor, and what relationship did he have to the college?
Herman Baer was, according to Dr. D. D. Wallace, a tutor in modern languages and Hebrew and an assistant in the college’s preparatory department from 1853 to 1855. Of course, the college hadn’t opened in 1853, but the trustees, at their November 1853 meeting, elected the college’s first five faculty members as well as some other officials, like Baer. Wallace further explains that the preparatory department didn’t start taking students until January 1855, and the treasurer’s books only show that the college started paying him then. The preparatory department was designed to prepare younger students for admission to the college. The college faculty avoided teaching the preparatory students, except during the lean times of the Civil War, and with a few exceptions later in specific subjects, but the preparatory department was an important source of revenue and future students. Some 34 students enrolled in that department in 1855. Baer only worked at the college for a year, offering elective courses for college students in Hebrew, French, and German, but he left after December 1855. In 1858, Wallace notes, Baer applied to receive the A. B. degree from the college on the grounds that he had privately studied the entire college curriculum. For the only time in the college’s history, that request was granted.
Baer’s activities before coming to Wofford and for the thirty years after are absent from college records, but an article in the Southern Christian Advocate published after his death bring some additional information. Baer told his minister that he had left his father’s home in Germany before his 17th birthday and traveled to New York. He celebrated his 17th birthday at sea. In January 1847, after arriving in New York, he made his way to Charleston, where he soon found himself in the city’s Methodist circles. He noted attending a camp meeting out of curiosity, and afterwards, a Methodist minister introduced him to Rev. David Derrick, who was in charge of the German mission in Charleston. Rev. Derrick had no children, so he and his wife took Baer into their home. They introduced him to some of the Methodists who were involved with the Southern Christian Advocate, including one named Benjamin Jenkins, who Baer tutored in German, French, and Hebrew, helping Jenkins prepare to be the first Southern Methodist missionary to China. Jenkins in turn helped Baer with his English. In 1848, in his second year in Charleston, Baer converted from Judaism to Christianity, joining Charleston’s Trinity Church. Baer served as a private teacher for a few years, but his early association with Rev. William Wightman at the Advocate bore fruit in 1853, when no doubt thanks to Wightman’s invitation, Baer was invited to come work at Wofford.
After his time at Wofford, he served again as a private tutor, mostly in Marlboro County, and then in 1859, he entered the Medical College in Charleston. Medical education in that era usually involved working with a practicing physician for several years. In 1861 he graduated and worked for four years as a Confederate Army doctor. He wound up working in business in Charleston after the war ended, and it appears that he largely served as a wholesale pharmacist. It does not appear that he practiced medicine after the Civil War. One advertisement in the Advocate in 1888 touted one of his medicinal cures – Thompson’s Bromine-Arsenic spring water.
He remained active in Trinity Church, and three times – in 1878, 1886, and 1894, he was elected as a lay delegate to General Conference. In 1892, the Annual Conference elected him to serve as a Wofford trustee. He had already made some small financial gifts to the college in the 1880s, particularly when the college alumni were trying to bring more support to the college. In 1900, he decided that the college needed to do more to honor Benjamin Wofford, and he had a plaque commissioned to honor the founder. Baer wrote the text himself, but was quite vexed to discover on Commencement Day in 1900, when it was installed, that his last line “To Perpetuate this Beneficent Record” had an engraver’s error in it. Baer supposedly slammed his cane on the floor with great vigor and stalked away, but refused to have it re-cast as a warning to students about the dangers of sloppy work.
Commencement 1900 would be Baer’s last commencement, for the next January, he died in Charleston just before his 71st birthday. He left a small collection of books to the college as well as a legacy that lives on in his plaque.