Each year, current and prospective students hear the popular myth about former IU President Herman B Wells, BS’24, MA’27, LLD’62, and the IU Bloomington lamp posts. The myth goes as follows: Wells would wander the campus after dark with a book in hand, and wherever it was too dark to read, he would mark the spot—some say with wooden stakes, others say he spray painted an “X” on the ground—for IU facilities to install a lamp post.
So, is it true?
It’s fun to think of Wells, book in hand, on a late night stroll. Would he carry a clip-on spray can, stopping every few feet to mark the grass like a treasure-hunting pirate? Or would he carry a rucksack slung over his shoulder, filled with wooden stakes and a rubber mallet like a darkness-fighting vigilante committed to lighting the path, both literally and figuratively, to wisdom?
Terry Clapacs, BS’65, MBA’69, former IU vice president for facilities, believes the story to be a myth.
“I never saw him carrying a book,” Clapacs said.
Clapacs met and spoke with Wells often during his tenure as vice president. And while it is true that Wells had a deep and vested interest in the campus, both with the people and the grounds, he had little day-to-day involvement in the building and maintenance of IU’s facilities.
University Historian James Capshew, BA’79, also confirmed Wells’ commitment to the IU community, saying that he had never heard of the lamp post myth, but that it speaks to the character of Herman B Wells.
“It does reflect a larger truth, however, his concern for the welfare of the academic community,” Capshew said.
The only record we could find of Wells’ involvement with campus lighting comes from a letter sent by Gordon N. Gray, vice president of Bryant Manufacturing Company in Indianapolis, on Nov. 24, 1959. Gray cites the concern shared between his company and IU for “the problem of safety of the girl students on the streets of Bloomington.”
A memo from Alice McDonald Nelson in the Halls of Residence to T.E. Randall at the Treasurer’s Office, on March 23, 1954, cited similar safety concerns, this time regarding the men’s residence center. The elected student representatives of the men’s residence center said more and better lighting was desperately needed in multiple areas of campus. They had been attempting to get IU to install lights for the previous three years, and a work order dated April 9, 1954 indicates that they were finally successful.
Newer lamp posts were installed in the 1970s, though not without some controversy.
“One of the main concerns about lighting the grounds was with ambient light, and whether or not we would hurt the astronomy department and the observatory close to Bryan Hall,” Clapacs said.
Dunn’s Woods was, until relatively recently, blanketed in darkness after sunset, so as to preserve the integrity of nighttime stargazing for academic research and for the public. Clapacs oversaw the installation of many of the lamp posts dotting Dunn’s Woods, and he recalls meeting with the head of the astronomy department.
The fear was that lamps lighting the pathways would cast too much light upward, and this would interfere with the ability of astronomy faculty and students to work effectively. Many of the lamp posts that had gone up, or were scheduled to go up, were called “Washingtonians”—a green lamp post with a large bulb on top. The astronomy department suggested including some sort of hat or top on these to mitigate the ambient light cast upward.
“You’ll see a different light standard around the observatory called ‘Acadians,’ that have a top, which reflects light down rather than up. This was meant to be sensitive to the needs of the astronomy department,” Clapacs said.
So, if we can be almost certain the myth about Herman B Wells is indeed false, where did it come from?
Clara Chen, BS’18, IU graduate and former tour guide, confirms that the story has always been included in the IU Bloomington campus tours script. So, as of now, no one knows where or how it originated.
This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of 200: The IU Bicentennial Magazine, a special six-issue magazine that highlights Bicentennial activities and shares untold stories from the dynamic history of Indiana University. Visit 200.iu.edu for more Bicentennial information.