Eben Alexander, professor of Greek language and literature in the last two decades of the nineteenth and first decade of the twentieth centuries, played an important role not only as teacher of Greek but also in the administration of the University and in the development of a true research library for Chapel Hill.
Eben Alexander was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, on March 9, 1851, so he was barely ten years old when the Civil War began. Eben’s father was a judge, and his mother was a member of the McClung family, a prominent Knoxville family. Following his preparatory schooling, Alexander attended the University of Tennessee for two years before entering Yale in 1869. He graduated from Yale in 1873 and returned to Knoxville, where he taught Greek at the university, first as an instructor and then as a professor, from the fall of 1873 until the spring of 1886. In 1874, when he was 23, he married Marion Howard-Smith, and they had four children, two sons and two daughters.
In June of 1886, Alexander applied for and was given a position as professor of Greek language and literature at UNC. He moved his young family to Chapel Hill that summer, and from the fall of 1886 until the spring of 1893 he served as professor of Greek and, beginning in 1891, as supervisor of the University’s collections of books. In the spring of 1893, however, President Grover Cleveland appointed Alexander to be “Envoy Extraordinary, Minister Plenipotentiary, and Consul General to Greece, Roumania, and Servia.” So he moved his family again, this time to Athens for a period of four years that included 1896, the year when the ancient Olympic games were first revived.
Following his term as ambassador, Alexander returned to Chapel Hill, resumed teaching in the fall of 1897, introduced modern Greek into the curriculum, and served as academic dean and supervisor of the library (or, as some sources call it, “chair of the library committee”) from 1901 on. His work on the University library was of fundamental importance for the Chapel Hill campus in two ways. First, it was during Alexander’s years as supervisor of the library that the University built and opened its new Carnegie library (now called Hill Hall), the first purpose-built library building on the UNC campus. That library opened in 1907. Even more importantly, he helped bring in the brilliant young librarian Louis Round Wilson, who over the next thirty years turned the UNC library into one of the premier research facilities in the South. In the fall of 1909, Alexander’s health began to fail. He took a leave of absence for the spring, returned to Knoxville, and died there on March 11.
Alexander did not publish any scholarly papers, so far as we can tell, but he gave occasional talks on Greek literature and history, on education and pedagogy, and on various other topics. He was said to be a remarkable teacher, popular, witty, and demanding, and two of his students joined the faculty at UNC: Thomas Wilson, who taught Latin and Greek, and William Stanly Bernard, who taught Greek and went on to become one of the founders of the modern Department of Classics.
Outside of his work in Greek, Alexander is a remarkable figure for two reasons. First, he was ambassador to Greece precisely at the time of the revival of the Olympic games. This must have been immensely satisfying to him. His precise role in assisting the Olympic organizing committee is not entirely clear, but we do know several things. First, he made the very first monetary gift in support of the Games. Second, he seems to have played some role in getting American athletes to come to Greece. And finally, with his wife, Marion, he welcomed the American athletes, helped them feel at home, and hosted numerous social events during the time of the games (April 6-15, 1896). The Department of Classics still possesses a wooden cane, marked with the single word “Marathon.” Departmental legend has it that the cane was made from wood taken from olive trees that grew at Marathon, and that it was given to Eben Alexander by the Greek government in gratitude for his assistance during the time of the games.
The other remarkable aspect of Alexander’s personal history is his love of hikes and explorations, both in the area of Chapel Hill and, even more, in the Great Smoky mountains. Many of Alexander’s letters are preserved in the University’s Southern Historical collection, and among them is an account of a thirty-mile walk Alexander took one day with a colleague, a member of the Chemistry Department, to Hillsborough and beyond. Another letter describes riding on horseback over the Smokies in July of 1887, an arduous journey through still-wild territory that followed, in part, an old Civil-War era road that by Alexander’s day was nearly in ruins.
In the 1880s, Alexander began awarding a cash prize (which he funded) to the undergraduate student who did the best sight translations of Greek prose and poetry. That prize, known as the Alexander Prize, is still awarded today, thanks to the continuing generosity of the Alexander family, and in particular of Eben Alexander, Jr., one of the Greek professor’s grandsons, who established an endowed fund to ensure the continuation of the competition and prize.