Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

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The Perpetual Student (1908)

Many years ago, while attending the University of Rochester, I lived in one of the towers of their Graduate Living Center, which has since been renamed the Southside Living Area. While this place was a step up from my undergraduate dorm room—my roommate and I had separate rooms, a kitchenette, and our own bathroom, the place was a dump.  To put it bluntly: the place was roach infested.

My first roommate while living there was much older than me.  How much older is hard to say.  I was an immature 21-year-old, so anyone even a few years older than me seemed extremely old. Although his name has long slipped from my memory, I distinctly recall him sharing his aspiration of being a college student for as many years as possible. Basically, as long as he could secure research grants to cover both his tuition and living expenses, he was determined to remain a perpetual student.

However, an unforeseen obstacle arose in his path: the University informed him that he had exceeded their five-year limit for residing in the graduate dormitory. Needless to say, he wasn’t my roommate for very long.

That story came to mind as I was putting together the one that I am about to tell you.  It is of a man named William Cullen Bryant Kemp, who was born on November 10, 1850, in Janesville, Wisconsin. Not long after that, his family picked up and moved to New York City, where he attended both grammar and preparatory schools. (Sidenote: He was named after famed poet William Cullen Bryant.)

Fast forward to the early 1900s, and Billy Kemp had become the focal point of numerous newspaper articles chronicling his life as a perpetual student at Columbia University. He first matriculated into Columbia in 1872, and remarkably, he remained enrolled there until his passing on February 3, 1929, at the age of 78.

And along the way, Kemp picked up a number of degrees, including Doctor of Medicine, Bachelor and Masters of Arts, Bachelor and Masters of Laws, a PhD, degrees in civil, electrical, & mechanical engineering, as well as in chemistry and pharmacy. He also had three separate Bachelor of Science degrees, which several newspaper articles concluding their listing with, perhaps jokingly, as B.S., B.S., B.S.

So, you’re probably wondering just what did he accomplish with this extensive collection of degrees? Well, the answer is quite straightforward: absolutely nothing. He simply continued his academic journey, making room 902 of Columbia’s Livingston Hall dormitory his home, a place that has since been renamed Wallach Hall.

But Kemp’s notoriety didn’t stem from his voluntary, continuous pursuit of higher education. Instead, his fame was born out of a rather unusual circumstance. According to newspaper accounts from the early part of the twentieth century, Billy Kemp began his college journey as an abysmal student. To remedy this, Kemp found himself the beneficiary of a wealthy relative’s bequest. It ensured Kemp an annual income of $2,500 (equivalent to over $90,000 today), contingent upon his continued enrollment at Columbia University, with the payments ceasing the moment that he left the institution.  Basically, Kemp had no choice but to stay in college for his entire life.

And that was the story that was repeated over and over for most of Kemp’s life. Which made me wonder if it was really true.  And it turns out that it wasn’t, at least the wealthy benefactor portion of the story. In my research, I found an interview with Kemp that appeared on page 10 of the March 28, 1922, edition of the Yonkers Statesman. What better way to find out the true story than to read the exact words that came directly from Billy Kemp’s mouth.

“Someone conceived the story that I was going to college to win an inheritance left to me on the condition that I become a perpetual student. That wasn’t so.

“My father and uncles, being merchants, were opposed to my going to the university. They believed a college education more of a detriment than a benefit to one going into business.

“Despite their objections, I was able to enter Columbia in 1872.

“After two years, I decided to follow their wishes. I left and joined the house in which my father was a partner.”

His family’s business was involved with foreign trade, so Billy went to Spain to learn Spanish, and then traveled all over Europe. He was very successful in business, and after his father passed on, he opted to reenroll in Columbia after a 22-year absence.

“I entered Columbia Law School in 1896.

“Four years later I was graduated and admitted to the bar. But I did not care to take up the practice of law. Instead, I decided to study in the School of Political Science and Philosophy.”

So, there you have it.  William Kemp wasn’t in school because he risked losing an inheritance.  Just like my former college roommate, he was there because he loved getting an education.

In fact, about one month after he died, it was revealed that his estate was valued at nearly $250,000, which is the equivalent of a little over $9 million today.  In other words, Kemp had no need to work another day and opted to spend the last thirty-three years of his life studying at Columbia.

The moral of this story: Don’t believe everything that you read.

(This story was originally written and recorded for Retrocast #20, released on September 20, 2023.)

An elderly man in college.
AI generated image of an elderly man in college. Note: This is not William Cullen Bryant Kemp, the subject of this story.
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