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People in Public Service: Benjamin McClelland Shaped Minds as Early Olympia High School Math and Music Teacher

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On November 16, 1927, the students of Olympia High School gathered to pay tribute to longtime teacher BR McClelland. After the orchestra and student trio performed and Reverend TH Simpson delivered remarks, the class officers departed to attend McClelland’s funeral at the United Churches. “Perhaps,” observed the Morning Olympian newspaper, “no teacher has ever been more respected and honored by students than the white-haired math professor.”

Benjamin Rush McClelland was born February 7, 1858 to John and Grace St. Clair McClelland in Cumberland, Ohio. He became a teacher at 16. After graduating with a math degree from Muskingum College (now University) in New Concord, Ohio, McClelland continued to teach. He was a high school principal in Coshocton, Ohio and superintendent of schools in Newcomerstown, Ohio. In 1885 he married Mary Dinsmore (1864-1944). They had a son, Ellis (1891-1949).

At the turn of the century, however, McClelland decided to move west to Olympia with his family to teach at the People’s University. The Popular University was John Chaplin’s dream. He wanted the Cooper Point school at a site he named Athens. In September 1902, Chaplin opened a temporary school in the old Olympia Collegiate Institute building in downtown Olympia. McClelland taught mathematics.

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Students dedicated the 1917 opening number of Olympus to roll call head teacher Benjamin McClelland. He was sometimes referred to as “Professor” and “Mr. Mc” by students. Photo courtesy of Washington State Digital Archives

McClelland has been heavily involved with the University of the People. He joined in the debates and even played the crown in the production of “Queen Esther” at the Olympia Theater and was part of an amateur orchestra. McClelland was also a member of the Olympia Development Company, the landholding company arm of the Athens project.

The People’s University, however, was faltering. McClelland went to Everett for a year, but returned to Olympia where he was hired as principal of Olympia High School in 1905. At that time, the school was too small to have a full-time administrator, so McClelland also taught. He has taught math and occasionally physics, chemistry, and science over the years. His son Ellis became a running and show jumping champion on the school’s track team and was an excellent scholar.

As an experienced teacher, McClelland was active in school affairs. He was a member of the Puget Sound School Masters’ Club, the Washington Educational Association, and the school district textbook commission. McClelland also directed and instructed the summer school – or “normal school” – held in Olympia in 1911 and 1912.

McClelland stepped down as principal in 1910, but remained a teacher at Olympia High School. Now, with more time, he focused on a new dream, a school group.

The high school early music program included an orchestra, but it had proven difficult to have a separate group. After two years of work, including fundraising, McClelland started a 12-member boy band. This group played sports games, assemblies and other events. McClelland seems to have sometimes joined the group on horn, as well as with the orchestra. In addition to the school marching band, he conducted the YMCA marching band in the 1920s. He performed at events, conferences, sports games and even in a circus in 1925.

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Benjamin McClelland and the 1912-1913 Olympia High School group from the 1913 opening number of the Olympia High School yearbook. Photo courtesy of Washington State Digital Archives

While McClelland has found success with his music, his political career has been a failure. In 1906 he presented himself as the representative of the sixth district in the municipal council of Olympia on the ticket of the citizens’ party. In 1904, 1910, 1912, 1914 and 1922, he ran for school superintendent in Thurston County. He ran first as a member of the non-partisan party and later as a Democrat. He never won an election.

Although he was never elected, McClelland was active in his community. He and his wife were active in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Benjamin took part in essay contests and events while Mary was president of the Westside WCTU, which met frequently in their homes. She also ran for county schools superintendent in 1904 as a member of the Prohibition Party.

In 1919, McClelland was in charge of the reviews of enumerators for the 1920 Federal Census. He was heavily involved in organizing the annual Chautauqua in Olympia, a cultural and conference event, by supporting the event financially, by selling tickets and by serving on the board of directors, including as secretary. He helped found the Guaranty State Bank of Olympia in 1919 and was part of the Westside Streetcar Club which sought to raise money and support to bring the city streetcar to Westside Hill.

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McClelland built this pioneer-style house in the Westside (327 Sherman NW) circa 1902. Photo credit: Jennifer Crooks

Indeed, the students loved him. Writing decades later, Elizabeth McElroy Allison wrote that “Mr. McClelland was my geometry teacher in my sophomore year. He was so dear, called girls Miss and boys, Sir. It certainly got us respected in this class and we never had any discipline issues. McClelland has frequently judged debates and contests, including shouting contests between classes at cheering rallies. He even chaired a committee that listed students and alumni who served in World War I, including his son Ellis.

But McClelland’s health was failing. Suffering from stomach cancer, he retired after the 1926-1927 school year. His students missed him and sent him a basket of cards and letters asking him to come back and wishing him a speedy recovery. McClelland died at his home on November 14, 1927, following an operation.

Although the school mourns him, McClelland left a strong legacy as a teacher. As former University of Washington coach Russell “Rusty” Callow noted at a meeting two years before the teacher’s death, no other man had influenced him as much as Benjamin McClelland.

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