Skip to Main Content


WM Winter 07: From the Archives

by David Phillips
Printer-friendly version | Email this article

Walk into the Archives and look in the alcove just east of the entrance and you will see a bust of Henry Zwingli McLain, Wabash Class of 1867, longtime Lafayette Professor of Greek. Presented to the College by the Class of 1881, the bust shows him with a slightly bowed head, a pose often observed when he was seated in Chapel. What the bust does not convey is that, when fully grown, Professor McLain rose to the majestic height of 4 feet, 10 inches.

Henry Zwingli McLain was the original "Little Giant."

McLain was not quite 15 when he enrolled in the Wabash Preparatory School in 1861. He graduated from the College in 1867. Despite his small stature, Henry had no difficulty holding his own in the rough-and-tumble Wabash of the 19th century. H.O. Fairchild, Class of 1866, reports that students indulged "in the practice of the ‘manly art’ [boxing], in which [Henry] was quite an adept. Many were the unfortunates whose lack of skill cost them a punch in the ribs or a slap on the cheek from the wily Henry."

McLain’s classmates appreciated his personal qualities.

"I wish I had the power to fitly express in language my impression of him as a college boy," Fairchild writes. "Yes, a college boy in simple, lovable, and loving demeanor toward his associates and in his delights in college sports and the innocent frivolities and mirth of student life, and yet always a man, full grown, in intellect and character and sincere devotion to every duty. It is rare that such qualities as these are found combined in a single life, in such graceful harmony and strength."

After Wabash, McLain studied at Union Theological Seminary and became a Presby-terian pastor, but the ministry was not his calling. After six months he resigned to pursue his life’s passion, the study of Greek language and literature.

He spent a year studying at the universities of Leipzig and Berlin, was hired at Wabash as a tutor in 1873, and was promoted to the rank of associate professor the next year. In 1876, when Caleb Mills retired from active teaching to devote all his time to the library, McLain was appointed Professor of Greek Language and Literature.

From the very beginning, he had a powerful impact on the students. Albert B. Milligan, Wabash Class of 1877, writes: "We had heard of his fame as a scholar and the amount of work required by ‘The Little Giant’ before we entered his class-room and so took our places with fear and trembling, but we soon came to love the little man, modest in his attainments, cordial and sympathetic, with a great sense of humor and withal a dignity and force that won and held respect. He was, indeed, a most lovable man, a great educator, and not only taught his lessons from the Iliad, Demosthenes de Corona, Xenophon, and Edipus Tyrannus, but, better than all, taught us how to live manly, Christian lives."

As secretary of the faculty, McLain was responsible for keeping alumni records.

"He kept close watch on the boys of old," Latin professor Hugh Kingery wrote, "and none rejoiced more in their success or sympathized more deeply in their sorrows or their failures."

The end of Professor McLain’s life came unexpectedly on January 6, 1907. While attending church, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died within two hours. McLain’s reputation as a scholar had spread far beyond Wabash, as this quote from his obituary attests: "He was recognized as one of the foremost Greek scholars of this country, a mem- ber of the American Philological Association and was often urged to give the world some benefit of his knowledge by the writing of books, but he preferred to make men rather than books, so that to his students was given the whole of his energy and enthusiasm."

An editorial in the Indianapolis Star read: "He was unmarried. His children were his books, his art. He was a close friend to Achilles sulking in his tent, knew Helen radiant and Helen cowering, talked with Socrates in his native tongue, walked daily in the Acropolis, conversed with Homer, followed Greek literature to the present day and was able to speak in modern Greek.

"His heart was in his work. His labor was to teach, but more than teacher he was also friend and companion. His wage, prized more highly than the dollar, was the joy he sought in giving others of his store of learning.

"Small in stature, Henry Zwingli McLain was known as a giant in intellect and devotion to right living. He was indeed a man whom ‘The Little Giants’ of Wabash will cherish long in their memories as a scholar and a Christian Gentleman."