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Remembering Commissioner Bicknell
By Michael Smith ‘79
While the College, during the course of its 150-year history, has had a full measure of courageous, innovative, accomplished, and energetic leaders, few have been as vital to the establishment and growth of the institution as the 35-year old Commissioner of Public Schools appointed on June 1, 1869: Thomas Williams Bicknell.
Bicknell’s early life was colorful. Born on September 6, 1834, the son of a farmer, minister, state legislator, and Colonel in the Bristol County Militia, Thomas W. Bicknell attended schools in his home town of Barrington before traveling to Vermont to continue his education at Thetford Academy. From there, he was admitted to Amherst College. After Amherst, he taught school and served as principal in Rehoboth before heading west to teach and serve as principal in Elgin, Illinois. Shortly after signing on with an emigration company to help settle Kansas as a free state, Bicknell was taken hostage by bandits on the Missouri River but was set adrift by sharpshooters after two weeks as prisoner. He made his way back to New England, where he once again served as principal in Rehoboth before pursuing graduate study at Brown. After earning a masters degree, Bicknell was elected principal of Bristol High School and then served as principal of the Arnold Street Grammar school in Providence before returning to Bristol High School in May, 1867, where he taught until being named Rhode Island Commissioner of Public Schools in 1869.
Appointed by Governor Seth Padelford, Bicknell’s primary charge was to re-establish the Normal School, which was then dormant. During his six years as Commissioner, Bicknell not only succeeded in reopening the Normal School as a well-funded Providence-based entity, he also led the effort to establish a State Board of Education, oversaw the selection of school superintendents in every city and town in the state, dedicated over fifty new schoolhouses, and increased the school year from an average of 27 weeks at the beginning of his tenure to 35 weeks at the time of his departure – the longest school year of any state in the country at that time. He was also instrumental in nearly tripling appropriations for public education. A spellbinding orator, he delivered over 500 addresses as Commissioner.
Bicknell also revived the publication “The Rhode Island Schoolmaster,” which had been in decline, and served as its editor for close to a decade. He was also a joint publisher and editor of the New England Journal of Education. An avid writer and editor, he served as President of the New England Publishing Company and was the author of several books, including the Story of the Rhode Island Normal School, Story of Dr. John Clarke, The Governors of Rhode Island, The Dorr War, and a five-volume History of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.
As an educational leader of national renown, he helped to re-establish the American Institute of Instruction and served as its President. He had also served as President of the Rhode Island Institute of Instruction and the National Educational Association. At the well-attended national meetings that he organized, he would feature such luminaries as Booker T. Washington; at one such event, he arranged the first public exhibition of the telephone. A visionary, Bicknell foretold of the coming of the automobile in an 1892 lecture entitled The Horseless Carriage and later served as a officer of the company that built the first automobile in Rhode Island.
Bicknell’s viewpoints on public issues were quite progressive for their day. As an elected State Representative in the Rhode Island General Assembly while still a senior at Brown University, his first speech on the floor of the House was to advocate the abolition of separate schools for African-American children – nearly a century before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the matter. He was also an advocate for women in public service and is credited with helping to elect the nation’s first all-female school board, a special distinction of the Town of Tiverton.
Heavily involved in religious, educational, and civic organizations, Bicknell served as President of the Massachusetts Congregational Sunday School Union, the New England Sunday School Association, the International Sunday School Union, and the Chautauqua Teachers’ Reading Union. He was also Commissioner from Rhode Island to the Universal Exposition at Vienna, Austria, and a member of the 1878 Postal Congress, at which the U.S. Postal Code was developed. Bicknell was credited with membership in over 100 organizations, of which he served as President in more than thirty.
An honorary member of Phi Beta Kappa, Bicknell later received honorary degrees from Amherst College and Drury College. After a long and productive life, Bicknell passed away in 1925 at the age of 91. While he accomplished a great deal throughout his career, it is for his lasting commitment to the institution now known as Rhode Island College that we remember him with great appreciation and reverence.
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