ALBERT BARNES WATKINS
IN THE broad and varied interests of education, and as possessing intellectual powers admirably fitted for the practical application of knowledge to the wants of our young men and women engaged in the courses of study, no man in Albany has earned a more excellent reputation than Dr. Albert B. Watkins, of the University of the State of New York. His career, marked by a supreme love for knowledge, reveals in full light the earnest, persevering and successful workings of the true educator under many pressing difficulties.
He was born on the 8th of July, 1838, in the beautiful village of Naples, N. Y., situated in the deep valley which extends southward from the head of Canandaigua lake, around which the charms of nature are so richly displayed, and where general intelligence, industry and thrift are prevailing characteristics.
He is a descendant of Thomas Watkins, who was a resident of Boston, Mass., in 1650, and who probably came from Wales to Boston about the year 1635. He was made a freeman at Boston in 1660, and was a member of the artillery company there in 1666. The name of Watkins is of Welsh origin, and this branch of the family of which we write probably came from either Brecon or Montgomery, Wales.
Nathan Watkins, the great-grandfather of the subject of our memoir, was one of the earliest settlers of Peru, Berkshire County, Mass. He was a man of remarkable courage as well as of strong religious convictions, who held several offices of trust in his new wilderness home, and in whose barn the religious meetings of the early settlers of the place were held in the year 1773. The first town meeting at Peru was held in the Captain’s house, in 1769, and he was elected supervisor of the town. He was not only a God-fearing, but also a liberty-loving man, and when the storm of the revolution was about to burst over the colonies he was ready to shoulder his musket or draw his sword in defense of American freedom.
No sooner had the stirring news of the battle of Lexington alarmed and aroused the country than we find the name of Capt. Watkins on the earliest roll of minutemen in Col. Patterson’s regiment. He fought in the battle of Bunker Hill, and after the evacuation of Boston by the British, in 1776, he marched to New York to join the expedition to Quebec. After engaging in fortifying Ticonderoga he marched through Albany to join the army of Gen. Washington in Pennsylvania. While in the vicinity of Ticonderoga he and his son Mark, a drummer boy of fourteen enlisted in the regiment, were both taken prisoners in one of the skirmishes with Burgoyne. The British general, happening to see the lad, asked him what he was there for. Said Mark “I came out to see my father.” “Very well, very well,” quickly replied Burgoyne, in a good-natured way, ‘ I will send you home as a present to your mother.”
Capt. Watkins was one of those brave soldiers who, under Washington, crossed the Delaware, and took part in the battles of Trenton and Princeton. Afterward his regiment was ordered northward to aid Gens. Schuyler and Gates, and side by side with the grandfather of the writer of this sketch, he faced the leaden storm in the battle of Bemus Heicrhts, and was present when Burgoyne surrendered his arms amidst shouts ringing through the American camp.
At the close of the war Capt. Watkins was one of a committee of three sent by some of the scattering inhabitants of Berkshire County to western New York to purchase a tract of land for future settlement. The land purchased is now known as the township of Naples; and here, in 1791, Capt. Watkins removed with his family and numbers of his relatives and neighbors, and went to work clearing up the old forests and cultivating the rich soil. He was thus a genuine pioneer as well as an intrepid soldier, and when at last he passed away, full of years and honors, his remains were laid in the old church yard at Naples, where they still repose beneath a simple marble slab.
Stephen Mellen Watkins, the father of Dr. Watkins, had very limited financial means, and from the age of sixteen the boy had to earn the money that he spent. His early tastes inclined him to study, and his parents tried by all possible means to gratify his wishes. Ambitious to see him get a superior education, they gave him advice and encouragement. But his prospects of obtaining a collegiate education were for a long time gloomy enough to discourage a less hopeful and a less enterprising lad. He worked on the farm all through the spring, summer and autumn months, and attended the district school in the winter. Thus learning the rudiments of education he was eager to continue his studies, and we next find him a pupil of William H. Vroman, a graduate of Hobart College, who kept a private school at Naples. This only increased his thirst for higher instruction, and he was soon afterward placed under the care of Levi G. Thrall, an experienced and highly successful teacher. Under this new preceptor he commenced the study of Latin – the study and mastery of which we believe are the principal sources of success of the great majority of those who have rendered distinguished services in the cause of education and thorough instruction. At the same time, on account of pecuniary obstacles, he had no idea of ever entering the halls of a college. But the way was gradually opened, and his early school days’ experience should afford encouragement to all who are struggling along in the same pathway, by showing them what may be accomplished by industry and perseverance.
In the winter of 1854-55 he attended the Franklin academy at Prattsburg, Steuben county, in which Charles L. Porter was principal and Ralph L. Parsons taught the classics, both of whom were graduates of Amherst college. Returning home in the following spring he worked on a farm by the month during the summer. In the winter of 1855-6 we find him a student in Fairfield academy, Herkimer County, N. Y., applying himself very closely to the study of mathematics, including trigonometry and surveying, his favorite branch of study at that time. Again in the following summer he worked on the farm, returning to Fairfield in the autumn of the same year to take the commercial course, with a view of qualifying himself for a practical book-keeper. Completing the course in the spring of 1857 and finding no opening as a book-keeper, he returned once more to farming. But his experience as a teacher was now about to begin. On the illness and final resignation of the teacher at Fairfield in charge of the commercial course he accepted an invitation to take his place in the school. The duties of this position he filled with great credit, while he also found some time to devote to other studies. Remaining at Fairfield he determined to prepare himself for a civil engineer, and consequently gave the most of the time at his command to the study of mathematics and French, still continuing his study of Latin. It was his good fortune, while at Fairfield, to enjoy the instruction of Dr. Le Roy C. Cooley, now professor of natural science in Vassar College, whose thorough instruction, concise and direct methods of teaching, have always been of great benefit to his pupils. On the advice of Rev. John B. Van Petten, then principal of the academy, Mr. Watkins commenced the study of Greek with a view of preparing himself more fully for college, and in 1861 he entered the junior class at Amherst College, where he graduated with honor in 1863. It was the privilege of the writer to attend those commencement exercises at Amherst, and distinctly does he remember – though nearly twenty-seven years ago – how well young Watkins acquitted himself on the platform. The subject was, “The Goal of the Nations,” and his oration was an earnest plea for a higher moral and intellectual standard among the nations of the earth. The commencement, taking place so soon after the capture of Vicksburg and the victory at Gettysburg, was truly a memorable one. Stirring and appropriate addresses were made by the venerable Dr. Stearns, president of the college, John Quincy Adams, Jr., and the patriotic and eloquent Gov. Andrew, whose happy allusion to the two conquering heroes as “the Grant of victory and the Meade of praise,” thrilled the large assembly. We shall always remember with pleasure that commencement day of “clouds and showers” passed at old Amherst.
Soon after graduation, Mr. Watkins accepted a position as teacher of Greek in the Fairfield academy. While thus engaged in teaching, another subject was occupying his thoughts and engaging his affections, and that was the question of matrimony which he was not long in settling. In November, 1863, he married Miss Martha A. Mather, a daughter of Dr. William Mather of Fairfield, for many years professor of chemistry and geology in Madison University, and a lineal descendant of Richard Mather who came to Boston in 1635.
In 1867 Mr. Watkins was asked to organize Dr. Hero’s Willow Park seminary for young ladies at Westboro, Mass., and taught there for one year, when upon an urgent call to go back to Fairfield he returned there in 1868, to take the position of vice-principal, and to teach Greek and higher mathematics. In 1870 he took charge of the Hungerford Collegiate institute at Adams, N. Y., where he acted as principal for twelve years, managing the school upon an entirely new basis. He was appointed by the University convocation as one of a committee of fifteen to secure legislation for a larger appropriation for the academies. The efforts of the committee and other friends of the academies resulted in securing an additional appropriation of $125,000.
In 1874 Mr. Watkins was given the degree of doctor of philosophy by the regents of the university. In 1878 he was elected school commissioner in the First District of Jefferson County, and was re-elected in 1881. In July, 1882, he was appointed by the regent’s State inspector of teachers’ classes, under a statute passed in the previous month, and for more than two years he labored assiduously in reorganizing these classes. Upon the death of Dr. Pratt, assistant secretary of the regents of the University, in 1884, he was asked to take the position of assistant secretary – a position which he has ably filled. He was president of the State Teachers* association in 1882, and was treasurer of the State Commissioners’ association in 1879, vice-president in 1882.
Dr. Watkins has written for the University convocation, papers upon “The State and Higher Education,” and “The Teaching of Literature in Secondary Schools; “for the Regents’ Historical and Statistical Record, a “History of Teachers’ Classes,” and various reports and papers for the State Commissioners’ association and for the State Teachers’ association.
Dr. Watkins is still actively engaged in a noble work – the crowning glory of his studious and successful career – in advancing the cause of higher education among our people; and his earnest and constant efforts in this department of labor are receiving the warmest commendation of the most intelligent citizens of the Empire state.