His Gift Was Language

By Pat Burdick and Luis Millones-Figueroa

He was five feet, eight inches in height, 140 pounds, a Baptist, a Republican; his countenance was “cunning” and his character “foxy,” says the ’95 Oracle. His favorite employment was “exercise on the plains”–he was a baseball star–and he was “fit for leg pulling.” In response to the question “Relation to the opposite sex,” he reported, “Got a girl.” His hijinks with classmates as well as his athletic triumphs were reported in the Echo. His name also appears in programs for musical and oratory events, and he helped his debate team win competitions. Grade books reveal his excellence in course work. When he graduated with awards he chose teaching as his future occupation.Evidently John Hedman, Class of 1895, caught the attention of Colby’s faculty. Immediately offered a post as assistant instructor in modern languages in the language department, he began teaching French classes that September. Seven years later President Charles White reported to the trustees that Hedman was “doing the entire work of the French Department in a most satisfactory manner,” adding that Hedman was “qualified to introduce courses in Spanish, Italian, Swedish and Old Norse” (and presumably to offer courses in Greek, since he also was listed in the course catalogue as instructor of Greek in 1896-1899 and supplemented his Colby income by teaching Greek at Coburn Classical Institute). That same spring of 1902 Hedman taught an elective Spanish grammar course for juniors and seniors–the first Spanish class at Colby.

On its 100th anniversary this year, Hedman’s basic Spanish course had evolved into a curriculum of more than 20 courses in Spanish language, literature and culture as well as a program of study abroad. As predicted by the Echo 100 years ago, Spanish became increasingly popular, and the thriving Spanish Department today is a lasting tribute to Colby’s first professor of Spanish, whose multilingual abilities would galvanize the teaching of modern languages at the College.

Hedman was an immigrant. Born in Undersaker, Sweden, on October 15, 1868, he came to Maine in 1871 with his parents and older brother, Erik, part of the third wave of land settlers enticed by the state to populate Aroostook County. The family worked the land, eventually owning a farm in the land grant settlement of New Sweden.

Swedish was spoken at home and in the community. John and his younger brother, Simon, attended high school in nearby Caribou, where they learned English and perhaps were introduced to French. They may have boarded in town during the week to attend classes and traveled home on weekends as was the custom.

Hedman entered Colby in September 1891, just shy of age 23. From his first days, he distinguished himself in his classes, in the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity and on the “base-ball” squad. As a young man, Hedman played on his town’s team against neighboring communities in Sunday afternoon games that sometimes involved a round-trip walk of 15 to 20 miles. Despite his active campus life, he often traveled back to New Sweden, where he became known as “Professor John.”

The 1890s were critical in Colby’s move from the “classical course”–which emphasized Greek and Latin–to a curriculum involving modern languages. Throughout the 19th century, many educational institutions in the United States debated the continued relevance of Greek and Latin to modern life. Colleges and universities worried about appearing archaic to parents of potential students. Nineteenth-century French authors and the 1889 Exposition in Paris stimulated interest in French culture and the French language. Knowledge of German became critical in scientific research, and new immigration patterns and the 1898 Spanish-American War drew attention to the Spanish language.

All of these factors led both small and large institutions to incorporate modern languages–French, German and then Spanish–into the standard curriculum and eventually to move some Greek and Latin courses into elective status. The Colby catalogue shows an increase in French and German offerings through the 1890s. The term “romance languages” first appeared in the 1901-1902 course catalogue.

In 1899 Colby trustees granted Hedman a year’s leave, allowing him to travel to France to attend the University of Paris for professional development. Hedman’s Paris experience was summarized in an October 1900 Echo article, which applauded this administrative support. In his first university class, which had nine other students, he strove to attain “Parisian fluency” and was selected to be toastmaster at the semester-end banquet because of his excellence in French. He also excelled at phonetics, tutored American and English classmates and began studies of Spanish and Italian. His final achievement was winning the prestigious competitive Sorbonne prize in 1900.

Hedman had the opportunity to remain in Paris for a doctoral degree but elected to return to the Colby campus for the 1900-1901 school year to teach French. His $900 salary as associate professor of modern languages was raised the next year in recognition of his teaching contributions. His genuine interest in students, notable athletic abilities and the fact that he was, as President White said, “a Colby alumnus . . . and peculiarly in touch with the spirit and temper of the institution” increased his popularity. In June 1902, when he was doing “the entire work of the French Department” and already had taught the first Spanish course, Hedman was promoted to professor of romance languages at a salary of $1,500.

Hedman’s first wife, Alice Mabel Bray ’95, the “girl” referred to in the Oracle–a Congregationalist, a Republican, and a woman’s suffragist–died at 28 in October 1897, less than three months after they were married.

Hedman’s marriage to Delia (Delice) Jane Hiscock ’01 of Damariscotta on July 22, 1902, followed his return from Paris and promotion to Colby professorship. She would survive her husband by only five years.

John Hedman died suddenly in 1914 of typhoid pneumonia at the age of 46. When construction of a new dormitory began in 1915 on Colby’s old campus in downtown Waterville, trustees readily agreed that the new building should be named after the College’s gifted romance language professor.

The building no longer stands. Its sole surviving artifact, a plaque in the Pugh Center on Mayflower Hill, remembers the man whose extraordinary talents sparked Colby’s embrace of modern languages at the end of the 19th century.


Pat Burdick is Assistant Director for Special Collections; Luis Millones is the Allen Family Professor of Latin American Literature in the Spanish Department. This article appeared in the Fall 2002 issue of the Colby Magazine.