History Nebraska Blog

The Delzell Family of Peru, Nebraska

William Newton Delzell (1868-1940) was Dean of the Nebraska State Normal School in Peru, Nemaha County, Nebraska, from 1921 until his retirement in 1938. Although he was born in Indiana, he was a Peru man to the marrow. He graduated from the Nebraska State Normal School in 1894 and joined the faculty there in 1905, after a few years as a school superintendent in Unadilla, Dunbar, and Syracuse. James W. Crabtree (W. N. Delzell’s friend and colleague, as well as his first wife’s brother-in-law) wrote of him, “He is too big to take in at a glance. First, perhaps, is his genuine interest in the welfare of the people, his kindly understanding of their points of view, and the extent to which he makes sacrifices in their behalf. Next, he acts on his good impulses.” By all accounts, he was beloved by his students and colleagues alike.

In 1908, W. N. Delzell went on a two-month-long summer tour of Europe with a merry band of Nebraska educators. They sailed on the White Star Line, years before Titanic sullied that name, taking the S. S. Cretic to Europe and the S. S. Romanic home again afterward. Perhaps the Old World did not live up to William’s rosy expectations, for he wrote, “I remember when we entered Rome. It seemed so odd, as the train slowed down, to look out and see an old hen with some chickens and an old cow tied to the end of a rope grazing by the wayside in the immortal city of Rome. Just think of it, an old hen and chickens and an old cow. What a comedown it was to the heavenly ideas I had. And so it was at Athens. Dirt very similar to the soil up at Crawford, Nebraska. Sort of a light clay, dustlike.” Europe, he found, was perhaps not so different from home.

If there was one thing W. N. Delzell loved more than his work as an educator and advocate for his school, it was his family. In 1896, he met the great love of his life, Dora Wilson. They did not have the opportunity to speak upon their first meeting, but the memory of her expressive, black eyes and the white scarf upon her head stuck with him for the rest of his life, and he wrote about that memory in his later years. Sometime after that first meeting, they encountered one another again at a party neither of them had wished to attend, and they became acquainted over a game of crokinole. After a courtship marked by voluminous correspondence, they married in 1900. Note the outline of pressed flowers upon one of the letters William sent to Dora in 1897.

William and Dora had four children, Esther, Mark, James, and Donna Jane.

Dora passed away in 1920, and William remarried in 1928, to Mary Elinor Ogg. However, his love for Dora never dimmed. And in 1930, ten years after her death, he wrote two drafts of a haunting poem about her. No final version of this poem survives, but one of the versions contains the lines, “Something Holy seems to draw near to me / When I commune with those days now gone . . .” William passed away on June 19, 1940, the exact day of the fortieth anniversary of his wedding to Dora.

It must not be thought that he didn’t love his second wife Mary. Each love is different, and each is bright. Dora’s children loved Mary as well, and Esther and her children called her “Granmary” and kept up their correspondence until Mary’s death in 1976.

The Delzell Family collection at the Nebraska State Historical Society includes the correspondence of William Delzell, Dora Wilson Delzell, Esther Delzell Brownell, and Mary Elinor Ogg Delzell, as well as materials related to the 1908 trip to Europe, William Delzell’s writings, notebooks, certificates, postcards, biographies, genealogy, materials from the 1997 Delzell family reunion, and a small amount of Nebraska State Normal School memorabilia. The full finding aid for the collection is available on the Nebraska State Historical Society website.

- Angela Kroeger, NSHS practicum student

References

Crabtree, J. W. (1937, November). Will Delzell. Nebraska Educational Journal, 17(9), 357. RG5890.AM, Box 1, Folder 81.

Delzell, W. N. (n.d.). “I remember the morning . . .” [Unpublished typescript]. RG5890.AM, Box 2, Folder 12.

Delzell, W. N. (n.d.). Story of Our (Dora and My) First Meeting [Unpublished typescript]. RG5890.AM, Box 1, Folder 79.

Delzell, W. N. (1930, January 10). “Here I am alone . . .” [Unpublished poem]. RG5890.AM, Box 1, Folder 75.

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