Laurenus Clark Seelye was born on September 20, 1837, to Abigail Taylor Seelye and Seth Seelye, who was a merchant, farmer and deacon. Laurenus grew up in Bethel, Connecticut alongside his sisters Hannah and Elizabeth, and his brother Thomas, Samuel, Julius and Henry.
Seelye spent several years attending the Center District School in Bethel and the Old Hadley Academy in Woodbury, Connecticut. At the age of twelve, Seelye began homeschool under his elder brother James. At the age of 16, Seelye entered Union College in Schenectady, New York. He graduated from the college in 1857 with Phi Beta Kappa honors and a membership in the Kappa Alpha Society.
Following his time at Union, Seelye attended the Andover Seminary, but was forced to leave due to bad health. While ill, Seelye travelled across the Mediterranean in hopes of regaining his health. During his trip, Seelye spent sometime in Germany and completed his education in Heidelberg and Berlin.
Two years after his graduation in Heidelberg in 1862, Seelye became a minister. He spent two months as the pastor of the Old North Church in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he eventually met his wife Henrietta Chapin. While the pastor of the Old North Church, Seelye grew ill once again.
Seeking a less demanding position, Seelye accepted his brother’s offer to teach English Literature at Amherst College. His work at the college began in 1865 and he devoted the next ten years of his life to the school.
While teaching English literature at Amherst, Sophia Smith, a native of Hatfield, Massachusetts, planned a new institute of higher education open to women. Smith, who received a vast fortune from her father, endowed her money to just that.
Upon her death on June 12, 1870, her fortune of $387,468 was willed to Smith College, which was chartered in 1871 ad opened its doors to women in 1875.
In her last Will and Testament, she stated, “It is my opinion that by the higher and more thorough Christian education of women, what are called their ‘wrongs’ will be redressed, their wages adjusted, their weight of influence in reforming the evils of society will be greatly increased, as teachers, as writers, as mothers, as members of society, their power for good will be incalculably enlarged.”
In the same year the college was opened, the trustees of the school convinced Seelye to be the institutions first president. He was inaugurated on July 4, 1875.
Smith College aimed to offer women the same educational opportunities and training as men. During much of his 37-year tenure, Seelye fought to defend and justify the importance of colleges for women and the value schools like Smith played in shaping American society.
His efforts proved fairly successful. Under his watchful eye, the school grew from just 14 students in 1875 to 1635 by the time he resigned. He also increased the number of faculty from 4 to 105.
After retiring on June 14, 1910, Seelye continued in his civic duties and served on the board for the People’s Institute and the Clarke School for the Deaf. Along with these accomplishments, Seelye was the first president of a Red Cross chapter in Northampton, Connecticut and worked as the vice-president for the Holyoke Water Power Company in 1910.
Up until the day he died, October 12, 1924, Seelye played an active part in helping Smith College to continue to grow and flourish, despite the push back it often received.
Smith College currently houses his lifetime collection of letters, photographs and other personal momentos. This archive can be accessed through the college’s website.