Schrader: Brilliant young prof met tragic end

During the 125th anniversary of the founding of Northern Illinois University, I plan to write occasionally about some lesser-known history around campus. Some I discovered while at NIU and other research was done with the assistance of the NIU Archives and Regional History Center, as well as the Joiner History Room.

Both those sources were a big help in uncovering the history behind the Fred L. Charles Memorial Bench nestled under some pine trees between Swen Parson and Lowden halls. As far as I know, there is no other faculty member so memorialized on campus.

Fred Charles was one of the original faculty chosen by NIU's first president John Cook when the college opened in 1899. His field of teaching was in nature study and biology. He was the only faculty member in the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa honor society and had graduated from Northwestern University. He distinguished himself in several areas, publishing a book of his poetry, organizing the first campus publication, serving as adviser to the Northern Illinois campus magazine that later became the Northern Star. He was also a standout in athletics. Among the staff, he was captain of the tennis team, filled both pitcher and shortstop positions on the baseball team, coached for the students’ baseball team, then managed the girls’ basketball team.

By 1909 his academic achievements caught the attention of the University of Illinois, which needed someone to teach in the fields of biology, agriculture and nature study. He left Northern to accept that position. Once established there he also accepted the editorship of the American Nature Study Society journal.

But the additional workload and related pressures affected his health and he became depressed. One day, in May 1911, his wife found him hanged in their bedroom with a note to her that read in part: “my life has been a failure, “ as reported in the May 11, 1911, DeKalb Review. The article added, “his DeKalb friends were horrified” with the loss of such a young man at age 38 with so much talent and promise. I can imagine if he suffered from severe depression 50 years later or even now, modern anti-depressants and therapy would have saved him.

There was a memorial established in his name for science student loans, which continued for years. Much later, in 1943, his widow requested that any remaining funds be used for a memorial and the bench was commissioned. Some former students attended the dedication and recalled a quote from Aldous Huxley that Charles kept on his blackboard. It read “Assertion that outstrips evidence is not only a blunder; it is a crime.”

His name was inscribed on the front side of the concrete bench in ornate lettering and around the periphery on the pad one can barely make out the other inscriptions: “Gift of Wife and Children,” then “Member Original Faculty NISTC” and on the third side “Teacher of Nature Study.”

There is more information on his career at Northern in Earl Hayter’s history of NIU, “Education in Transition.”

I passed by that bench hundreds of times to classes in the biology building but never stopped to even read his name. Now I have a greater appreciation for the man memorialized there.

The columnist can be reached via email at or through the mail at P.O. Box 851, DeKalb, IL 60115. His past columns can be found on his website at