Big man on campus

After he left the White House, William Howard Taft spent eight years teaching at Yale. He left quite an impression.

Mark Alden Branch ’86  is executive editor of the Yale Alumni Magazine.

There is no building at Yale named for William Howard Taft, Class of 1878, the first alumnus of the university to serve as president of the United States. But in various corners of the campus, you can find some things to remember him by: four chairs that were installed or acquired to accommodate Taft’s prodigious size during the period just after his presidency when he was a professor at Yale.

Three of these have been put aside for safekeeping: an armchair, which can be seen by appointment in the Yale University Art Gallery’s furniture study; a similar chair in Woodbridge Hall, and a special double-wide grandstand seat from Yale Field, now in storage at the athletics department’s Ray Tompkins House. But the fourth, an extra-wide seat in the balcony of Woolsey Hall, is still in place. It’s popular with concert patrons who enjoy a little additional breathing room.


These seats remind us not only of Taft’s bulk—he topped out at 355 pounds when he was president—but also of the pleasure and enthusiasm with which he embraced academic life after he failed to win reelection in 1912. Taft had always been an active alumnus, serving as a trustee of the university even while he was president of the nation. But after a bruising term in the White House, during which he was caught in an intraparty Republican feud between big-business conservatives and Theodore Roosevelt’s progressives, he was thrilled to retreat to his alma mater from, as he put it, “the stress and turmoil of the world.”

Yale College offered Taft a chair in law immediately after his 1912 loss. (Yale secretary Anson Phelps Stokes, Class of 1896, later recalled that Taft had joked “that he was afraid that a Chair would not be adequate, but that if we would provide a Sofa of Law, it might be all right.”) Taft was 55 when he arrived in New Haven in April 1913, less than a month after leaving office. He received Yale’s top faculty salary, $5,000—a tiny fraction of his $75,000 presidential salary, but he appears not to have minded. He jumped back into academic life, teaching in both Yale College and the Law School, coaching a freshman debate team, and attending proms, banquets, and especially baseball games.

Taft’s biographers suggest that his weight problems were due to compulsive overeating in times of stress. After coming to Yale, Taft lost 80 pounds in eight months (he cut out bread, potatoes, fatty meats, and alcohol) and never went over 300 pounds again. He turned out to be prophetic when, on the day of his arrival at Yale, he addressed a crowd of students outside Commons from the balcony of Memorial Hall and said, “As I hear your cheers and your song, and feel the energy of your spirit, it seems to me as if I were young again and had shed some of the flesh that evidences advancement in years.”

Taft taught at Yale for eight years, until Warren G. Harding brought the Republican party back into the White House and offered Taft the job he had always wanted: a seat on the Supreme Court. This time, the seat didn’t have to be so big.


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