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Margin Notes

University founder gets the ‘Obama’ treatment

Illustration copies the style of the famous “Hope” campaign poster.


The University of Western Ontario has given its founder, Bishop Isaac Hellmuth, the “Obama” treatment. A special edition of the Western News, entitled “Western 101” and aimed at incoming first-year students, has an image of Bishop Hellmuth done up in the two-toned style of the Barrack Obama “Hope” campaign poster made famous during the 2008 presidential election.

It was an interesting decision to feature the Western founder in this way. In the U.S. at the moment, there are likely few institutions that would “honour” an individual by implicitly linking him or her to President Obama, considering the president’s current low approval ratings. However, many Canadians retain significant affection for the U.S. president and continue to hold him in high esteem, so such a move would be unlikely to generate any controversy here.

I think the decision was certainly harmless and actually kind of fun. The young adults starting university probably have some acquaintance with the original campaign poster and the image in the Western News may pique their curiosity and prompt them to pick up the newspaper. I know it made me open it up to see who this person was featured on the cover.

And who was Bishop Hellmuth? An interesting fellow, it turns out. According to this biography by William Cliff, Isaac Hellmuth was born in Poland of Jewish parents. His father was a rabbi and Hellmuth himself trained to be a rabbi. However, while being educated at the University of Breslau, his religious convictions changed in conversation with missionaries from the Lutheran Church and the Church of England. Disowned by his father for his conversion, Hellmuth took his mother’s name and moved to England. To this day, his father’s name remains unknown. The biography continues:

Arriving in Canada in 1845 and looking for a future within the Church of England, Hellmuth found his life’s work, beginning in Sherbrooke, Quebec, as Rector of the parish and as a professor of Hebrew for the fledgling Bishop’s University in nearby Lennoxville. Respected as a lecturer and a professor, he was also proficient in raising funds for Bishop’s, generating £1,000 one summer on a fundraising tour. …

Hellmuth saw that a university also needed to be founded in London, so he pledged $10,000 of his own money and whatever else he could do to procure a charter for the new school. The London community was not unanimous in believing that a local university was a necessary thing, and the papers were filled with letters to the editor both in support of and in opposition to the idea. The enabling legislation met stiff resistance, but wove its way through committees of the legislature – no doubt assisted by the fact that Hellmuth was married to the sister-in-law of the Minister of Education.

The bill granting a charter for Western was eventually authorized in 1878.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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