Text: Douglass Sherley, “Mr. William Wertenbaker — His Golden Wedding,” Virginia University Magazine, vol. XIX, no. 1, October 1879, pp. 42-47


[page 42, continued:]


AT THE hour of noon, on a Summer’s day, more than sixty years ago, Thomas Jefferson, mounted on his magnificent steed, “Eagle,” came dashing through the streets of Charlottesville, and leaping from his horse, entered the Clerk’s office of the Albemarle county courthouse.

There was apparently no one in the office to serve Mr. Jefferson, but his keen eye soon discovered a slender youth in a remote corner copyiug deeds, who then rising modestly greeted the great personage before him.

“Where’s the clerk and his deputy?” ’’Both gone to dinner, sir?” A simple answer; but in those few words Mr. Jefferson’s quick ear caught the ring of integrity; and as he watched the young man rapidly find and place before him the records he had come to examine, he noticed with pleasure the boy’s open countenance and frank, modest manner.

And as he passed out to remount his horse and ride back to his beautiful Monticello, he turned to the boy, and [page 43:] with that courtly grace so characteristic of him, kindly said, “I will not forget you.”

So it was that William Wertenbaker first met this great man, who did not forget him, but some years afterwards appointed him Librarian of the University (in 1826) which position he has faithfully held from that time until now, with only an occasional break of a year or so at most.

He is the last link. The only person now liviug who was connected with this great Institution of the South when its doors were first thrown open to the youth of the land.

In a quiet, far-off recess in the University Library, plainly framed and unostentatiously hung is the very paper of Mr. Wertenbuker’s appointment, written and signed by Mr. Jefferson himself. This valuable paper, which is very highly prized by its venerable owner, is well worthy, on account of its antique and characteristic style, of a careful perusal by all who love rare old documents, and to whom the time-worn relics ot great men are dear.

On the 2d of September, 1829, Mr. Wertenbaker married Miss Timberlake, of an adjacent comity, and on the 2d of September, 1879, celebrated that happy and now always rare event, his “Golden Wedding.”

On the eve of this most important anniversary, the 1st of last September, it was the writer’s good fortune to have the pleasure of taking that Bridegroom of half a century ago for a drive. It was a glorious afternoon for a drive; yesterday Summer gone, leaving the smiling Piedmont valleys, yet to-day still lingering on the foot-hills near by, and on the distant Blue Ridge, tardily yielding to the soft golden haze that rilled all the air with a sweet suggestiveness of the swiftcoming autumn.

As we drove rapidly down the mill-road, where it winds in beauty towards the Rivanua, the old gentleman roused himself from the soft, sweet thought of that courtship of the fifty years ago, and poured forth a delightful flow of pleasant [page 44:] recollections about the old University, and of her professors and students of the days so long gone by.

“Yes,” said he, “there was George Long, the first professor of Ancient Languages, who came from England at Mr. Jefferson’s solicitation. Long, you know, was at Cambridge with the great Macaulay, and they both received their fellowships at the same time, but our little professor lost his fellowship,” and then he smiled as he told me how.

“In those days there came to live with her sister, Mrs. Brockenborongh (our first Proctor’s wife,) a widow, beautiful and charming — Mrs. Selden. Prof. Long, who by the way was a small man, lived in the family of the Proctor; and somehow, naturally enough, I suppose, these two, widow and bachelor, were constantly thrown together, and in a little while it was the same old story, and the wits of the place nodded and whispered a new rendition uf that couplet of Young’s:

“Selden wants but little here below.

And wants that little Long.”

So it was he lost his fellowship by marrying over here. In 1828 he returned to England to accept a chair in the University of London, where he remained until his death, which was only a few months ago; for several years we, George Long and I, had been the only two, of all that first set, that were left — the rest all gone; now I am the only one.” As he said those words a far-off look came into his eyes and a certain feeling of loneliness must have just then filled his heart.

He told me of the men who had been his class-mates in 1825, the opening year of the University; of the mere handful, perhaps a dozen, who still live; of Burwell Starke, who was the first man to place his name on the matriculation book, who now is living somewhere in Missouri; of Robert Hill Carter, who was the second to matriculate, and who is now living at his beautiful country place, “Redlands,” near Carter’s Bridge,” in something like the splendor of the old Virginia days, extending an open-handed hospitality to friend [page 45:] and stranger; of that illustrious family of Prestons, Gen. John S., William C , the silver-tongued orator of South Carolina, and of Thomas L. and Charles Preston. These and many others he named, recalling, as he mentioned them, some little incident, some college joke, or bit of wit.

“During the year 1826,” said Mr. Wertenbaker, “there used to come into the Library a handsome young student, perhaps eighteen years of age, in search of old French books, principally histories; that young man, even the little I chanced to see of him, made a deep impression on me, and, in fact, I am snre I will always tenderly cherish my recollections of Edgar Allen [[Allan]] Poe.’’

There are those in the Faculty, beloved and respected by all, who have most unselfishly yielded for many years the full, ripe energies of their strong intellectual manhoods to the service of the University whom Mr. Wertenbaker knew when they were students, in those early days of the University — those early days that he remembers so well and is always so willing to talk about. He very pleasantly remembers the time he had the honor of dining at Monticello, with not only Mr. Jefferson, but also with those two other great and good men, Madison and Monroe.

Mr. Wertenbaker issued a great many invitations to his golden wedding — sent about two hundred of them abroad. During the week prior to the 2d of September he and his good wife were kept almost constantly engaged reading letters from those at a great distance, sending their sincere congratulations, and deeply regretting their inability to be present on the happy occasion; many of these letters — and they were not mere “forms” dictated by the requirements of society, but genuine, heart-prompted responses — were from men of distinction, who, in the midst of worldly honors, could readily pause and drop a line, or feelingly murmur, “Dear old Wert! God bless him!”

The “golden wedding,” despite a bad, stormy night — just such a night, by the way, as that on which they were [page 46:] married in 1829 — was in every sense “of the word a great success. There side by side sat the dear old couple, beneath gracefully festooned arches of the University ivy, graciously receiving each and every one of their many guests that thronged the rooms. In her lap shone little heaps of gold coins, and little trinkets of remembrance of every kind and description, poured there by loving hands; while on his knee nestled his little five-year-old grandchild, “William Wertenbaker, Jr.,” with great glorious eyes and curly golden hair, kissing “Grandpapa,” and, childlike, laughingly scattering the mass of letters, poems and notes lying near.

On every side were to be seen the evidences of the affectionate regard in which Mr. Wertenbaker and his good wife are held by not only the students of many years ago, but also by these who live about them, with whom they come in daily contact — their neighbors — an unmistakable evidence of a man’s true worth. Here a basket of flowers, there a handsome gold strawberry set. exquisitely carved — this last from a former student who lived with them years and years ago — and then a most beautiful Wedding-cake, made and presented by a neighboring confectioner and his wife; and a great quantity of other things, among them a choice bit of art — a pair of exquisite panel pictures, painted on gold grounds — on one a bunch of wild field flowers, the daisy, golden rod, the pretty blue thistle and rich August grasses; on the other a luxuriant branch of the flaming gladiolus, a spray of salvia splendens, a full-blown rose and effective dashes here and there of soft, green foliage. These by a young artist in our midst.

So much, then, for the mere glimpse given the reader of Mr. Wertenbaker’s golden wedding.

Although Mr. Wertenbaker is in his eighty-third year, he still moves about with something like The activity of the days prior to his last illness; he still takes great pleasure in knowing the students and will always listen with great interest to anything concerning them; he can already call by name [page 47:] quite a number of the new students of this session. These October days of brightness and sunshine bring him again to his old place in the Library, where he remains for at least an hour or so nearly every day.

Although his “May of life is fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf,” yet he has all that a full, ripe age, after a well-spent life, should bring, “as honor, love, obedience, troops of friends.” So may it be on to the close.

And may the bliss of those fifty years of married happiness sweeten and gladden all these latter days with their tenderness and devotion.  

Zu.Lulu — Mo.zal.



Zu.Lulu — Mo.zal was the somewhat eccentric signature used by Douglass Sherley, who was one of the editors of the magazine.


[S:0 - VUM, 1879] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Mr. William Wertenbaker, His Golden Wedding (D. Sherley, 1879)