Union College Professor
of Latin Language and Literature, 1881-1911
Sidney Gillespie Ashmore came to the United States from his birthplace in London when he was six years old. He graduated from Columbia University in 1872. After studying in Europe and holding several lectureships elsewhere, he became Professor of Latin at Union College in 1881. Ashmore was an exacting teacher and an innovator, introducing many changes to the Classics curriculum. His scholarly work in the field of Greek and Latin included translations, essays, and a famous edition of Terence’s Comedies. He also took the first sabbatical in Union’s history, going to Rome in 1895-1896.
Ashmore’s passionate views on the importance of the classical languages at the College sometimes put him at odds with innovations elsewhere in the curriculum. He considered Latin, Greek and English literature and language far more important for a student than mathematics or the physical sciences and felt that Union was straying from the path of true education when it began offering programs in what Ashmore termed “pseudo-practical” fields such as electrical engineering. His passionate nature also occasionally made “Ashy,” as students nicknamed him, a target of student pranks. In October of 1883, for example, a group of sophomores got an organ grinder to play outside his classroom. Ashmore paid him to go away, but when the organ grinder was found playing at the back window, Professor Ashmore jumped out the window to chase him away, famously putting on his hat prior to doing so.
On October 31, 1895 Ashmore married Fanny Hart Vail of Troy, New York (see below). The couple eventually moved into the house at 14 Library Lane on campus (which ultimately became known as John Blair Smith House). The Ashmores were friends with the Perkins/Hale family during their time at Union College, but Mrs. Perkins’s letters give the impression that Professor Ashmore often felt unappreciated. His relationship with President Raymond was tense, at least in part due to the President’s focus on the new electrical engineering program. Mrs. Perkins wrote, for example, “Sidney is impossible; going about, talking about what the College ought to do for him, and that he has a nervous spot on his head, and that Dr Raymond does not talk with him or treat him properly” (March 18, 1902). Though sometimes critical of Ashmore, Mrs. Perkins undoubtedly respected him as a scholar: “Ashmore read an excellent and scholarly paper and interesting too. Every body down town was amazed and Ashmore has risen immensely in their estimation. Several people said to me ‘Mr Ashmore is a very scholarly man’, and I replied ‘why, did not you know that?’” (February 22, 1895).
In addition to his job and scholarly endeavors, Ashmore was active in several organizations, including the Schenectady County Historical Society, the American Philological Association, the Humane Society, the Board of Education, the American School of Classical Studies in Rome, Christ Church, and the Fortnightly Club. He resigned from his post at Union in the fall of 1910 due to ill health and passed away the following spring.
Fanny Hart Vail Ashmore came from a prominent Troy family. The Ashmores had two children, Sidney (born in 1898) and Betsy (born in 1903). During her time at Union, Mrs. Ashmore was active socially, even though Charles Waldron, Union College Class of 1906, remembered her as not caring much about campus life because most of her friends were outside the College. Nevertheless he admitted that Mrs. Ashmore was “a very good-looking woman of easy self-possession, and an experienced hostess,” and she is recorded as having participated in a wide variety of activities including chaperoning fraternity dances (in one case only being rescued from staying all night by President Raymond), entertaining undergraduates, giving faculty parties, and hosting meetings of the Fortnightly Club.The Ashmore’s son Sidney became a playmate of Mrs. Perkins’s grandson, Nathan Hale, and Mrs. Ashmore herself and Mrs. Perkins were good friends. They would often attend events together, and Mrs. Ashmore was also in Mrs. Perkins’ Browning reading group. Although she was busy and traveled a lot, Mrs. Ashmore was unfortunately also often ill. But, wrote Mrs. Perkins, “Nothing seems to scare Mrs. Ashmore and she goes out at night in horrible weather with nothing on her head, though it makes her wretched” (February 4, 1901). The Union Alumni Monthly later recalled her as “a lady and a woman of charm, who gave tone to our then little community through which the college was the gainer.”