On November 16, 1927 Olympia High School students gathered to pay respects to long time teacher B.R. McClelland. After the student orchestra and trio played and Rev. T. H. Simpson gave an address, class officers left to attend McClelland’s funeral at the United Churches—McClelland had been a longtime elder at the First Presbyterian Church, which merged into the United Churches. “Perhaps,” observed the Morning Olympian newspaper, “no teacher was ever as respected and honored by the students as was the white-haired mathematical teacher.”
Benjamin Rush McClelland was born February 7, 1858 to John and Grace St. Clair McClelland in Cumberland, Ohio. He became a teacher at 16. Later graduating from Muskingum College (now University) in New Concord, Ohio with a mathematics degree, McClelland continued teaching. He was a high school principal in Coshocton, Ohio and superintendent of schools at Newcomerstown, Ohio. In 1885 he married Mary Dinsmore (1864-1944). They had one son, Ellis (1891-1949).
By the turn of the century, however, McClelland decided to move west to Olympia with his family to teach at People’s University. People’s University was the dream of John Chaplin. He wanted the school on Cooper Point at a site he named Athens. In September 1902 Chaplin opened a temporary school in the former Olympia Collegiate Institute building in downtown Olympia. McClelland taught mathematics.
McClelland was heavily involved with People’s University. He joined debates and even played the coronet at the production of “Queen Esther” at the Olympia Theater and belonged to an amateur orchestra. McClelland was also a member of the Olympia Development Company, the land company branch of Athens project.
People’s University, however, was faltering. McClelland left for a year in Everett, but returned to Olympia where he was hired as principal of Olympia High School in 1905. At that time, the school was too small to have a full-time administrator, so McClelland taught as well. He taught mathematics and occasionally physics, chemistry and science over the years. His son Ellis became a champion runner and jumper on the school track team and was an excellent scholar.
As an experienced teacher, McClelland was active in school matters. He was a member of the Puget Sound School Masters’ Club, Washington Educational Association and the school district’s textbook commission. McClelland also led and instructed the summer teaching school—or “normal school”—held in Olympia in 1911 and 1912.
McClelland stepped down as principal in 1910 but remained a teacher at Olympia High School. Now with more time, he concentrated on a new dream, a school band.
The high school’s early music program included an orchestra, but having a separate band had proved difficult. After two years of work, including fundraising, McClelland started a 12-member boys band. This group played at sports games, assemblies and other events. McClelland seems to have sometimes joined the band on the horn, as well as with the orchestra. In addition to the school band, he directed the YMCA band in the 1920s. It played at events, conferences, sports games and even at a 1925 circus.
While McClelland enjoyed success with his music, his political career was a failure. In 1906 he ran for representative of the sixth ward to the Olympia city council on the Citizens party ticket. In 1904, 1910, 1912, 1914 and 1922 he ran for Thurston County Superintendent of Schools. He first ran as a member of the Non-Partisan party and later as a Democrat. He never won an election.
Although he never won office, McClelland was active in his community. He and his wife were active with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Benjamin helped in essay contests and events while Mary was president of the Westside WCTU, which frequently met at their house. She also ran for county superintendent of schools in 1904 as a member of the Prohibition Party.
In 1919, McClelland was put in charge of examinations for enumerators of the 1920 federal census. He was heavily involved with bringing the annual Chautauqua to Olympia, a cultural and lecture event, backing the event financially, selling tickets and serving on the board, including as secretary. He helped found the Guaranty State Bank of Olympia in 1919 and was part of the Westside Streetcar Club that sought to raise money and support to bring the city streetcar up the Westside hill.
Indeed, the students did love him. Writing decades later, Elizabeth McElroy Allison wrote that “Mr. McClelland was my Geometry teacher my Sophomore year. He was such a dear, called the girls Miss and the boys, Mister. It certainly made for respect in that class and we never had any discipline problems.” McClelland frequently judged debates and contests, including yelling contests between grades at pep rallies. He even chaired a committee that listed students and alumni serving in World War I, including his son Ellis.
But McClelland’s health was failing. Suffering from stomach cancer, he retired after the 1926-1927 school year. His students missed him and sent him a basket of cards and letters asking him to return and wishing him a speedy recovery. McClelland passed away at home on November 14, 1927, following surgery.
Though the school mourned him, McClelland had left a strong legacy as a teacher. As an ex-University of Washington coach Russell “Rusty” Callow noted at an assembly two years before the teacher’s death, no other man had influenced him more than Benjamin McClelland.