Hometown: Kingston, R.I.
Career: Shopkeeper, Founded URI
Bernon Helme was a persuasive man. A prominent citizen of Kingston at the end of the 19th century, he overcame tremendous odds and political opposition to realize his dream of establishing a university in Kingston.
In 1888, Helme raised $2,000 from 30 local residents, purchasing the 140-acre Oliver Watson Farm in Kingston as the location for the state’s Agricultural School and Experiment Station. He also persuaded the South Kingstown town fathers to contribute an equal sum. This $4,000, along with Helme’s considerable determination, made the University of Rhode Island possible.
Helme and his allies fought to make the school the state’s land-grant college, which would provide federal funds to create a place for agricultural research and education. But it was a long road filled with rancorous and prolonged political debates. The problem: Brown University had already been named Rhode Island’s land grant school 25 years earlier.
With the help of local farmers, who complained that Brown’s curriculum was not preparing students to become farmers, Helme mounted a campaign to cut Brown off from the funds. Thanks to these efforts, the Rhode Island State Agricultural School in Kingston was created by an act of the General Assembly. The first students arrived in September 1890, after the erection of three buildings, including College Hall (later renamed Davis Hall).
When he died at age 88, Helme had no offspring or wealth, but thanks to his vision and determination, his legacy—the University of Rhode Island—has grown and prospered for 125 years.