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#102 Aviation Pioneer Porter Adams Brought His Vision to Norwich

Jeff Dobbin 200 Things about Norwich, Leaders & Legacy

Porter Hartwell Adams was born in Quincy, Mass. He was rumored to be descended from U.S. Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams. He was one of the first students to study aeronautical engineering at M.I.T., where as a laboratory assistant he helped build the first wind tunnel at an educational institution.

After graduating from M.I.T., Adams and a classmate, Donald Douglas, began planning what would have been the first world flight. The outbreak of World War I prevented their dream from becoming a reality. However, when the goal of circumnavigation by air was achieved in 1924, it was in a fleet of planes designed by Douglas, and using a route very similar to the one that Adams had proposed.

Adams served at a naval air station in Massachusetts during World War I and joined the reserves after the war with the rank of lieutenant commander. In 1922, he became a founding member of the National Aeronautic Association, and was elected as its president in 1926. The period of his presidency from 1926-1928 saw great achievements in American aviation, including the final race for the $25,000 Orteig Prize that culminated in Charles Lindbergh’s first solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927.

Suffering from ill health, Adams moved to Thetford, Vt., where he was active in state and local affairs, and joined the board of Norwich University in 1931. He became the university’s vice president in 1933—roughly equivalent to today’s board chairman—and stepped in to serve as acting president later that year when President Charles Plumley announced that he was running for state representative. In 1934, Adams was officially elected president of Norwich University.

During Adams’ tenure as president, he saw the university through much of the Great Depression, advocated for aeronautical education, and courted donors and trustees who left lasting legacies.  One of those trustees was Dr. Godfrey Cabot, who established the James Jackson Cabot Foundation and was instrumental in raising funds for the construction of Cabot Hall, which was erected in the final year of Adams’ administration. Porter Adams oversaw the construction of four new buildings during his presidency, which made an increase in the size of the study body from 300 to 500 cadets possible.

Throughout his presidency, Adams’ health fluctuated, and there was constant doubt about how long he would live.  Adams’ determination in the face of his condition is inspiring; despite his health, Adams strengthened the university both financially and academically and continued to solve administration problems that were the result of the depression.

In 1938, Adams’ continued poor health made it necessary for him to step down, and Dr. John Thomas, former president of Middlebury College, became acting president of Norwich.  Porter Adams passed away in his home in Boston in December 1945.

Contact the Norwich University Archives if you’re interested in learning more about this topic.