I first encountered the statue of William Oxley Thompson many years ago when I visited the library bearing his name on the Ohio State University campus.

I first encountered the statue of William Oxley Thompson many years ago when I visited the library bearing his name on the Ohio State University campus.

Thompson is wearing an academic robe and gazes east across the Oval, in the center of the place he came to know so well. I still remember observing to a friend at the time that the statue was larger than life.

In many ways, so was the man it depicts.

When Thompson came to Ohio State in 1899, the campus was home to about 1,300 students on 330 acres. By the time he retired in 1925, the university was housed on 1,000 acres and each year was graduating more students than had been enrolled in the entire university in its early years. Much of that success and progress was due to Thompson's efforts.

The journey of Thompson to Columbus was a circuitous one. Some men take a while to find the place where they truly want to be. Thompson's journey not only was a long one but in some ways a tragic one as well.

He was born in 1855 near Cambridge, as the first of 10 children of David and Agnes Thompson. David Thompson had come to America with his family from Northern Ireland, and he had learned to become a shoemaker. The family moved from Cambridge to New Concord to Zanesville and finally to the rural village of Brownsville.

When he was 14, William began working as a farmhand. When he was 16, he began attending classes at nearby Muskingum College. To pay for his education, he worked on the farm, as a tutor and even as a college janitor.

While attending Muskingum College, he roomed for a while in the log-cabin home of a family named Harper. One member of the family, William Rainey Harper, would one day become president of the University of Chicago.

Because he had to work as much as he studied, Thompson did not graduate from Muskingum College until 1878. By that time, he knew what he wanted to do next: He attended the Western Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. He graduated in 1881 and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister.

In the following year, he married Rebecca Allison and the couple moved to Iowa, where he became a home missionary.

Rebecca Thompson contracted tuberculosis, and the family moved Colorado in the hope that mountain air would help. He became president of a small local college and pastor of a local church near Estes Park, Colorado.

The move did not help. Rebecca and her infant second daughter died in 1886.

Thompson remarried, but in less than four years, his second wife, Starr Brown Thompson, died after giving birth to their second son. In 1890, Thompson was a widower with three small children.

It was at this point that he came back to Ohio and found his true calling. He accepted the presidency of Miami University and married Estelle Godfrey Clark. Miami was a small college in those days with fewer than 200 students.

Thompson proved to be a skillful administrator and a successful recruiter of new students. One of his lasting accomplishments was helping to create an intercollegiate athletic program with nine other Ohio colleges.

In 1899, Thompson was elected the fifth president of Ohio State University. Over the next 25 years, he presided over the evolution of Ohio State from a small agricultural land grant college into one of America's great universities. Popular with students, staff and civic leaders, Thompson became involved with several local business enterprises while continuing to serve as a minister -- most notably with Indianola Presbyterian Church.

Over the years, Thompson developed a national reputation as an advocate of public education. During World War I, he served on a number of federal commissions and toured various parts of the country to support the war effort.

At the end of World War I, Thompson was 65. He offered to retire on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of OSU. The board persuaded him stay for a few more years.

After the completion of several construction projects, including Ohio Stadium, Thompson retired in 1925 at the age of 70.

In 1930, university fine arts professor Erwin Frey created the 11-foot statue of Thompson, which stands in front of the library that bears his name.

Thompson suffered a severe heart attack and died Dec. 9, 1933, at a Columbus hospital. He is buried in Green Lawn Cemetery.

Every town has a few people who are larger than life. William Oxley Thompson was one of those people.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek News.