The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation is a private non-profit foundation. In 1957, the Ford Foundation provided a five-year, $24.5 million grant to support up to 1,000 Woodrow Wilson Fellowships annually. Fellowships were offered across the range of arts and sciences. Throughout these years, a rigorous interview process was the hallmark of the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. Professors nominated or recommended promising seniors, and applications underwent review at the Foundation, with finalists examined by regional panels on campuses around the country.
John Bellairs was the recipient of the Wilson Fellowship in 1959, and the Wilson Special Grant the following year. Those awarded the fellowship had their names inscribed upon a plaque found in the great hall of Notre Dame's O'Shaughnessy Hall.
The fellowships were big news in the academic world at the time. "There was a general feeling that not enough bright young folks were being attracted into college teaching, and some millionaire put up the money to fund a large number of one-year fellowships. The idea was to pay for the first year, and those who proved themselves worthy would find subsequent support through the universities they were studying at."
"I don't think that John was especially attracted to teaching per se, but the scholarship was slanted towards future college instructors and he would not have been able to afford graduate school without some sort of scholarship," explains Alfred Myers. "Wilson scholarships were fairly numerous at the time, but John of course was a Magna cum Laude and quite deserving. It is certain that postgraduate work would have then been a natural decision because, then as now, having an undergraduate degree in English doesn't really open many alluring doors career-wise."
Notre Dame during that era was extremely adept at obtaining scholarships for deserving students, with Frank O'Malley in the forefront of this effort. "He was a member of the selection board for the region that included Illinois and Indiana, and I think the force of his personality had something to do with the fact that, in the early years, Notre Dame won an extraordinary number of them," recalls Bowen. "O'Malley claimed that we were educating our English majors better than most of the other universities and colleges in the region."
It was a prestigious award, Bowen continues, "but not so much so as the rarer ones like the Rhodes, which if I remember correctly was given to only one person from each state. In 1959, Notre Dame had either 31 or 33 Woodrow Wilson fellows, and John and I were both among them. When I got to Yale Graduate School, I found that practically everyone in my cohort of English majors had a Wilson."
Wilson Special Grant
The Wilson Fellowship awarded at Notre Dame was slanted towards future college instructors but because universities were flooded with promising young scholars, they had the task of finding money to support them after their first year. Bowen believes that because of this, the Wilson foundation later came up with some additional money in the form of the Wilson Special Grant, which Bellairs seemingly was awarded while at the University of Chicago.