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Chapter 100: Van Sant & the Wunderkind

April 29, 2015
Chevy Chase, Maryland

Even though Emmett knew him from their college days at Stetson University, and had maintained a connection through correspondence, he didn’t know everything about his friend, colleague, and mentor, Nicholas Van Sant.

Emmett thought he did; after all, he had good role models before (his grandfather, A.E. Maxwell; Walter Kehoe; brother Cephas Wilson; his father F.C. Wilson), but I doubt Emmett realized how much Van Sant was a true force to be reckoned with.

I don’t mean force in a negative way, either: I’ve only read a few rolls of the Sterling newspapers, but Van Sant was everywhere and everything to the community of Sterling, Illinois.

Nicholas Van Sant (back row, see red arrow) had an impressive family, too. Several of his siblings were hands-on in the family lumber business and shipping business for decades. Nick’s brother Sam was the Governor of Minnesota; Clarke was a professor. John W. And Lydia, first row, center, were Nick’s parents. Photo source: Iowa History Gen Web.

Frankly, Nicholas Van Sant was impressive.

Geritol bottle from 1950s; 12% alcohol. Source:

Not that I’m an ageist, but in 1905, Nicholas Van Sant was 59, and not only had graduated law school a year earlier — he went on to Cornell College to take additional law classes and passed the bar 1905 — but if that wasn’t enough, he was starting a bank. I don’t know many people today, almost 60 years old, who take on at least two major new enterprises at the same time like Nick did. It makes me wonder if the guy was high on Geritol or something —

— but he wasn’t. In fact, Nicholas Van Sant was not only a teetotaler, he was very much involved in the local temperance movement. The man reeked of energy and ambition, and he was an upstanding guy to boot! As we say in the AA program, Nick Van Sant modeled a way of living that other people would want to emulate. So, I can see how Emmett would want to be around Nicholas Van Sant all the time; how he’d be fired up to move 1,020 miles away from home to follow in his footsteps.

Was Van Sant a superman?

No. But a successful businessman with that much (and more) going on in his life surrounded himself with competent people. Case in point: Van Sant’s employees and partners tended to stay with him for years, because he was a decent boss, giving good employees a chance to prove their abilities and moving them up in the ranks accordingly.

Managing people well also means being invested in the local community, and Van Sant understood that. He shared time, expertise, and money with his community on a regular basis, and the town of Sterling appreciated the asset that was Nicholas Van Sant.

Sterling Semi-Weekly Gazette, October 16, 1905, on the first page of the city’s paper.
Van Sant was a big deal in Sterling.

The clip says he’s 65, but that’s an error — he’s actually 59. Still, Nicholas Van Sant was viewed as a kind-of superman for his age at the time. Source: Sterling Daily Gazette, October 1905.

Van Sant likely saw something in Emmett that he saw in himself; i.e., a prodigy, a younger Nick Van Sant in-the-making. he had sort-of a Midas touch everywhere but in his personal life. He had a good life, a comfortable — well, wealthy one — of his own making, but no heir to either expand or inherit his kingdom; he very likely wanted an heir.

Van Sant liked and admired Emmett for all that he, too, had brought himself up by his bootstraps to become the valedictorian of their class at Stetson. It seems logical that Nick Van Sant looked upon Emmett as the kind of young man to raise in the image of himself. And Van Sant enjoyed taking on challenges — not that Emmett was such a challenge per se, but he would need help starting a law firm from scratch.

So here’s a question: Did Van Sant know about Emmett’s drinking issues?

Maybe. He might have seen Emmett have an occasional drink now and then while they were at Stetson, but if Emmett had been drunk on a regular basis, I doubt Van Sant would have invited him up to join his law firm. And it is quite likely that although Emmett was drinking at this point, he wasn’t yet a full-blown alcoholic.

Categories: Addiction Book Family


Communication, Arts, and the Humanities
The University of Maryland Global Campus

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