Next time we meet, put out your right hand and then you can brag to your grandchildren that you shook the hand that shook the hand that shook the hand of Lawrence of Arabia! And yes, I mean that Lawrence of Arabia.
William Yale was born in 1887 in New York, the son of one of America's wealthiest families. He was educated first by private tutors then prep school, and later Yale, a college founded by his ancestors.
At this point in his privileged life his dad lost all his money in the Panic of 1907. With little prospects, young Bill Yale took whatever job he could get to pay for his tuition. In 1913, while working as an oil drilling roustabout in Oklahoma, he was accepted into Standard Oil's Foreign Service School. After three months of training he was sent to the Middle East. There he was to pretend he was a wealthy playboy on a vacation through the deserts of Syria. In truth, he was secretly looking for unknown oil deposits. Soon he knew all the major players in the Middle East in his role as a bridge-playing womanizer in Jerusalem. In time, he succeeded in acquiring for Standard Oil the rights to drill for oil on a half-million acres of potentially rich sites.
Among the first people he met in Syria was T. E. Lawrence, the man who would later be remembered as Lawrence of Arabia. In time, they developed a close friendship based on the common bond of being the same age and living through the horrors of war. Soon, they both began to wear flowing Arab robes and sandals as their everyday garb. In 1914, Yale also met, and fell in love with socialite Edith Hanna, the niece of the American presidential kingmaker Sen. Mark Hanna, who was on a tour of the holy land. She had grown up in Cleveland, Ohio, but had moved to England in 1913. The start of the First World War in 1914 separated them for the next four years. She returned to London where she was a volunteer nurse caring for blinded soldiers. Their love letters had to be sneaked back and forth through neutral Switzerland.
During the war, Bill volunteered with the American Army but was instead was ordered by the State Department to report to General Sir Edmund Allenby's headquarters, the British officer in charge of forces in Egypt. He would be America's only special agent in the Middle East and his spying reports were eagerly read by the State Department and President Wilson. He, like Lawrence, had become very pro-Arab and anti-imperialistic.
After the war President Wilson appointed Yale to the Paris Peace Conference and King-Crane Commission set up to decide the division of the former Turkish Empire in the Middle East. Yale knew the Arab leaders trusted America and would eagerly accept temporary control by the U.S. until they could form their own stable governments.
Unfortunately, everything Yale and Lawrence proposed was ignored by the gray-headed diplomats from Britain and France. These imperialists reneged on the promises they had made during the war and took over Lebanon, Syria, the Palestine, and Egypt creating much hatred toward the West. If Yale and Lawrence had prevailed the world today might be significantly more peaceful.
After the war, Bill married Edith and returned to Cairo where he was involved in the export business and became head of the Chamber of Commerce. In 1924, Bill and Edith returned to America and they bought a small home in Sandown on the border with Derry. Soon Bill earned his graduate degrees and taught at the University of New Hampshire, 1928-1942. During World War II he worked in Washington as the State Department's expert on the Palestine area. He resigned in 1945 after the Truman administration ignored his anti-imperialism advice. He went back to teaching at UNH until 1957. He next taught at Boston University, 1957-1967. Dozens of Yale's articles on the Middle East were published in major periodicals and his book-length history of the Near East went through several editions.
My own memory of Dr. Yale is of a large, barrel-chested, mustached curmudgeon who reminded me of Teddy Roosevelt. He yelled at me once when I was about 17 and just starting college. Bill put his arm around me and asked me what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I told him proudly that I was going to be an educator. He looked at me right in the face and said gruffly, "I have been in the classroom for 50 years and I'm not an educator; I'm a teacher!" I also remember him saying that Lawrence of Arabia didn't look anything like Peter O'Toole; that Lawrence wasn't very tall -- a little man with a big ego whom he liked very much.
The Sandown house was called WE Christmas Tree Farm -- the WE was for William and Edith. They made a few dollars each year selling Christmas trees to wholesalers and locals. Edith was a local favorite with us kids because of the wonderfully fancy hard-sugar lollipops she made in cast-iron molds. She was very friendly and soft-spoken. She always tied a bandana over her hair and wore a very long dress. Her pet name for Dr. Yale was "Dear Heart."
Next to the house was a towering Chinese chestnut tree and wonderful gardens filled with exotic flowering plants never before seen by locals. The inside of the house was rather primitive, dark, disorganized, and a little less than perfectly clean. It was, however, filled to overflowing with exotic antiques and treasures from their travels. They did have electricity and indoor plumbing but chose to heat with a wood stove, and with the help of the nearby Geiser family they lived quite comfortably.
In 1974, Edith and Bill moved into the Blakey Convalescent Home in East Derry where he died in 1975 at 87 years of age. He was buried in Boston's Mount Auburn Cemetery. In August 2013, Scott Anderson published a well-crafted book titled "Lawrence in Arabia" with considerable detail about Bill Yale's exploits from 1913 to 1919 and his relationship with Lawrence of Arabia. Bill's private papers are available for researchers at UNH and several other universities.
Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry. His office hours at the Municipal Center are Mondays from 8 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.