Western Illinois University Celebrates Its Roots

Founders’ Day has been a tradition on WIU’s campus since 1994. It was created to recognize WIU’s humble beginnings more than one hundred years ago. For the past nineteen years, members of the Macomb community; various WIU students, staff and faculty;  local politicians; and other guests have joined together on campus to commemorate the September 23, 1902 opening of Sherman Hall…and thus Western Illinois University.

To learn more about the history of Founders’ Day, I contacted library specialist, Bill Cook. He retrieved several documents for me, including articles from the Macomb Journal and The Catalyst, a magazine. In these articles, I found that former Illinois governor John Tanner signed into law that a “normal school should be located in Western Illinois.” This law was signed in on April 24, 1899. Western’s first president, John Henninger, opened the doors of Sherman Hall on September 23, 1902.

Fast-forward about a century to 1994 when Founders’ Day began in order to honor the beginnings of our university, which evolved from Western Illinois Normal and Training School with 229 students, to today’s university, which offers a comprehensive curriculum for more than 12,000 students on two campuses. During the celebration, various award recipients were recognized such as the Provost’s Award of Excellence, the 2012 Employees of the Year, as well as those receiving Community Services Awards.

Following the awards, a symbolic bell was rung by Lana Myers, granddaughter of Edwin DeCamp. The century-old bell originally was brought to the first day of classes on September 23, 1902 by a young man named Edwin DeCamp, the grandfather of Myers. The ringing of the bell was even important to his family before it became Western tradition, as this was the reason it was brought to school that day. Myers returns to Western every year to ring the bell, signifying the start of the school year.

Once the bell was rung, Western Illinois University President Jack Thomas gave the State of the University Address. The theme of this year’s speech was “Let Us Not Forget.” In this speech, Thomas touched on topics such as WIU’s enrollment and state funding decline. He said WIU will focus on economic and intellectual needs. “We will continue to be distinguished with quality at this public university in our state of Illinois,” he said.

Thomas spoke of WIU remaining an institution that remains affordable and is committed to keeping burdens away from the students. In comparison to other peer institutions, WIU is maintaining its affordability for the needs of prospective students. “We keep students’ interests at heart,” he said.

President Thomas also discussed a few changes that WIU is implementing right now. A new program called Building Connections began this fall, and 220 members of WIU’s faculty and staff are mentoring firs-year Western students, including President Thomas. He is mentoring ten students. He also discussed the university work on implementing a new Ph.D. program in environmental sciences. Once it is approved, Thomas said, the program will begin in 2014.

While reflecting on WIU’s campuses then and now, President Thomas stated, “Let us not forget the individuals that have gone on before us that paved the way. They would be proud to know we are an epic center for learning nationally and internationally,” he said.

Founders’ Day in itself was a very interesting and informative celebration. I learned more about the history of the Macomb campus, as well as what is to come in the following years. It is astounding if one thinks how WIU has grown over more than a century- two campuses with more than 12,000 students enrolled.

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