Campus Legends: Famous Figures in College History

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Did you know that Ezra Cornell formed Western Union before founding the Ivy League school that bears his name? Or that Samuel Bard was a surgeon to George Washington years before his grandson John founded Bard College? Or that the highly esteemed Berklee School of Music was named after a 12-year-old boy?

At their very best, our colleges and universities are the lifeblood of American ingenuity, innovation, and revelation. Our campuses are a place where knowledge, inspiration, and opportunity are meant to converge, where thought, idea, and action coalesce.

And those schools with the finest of such traditions — those with the richest history and the brightest future — were not simply hatched from a single idea. No. The tradition of higher education is a many-colored tapestry, stitched together by countless brilliant men and women.

Indeed, many of their names adorn buildings and brochures, invoking images of scholarly discourse, tireless invention, and staggering achievement. These are the men and women featured in TBS Magazine’s “Campus Characters” series. Here, we highlight the contributions of the greatest figures in our educational history. We'll also arm you with tons of amazing trivia tidbits along the way.

Katherine Angell & Frances Roth Culinary Institute of America

Of the 2,800 students enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) as of March of 2017, 51.6% were women. For the first time in the school’s seventy-year history, its student body is majority-female. This is a pretty big deal for a few reasons, not the least of which is that the Culinary Institute was founded in 1946, largely through the efforts of two powerful women.

George Atherton Penn State University

Born in Boxford, Massachusetts, in 1837, Atherton stewarded Penn State in its fledgling years as a land-grant college, ushering in academic innovations that redefined his university and served as a model for countless others. Read how Atherton recast Penn State as one of the top ten engineering colleges in the nation.

The Ball Brothers Ball State University

This year marks a century since Ball State University enrolled its inaugural class of 235 students. Amazingly, its proud tradition as a public coeducational research university in Muncie, Indiana, began with a modest $200 loan.

John Bard & Margaret Johnston Bard College

John Bard and Margaret Johnson were a true power couple. If they were famous today, tabloids would smush their names together and create a contraction that you’d be embarrassed to say out loud, like Johngaret, or Bardston, or….MargBard. Whatever you call it, these two were a collective force with which to be reckoned.

Lawrence Berk Berklee College of Music

Did you know that the largest independent school of music in the world was named after a 12-year-old boy? Not only that, but this boy would one day go on to be the school’s president.

Louis Brandeis Brandeis University

Exactly how smart do you have to be to have earned the single highest grade point average in the history of Harvard Law? I admit, there’s no good way to quantify this, but the technical answer is “pretty freaking smart.”

Joseph Mary Cataldo Gonzaga University

Who or what is Gonzaga and how did it find its way to the Pacific Northwest? Well that story begins with a 16th Century Saint of the Holy Roman Empire who lived a charitable life and died young. It ends with a Sicilian-American Jesuit priest who also did good deeds, but lived to be a venerable old man.

Audrey Cohen Metropolitan College of New York

Audrey Cohen (nee Morgan) was small in physical stature but towered as a figure in the history of American education. In the face of constant and frequently hostile resistance, Morgan made it her life’s work to advance the causes of gender equality and social justice. She put forth the earth-shattering notion that a woman could have both a family and a career.

Anna Julia Haywood Cooper Frelinghuysen University

Anna Julia Haywood Cooper used every minute of her life to make the world a better place, which is probably why the universe granted her a remarkable 105 years here. Her incredible story began in the least likely of places, as the daughter of an enslaved woman and her master in antebellum Raleigh, North Carolina.

Ezra Cornell Cornell University

If you’re the type to compare yourself to others, prepared to be humbled. The life of Ezra Cornell is as varied, fascinating, and admirable as they come.

Anthony Joseph Drexel Drexel University

Anthony Joseph Drexel was a notable Philadelphian and the namesake of the city’s second largest institution of higher learning–Drexel University. But he also played an enormous role in the cultural, commercial, and geographical evolution of America on the whole.

Henry Durant University of California

Educator/minister Henry Durant didn’t just go west and start a college, he founded a system. Spanning ten campuses, serving more than 250,000 students, employing more than 165,000 staff and faculty members, and connecting more than 1.86 million living alumni, the University of California is, by some metrics, the most comprehensive postsecondary educational system in the world.

Oliver Otis Howard Howard University

Few figures in American history did more either during the Civil War or in its immediate aftermath to move our nation away from the vile institution of slavery. A career military officer and a powerful presence during the Reconstruction Era, Oliver Otis Howard holds an important place in America’s long and laborious trudge toward equality.

Francis Julius LeMoyne-Owen College

LeMoyne-Owen College was created by a 1968 merger combining two Historically Black Colleges located in Memphis, Tennessee. But its true origin would predate this merger by more than a century.

Jerome P. Keuper Florida Institute of Technology

Any time you assemble a résumé that includes titles such as college president, rocket scientist, and director of a Federal Reserve bank, you know you’re doing well. Heck, he even wrote a book on Mandarin Chinese colloquialisms. But Jerome P. Keuper didn’t use his many skills and talents for his own benefit. He shared them with the world by founding and championing one of the nation’s top technical schools.

R.G. LeTourneau LeTourneau University

R.G. LeTourneau held more than 300 patents, simultaneously owned and operated manufacturing plants on 4 different continents, and founded LeTourneau University. Yet strangely, was himself a 6th grade dropout. Though the title of Most Interesting Man in the World is up for debate, LeTourneau is certainly in the running.

James Millikin Millikin University

When I die, I want my tombstone to say that I was the First Cattle King of the Prairie State. Unfortunately for me, that title is already taken…and I’ve never actually interacted with living cattle…and also I’m allergic to prairies. Alright, I suppose I’ll have to rethink my epitaph. In the meantime, allow me to introduce you to the man who actually earned the coveted title.

Daniel A. Payne Wilberforce University

Payne found his passion for education early in life, so much so that he dedicated himself to affording others these same unique opportunities. In 1829, when Payne was a mere 18 years of age, he opened his first school.

Henry Rutgers Rutgers University

Oh the indignity, to be the namesake of the largest educational institution in New Jersey and still to have your corpse misplaced for more than a century. But thus was the fate of Revolutionary War Hero, New York Legislator, Presidential Elector and magnanimous philanthropist, Colonel Henry Rutgers.

John Jay Shipherd Oberlin College

Oberlin College is one of the nation’s great bastions to progressive ideals and left-leaning politics. It is also the oldest co-educational institution in the United States. It is fairly ironic, then, that the founder of this Ohio-based college was himself a decidedly conservative man whose social activism was largely pursued from the minister’s pulpit and included strong advocacy for prohibition.

Lucy Skidmore Skidmore College

Were it not for the constant tragedy that surrounded her, Lucy Skidmore’s life might well have proceeded along the traditional path befitting a 19th century woman raised into high society.

Matthew Vassar Vassar College

Rarely do we associate the college campus with the business of selling beer. Just kidding. We always make that association. But when it comes to Vassar College, that connection is more than just recreational in nature. In fact, the school’s founder built some portion of his considerable fortune as an early American brewmaster.

Henry Villard The University of Oregon

Born Ferdinand Heinrich Gustav Hilgard, this teenage runaway took up the journalist’s pen; became a Civil War correspondent; a railroad, steamship, and newspaper magnate; and eventually a generous philanthropist. Read how he made the University of Oregon what it is today.

Impress your friends, irritate your roommates, or just hoard all of this juicy knowledge for yourself. (Just kidding. Don’t do that. Share it all over the Internet please.)

And if there’s anybody in your school’s history that you think is deserving of our consideration, let us know. We'll add them to our list!

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