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So What’s the Big Deal?
Whitworth's Move to Spokane 100 Years Ago
February 2014 Founder's Day Convocation Presentation
By Dale Soden

Next year we will celebrate the 125th anniversary of the founding of Whitworth University. But this year, in 2014, we take note of the fact that this is our 100th year in Spokane. For our first 24 years, Whitworth was on the west side of the state, originally in Sumner and then in Tacoma. So I've been thinking more about this move from Tacoma to Spokane and trying to determine whether or not it was a big deal.

In a simple sense, relocation allowed Whitworth to survive. At first glance this was because people in Spokane donated land and raised money. But the more closely one looks, Whitworth also survived because a handful of students and faculty and trustees decided to fight for the idea of Whitworth and that's the story I want to tell.

It's hard for me to believe that if you were a student or a faculty member in 1913, you would have been happy to hear the news that at the end of the academic year, the college would be pulling up stakes and moving nearly 300 miles away, to a location north of the city of Spokane.

It's probably true that most people believed that if the college could not make it in Tacoma, surely it would fail in Spokane.

In looking back, Tacoma clearly had all of the advantages. Nicknamed the City of Destiny, Tacoma seemed a perfect fit. George Whitworth himself, in one of his last public pronouncements in 1900, said that Tacoma was an ideal spot for his college. "Whitworth College confronts great opportunities, indeed Whitworth College is opportunity itself."

In the beginning, all looked good. Whitworth undoubtedly had the most beautiful setting of any college in the Northwest. From the campus you could see Mount Rainier, the Olympic and Cascade mountains, and Puget Sound. The Ladies Residence Hall occupied the grandest mansion in all of Tacoma; the Men's Hall was a fine dormitory; the Mason Library contained 6,000 volumes; there was a new gymnasium and a modest science hall. The baseball team had defeated the University of Washington; the football team had defeated the University of Oregon in football in 1908, and in that same year, Whitworth produced a Rhodes Scholar.

But something wasn't right. Enrollment of college students flattened out. Everything seemed so good in Tacoma, but quite simply, not enough people believed in Whitworth to make a go of it. Not enough students and not enough donors stepped forward.

Whitworth College was sinking fast.

As is often the case, the misfortune for some often provides an opportunity for others. In Spokane, Jay P. Graves, one of the city's leading entrepreneurs, became aware of Whitworth's financial difficulties. In 1912 he, along with Presbyterian leaders and city officials, began to explore the possibility of moving the college to Spokane.

Along with two key trustees, J. Grier Long and the Rev. Hugh McMillan, they put together an attractive offer. Long and McMillan agreed to help raise $100,000 for a building fund. Graves, who owned the land where we now sit, set aside 640 acres for college purposes: 40 acres for the campus; 40 acres sold to support the building fund; and the remaining acreage platted and sold with roughly 50 percent of the proceeds going to the college.

Accepting this offer, Whitworth trustees agreed to relocate – I'm sure much to the disappointment of Whitworth's Tacoma community. Groundbreaking for what became McMillan Hall took place on May 22, 1914, and dedication of the hall occurred on August 26, 1914. Numerous speeches celebrated Whitworth's future and documents were placed in a cornerstone.

Still, much needed to done. Another trustee, Aubrey White, also known as the father of Spokane parks, orchestrated a campaign to add 8,000 volumes to Whitworth's library collection (housed in McMillan) in order to satisfy accreditation requirements.

In September, 40 students found their way to the campus, including nine seniors. There were 14 faculty members, four of whom had transferred from Tacoma with president Donald MacKay.

It must have been terribly difficult to start over. Unlike the spot in Tacoma, the Whitworth campus had to be virtually carved from among pine trees. Campus was two-and-a-half miles north of city limits and had only sporadic bus service.

In fact, trustees were so unsure that the college would even get off the ground in its new location that they came within an eyelash of merging with another Protestant college in Spokane. It appears they had approved the merger, but at the last minute it fell apart.

To make matters worse, five days after Whitworth opened its doors in Spokane, J. Grier Long, who had been so instrumental in getting Whitworth to come to Spokane, died after a sudden illness, at age 52. Long was founder and president of Washington Trust Bank. He had also organized two other banks and served for 21 years as an elder at First Presbyterian Church. Very active in civic affairs, he gifted with vision and leadership. All of sudden, he was not there.

And then there was the shadow of World War I. The war had begun in July, and each day in The Spokesman-Review, headlines reminded readers of the fierce fighting. While not immediately affecting Whitworth, the war loomed in the background for that first group of Spokane students.

Nevertheless, students and faculty pressed forward to reestablish Whitworth, and fought for its survival. Students brought with them several traditions from Tacoma, including the Cane Rush, Campus Day, which is our Community Building Day, and the Colonial Party. Among the most important professors to come was David Guy, who was such a true believer in Whitworth. Graduating in 1909, Guy was hired in 1914 to teach math and civil engineering. But he did much more. He played in the band, coached sports, advised students, and was campus surveyor.

In that first year, students produced a yearbook featuring all nine graduating seniors. I'd like to share brief descriptions from the yearbook of three of these students, with hope that you get just a sense of who they were.

Ora Lee Landis was described as the "bright and shining light of not only the Class of 1915 but of Whitworth. Scholastic interests are always first with her. Conscientiousness for whatever she takes up is the first, last, and in-between rule of her life. She always has the kind thing to say of anyone or she does not speak. In Ora, our gift to the world is intellect."

The yearbook editor wrote that George Takaku is "another one to join our class this year. He is the only one, however, to boast a college degree earned in three years. All his high school work was done in Whitworth Academy, which makes him our oldest old-timer. Politeness and helpfulness are second nature to him; his scholarly use of English is elegant; but best yet is his whole-hearted, cheerful smile, which reveals his kindly disposition, and this is our gift to the world from him."

And finally, Ruth Lee: "None but a moving picture can do justice to Ruth Lee," wrote the editor. "Nor can a few words adequately describe her. 'Rastus' (her nickname) is an indispensable school asset, composed of executive ability, theories, experiences, pluck, fun idiosyncrasies and true Whitworth spirit. She is the activating force of any and all student enterprises, be they class picnics, vaudeville shows, football games, hikes or YWCA cabinet meetings. We give to the world in Ruth Lee, a power of uplift and progress." Even more amazing is the fact that Ruth Lee is the great aunt of our own Professor Kathy Lee, in the political science department.

By 1915 football was being coached by David Guy. Whitworth split two games with Eastern Washington University, but the next year, 1916, Guy led Whitworth to four wins and its first undefeated season.

In that same year, Whitworth students honored the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare's death by performing As You Like It in The Loop.

But just when it seemed that things might be going in a good direction, World War I moved from the background to the foreground in the spring of 1917. In April, the United States entered the war and during the next academic year, the campus changed dramatically.

If you walked into McMillan Hall during the 1917-18 school year, you would see almost immediately on your left the Whitworth Service Flag with a star for every Whitworth man in the military. Thirty men were noted, including lieutenant Kenneth Ghormley, in aviation, and his brother Ralph Ghormley, in medical corps. Frank Read went to fight for the Canadian Army, and Sargent Vernon Bacher served in the artillery corps. Romney Hope and Harry Olson found their way into the infantry.

A chapter of Beta Pi Epsilon, a national honorary society, had been formed in February 1917. By fall, five of the charter members were serving in the military.

On June 16, 1918, Harry Olson was killed in action.

By then the decision had been made to close Whitworth for the 1918-19 academic year. The trustees rented the buildings to the U.S. military for the purpose of being an automobile and tractor school. By the end of the year, the dormitories were in a shambles and the football field's turf had been destroyed.

What's amazing to me is that trustees wanted to start over again. But as we have seen, that first group of students and faculty, and their immediate successors, had established something that just enough people thought worthy to survive. And so they did and here we are today.

We often have the sense that history is inevitable. We generally believe that things turn out the way they do because of mostly unseen forces that propel us along. But that view often distracts us and obscures the many individual choices that are made that do indeed make a difference.

Whitworth University as it exists today was far from inevitable. Yes, people like Frank Warren, Clem Simpson, Fenton Duvall, Pat McDonald, Leonard Oakland, Bill Robinson and Beck Taylor would come later and all make a difference.

But today let's raise a toast on this 100th anniversary to Donald MacKay, David Guy, J. Grier Long and Jay P. Graves. Let us toast Ora Landis, George Takaku, Ruth Lee and Harry Olson. Thank you for fighting against the odds, thank you for your vision, your commitment, and your desire to make something of this institution called Whitworth College and now Whitworth University.

One hundred years later we can look back and say yes, moving to Spokane was indeed a big deal.

Dale Soden, Ph.D., is a professor of history, the campus historian, and director of the Weyerhaeuser Center for Christian Faith & Learning at Whitworth.

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