‘Heart, guts and gusto’

Kristine Gill

Kent State might not have been a university if not for the first president’s vision.

Kent State might not have been a university if not for the first president’s vision

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When Sigma Chi celebrates homecoming at 238 E. Main St., they do it in a big way.

“There’s usually about 200-250 people during homecoming weekend,” said chapter vice president Matt Gustoff. “Everyone goes down to Ray’s, the alumni’s favorite bar, then they come back to the house.”

But during an average week, the house is relatively quiet — just a place for the 14 brothers to live, sleep and study. Gustoff knows of a Kent mayor who once lived in the house and a sorority who had the house at one point. He didn’t know about the foxes though.

When Kent Normal School’s first president wasn’t running the infant school down the road, he was busy raising a few dozen foxes in the backyard. John E. McGilvrey raised a group of about twice as many foxes as Sigma Chi brothers. The foxes were raised for their pelts, which were coming into vogue for women’s fashion at the time.

“A lot of fur was used as trim for muffs, collars on coats as well as cuffs on coats,” said Edith Serkownek, a librarian in both the fashion library and the University Library’s special collections department.

University archives has papers documenting the lease of the land and transaction of those foxes whose names included “Buckeye Mildred,” “Musko Anna,” and “Kent King.”

“I think our guys would appreciate (knowing) this,” Gustoff said. “There’s a lot of tradition here.”

But while Serkownek said it would have been a hobby that made sense financially at the time, it wasn’t just that which made McGilvrey stand out as an administrator in higher education.

“He was a hard driving man, headstrong and hard-headed,” said William Hildebrand, emeritus professor and author of “A Most Noble Enterprise: The Story of Kent State University, 1910-2010.” “I almost get tears in my voice when I speak of him. He was a great man. Great of heart, guts and gusto.”

The first Board of Trustees for Kent State recognized that and was quick to offer the position of president to him in 1911, which he accepted. They were even quicker to up his yearly salary from $3,000 to $3,750 when he was offered better pay to become president of Western Illinois State Normal School.

It was a good thing the trustees were able to hold onto him for only a man of such guts and gusto could have guided the school through the difficulties ahead. The first of which was lack of funding precipitated before McGilvrey’s hiring.

As Hildebrand writes in his book, “the Ohio House approved a bill to give Kent and Bowling Green each $50,000 to start construction of their campuses.” The trustees hoped more money would come, but the amended bill proved them wrong. The $50,000 they had already received was part of a $250,000 maximum that Hildebrand wrote was “an amount breathtakingly incommensurate to the cost of the undertaking.”

The Board of Trustees comprised of Peter Doyle, John McDowell, Frank Merrill, Edwin Moulton, and John Seward hired George Hammond as the school’s architect who was able to construct two buildings with the small budget.

The first two buildings set for construction on campus were Merrill Hall, which was to be the classroom and administration building, and Lowry Hall, which was to be a dormitory.

Phillip Shriver, author of “The Years of Youth: Kent State University 1910-1960,” noted in his book that the original brick color for the school was to be a light gray, but the trustees changed their minds in the end opting for the light yellow brick seen on campus today.

On June 18, 1912, Shriver wrote that Frank Merrill planted a copper box in the cornerstone of the building named after him. Within the box he placed photos of the site and the trustees and a copy of the Lowry Bill among other things. McGilvrey was there to give his address.

“As the president concluded,” Shriver wrote, “a soft rain began to fall — a ‘baptism’ of the infant school, said McGilvrey.”

University Archivist Steve Paschen helped the city of Hudson find their bicentennial time capsule a few years back.

“They dug it up and it was totally compromised,” Paschen said. “It was just black goo inside, and they chose to open it on TV.”

Paschen said a box tucked away in stone has a better chance of surviving.

Shriver writes, “The rains of a thousand storms have pounded against this foundation stone, which supports to this day the massive westernmost pillar of Merrill Hall. Twined about it is the ivy planted by McGilvrey, while its contents remain safely shielded within.”

For many, the laying of a foundation stone would be enough progress, but not for McGilvrey. Rather than wait for the first campus buildings to be finished, he wanted to start teaching immediately. He pioneered a technique in Ohio known as extension schools. Having successfully petitioned for emergency funds from which to hire the first four faculty members, McGilvrey sent the professors to nearby towns to teach prospective teachers at temporary centers. Tuition would be free for extension classes and classes on campus later.

“He was condemned by some who said you ought to wait until you have your buildings up and start then,” Shriver said. “Among the most outspoken critics was the Ohio State University president.”

But Kent was ahead of her sister school, Bowling Green.

“The people putting B.G. together might as well have gone to sleep,” Hildebrand said. “They weren’t going to get students until they had a building to teach them in.”

McGilvrey’s plans weren’t just to get a head start over Bowling Green. His ultimate goal was revealed when he published the first catalog for on-campus classes — he wanted Kent Normal to become a college.

“He was offering Latin,” Hildebrand said. “Which was pretty well proof that he wasn’t teaching for normal school but a university.”

Ohio State’s president, William Thompson, didn’t like that one bit.

“That was a trouble for decades between Kent and Ohio State,” Shriver said. “I think there’s still some tension to this day.”

But McGilvrey pushed forward and maintained favor among his staff and students. In the early days, he could call many of them by name. But as Kent became the fastest-growing college in the country, according to Shriver’s book, that would soon become impossible.

Kent graduated its first class of 34 students in July of 1914. Hildebrand writes, Gov. James Cox spoke at the commencement calling Kent Normal “a great institution,” and “a model, an example, as an inspiration to other institutions in Ohio.

Contact enterprise reporter Kristine Gill at [email protected].


&bull Enrollment in the first summer session on campus: 47 students&bull Extension classes enrollment in 1912: 849 students

&bull First graduating class in 1914: 34 students

&bullTuition: Free

&bull Cost of room and board, laundry, books and stationary for the summer: $60 per student

&bull University President: John E. McGilvrey

&bull Number of library books on the Kent campus: 3,680 books

&bull School colors: Orange and blue

&bull First Mascot: The Silver Foxes

&bull Most popular boys names in 1920: John, William, James

&bull Most popular girls names in 1920: Mary, Dorothy, Helen

Credit: Phillip Shriver, The Years of Youth and infoplease.com