by Arlene Richards '09
I know I am old, but I can still remember the smell of fresh paint. The desks had never been used. My shiny wooden floors didn’t creak like they do now. I can’t help but smile as I recall the 44 happy, eager faces on opening day in September 1884. Well, my goodness, some of the students looked so young! I’d guess their ages ranged from 14 to 21. Our first graduating class consisted of one student, but by the second year we had six. Would you believe tuition was $20? Room and board was only $85? It cost a lot of money to attend Hastings College. And I was there when it all began. In fact, I was the only one there.
My name is McCormick and my life began on July 19, 1883. Within my walls, are more than a life time of memories. I‘ve witnessed devastating tornadoes, blizzards, outbreaks of scarlet fever, the Spanish Influenza of 1918, several world wars and fires. Many, many fires. I‘ve seen transportation develop from the horse and buggy to space shuttles. I truly welcomed electricity and plumbing. Oh my, especially plumbing! Generations have come and gone. Nebraska at the time of my birth was a vast land of prairie grass, wind, and wild beasts. The few trees that dotted this ‘Great American Desert’ were found thriving by an occasional stream or river.
But the industrious people of Hastings changed the look of their community. Over 160 people prepared for my coming by doing just what was needed…trees, planting trees. Not just a few trees, mind you, but thousands of trees. The trees were planted across an area just inside the city limits. They did this before Julius Sterling Morton declared Arbor Day a yearly legal holiday in Nebraska in 1885. Years later, I overheard 6,000 trees and flowering bushes were actually planted. Many trees were donated by Nebraska’s former governor, R.W. Furnas. They came from his nursery in Brownsville, Nebraska.
Now I would love to think that all this pomp and circumstance was entirely for me, but I doubt it was. My community wasn’t settled by ordinary people, you know. That’s a fact. Early settlers saw just what the prairie offered at the time, limitless bounds to their aspirations. By the 1880s, Hastings had already grown as a railroad town and commercial center. It had a college, which formally opened on September 13, 1882. The first president of the college, Dr. William F. Ringland, resigned his pastorate of the Presbyterian Church because the presidency demanded all his time. Hastings College started classes on the second floor of the post office. Then I came along.
I could not have materialized without special help from several local men. If A.L. Wigton hadn’t conspired with Samuel Alexander and A.D. Yocum in Mr. Alexander’s frontier supply store on that special day, my life might not have existed. The instigator, Mr. Wigton, was the man behind it all. But ideas were nothing new for Mr. Wigton. He was editor of our local paper, the Hastings Journal.
The editor’s friend, Mr. Alexander, not only owned the first store in Hastings, he helped bring the first post office to town. He was postmaster for nine years, for which he earned $1 a month! My, how times have changed. Extra money was practically non-existent in those days. If it hadn’t been for the generosity of Cyrus McCormick, Hastings College — and I — might not exist. Mr. McCormick, you know, was a genius. He invented the mechanical reaper which saved farmers lots of time and backbreaking work. His machine was pulled by a horse, but today you would know it as a combine. I remember people praising his invention and talking about the award he won for it in London. Anyway, his donation of $5,000 helped turn Wigton’s idea of starting a Presbyterian college in Hastings into a wonderful reality.
Of course, there were others who gave generously. In all, 93 local men contributed $11,050 toward the purchase of land, construction of a building and maintenance of the college for one year. One individual, Mr. Joseph H. Hansen, dug deep into his hole-filled pockets and donated 20 acres of his own homestead to help provide a place for the college. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the moral and financial support of the Kearney and Hastings Presbyterian Churches.
I was a carefully constructed work of art. I am a red brick building in an Italianate style. I have lots of arched, narrow windows and a white spire which I still wear proudly above my front door. I have some of the same wooden floors that were originally given to me. I am thankful that the architect inscribed my name and birth date above my front door because sometimes I forget how old I really am. My architecture was actually quite common in those days. I stood tall and proud — a beacon of inspiration.
I admit, I was a bit jealous when the college constructed another building so soon after completing me. They set her just south of me. At first I was quite appalled at her resemblance of me. She was a bit larger than I, but, my goodness, she had the same brick, the same gothic look and a very similar spire. I thought she was a bit of a copy cat, but once we got acquainted, I could see she was going to fit in just fine. Besides, it was I who held the important classes like Cicero, Ovid, Homer, Xenophon, trigonometry, calculus, physics, chemistry and philosophy. She was just a hodgepodge of things. In the beginning she was a girl’s dormitory. Later she contained administration offices, assorted classes and a cafeteria. Early on, they changed her name from South Hall to Ringland Hall. It was decided by some that she should adopt the first president’s name, and since the name suited her, who was I to complain?
And I’m sure glad I didn’t complain because the poor dear didn’t last all that long. Ringland just fell apart! She was about 100 years old when those nasty building inspectors condemned her. There was talk of restoring her, but alas, it was too expensive to do so. For years I missed her gravely. We were a pair, she and I.
She was always there for me especially in 1976 when I went through the most difficult time of my life. It’s hard to talk about it even now. It was a fire — a horrible, horrible fire that began in my electrical circuitry. My insides were severely burned. I thought I was a goner for sure, but Ringland was a true friend. She talked to me, encouraged me and even scolded me at times when I felt sorry for myself. She reminded me just how much I had to live for. She took upon herself the English and History departments. She helped out with the Collegian and the Bronco, giving them a place for awhile. My theatre classes were moved into her building too. I could not have made it without her. In 1982, the College’s Centennial year, authorities decided to restore me. I felt good as new.
There used to be many fires on campus. The first college gymnasium went up in flames in 1925. I felt sorry for the students who worked so hard to build it. Then the chapel burned down in 1950. It was built because my second story chapel room was too small for all the students. Poor thing was only 25 years old. In 1990, flames struck again. This time, the victim was Fuhr Hall of Fine Arts. Luckily, the fire was contained to his south wing, although the smoke damage was horrendous. But like I always say, wood, glass and metal can be replaced. Exactly 34 years after its original dedication, Dr. Silas Kessler gave the same invocation at the rededication ceremony for the new building. It was renamed Hayes M. Fuhr Hall of Music.
Hastings College has seen many buildings come and go. But buildings are simply structures. More important is its faculty and students. Many brilliant students have passed through my halls. In fact, except for a short time following my fire, every full-time student has had at least one class under my roof. I’ve gotten to know them all and they’re like children to me. Of course, there was Tommy, a graduate of 1959. You would know him as Mr. Osborne. Tom was an excellent athlete who participated in football, basketball, and track. His unique “over the head shots” contributed toward many Bronco victories. But did you know he was a History major? Yeah, I know Tommy. He spent a lot of time in my classrooms. He was also H Club President and involved in groups such as the Spiritual Life Committee.
Another student you may know is Clay Anderson who graduated with a Physics degree in 1981. He soared to extreme heights in 2007 when he lived for five months aboard the International Space Station.
Tom and Clay have become nationally known. But have you ever heard of Edward R. Bushnell? I’m particularly proud of this young man who suffered for a religious belief. Edward was a competitive person. He qualified to run in the 1900 Olympics. However, after arriving in Paris, the athlete refused to participate in his long distance event because it was scheduled for Sunday. On Monday, Edward ran his race. Witnesses with timers proved he beat Sunday’s winning time. Edward R. Bushnell may not be in the Olympic record books. But he will always be the real winner in my book.
Sports have always been an important part of Hastings College. I surely do remember how excited the boys were on the day of their very first football game, back in 1889. Adam Breede had his nose in that ole’ Rugby rule book when I thought he should’ve been finishing his studies. Their first game with Doane College proved a bit embarrassing since Doane knew the game according to National football rules. I remember the Moritz brothers, Lester, and Will Rullkoetter discussing American football the next day. I thought the competition turned out fine. It was decided to play half the game rugby football and the other half American football.
Until 1925, I got to see all the football games played since the field was in my back yard. Hanson Field, they called it. I clearly recall winning the championship game against Nebraska Wesleyan University in 1923. It was Thanksgiving Day, and more than 2,000 spectators came to watch the game. It was a perfect end to a perfect season.
Thanksgiving Day was a traditional game day but there was one year, I think it was 1920, that the competitor couldn’t make the game. The kids were so disappointed! But one of the boys, and I don’t recall who, suggested they begin digging the foundations for a new building that was in the planning stage. The students thought it would be a good surprise for President Dr. Calvin French when he arrived back on Monday.
It was a grand undertaking because it was to be a very large building that would house administration offices and new classrooms. It was to be called Liberty Memorial Hall. The college’s maintenance department organized teams, the city engineer surveyed the lot, and college treasurer P. L. Johnson made sure the corners were square. Let me tell you, did those college boys ever work! They worked for three blessed days even cancelling Friday’s classes. Unfortunately, the contractors informed the president that post-war building costs were now double the original estimate of $200,000. Everyone was disappointed! But hope was not immediately abandoned. The hole was not filled in for 10 years.
The late 1920’s hit everyone quite hard. Students found themselves needing Saturdays free from class to get part-time jobs, so, the college changed its policy of a Tuesday-through-Saturday school week and adopted the week as we know it today. Having Saturdays off helped students to contribute toward expenses since it now cost $394 per year.
When I reminisce about those tough times, I remember how poor Mr. Alonzo Daddow slept in the boiler room on those cold winter nights. He believed that by keeping the coal furnace going at a low temperature every night, he could save the college one load of coal that winter season. He was head of the maintenance department for years, and he always took very good care of me.
The 30s were especially severe starting with one of the worst tornadoes I’ve ever seen. Over 500 homes were damaged on the evening of May 8, 1930. Trees were uprooted and cars were piled in the streets. I overheard faculty quoting damages of $1 million. Miraculously only one person died. If you survived spring tornadoes, then you had “black blizzards” to look forward to. You know, these dust storm were something awful. You just couldn’t keep the dust out. Some of the faculty members and I battled with my windows. They would open my windows and I would slam them shut just as soon as they left the room. The dust made me sneeze and cough until I was blue.
The times were bad, even the Westinghouse radio station KFKX quit broadcasting. In 1933, a new station, KMMJ began to air. Many of my kids from the college hosted spots on Sunday afternoons. Ringland and I got a real charge out of these talk shows. I never understood how the kids’ voices came out of that brown box.
So many wonderful things have happened at the college. Not that long ago, campus was buzzing with excitement in anticipation of the arrival of a U.S. President. I was as excited as anyone. Not often does an old building like me get to dress up for a visit from a president. If memory serves me, President Ronald Reagan came to Hastings College on September 6, 1988. He dedicated the Gray Center for Communication Arts building just north of me. My goodness, there must have been 10,000 people standing around to see and hear his speech. I thought sure the president would come to visit my fine structure but I guess he was just too busy.
I am McCormick Hall and I have a lot to tell having lived for 126 years. I exist today for many reasons. I exist because Hastings was settled by steadfast pioneers who had a vision and saw no limits to achievement. I was the first structure they built on the Hastings campus and the eighth building to comprise this community. I exist today because there have been many people who have cared about me over the decades. I was thrilled to be added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. I still exist today because people have allowed me to become an enduring symbol of a community’s link to the past and a continued hope for the future.