‘Nebraska’s First College’: Peru State kicks off 150th birthday celebration this weekend

‘Nebraska’s First College’: Peru State kicks off 150th birthday celebration this weekend
The Peru State College campus around 1900. (Photo Courtesy: Peru State College)

Peru State College shares a sesquicentennial with the State of Nebraska.

In one of its first acts, the Legislature established the Nebraska State Normal School at Peru in 1867, three months after the state was admitted to the Union and two years before the University of Nebraska was founded in Lincoln. Peru State labels itself “Nebraska’s First College.”

The State Normal School, as it was first known, was part of a trend taking hold in America: the idea of training teachers in “normal schools,” a name that originated in France. Educators before that time were primarily schooled in their subject matter, rather than how to teach it.

The need for trained teachers was great as settlers spread west across the state. By the time Nebraska was 20 years old, the number of school-age children had grown from under 30,000 to more than 279,000, and the number of school districts exceeded 5,000.

Peru State College is eager to celebrate its historical importance at events on campus this month, beginning with an “All College Reunion” this weekend. Alumni are returning to the “Campus of a Thousand Oaks,” as it is known.

“We’ve had so many alumni who have contacted us and asked about activities and ways to come back to campus,” said Deborah Solie, director of alumni relations for the Peru State College Foundation. With limited hotel space in the area, many alumni will return to their old haunts: Dorm rooms will available during the reunion weekend.

Alumni are returning from as far away as both coasts, and classes will be represented at least as far back as 1940s.

“They’re eager to learn about where Peru’s been since they left here, and where it’s going,” Solie said.

The weekend is just the start of a yearlong celebration.

“There’s something going on every month on campus,” she said.

Dr. Dan Hanson, Peru State College president, said he was urged to begin the sesquicentennial planning process soon after he arrived at the school in 2009.

“We had all kinds of feedback, all kinds of input and campuswide discussion that led us to this,” he said.

The hilltop campus has been transformed in the last 15 years, on the heels of a difficult time in the 1990s when it faced the possibility of closing or moving to Nebraska City.

Dr. Sara Crook, a Peru State history professor and chairman of the Nebraska Sesquicentennial Commission, said the difficult period helped unite southeast Nebraska in support of the school. She said the tough times ended up being a needed tonic for the school.

“There are opportunities that come out of bad situations,” Crook said.

Since then, state funding and fundraising by the Peru State College Foundation have helped to remodel historic buildings and build a new entrance.

“You know what, it’s the Cinderella campus,” Crook said. “It’s the most beautiful campus in Nebraska, but nobody had given it any dress-up clothes.

“Once they started putting money into the buildings, and enrollment went up, the morale went up.”

On-campus enrollment was 1,040 for the past school year with a total enrollment of more than 2,600 that includes part-time, online and graduate students.

Hanson said that Peru State takes pride in its beautiful campus and its rich history but that tradition and alumni loyalty are built upon the personalized education students receive.

“We can show our new buildings, but it’s our faculty and staff who are spending time with students that make the difference,” he said.

While swapping stories, Peru State alumni frequently relate tales of how their favorite faculty members made a difference in their lives. Sometimes the story involves a professor who showed up at a dorm room after a student slept in and missed class.

“That’s the tradition we’re still living here,” Hanson said. “It’s the one-on-one relationship, it’s faculty and staff involvement, it’s personalized education where individuals matter, it’s support, it’s a sense of community.”

The school’s strategic planning builds upon the strong personal relationships formed at the small college.

“Our intent is to transform students by those personal connections they make with faculty and staff,” Hanson said. “That is the heart of our education. That’s the enduring tradition at Peru State College.”

Campus activities

Friday

Campus tours, dinner, book launch party for “Nebraska’s First College: Shaping the Future Since 1867.”

Saturday

Campus tours, speakers, workshops, block party, followed by bonfire

Sunday

Church service

Tuesday

Speakers, reception, charter presentation, banquet

More information at: peru.edu/150/

Peru State timeline

1861: Mount Vernon Academy is organized by residents of Peru, Nebraska, and begins classes in what had been a saloon.

1866: The school, renamed Mount Vernon College, opens Mount Vernon Hall. The building was built and paid for by local residents.

June 20, 1867: The Nebraska Legislature creates the Nebraska State Normal School in Peru and takes ownership of Mount Vernon Hall. It is the State of Nebraska’s first college, opening two years before the University of Nebraska.

1885: The school claims the state’s first unofficial football team.

1888: The Normal Cadets are formed, providing military training for young men. The Reserve Officer Training Corps was not created until 1916.

1901: Students and staff create a football field that is soon christened “the Oak Bowl.” The stadium remains in use today after a number of renovations over the years.

1915: State Normal is recognized by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the first school in the state to receive accreditation. Peru State College remains accredited by the association more than a century later.

1918: The Student Army Training Corps trains soldiers for World War I.

1921: The school is renamed Nebraska State Teachers College at Peru.

1942: Peru hosts U.S. Navy’s V-12 training program, eventually offering instruction to nearly 500 men.

1949: The school is renamed Peru State Teachers College.

1950: President William Nicholas and English Department head Paul Maxwell are shot and killed by disgruntled assistant professor Barney Baker, who had been told his job was ending. The news makes national headlines.

1963: The school is renamed Peru State College.

1965: Peru State enrollment passes 1,000 for the first time.

2001: The school embarks on a building program after overcoming funding issues for the better part of a decade, along with threats of closing and moving the campus to Nebraska City.

2016: The school sets an enrollment record with 2,682 undergraduate and graduate students.

We strive for accuracy. Report a typo, inaccuracy, or mistake here.

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