North Central launches a year-long celebration of its first 150 years
By Susan Frick Carlman email@example.com May 17, 2011 6:04PM
The Main Building on the campus of North Central College in Naperville. | Photos courtesy~North Central College
North Central College will screen the first part of a documentary series produced with Naperville Community Television that chronicles its 150-year history at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Madden Theatre at the Fine Arts Center, 171 E. Chicago Ave.
Led by NCT’s Emmy award-winning Executive Director Elizabeth Braham Spencer, a senior lecturer of broadcast communication, the series will be presented in chronological order, with “A College is Born” featuring the first 50 years.
Viewers will learn how American education first developed and the role religion played in those beginning days. Through historical photographs, interviews, dramatizations and video, the film segment brings to life the college’s founding in Plainfield by the Evangelical Association of North America, its move to Naperville soon afterward, the building of Old Main, and its first three visionary presidents.
The remaining four segments of the series are scheduled for release in September, November, February and next May.
Updated: September 28, 2011 12:18AM
Listen closely, and you might hear the echoes of long-ago movers and shakers wafting from the campus east of Washington Street in the coming months. Or maybe you’ll be listening to them live and in real time.
Sunday marked the official launch of a prolonged and fond look back, and forward, at North Central College. The downtown Naperville liberal arts institution is kicking off celebration of its 150th anniversary (official credo: “A promising start”) with a string of activities dubbed “Cornerstone Week.” Incorporating grateful tips of the hat to those who have passed on, as well as college supporters still quite alive and well, the observance will last until commencement exercises in 2012.
“We’ll celebrate for more than a year, because why not celebrate?” said Rick Spencer, the college’s vice president for institutional advancement.
It was 1870 when Plainfield College pulled up stakes, seeing a brighter future in the more accessible and rapidly populating community to the north, and relocated to the gently rolling terrain hugging one edge of the fast-growing downtown.
The relocation, and the laying of the foundation cornerstone for North Central’s iconic Old Main building, inspired the name of the launch week.
A long series of events will follow the kickoff, including announcements of new major and minor study options and a concert season highlighted by big-name performers. On Nov. 11, homecoming weekend will be launched with Founder’s Day festivities commemorating the passing of a century and a half since the first day of classes.
Names and faces
The college boasts an impressive alumni pedigree. The city’s original philanthropist, James L. Nichols, was a student there. So were John Warne Gates, who went on to establish Texaco Oil after he graduated in 1876, and his classmate, Frederick L. Maytag, who gave his name to an appliance manufacturing business when he was finished with school.
But plenty of onetime students are still to be found around town. Dick Wehrli is one of them.
He didn’t set out to go to college in his hometown. Wehrli’s sights were set on Iowa State Teachers College (now University of Northern Iowa). But when two of his older brothers received their draft notices in the same week and headed to Korea, he understood how their mom saw a need to change course.
“She said, ‘Well, you can’t quit your day job,’” Wehrli said.
Things turned out OK, partly because of a history professor named Roberts, who instilled in Wehrli a robust reverence for the lessons of the past.
“History is current events. Your whole life is history,” he said. “He made us aware of that.”
And he’s aware that things happen for good reasons.
“I’m damned lucky North Central was in Naperville,” said Wehrli, a business owner whose companies include Naperville Excavating, DuKane Precast and others. “My great opportunity was that I was able to go to my school in my hometown, live at home, keep a job and help my mom out. I had two younger sisters, and they would have been on their own.”
A town runs through it
Spencer thinks the college was fortunate, too. In addition to his support of the school, Wehrli is one of numerous alumni with connections to the Riverwalk being celebrated as part of the sesquicentennial observance.
“It’s really fun to work with the Riverwalk people. They’re very cool. They understand the importance of the college,” Spencer said.
They’ll be among those at an honorary breakfast Wednesday morning in Wentz Concert Hall. The celebration of the two entities’ 30-year partnership will be capped off with the unveiling of a plan to carve a new link from the campus to the stream-side walkway. Work on the Riverwalk Gateway is slated to begin this summer. Spencer said a capital effort aims to fund both the existing stretch of the Riverwalk and the entries, near Benedetti Stadium.
“It will be an opportunity for us to begin doing some messaging as people come into our campus and go all the way up through the central campus,” he said.
But there are numerous ways the college and its community are inextricably bound. On Friday, events are planned that will formally celebrate the array of collaborations with musical performances, the awarding of medals to people who have had a special impact, a video nod to people from the past such as “Mr. Naperville” Harold Moser, the late Sun publisher Harold White, furniture manufacturer Peter Kroehler and early NCC faculty member Prof. James L. Nichols.
“Friday night is going to be a lot of that ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ in some ways,” Spencer said. “It’s our opportunity to thank people who’ve had impact.”
The college also will be celebrating the contributions it has made to the town in the past 15 decades.
“Probably our greatest gift to the community is the teachers that we’ve sent out into our schools,” Spencer said. “It’s not hundreds, it’s probably thousands of teachers who have gotten their degree and gone out into the schools here in the community.”
The two dozen-plus members of the sesquicentennial planning committee bring a broad collection of talents to the task and share an appreciation for the hometown college. The group includes administrators from school districts 203 and 204, plus representatives of the city, Park District, library and museums.
“I always tell the people when they get together, I get goose bumps,” Spencer said. “They’re all around this table because they know the significance of this college over this 140-plus years in Naperville, and the impact it’s had on the community.”
Wehrli sees the institution as an enduring presence.
“There’s nothing more real or true or valuable than private education,” he said. “It works.”