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Golden anniversary: Weber State campus celebrating 50 years

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OGDEN — The photo display had only been up for a few hours when visitors to the Stewart Library at Weber State University began writing in the guest book. Nola Kay Edson wrote that she had been in the first class to graduate on this campus.

She graduated in 1955. The campus was smaller then, she recalled. It consisted of "four buildings and the Moench Statue — which was our gift!"

This fall marks the 50th anniversary of Weber State's life on the hills east of Ogden. The anniversary is being celebrated with a display of historic photos. (Historians and librarians had hoped visitors would not only enjoy the memories but also help them identify the students in those old snapshots. Sure enough, the day the photos went up, in mid-September, a woman reported that the girl standing behind the milk can, in a photo taken during the Depression, was actually her mother, Gay Wansgard.)

Weber outgrew its downtown campus when it was still a junior college. At the end of World War II, returning veterans were anxious to take advantage of the GI Bill, and colleges all over the state were outgrowing their facilities. In 1947, the Utah Legislature approved $50,000 to help buy the land for a new campus, and Ogdenites went to work to raise the matching funds.

Two years later, the Legislature approved letting Weber become a four-year school, but the governor, J. Bracken Lee, vetoed the bill. Instead of being discouraged, the local citizens just worked harder to raise money for the school they loved.

Weber State got its start in 1889 in downtown Ogden on 25th Street and Jefferson Avenue. The university began as a church school, one of 22 LDS academies started in the late 1800s and early 1900s by a church wanting to provide its young people with religious and secular classes. Some of those old academies, such as Dixie, Snow and Ricks, survived and became colleges. Others, like Big Horn, Millard and Summit, closed years ago.

And, in fact, the most dramatic part of Weber's history may well be how often the school came close to folding and how hard the people of the Weber Valley fought to keep it open. Linda Sillitoe, who works in the library's special collections and is the one who put together the photo display, said this is the part of Weber State's history that strikes her: How much the school has meant to the community all along. "It's just a very consistent thread."

As an academy, the school originally offered a very basic education, according to Richard Sadler, a WSU professor who wrote a history of the school called "Weber State College: A Centennial History." Nearly all of the school's first 192 students were 15 years old or older, but only 20 of them took high-school-level classes. Not until 1895 did the LDS Church Board of Education certify the academy as a high school.

In 1902, when Louis Moench, the school's first principal, retired, the school had already survived some tight times. A couple of average citizens had actually borrowed money to donate to the academy to help keep it solvent.

A Weber professor, David O. McKay, was the school's next principal. For several years after McKay was called to be a general authority of the LDS Church, he kept working at the academy. (Later, of course, he became president of the LDS Church.) McKay tapped wealthy donors and paid off the school's debts and built new buildings.

He expanded the curriculum as well. By the time McKay left, in 1908, students could get a "normal" degree that allowed them to be teachers. There were men's and women's basketball teams and a school band and choir. Piano, organ and violin students gave monthly recitals.

In his book, Sadler, who is also past president of the Mormon History Association, describes the academy's transition to a junior college in the early 1920s and to a four-year college in 1959. The LDS Church transferred the school to the state during the Depression, when one-fourth of Utahns were out of work. Some students actually had been paying their tuition with produce. The state was hardly more able to fund the junior college than the church had been.

Sillitoe finds it interesting that the school's survival actually depended on a beer tax enacted by the Utah Legislature during Prohibition. Sadler writes, "In order to provide more stable funding for the new junior colleges, state Senator Ira Huggins of Ogden proposed a bill providing for the manufacture of 3.05 beer in Utah for sale to states that had legalized the sale of beer. The repeal of Prohibition was imminent and Huggins saw this bill as both a revenue measure and an employment measure for the local breweries . . . the controversial bill was difficult to steer through the legislature, but eventually was passed."

Retired WSU history professor Richard Roberts worked with Sadler on the history of Weber State. The school's story is one of dramatic changes, he says. "It changed, of course, from a school of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to a a state school. It went from being a two-year school to a four-year school. From a college to a university." For the past 50 years, Weber has been increasingly important to the people of northern Utah, he notes. "With resources, talent, programs for the whole community."

Today, Weber State University has 18,000 students. (About 2,000 of them are on the new Davis campus.) Only 600 students live on campus, probably because about 90 percent of WSU students are in-state students.

If you were to pick two students, at random, to ask why they chose Weber State University, it is perhaps not surprising that you'd meet two students whose parents also attended this school — and who grew up thinking of it as an ideal place to go to college.

Calie Egbert, a junior, says her mother studied psychology and her father, history, at Weber State. Growing up, she knew some professors and she also knew that the school had a good education department. When she decided she wanted to be a teacher, she decided on WSU.

And as for junior Mike Elmer, he's majoring in design graphics and says WSU has a strong program. He has older siblings who have gone to WSU and says his dad "has a couple of degrees" from the school.

E-mail: susan@desnews.com