Imagine you’re lost on Nebraska Wesleyan University’s campus. (It’s not an easy thing to do, dotted as this campus is with so many familiar buildings, greens, arches and oaks. But imagine nonetheless.)
You see a student walking toward you—a young man dressed a little oddly. You think at first that he’s sort of a hipster—the kind of kid who wears Buddy Holly glasses and grows an ironic mustache. But that’s not quite it. He’s coming closer now, and you can see he’s clean-shaven. He looks, in fact, like he may never need to shave at all. He wears one of those white button-up letter sweaters with a brown and yellow W low on his right. His shoes are a logoless brown leather. His hair is pomaded, but those aren’t Buddy Holly glasses. They’re pince-nez.
It’s as if he’s seen the 1950s hipster look and raised it another half-century.
He’s approaching beneath a long row of crabapple trees, the last fallen petals of which remain in the grass and the seams of the campus sidewalk running west. You can no longer smell those spent spring-snow blossoms, but a purple tribe of lilacs on your left sweetens a soft breeze. A chime to your right marks the half hour.
You stop the peculiar young man and ask him a simple question: “Where are we?”
Roots, roots of remembered greenery, roots of memory and pungent plants, roots, in a word, are enabled to traverse long distances by surmounting some obstacles, penetrating others and insinuating themselves into narrow cracks. So those [wooded places] traversed… with us. —Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory
His grey eyes light up behind those antique glasses as if he’d been waiting for someone to ask just this question. His young face is kind, but he doesn’t quite put you at ease, because even before he speaks, you’re certain your simple question won’t meet a simple answer.
“Well, we’re exactly here,” he says.
And exactly here, you must admit a shortcoming in your lilac-smelling imagination. It’s not lost. Your imagination knows just where you are.
You’re nearly equidistant from three familiar campus buildings. Old Main stands tall and red to your right. The Rogers Center for Fine Arts is ahead and to your left. And Cochrane-Woods Library waits quietly behind you.
You stand with this unfamiliar young man and gaze at the familiarly lush campus around you as if you were seeing it for the first time. The young man smiles and offers to show you around, saying, “If you only knew the places this place has been.”
There’s something very Nebraska Wesleyan in his wordplay here. No, this place has never stood up and walked someplace new. But a campus can transform. A university is free to evolve. Free even to send its roots down into the narrow cracks between contradicting words.
As Nebraska Wesleyan University celebrates its 125th anniversary, alumni look anew at the woody history that traverses with each of us. With our peculiar young escort, we revisit an early part of that story here, seeking out the contours, creases and contradictions our roots have wound through for 125 years.
To uncover the university’s earliest days, the young man leads you to the Burt Hall offices of one of its youngest programs: NWU’s Master of Arts in Historical Studies. That program’s director, Associate Professor of History Kevin Bower, tells you no generation of Americans has known more bloodshed than the one that built this Nebraska Wesleyan University.
“This was the generation that lived through the Civil War,” said Bower. Nebraskans may not leap to the front of most people’s minds when considering the Civil War. However, Bower said, more than a third of the state’s men of military age served in the Union Army.
Two decades later, that same generation of Nebraskans would found NWU. Bower called the 1880s, the decade of Nebraska Wesleyan’s founding, a time of great turmoil and anxiety. “Now, I realize you can say that of just about any period in human history. But this generation can really lay a claim to that.”
This same generation of Nebraskans also experienced and fought in the American Indian Wars. Decades of violence, disease, forced migration and the decimation of the buffalo had reduced the nation’s population of Native Americans at the time of the university’s founding to roughly a quarter million people.
For this generation of Nebraskans, the carnage of the Civil War came stacked on top of an American genocide. Still, Nebraska in the 1880s was largely a peaceful place. The Civil War, fought well to the southeast, had been silent for two decades. And the last throes of the American Indian Wars were then being fought far to the southwest.
Nebraskans stood at the center of a vast prairie island, at once surrounded by, and isolated from, great violence. In this context, Nebraska Methodists’ priorities were different from those of their neighbors and peers.
“For instance, Methodists were very slow compared to other denominations in their mission work with Indians,” said Professor Emeritus of History Ron Naugle. “The Baptists had been much more interested in converting Indians since about the 1840s.” He said, “Meanwhile, the Methodists were much more aggressive with establishing institutions of higher education.”
Some Nebraska Methodists pushed for new seminaries while others promoted the formation of Methodist colleges. But they shared an overarching view that education comprised the wisest path away from violence and toward continued justice and peace.
When conversation turns to Nebraska Methodists’ interest in peace, the strange young man leads you on a short walk northwest across campus toward the unusual yellow brick façade of First United Methodist Church. As the two of you climb the church’s front steps, he tells you the people who built Nebraska Wesleyan University also built this Roman-looking church. You enter through large red doors and proceed together into the empty sanctuary, stopping halfway down the center aisle. The young man points up. The church’s majestic dome draws a great octagon above you. Light falls through its stained glass oculus. Lettering there reads:
Let us have peace
To personify that call for peace, the people who funded that high window made a decision that has long fascinated Rev. Larry Moffet, head pastor at First Church. “They didn’t choose a stained glass portrait of a saint or an icon of Christianity,” Moffet said. “They chose Abraham Lincoln, a man who wasn’t Methodist, and may not have been Christian.”
University Place’s Women’s Remembrance Corps, which funded the window, was comprised of daughters, wives and sisters of soldiers who served in the Grand Army of the Republic. Moffet said President Lincoln served for them as “a symbol of going through pain and finding what you’re willing to give your life for.”
Lincoln’s status as a non-Methodist doesn’t bother Moffet any more than it did the Methodists in the Women’s Remembrance Corps. Moffet called Lincoln’s second inaugural address “more Methodist than anything the church’s theologians would write in the next 25 years.” Lincoln wrote:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Read this and every inaugural address at bartleby.com/124/index.html.
President Lincoln’s impact on University Place and Nebraska Wesleyan went far beyond symbolism. His presidency would in many ways shape Nebraska and the Great Plains. With the secession of southern states beginning quickly after Lincoln’s 1860 election, the Congress with which the new president must work found itself stripped of the southern Democrats who would have opposed him.
Their absence gave Lincoln and the Republicans an unobstructed path to pursue legislation advancing their optimistic vision for the American West.
And 1862 saw the rapid passage of three influential acts: the Homestead, Morrill and Pacific Railway acts.
The Homestead Act offered free, 160-acre homesteads on undeveloped federal land west of the Mississippi to anyone over 21 who hadn’t fought against the Union and who was willing to live on the land for five years and make visible improvements.
The Morrill Act supported the creation of agricultural, industrial and military land-grant colleges in each state, with the University of Nebraska joining the list in 1869.
And the Pacific Railway Act promoted the construction of a transcontinental railroad. With President Lincoln selecting Omaha as its eastern terminus, this railroad was the government’s investment in preventing an east/west economic and cultural divide similar to the north/south rift that had torn the nation apart.
Bower said these three acts conveyed a shared optimism about what the American West could become. “Nebraska became in many people’s eyes the place to experience complete independence,” Bower said. “They used the term, ‘competence,’ by which they meant the capacity to take full control of their lives.”
Nebraska gained statehood in 1867—two years after Lincoln’s assassination—and the new state’s population appeared self-selected for optimism and ambition. Thanks to those three acts, families could come west to Nebraska, work land that was their own, study a trade at a land-grant university and enjoy access to world markets via the railroad.
“By the 1880s, I imagine you’d probably see a good amount of anxiety among Nebraska Methodists,” Bower said, “because by then, they could see things in Nebraska weren’t turning out quite like they’d envisioned.”
The railroad that had promised to connect farmers and businesspeople to world markets instead gouged them relentlessly. “There was money in building railroads,” Professor Emeritus of Library and Information Technology John Montag explained. “There was money in selling land. But there was no money in running [an honest] railroad.”
Even setting aside this corruption, Nebraska farmers still found their sought-after competence or personal control thwarted by a triple punch of grasshoppers, droughts and financial panics.
And in Nebraska Methodists’ eyes, almost as ominous as a cloud of ravenous grasshoppers was the secular brand of education offered at that land-grant college over in Lincoln. They felt a palpable urge to offer a brighter alternative.
Beneath First Church’s dome, the peculiar young man produced a book from the hessian bag he used in place of a backpack. He adjusted those glasses, flipped through a few pages of a dog-eared copy of David Mickey’s (’39) Of Sunflowers, Coyotes and Plainsmen, Vol. I, and pointed to a passage. “A spiritual craving for light had prompted Nebraska Methodists to found in 1887 their new university, one which would have ‘the Bible in it.’”
In this desire for divine light, Mickey suggested the university’s founders felt a special connection to the sunflowers heavily dotting the pastures between Lincoln and their new campus. The “insatiable craving of those sunflowers for light,” Mickey wrote, made them a fitting official emblem for the young university.
Drive any Nebraska country road in July and you’ll quickly see that sunflowers don’t typically grow in isolation. They blanket hillsides, nodding by the tens of thousands in yellow unison at audiences of meadowlarks and ecstatic bees. The sunflowers’ multitudinousness matched the initial intents of those founding Nebraska Methodists. Their earliest vision involved several Methodist colleges and seminaries spread across the state, together graduating healthy crops of what Moffet called “preachers and teachers for the prairie.”
Yet these Methodists eventually pruned their ambitions. Instead of maintaining multiple institutions, they culled their garden down to a single, sustainable sunflower. (Perhaps that’s why the university would switch its mascot from a communal sunbather to a literal lone wolf in 1907. The coyote is more accustomed to going it alone.)
You ask the young man in the letter sweater why Nebraska Wesleyan’s founders chose to narrow their ambitions in this way. What did this compromise say about their faith—in a higher power and in higher education? The young man nods and takes you back outside First Church. You walk together to the church’s southeast corner. He gestures at the cornerstone, where the year 1908 is engraved. Then he points across 50th Street toward the southwest corner of Old Main, where the year 1887 is carved.
He asks you, “What do those two years say about their faith?”
For this homeless congregation, building a university came before building a home for itself. And when a string of financial panics stretched into the 1890s, the congregation decided it simply wasn’t yet time to build a church for itself. “Their work went into keeping Old Main from going back to the bank,” Moffet said.
While economic downturns may have forestalled the construction of a church, the dour economy couldn’t temper their desire to grow the young Nebraska Wesleyan. Methodists invested in the construction of the Haish Manual Training School in 1891, a smaller structure very similar to Old Main that stood where Rachel Ann Lucas Hall stands today. (An arsonist’s match felled the Haish in 1894.) A “temporary” adjacent gymnasium was added to Old Main in 1903 and was used for more than 40 years. The C. C. White Building came in 1904 and was greatly expanded in 1907 on the site where the Smith-Curtis Classroom-Administration Building now stands.
Nebraska Methodists made all this happen before they laid the cornerstone to First Church in 1908. In the meantime, the busy congregation met in University Place homes and in Old Main’s fourth floor chapel. (During one such crowded chapel service, the same arsonist who destroyed the Haish attempted to do the same to Old Main. Had the coal oil-soaked bedding spread at the stairs burned instead of smoldered, Old Main as well as the entire faculty and student body, could have all been lost.)
It’s possible to look at Nebraska Methodists’ choice to forego their vision of Methodist universities and seminaries scattered across the state in favor of a singular NWU as one rooted in anxiety. Or you can see it as a product of faithful confidence within a particularly unforgiving environment: David, with a single rock in his sling, coolly determined to make it stick.
You put the question to the peculiar young man beside the cornerstone: “So were Nebraska Wesleyan’s founders defined by conviction or anxiety?”
He answers with his own cool confidence: “Yes.”
Despite drought, financial panics and even arson, the young university took deep root. “On the first day of classes, [Nebraska Wesleyan’s eight original faculty members] welcomed a mere 25 students,” said Nebraska Wesleyan’s 16th and current president, Fred Ohles. “Only four years later, though, a photograph of a chapel service in Old Main shows some 200 people present. The young school had grown well! It would graduate a total of 124 students in its first 10 years.”
Nebraska Methodists deservedly took a great deal of pride in Nebraska Wesleyan and University Place. Echoing in that pride was that original Nebraskan desire for what Bower had called competence, or people’s complete control over their lives. Montag said that University Place residents at the dawn of the 20th century were only half joking when they described their community as “five miles from the nearest sin.”
Montag said they saw University Place as a Methodist enclave, a precious sanctuary from the secularism, saloons and streetwalking in Lincoln. University Place likewise held itself apart from nearby Havelock with the seedy characters spilling off the trains at its station.
Of course University Place was hardly free from sin. But it was free from establishments selling alcohol. And it was an enormously faithful community. When First Church opened its doors in 1909, it boasted Nebraska’s largest congregation. University Place was a town founded on its faith and its principles.
While it’s true that University Place was free from some of the things Methodists found distasteful in neighboring communities, it’s equally true that University Place has always been deeply reliant on those same neighbors.
Naugle said that 19th century politics would affect University Place’s relationship with Lincoln, which in turn would shape Nebraska Wesleyan University into what it is today.
He said the Platte River formed an unofficial political boundary within the Nebraska Territory, with Republicans to the north and Democrats to the south. Republican-heavy Omaha served as the territorial capital. Yet most Nebraskans lived on the Democrats’ turf south of the river. Disagreements between the two political parties led many Nebraska Democrats to support annexation of this land south of the Platte to Kansas. “This sets up a continuing feud,” Naugle said, “between Omaha and Lancaster.”
As Nebraska progressed toward statehood, the legislature voted to move the capital south of the Platte and farther west of the Missouri. The small village of Lancaster was chosen. Omaha Republicans attempted to thwart the move by requiring that Lancaster rename itself after the recently assassinated president—a move that Omahans predicted would prove too repugnant for Nebraska Democrats with Confederate sympathies.
Perhaps members of the Women’s Remembrance Corps in University Place could have warned them that Abraham Lincoln wasn’t quite as unpopular in Lancaster County as they imagined. Lancaster accepted its new name as well as its place as Nebraska’s capital in 1867. “Within just a few years, Lincoln’s population doubles,” Naugle said. And in 1869, it becomes home to the newly founded University of Nebraska.
“That,” Naugle said, “determined the basic character of Lincoln that stands today.”
Lincoln, the capital city and college town, grew to attract a steady stream of leaders, intellectuals, artists and writers that nearby NWU has gladly drawn from to sustain itself. And as much as University Place’s early residents may have thought of themselves as liberated from their neighbors’ perceived shortcomings, the town nonetheless depended heavily on those rails running through Havelock and even more so on the growing cultural magnet to the southwest.
While the university’s founders may have preferred to hold Lincoln at a safe distance (protected by a buffer of sunflowers), today’s Nebraska Wesleyan University is more than happy to embrace the capital city and college town that annexed University Place 86 years ago.
“Lincoln is a big asset for us,” said Jennifer Pospisil (’05), NWU’s associate director of admissions. She said Lincoln is especially attractive to prospective students from rural Nebraska—long a staple demographic for the university. “They know it’s a great city—not so big that it’s intimidating, not so small that it limits their opportunities. It’s really the best of both worlds,” she said.
Lincoln’s simultaneous largeness and smallness is yet another pair of opposites to which this university is rooted. Those roots don’t seem much to mind the contradiction.
Roots are nature’s contortionists. They grow down, but also out, up, around and through, all at once and often at cross-purposes. (What else can hold something both down and up?) So maybe it’s no surprise that an examination of Nebraska Wesleyan University’s roots should reveal so many seeming contradictions: turbulence and peace, anxiety and confidence, dependence and freedom.
Nebraska Wesleyan University’s contradictory roots hold us up as we stand, and traverse with us as we move throughout our lives. And to truly know the places this place has been, we need only to follow our shared roots’ natural contortions.