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updated: 5/19/2011 11:59 AM

North Central founders made bet on the future 150 years ago

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  • Community members gathered at the site of what would be North Central College's Old Main on May 17, 1870, for the ceremonial placing of the cornerstone. The school, then known as Northwestern College, was preparing to move from Plainfield.

      Community members gathered at the site of what would be North Central College's Old Main on May 17, 1870, for the ceremonial placing of the cornerstone. The school, then known as Northwestern College, was preparing to move from Plainfield.
    Courtesy of North Central College

  • The south tower of Old Main was dedicated on Field Day, May 18, 1891.

      The south tower of Old Main was dedicated on Field Day, May 18, 1891.
    Courtesy of North Central College

 
 

One hundred fifty years ago this spring, as a new president from Illinois journeyed to Washington, D.C., to confront the gravest crisis in the fourscore and five years of the American republic, a small group of Evangelical Christians made a bet with history on the Illinois frontier. They founded a college.

Think about that. The Civil War about to start. Uncertainty and panic in the air. And they founded a college, an investment not so much for that time and place as for generations yet to be born.

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These were not timid men and women. But neither were they gamblers. They were conservative and prudent investors. Above all, they were people of faith -- faith in the Lord, and faith in the power of reason and learning, discipline, values and hard work to create better human beings and a better tomorrow.

This year, the school that is their living legacy -- North Central College -- celebrates its sesquicentennial. Cornerstone Day marks a pivotal moment in the College's history, movement to Naperville of the then 9-year-old institution founded in Plainfield, beginning the long partnership between town and gown that has so contributed to the success of both.

The Cornerstone Celebration begins at 6:30 p.m. Friday, May 20, in Wentz Concert Hall and will feature the Naperville Chorus, singers and dancers from Naperville's School of the Performing Arts, North Central's Concert Choir and other performers, special videos, and the awarding of Sesquicentennial Medals to individuals embodying the North Central College-Naperville relationship over the generations.

This year's Cornerstone Week kicks off a yearlong series of one-of-a-kind events marking the sesquicentennial. Among these will be performances by internationally known artists such as Yo-Yo Ma, Herbie Hancock, the Beach Boys, and Bernadette Peters in the fall, and an all-college, all-community "reunion" on Nov. 11 in the College's Res/Rec Center, 150 years to the day when the first students arrived on campus.

There will be plenty of history -- including the publication of two new books about the college -- and not a little nostalgia, in the sesquicentennial festivities over the course of the year. But what all of this "hoopla" is really all about is the future, and building as sturdy a platform for the college's 3,000 students in the 21st century as the founding generation did for our first three students in 1861. It is the example of their faith and farsightedness -- their generosity of spirit in the midst of America's most overwhelming of challenges -- that continues to inspire us. Now, as it was then, no bet, no investment, will pay more long-term dividends.

• Harold Wilde is president of North Central College in Naperville.

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