Naperville's North Central College is celebrating its 150th anniversary this weekend with a wide array of sesquicentennial activities.
The school opened its doors on Nov. 11, 1861, in Plainfield and moved to Naperville nine years later.
Today, in the first installment of our two-part series, President Harold Wilde talks to the Daily Herald about the college's influence on Naperville, his 21 years at the school, and what it means to have Yo-Yo Ma perform on campus.
Q. How can you define North Central's importance to the Naperville community?
A. The citizens of Naperville, in 1870, put up eight acres and the money for the resources to build Old Main to lure the college from Plainfield to Naperville. You could say it was the most farsighted economic development strategy ever. They made a judgment that if this was going to be a great city, it needed a great college.
James Lawrence Nichols came here as a student and stayed on and became a teacher (in 1883) and he wrote a book that sold 3 million copies and became the first great philanthropist from Naperville. So years and years later, we have (the downtown) Nichols Library.
The biggest business in Naperville for most of the 20th century was the Kroehler Manufacturing Company. Peter Kroehler went to Nichols' class and graduated. Nichols invested in him and he became the largest employer in town.
You can go year after year and decade after decade making that kind of connection and obviously it comes up today. We've got 500 employees, an economic impact of well over $100 million and there's very few businesses in downtown Naperville that don't employ our students during the school year.
Q. Several key names in Naperville's history are linked to the college and its success.
A. You look at the history of Naperville and you see the pivotal moments like when Bell Labs moved here. Who was head of Western Electric, the parent company of Bell Labs? It was Harvey Mehlhouse, a North Central alum. That was an important moment in the history of the community.
Who was the greatest developer in Naperville? Harold Moser, a North Central alum. And the list goes on and on.
The decision that was made in 1870 has proved to be a great one. It's also been a great decision for the college. When the college came to Naperville, I don't know that the president and trustees at the time knew what a dynamic place this would become.
Clearly when Naperville is ranked among the top handful of citys in the country, that helps us recruit extraordinary faculty and helps us in terms of the lifestyle we can offer employees. So it's a great relationship and we're very fortunate.
Q. In the school's 150-year history, you are only the ninth president. Why is that stability so important to the college?
A. I started on March 25, 1991, so I'm finishing my 21st year. Having leadership with great continuity is a significant benefit to the college.
I have four vice presidents and myself and among the four vice presidents, I have over 100 years of service to this institution, not even including my time. That tells you something incredible. These people have experienced all kinds of challenges. It makes a huge difference to have people who have tremendous experience and love for the institution.
College campuses are often conservative places where change does not happen quickly. One of the reasons it's important for key people to be around for a long time is because if you're here for a short time, you're not going to get much done. I came in March 1991 and the first major construction project we did was in 1998, seven years after I came. Every year since we've done at least one major construction project.
Q. What has kept you here for 21 years?
A. Why do I love it so much? I live in the middle of campus. My wife and I have lived here for 20 years. We've been married 41 years and have lived over half of that in the middle of a college campus. And you couldn't do that if it weren't a place where people made you feel good. You couldn't do that if the students didn't make you feel good. We're right in the middle of them and thousands of them walk by every day. If they were going to make you feel uncomfortable, it would wear you down.
But it's just the opposite. They make you feel fabulous and lucky to be here. I'm not going to say every day is perfect but most days I do feel I'm the luckiest guy on the planet. This is a great place to be and our mission is something sacred. You can feel what this institution means to these students.
Q. In 2008, the college unveiled its 13,000-square-foot Wentz Concert Hall. Since then, the facility has lured artist such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Yo-Yo Ma. What does that exposure mean for the college?
A. The reality of colleges and universities, and there are 3,500 in this country, is that the schools you've heard of will generally be the schools that have a Division I football or basketball team. They'll be the schools you hear of when they play Notre Dame.
Small colleges, the top ranked small colleges in the country, tend to be schools that very few people have heard of, no matter how good they are. And that's a challenge but it's a reality. The way you've heard of schools is gonna be because of the media events and such that are put into your mind.
So similarly when students choose a college, you can have, as we do, the best faculty you'll find anywhere. I'll put my faculty up against anyone. But how do you illustrate that to an 18-year-old who is coming here for a day or to fill out an application? How do they know or figure that out? It's very hard.
When you build a facility like the Wentz, that facility makes a statement. We've got wonderful music and performing faculty but when the Wentz went up it got the attention of every kid in every high school within 250 miles who is interested in performing.
Yo-Yo Ma standing on the stage, looking at the audience and saying "I love this hall," you can't beat that. That message gets out to prospective students and artists who want to record here.
You could think of the Wentz as our Big 10 football team. It illustrates, in concrete form, what is here and that is 150 years of super-dedicated teaching of the highest quality.
Coming next: A look at how the student body has evolved at North Central and where the school is heading as it begins its next 150 years.