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posted: 9/12/2017 1:31 PM

How Harper College got its start 50 years ago

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  • Harper College's first campus was at Elk Grove High School in 1967. The Palatine campus opened two years later.

    Harper College's first campus was at Elk Grove High School in 1967. The Palatine campus opened two years later.
    Courtesy of Harper College

  • A groundbreaking for Harper College was held in October 1967 on the site of a former horse farm at Roselle and Algonquin roads in Palatine.

    A groundbreaking for Harper College was held in October 1967 on the site of a former horse farm at Roselle and Algonquin roads in Palatine.
    Courtesy of Harper College

  • When it opened in 1969, Harper College's campus featured six buildings, named by letter, from A to F.

    When it opened in 1969, Harper College's campus featured six buildings, named by letter, from A to F.
    Courtesy of Harper College

  • Harper College's 44 original faculty members taught classes starting in September 1967 at a temporary campus at Elk Grove High School.

    Harper College's 44 original faculty members taught classes starting in September 1967 at a temporary campus at Elk Grove High School.
    Courtesy of Harper College

  • Robert Thieda, one of the original faculty members at Harper College, talks with a student in the early days of the college library.

    Robert Thieda, one of the original faculty members at Harper College, talks with a student in the early days of the college library.
    Courtesy of Harper College

  • Robert Lahti served as Harper College's first president from 1965 to 1977.

    Robert Lahti served as Harper College's first president from 1965 to 1977.
    Courtesy of Harper College

  • Harper College's physical plant has grown over the years, from six original buildings to 23 buildings and two satellite campuses, totaling 1.65 million square feet of building space.

      Harper College's physical plant has grown over the years, from six original buildings to 23 buildings and two satellite campuses, totaling 1.65 million square feet of building space.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer, 2008

  • Students walk from class to class at Harper College in Palatine.

      Students walk from class to class at Harper College in Palatine.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer, 2008

  • Derek Tywan of Schaumburg walks to class on the first day of classes in 2009 at Harper College in Palatine.

    Derek Tywan of Schaumburg walks to class on the first day of classes in 2009 at Harper College in Palatine.
    Daily Herald File Photo 2009

 
 

Today, Harper College enrolls more than 35,000 credit and noncredit students, who take classes at the main Palatine campus and two satellite campuses in Schaumburg and Prospect Heights with 1.65 million square feet of building space.

Who would have thought 50 years ago, when the first classes of the fledgling community college were held on Sept. 13, 1967, that the school could grow to what it's become?

"I don't think we always knew what form it was going to take, but I think we felt it was going to be good," said John Muchmore, one of the original 44 Harper faculty members.

Muchmore had been a high school teacher in Palatine and Crystal Lake when he noticed an article in the Daily Herald about the new college being built in Palatine.

It wouldn't be until 1969 -- two years after classes started at a temporary campus at Elk Grove High School -- that construction of Harper's original six buildings at Algonquin and Roselle roads would be complete.

That meant two years of sharing space with the high school, and housing faculty, administrative and counseling offices and student lounge areas in trailers in a back parking lot. When the high school's day was done at about 3 p.m., Harper's evening classes were just about to begin, causing traffic headaches on local streets.

"There were some growing pains," said Muchmore, a speech instructor. "We joke, probably the first one was parking."

A year later, Harper added space at Forest View High School in Arlington Heights.

Nonetheless, Muchmore says, it was an exciting time for faculty, staff and students -- a mix of adult learners in their upper 20s and 30s eager to come back to school, and suburban teens who didn't have to go far to go to college.

The initial enrollment of 1,725 exceeded expectations, and continued to grow, reaching 15,000 a decade later.

Tuition was $8 per semester hour -- $240 annually for a full-time student -- slightly higher than other community colleges at the time.

There was skepticism of the idea of a community college in the early years -- several referendums to establish one in the North and Northwest suburbs were voted down in the 1960s. Critics cited financial concerns, and questioned the quality of such colleges and whether they would simply be an extension of high school.

Harper's first president, Robert Lahti, often dropped the word "community" from the school's title in an effort to establish credibility that Harper, indeed, was a real college.

"He was image conscious in a very positive way at that point in time," Muchmore said. "He didn't want us to think of ourselves as high school teachers who were over there."

Lahti and the first board of trustees chose to name the new school after William Rainey Harper, president of the University of Chicago from 1891 to 1906, who helped establish the concept of a two-year junior college. He encouraged smaller colleges to adopt that format, and helped establish correspondence and extension courses for students away from the main campus, according to Trygve Thoreson, a retired Harper College English professor who has written a 212-page history called "Harper College: The First 50 Years."

"I think they really liked the idea that Harper was about bringing education to the people," Thoreson said.

The referendum that established Harper College was approved in March 1965, and was limited to more western townships than earlier referendums that didn't pass. Baby Boomers were coming of age and a population boom in the Northwest suburbs was just beginning to take off.

"The community just felt there was a need, and they could see the population growing," Thoreson said.

Lahti and the board considered a couple of sites for the new school, including Busse Woods near Elk Grove Village and Rathje Farm near Golf and Meacham roads in Schaumburg. But residents wanted the forest preserve kept for recreation, and Schaumburg Mayor Robert Atcher argued the other site should be used for commercial development, according to Thoreson's book.

College officials eventually pinpointed the Tri-Color Farm owned by George Jayne and a neighboring farm owned by the John C. Biddle family in Palatine. The college acquired 200 acres for the new campus, where a groundbreaking was held in October 1967. The new buildings, projected to cost $29.5 million, opened for classes two years later.

They were named by letters of the alphabet -- Building A, Building B and so on. Several attempts over the years to change the names of the buildings to something more identifiable have mostly failed, Thoreson said.

Muchmore, who retired from Harper in 1995 and now lives in Elgin, said he is "awed" anytime he returns to campus to see how the school has grown. He was asked to be a master of ceremonies for a staff meeting at the start of the school year.

What's remained constant over the years, he believes, is the commitment of faculty, staff and administrators to excellence. He remembers attending faculty meetings at the Holiday Inn in Rolling Meadows before classes started in 1967. Community college pioneers from across the country spoke about the mission and purpose of their work.

"They really got us wound up and started. The quality of those first three weeks was really rewarding," Muchmore said. "It was the selling of demonstrating that this thing was worthwhile."

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