Beginnings and John G. Neihardt
The following historical account is excerpted from Far From Normal! 100 Years of Educational Excellence, published in 2010 to mark Wayne State's 100th year as a state college. Dr. Kent Blaser, (1949-2010) professor of history at Wayne State College from 1979 to 2009, wrote the history of the period from 1891 to 1970. Roger Mancastroppa, a former history instructor at Wayne State, wrote about the period from 1970 to the present. Marcus Schlichter, Wayne State archivist, contributed biographical sketches of the leading figures of the college.
Nebraska Normal College classroom
Wayne State came into existence because citizens of the city of Wayne committed substantial time and resources to establishing a college in their community. The school they created became a state college in 1910 to serve the people of a wider northeast Nebraska community. Regional and community service has been central to the mission of Wayne State ever since. And because northeast Nebraska is primarily a rural area, serving a small town, rural constituency with a unique set of needs and characteristics has been one of the college’s main strengths and responsibilities. The college has provided services and programs that enrich the lives of individuals and communities throughout the region, but most importantly it has provided an access to quality and affordable higher education to people who otherwise might not have had that opportunity.
No one could begin to know or recount all of the many ways in which Wayne State has affected the lives its students, and through them the lives of countless others. One of the school’s earliest and most famous graduates, Nebraska poet laureate John G. Neihardt, captured something of this mystery in describing how the College and its faculty had affected his life and career as a poet: “Often there came upon me,” he wrote, “a thrilled sense of expectancy, as though something particularly glorious were getting ready to happen all at once. I would try to think what made me feel so, but reasons seemed not to apply. It was simply ‘in the air’... It was as though the little college had been created for me. It released me from the listless boredom I had come to feel in school and lifted me to a higher, creative level of being.”
Birthdays and anniversaries for organizations and institutions are often not as tidy and precise as they are for people. Such is the case for Wayne State College. There were several important events in its early history. Among them Sept. 19, 1910, stands out prominently. On that date a newly authorized institution of higher education, officially christened a “Nebraska State Normal School,” opened its doors to students, joining two already existing state normal schools in Peru and Kearney. During the course of the next 100 years, that school would grow and develop into the Wayne State College of today.
Mr. Pile’s College, 1891-1909
A complete accounting of how Wayne State College came to be must start several decades before the events just described, however. Wayne was selected as the site for a state normal school only because there was already a successful college there, which the state purchased and transformed into a public institution at a bargain price. This was the aforementioned Nebraska Normal College, a school created through a collaboration of a group of people from Wayne and an ambitious and charismatic young mathematics professor from Fremont named James Madison Pile.
After several attempts to found a college in Wayne failed, the town’s luck changed when the county superintendent hired Pile for several years to offer summer classes for the county’s teachers. At a public meeting in September 1891, Pile proposed to a group of Wayne citizens that they support the founding of a college of which he would be president. The following day a committee selected a 40-acre tract of land on the north edge of the town for the location of the campus.
Two days later, at a second meeting, a large group of people formed a corporation, signed an agreement to purchase the land, and elected a board of trustees. About 180 stockholders pledged $20,000 to fund the venture, not a lot of money with which to build a college, even by the standards of those days.
Pile was appointed president with a contract stipulating that after five years of operation ownership of the college would be transferred from the Association to Pile. Two months later, on Nov. 11, 1891, Nebraska Normal College opened for business with a faculty and staff of four, including Pile and his wife, and seven students in attendance. (Stormy weather kept many students away the first day--the following morning 35 were present for the opening chapel meeting.)
In 1897, the price for one full year (five ten-week sessions, including tuition, room and board) was $125, or $2.50 per week. For many farm and working families this was still a substantial sum so students frequently paid for tuition and board by working for the school in various capacities, or by providing vegetables, milk, eggs, chickens or livestock, firewood, or corn, which was used for fuel, given disastrously low prices during the depression years.
A bell-ringer for education: John G. Neihardt
Wayne State’s most famous alumnus, the poet John G. Neihardt, attended the school in the 1890s and left a fascinating account of his experiences in his memoir, All Is But A Beginning. Neihardt, just 13 years old, and an unusually small 13-year-old at that, from a poor, fatherless family, was at loose ends after completing the eighth grade. Pile approached the boy’s mother and suggested that Neihardt could attend NNC free of charge in return for being the school’s “bell-ringer,” ringing the bell in the College Building tower every 50 minutes, beginning at 6:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. Pile even had to loan his watch to Neihardt, since the future poet didn’t have one of his own. Neihardt completed the entire six-year NNC curriculum, from ninth grade through the sophomore year of college, in three years. When he quickly devoured most of the regular offerings, he had private tutoring or individual classes for a number of advanced subjects. At the age of 15 he taught a summer-term advanced Latin class to a group of teachers, most of whom were considerably older than he was.
John G. Neihardt was born near Sharpsburg, an unincorporated village in central Illinois, on January 8, 1881. In 1886 his family moved to a sod house on his maternal grandfather’s farm near Stockton, Kansas, then to Kansas City in 1888. After his father abandoned his family, he, his mother, and two sisters moved to Wayne where his mother’s brother had settled on a farm.
Mr. Pile and U. S. Conn—the future Wayne State college president who was then a teacher in the NNC—were his primary teachers. He held both men in very high esteem, calling them “visionaries” and “great-hearted, great-spirited men,” and stating that “my debt to them is a precious thing to me.”
In speaking at Bancroft in August 1965 Neihardt looked back on his days at the Nebraska Normal:
“My late boyhood and early youth had been spent in our neighboring town of Wayne, where, thanks to a brave little pioneer college that has now become a distinguished institution of learning, I first glimpsed the promised land of the spirit. Wayne was truly my Pisgah, my hill of vision; for it was there that the heavens opened for the boy I was, and he first dreamed the dreams that would lead and drive him throughout a long life.”
Neihardt completed the teachers course in May 1896 at the age of 15. He was able that summer to teach an advanced class in Cicero for Professor Conn before starting the science course, which he completed in 1897.
After teaching in country schools, Neihardt moved to Bancroft, Nebraska, in 1900. He worked there with an Indian trader and was introduced to the traditions and customs of the Omaha tribe. This experience had a strong influence on him. Native-American culture and beliefs were often the focus of his writings throughout his life. In Bancroft he also edited the Bancroft Blade for a time. Then, from 1905 to 1912, he devoted his time to writing fiction and lyric poetry. During this time he also began to gain national attention, including being listed in Who’s Who in America from 1908 onward.
Neihardt married Mona Martinsen in 1908. Martinsen, a native of New York City, was a sculptor who had studied with Rodin in Paris. After reading Neihardt’s A Bundle of Myrrh, a collection of romantic poetry in free verse, she was moved to write Neihardt. Their correspondence, lasting about a year, developed into romance. Martinsen decided to move to Nebraska. They met face-to-face for the first time at an Omaha train station and married the next day.
Neihardt began his major work, A Cycle of the West, a series of five epic poems (“songs”) memorializing life on the Great Plains, in 1912. The poems, published in separate volumes, took almost 30 years to complete.
While visiting the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to research material for The Song of the Messiah, the fourth of the songs of the A Cycle of the West, he met Black Elk, one of the last holy men of the Oglalas. Neihardt and Black Elk became close friends. Black Elk gave a series of interviews to Neihardt in the spring of 1931, in which he shared stories of his life and the life of his people, as well as a vision in which he saw people of all colors united under one tree. From these interviews Neihardt wrote Black Elk Speaks, the best known of all his works.
Neihardt moved his family to Branson, Missouri, in 1920, where he could continue his writing in peace and seclusion. From time to time he went on lecture tours to support his family. He was a professor in poetry at the University of Nebraska in 1923. The Neihardts lived in the St. Louis area while he worked as the literary editor for the St. Louis Post Dispatch from 1926 to 1938, but maintained their home in Branson. He held positions with the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1943 to 1948. In 1949 John and Mona moved to a farm near Columbia, Missouri. He was poet-in-residence and lecturer in English at the University of Missouri, Columbia, from 1949 to 1966. Mona died as the result of an auto accident in 1958.
Neihardt received numerous awards and honors during his lifetime. Among the most notable are being named Poet Laureate of Nebraska by legislative action in 1921, an honor he held until the time of his death; induction into the Nebraska Hall of Fame in 1974; and the selection of his A Cycle of the West by men and women of letters as one of the 3,000 best books in the 3,000 years from Homer to Hemingway. Neihardt received honorary doctorate degrees from the University of Nebraska (1917), Creighton University, Omaha (1928), University of Missouri (1947), and Midland Lutheran College, Freemont (1972).
Neihardt’s connection to Wayne did not end with his graduation. Following a 1916 visit he made to the campus and the classes of Dr. J. T. House, a faculty member in the English Department who had become a great admirer of Neihardt and who would write a book about the poet, it was suggested that a Neihardt Club be formed. The club would be open to students and townspeople interested in Neihardt’s poetry. The club’s membership extended nationally with even a few members from outside the United States. The club spearheaded a drive in 1925 to have a monument dedicated to Neihardt erected in Bressler Park. The monument was unveiled by his mother on August 19, 1925.
The college awarded him the Distinguished Service Award in 1965 “in recognition of his high distinction in Letters, for great loyalty to Alma Mater, and for achievements bringing much credit to the alumni family of Wayne State College.” When he was informed of this honor a few months before the award was made, he wrote, “O I am eager to be back at Wayne!! I saw that college grow out of the dust of the earth on a barren, windy hilltop, and, like Aeneas of old, I was a part of it all — a little part, of course.” In 1971 President Brandenburg invited Neihardt to read 20 to 25 minutes of his poetry at commencement in lieu of the traditional commencement speech.
The following year Neihardt completed the first volume of his autobiography, All Is But a Beginning. He died at his daughter’s home in Columbia, November 3, 1973, while working on the second volume. Patterns and Coincidences: A Sequel to All Is But a Beginning, was published posthumously in 1978.
Nebraska State Normal is born
Nearly two decades after its founding, Nebraska Normal matured into one of the most successful colleges in the state. More than 1,000 students attended the school each year. “Mr. Pile’s College” had been an outstanding achievement. But by this time, too, Pile’s health was failing. Both he and the citizens of Wayne realized that the real secret to insuring the long-term growth and prosperity of the college (and the community) was to persuade the state to purchase Nebraska Normal College and turn it into a state school.
It was not until 1909-10 that the effort to make Nebraska Normal into a state institution finally came to fruition. Unfortunately, Pile did not live to see this final part of his dream come true. The bill that authorized the purchase of NNC by the state and its transformation into The Nebraska State Normal School was signed April 6, 1909; Pile had died on March 11. He is arguably the most important individual in the history of the college. In John G. Neihardt’s words once again, when Pile’s name was mentioned among former students and acquaintances, “the mood of the meeting would change, and one might have gathered from the ensuing conversation that all of us had seen the same revealing light.....Of course he was more remarkable than other men we knew. He was ‘Pile’.”