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Illinois State celebrates firsts

Walking across the campus today, it’s hard to envision the undeveloped vista encountered by Illinois State University’s founders. Even more sobering is the scope of their task as they created the first state university in Illinois, shaping not just a curriculum but physical structures where it would be taught.

When the University opened its doors in October of 1857 to 43 students, the founders must have known they were providing more than tangible books and classrooms. They were building a community where teaching and learning would become a way of life.

Illinois State’s landscape is radically altered from 150 years ago. Academic programs have expanded as well, and the University’s mission has evolved beyond teaching to include research and public service.

The story of how these changes occurred is filled with intrigue and inspiration, as this list of 150 firsts in the University’s history reveals. While far from a complete chronology, each fact documents a stage in Illinois State’s evolution.

Take a moment to catch a glimpse of the events and individuals integral to the University’s establishment as a prestigious teacher’s college, as well as Illinois State’s transformation throughout each decade. Your Redbird pride will grow with your knowledge of how your university purposefully became a leader in undergraduate education.


  • Efforts to keep alumni connected to campus and each other were the motivation for creating the Alumni Quarterly, which was first published in February of 1912. The publication used simplified spelling, which was touted by President Felmley. The reader consequently encountered variations of common words, such as “deths and emfasis.”
  • Henry Porter is the first graduate to be inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame. A 1913 graduate, he ironically played baseball while at Illinois State. A former executive director of the National High School Federation, he is credited for inventing the molded basketball and fan-shaped backboard.
  • Student teachers started training at a location other than the Laboratory Schools in 1913. Placed in Walker School south of Bloomington, a group traveled back and forth on the trolley. They called themselves the pioneers, which became the nickname for University High School.
  • Extension courses were first offered in 1913.
  • The University’s first farm was established in 1914 with a herd of cows that soon supplied milk to 160 families, creating a profit of $18 a day. The farm operation was a natural extension of the Agriculture Department, which dates back to 1911.
  • An activity fee was added to student expenses in 1915 as a means to support a lecture course, oratorical and musical events, literary and athletic events, and the Vidette.
  • The first university vehicle purchased was a Ford car obtained in 1915 for the purpose of delivering milk from the University Farm. The route had grown to the point that the method of using two horses was no longer adequate.
  • Homecoming was first held in 1916. It wasn’t until five years later that the event was celebrated annually. The 1921 event had a budget of $75.
  • The first graduate lost in WWI was William Roy Hinthorn. He died of pneumonia at age 19 while stationed at Jefferson Barracks. His death occurred on January 19, 1918. Fourteen alumni died during the war.
  • The University’s first dormitory was Fell Hall, which opened in 1918 and housed 150 students.


  • Joe Ward was the first African-American basketball player on a Redbird team. He was a starting guard during the 1919-1920 academic year.
  • Student government got its start in 1920, which is the year the first student council was formed.
  • Dr. Florence Ames was employed in 1923 as the University’s first physician. She taught classes in personal hygiene each week, as well as examined all women upon admission. All men on athletic teams also had a mandatory examination.
  • The University’s nickname changed from the “Teachers” to the “Redbirds” in 1923 as a result of efforts by Athletic Director Clifford “Pop” Horton and Fred Young, who at the time was sports editor of Bloomington’s Daily Pantagraph.
  • The Hobo Parade got its start in 1923. It was the forerunner to the annual Homecoming Parade.
  • Enrollment exceeded 1,000 in the fall semester of 1924.
  • Faculty members Wanda Neiswanger and Jennie Whitten wrote the University’s alma mater in 1926. The University Hymn is still sung at formal campus events today.
  • Gamma Phi Circus originated in 1929, making it the oldest collegiate circus in the nation. It started as an educational service organization for men. The first circus performance was staged in 1931. Nine years later women were allowed to participate.


  • The Blackfriars organization was formed in 1933 by students interested in promoting music and dramatic activities among campus men.
  • The first commencement to include full regalia was held in 1934. The ceremony was held outdoors for the first time that year, which was a tradition that continued until 1979.
  • Students were able to enjoy free movies on campus beginning in 1934.
  • Gertrude M. Hall was hired as the first full-time director of alumni activities and publicity in 1935.
  • Illinois State’s first student radio station began in 1935 under the direction of Ruth Yates. It wasn’t until March of 1981 that WZND began broadcasting, establishing a format that exists today for the station that is located in Fell Hall.
  • The first graduate to become an Olympic athlete was Tydee Ann Pickett. She was on the track team under Coach Joe Cogdal, and became a member of the 1936 U.S. squad that competed in the Berlin Olympics.