Skip to main content

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.


  • Illinois State’s Credit Union started in March of 1960, which is when the first board of directors was elected. It has served the campus community since, and today has assets of more than $60 million.
  • November 24, 1963, was a significant date in Vidette history. That was the first time the paper was published on a Sunday. The special two-page issue was devoted to coverage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy two days earlier.
  • The University’s first attempt to use technology in teaching foreign languages dates back to November of 1963, which is when a “fully transistorized” language laboratory opened in Edwards Hall. Students used the new equipment to learn French, German, Russian, Latin, and Spanish.
  • Doctoral programs were added in 1963. The first doctoral graduate was Herschel C. Fried. He completed a doctorate of education in art in 1965.
  • The campus police came into existence by an act of the Illinois Legislature in 1963.
  • Illinois State Normal University officially became known as Illinois State University on January 1, 1964. The name change signaled a shift in the institution’s mission toward the liberal arts.
  • Academic programs and departments were organized into colleges in 1966.
  • President Robert Bone uttered the first words broadcast on WGLT on February 6, 1966. Since then WGLT has evolved from a station run by students and heard only in residence halls to a full-service National Public Radio affiliate. The call letters mirror the University’s motto and stand for “We Gladly Learn and Teach.”
  • Female students celebrated in 1968, as that was the first year women’s hours in the residence halls were eliminated. No more curfew and bed checks!
  • The University became home to the tallest residence hall in North America when Watterson Towers opened in 1968. Named after Arthur W. Watterson, who led the Geography Department, Watterson houses 2,200 students and was home to the first Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Scoop Shop ever to be located in a residence hall dining center.
  • The first fraternity and sorority chapters were formed on campus in 1969.
  • Disruptive behavior of the student body was addressed in a student code of ethics that was approved in 1969. Security and safety policies were also put into force that same year.
  • Baseball Coach Duffy Bass secured the University’s first National Collegiate Athletic Association college division championship in 1969.


  • The start of the University’s unique glass program goes back to 1970 and Distinguished Art Professor Emeritus Joel Myers.
  • The tradition of honoring stellar graduates began in 1970. It was then that the first Distinguished Alumni awards were presented.
  • Will Robinson became the first African-American coach in the nation at the collegiate level when he was chosen to lead the men’s basketball team in 1970.
  • It wasn’t until 1971 that the University created an intercollegiate athletics department. That was the year the program split from the physical education department to stand alone.
  • Dennis Nelson was the first Redbird to win a Super Bowl ring. He did so as an offensive tackle with the Baltimore Colts in 1971.
  • The Athletics Hall of Fame was established in 1972, with 23 individuals inducted.
  • Approximately 3,000 students attended the first Rites of Spring on May 12, 1972. The event became Illinois State’s version of Woodstock and was so popular that 25,000 attended in 1977. It was terminated that same year by President Lloyd Watkins.
  • The first Redbird to be pictured on the cover of Sports Illustrated was Doug Collins. The January 15, 1973, issue appeared during his senior season, not long after his magical performance in the 1972 Olympic games in Munich.
  • Dee Wilson ’74 became the University’s first female national champion when she won the pentathlon in the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women national meet in 1974.
  • Terry Kinney ’76 cofounded Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in 1974 with Gary Sinise and Jeff Perry, who attended the University. Others with an Illinois State connection who are linked to the stellar company include John Malkovich and Laurie Metcalf. Both graduates became founding members in 1976.
  • TV-10 was launched in 1974 by Jeff Hawkinson. The newsroom was in the Old Union building, but students who anchored and ran the equipment of daily broadcasts were located in Metcalf. More than one newscast consequently started with a breathless student in front of the camera.
  • The first time Illinois State hit the maximum enrollment allowed by the Illinois Board of Higher Education was 1976. There were 19,000 students on campus that fall.
  • The Illinois Shakespeare Festival began in July of 1978. The plays chosen for that first season included As You Like It, Macbeth, and Twelfth Night. Now nationally acclaimed, the festival still features three plays in rotating repertory each summer. Performances are staged at the 430-seat, $2 million Theatre at Ewing.
  • Illinois State was the first university in Illinois to offer athletic scholarships for women. The first scholarship was awarded in 1978 to Pat McKenzie, Ed.D. ’94.
  • Fall break was added to the academic calendar in 1978.
  • Ronald Reagan became the first president of the nation to appear in an Illinois State Homecoming parade. He participated in the event in 1979 while on his presidential campaign.