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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.


  • The first Alumni Achievement and Service awards were presented in 1980.
  • The Redbirds competed in the Missouri Valley Conference for the first time in 1981.
  • The University’s mascot was named “Reggie” in 1981. Bob Goldstein ’83 was the first student to don the mascot’s suit.
  • In 1982 the University established the Distinguished Professor appointment to recognize outstanding teachers and scholars. The title is the most prestigious honor an Illinois State faculty member can earn. The first recipients were Herman Brockman in Biological Sciences and Edward Schapsmeier in History.
  • An anonymous donor gave $50,000 in 1982 to create the University’s Educational Investment Fund in the Department of Finance, Insurance, and Law. Students manage the fund, which is now valued at more than $300,000.
  • Dave Bergman became the first Redbird to win a World Series ring. He did so in 1984 as a member of the Detroit Tigers.
  • The University’s first patent was obtained in 1989 by Technology Professor Larry Fryda and Geology Professor John Foster. They invented a device and method for measuring changes in the pressure of underground water formations.
  • January of 1989 marked the first time faculty received a pay increase when promoted. President Thomas Wallace implemented a policy calling for a $1,500 raise when faculty reached associate professor, and $2,200 for promotion to full professor.
  • Redbird Arena opened on January 11, 1989, ushering in a new era in athletic competition.
  • Suzy Bogguss ’79 is the first alumna to win the Academy of Country Music Award for Top New Female Vocalist. She took the award in 1989.


  • The first Young Alumni awards were presented in 1990.
  • Registration changed forever in the fall of 1990. The tradition of standing in a long line ended with the start of the STAR (Student Telephone Assisted Registration) system, which allowed students to select classes by phone.
  • Female athletes began earning varsity letters and letter jackets in 1990.
  • A law signed by then Illinois Governor James Thompson in September of 1990 called for the addition of an alumnus to the University’s governing board.
  • C. Robert O’Dell ’59 became the first Illinois State graduate to put a telescope into outer space in 1990. It was then that the Hubble Space Telescope was launched. O’Dell was the Hubble project scientist from 1972 to 1983.
  • The largest and most dramatic change in telephone service in the University’s history occurred on July 27, 1991. On that date a $7.8 million telecommunications project to provide private phone lines to the campus was completed.
  • The first December commencement in the University’s history was held in 1991.
  • The largest move of faculty and staff offices on campus occurred in August of 1992. It was then that the Student Services Building construction and Fell Hall renovation projects reached completion. Not since Milner Library opened in the 1970s had the University experienced such an increase in academic space.
  • Illinois State’s Habitat for Humanity chapter was established in 1993, with Illinois Wesleyan University and the McLean County Habitat for Humanity as partners. Eleven homes have been built since that time, making it one of the most successful student chapters in the nation.
  • Portia Elliott, a mathematics education specialist from the University of Amherst, became the first Illinois State Minority Scholar in Residence. The program began in 1993.
  • A $287,500 grant received in February of 1993 was used to conduct the first recycling demonstration in the nation in which food and paper were mixed to feed cattle and enrich soil.
  • A model commercial aquaculture facility unlike any in the country opened on the University Farm in 1993.
  • Significant change occurred on July 1, 1993. Smoking in all campus facilities was banned on that date.
  • Gene Budig is the first and only former Illinois State president to become a Major League baseball president. He served from 1994 to 2000 as the seventh and final president of the American League.
  • CONNECTIONS began in 1994 as an innovative way to create learning communities for students. Within three years 650 students were participating in the program that clustered students in the same classes, with seminars and outside activities scheduled as well.
  • The campus obtained its own governing board with the creation of the Board of Trustees in January of 1996. Prior to that date the University was governed by the Board of Regents. That board also had oversight of Northern Illinois University and Sangamon State University, which is now the University of Illinois at Springfield.
  • Illinois State established the Institute for Insurance Ethics in 1997. It was the first ethics institute in the nation.
  • The University’s first professional degree program began in 1999, as Mennonite College of Nursing became Illinois State’s sixth college. Mennonite was the first independent college of nursing in the United States to be accredited.
  • Bradford Miller ’01 became the first Illinois State student chosen for extensive study at one of the world’s most premier universities. He arrived at Oxford in England in 1999.