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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.


  • G. Thomas Andes ’65 and his wife, Janet (Shea) ’64, created the University’s first individually endowed chair with a $1 million gift in 2000. Philosophy Professor Kenton Machina was named the first Tom and Janet Andes Endowed Chair for General Education.
  • Votes for student government were cast online for the first time in 2001.
  • Distinguished Professor Emeritus Frances Anderson was the first art therapist to receive a Fulbright. During the 2001-2002 academic year, she worked with the Instituto Universitario Nacional del Arte, a consortium of seven art schools in Argentina.
  • The number of living Illinois State alumni surpassed the 150,000 mark with the May graduating class of 2002.
  • Reg Weaver ’61 is the first graduate to lead the National Education Association. He was elected in 2002 to serve as president of the association, which serves 2.7 million members.
  • Eric Rohmann ’80, M.S. ’85, is the first graduate to capture the prestigious Caldecott Medal for illustration. He won the literary honor in 2003 for the book My Friend Rabbit.
  • President Al Bowman became the University’s first African-American president in 2004.
  • The University’s first comprehensive campaign, Redefining “normal,” ended in 2004. The fund-raising effort resulted in $96 million in private support. The goal was $88 million.
  • Illinois State’s first active international alumni group, the Thailand Alumni Chapter, was chartered in the fall of 2004.
  • The first time the University entered the national solar-powered car race was in the summer of 2005. A team of students from the Physics Department worked with faculty to complete the longest solar car race in the world.
  • Neal Cotts became the first alumnus to claim a World Series pitching victory when the Chicago White Sox were victorious over the Houston Astros in 2005.