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The 7 biggest days in Illinois State history

Old Main demolition

University Archivist April Anderson, along with many others, is convinced that the face of Abraham Lincoln appeared in this dust cloud, created by a wrecking ball during Old Main’s demolition in 1958. “There is no interpretation,” Anderson said. “You immediately recognize that as Lincoln’s face when you see it.” (Photo courtesy of the Dr. Jo Ann Rayfield Archives at Illinois State University)

In anticipation of Illinois State making history Tuesday, December 2STATEside asked seven prominent members and chroniclers of the Illinois State community what they consider to be the most important day in the life of this 157-year-old institution.

What follows are their choices and the context for why these days were significant. Other dates were mentioned—e.g., the dropping of Normal from the University’s name and the gathering on campus in the aftermath of 9/11—but these offer a glimpse, if not a complete overview, of some key days in our history.

Readers are encouraged to offer their own take on the “biggest day in Illinois State University history” in the comments section below.

The following quotes have been edited for clarity, brevity, and consistency.

June 17, 1958: Demolition of Old Main building begins

April Anderson, university archivist

“The demolition is the point in which the University modernized itself. Old Main was built to be the main building for campus, and at the time it was the most grand building of all of the normal schools west of the Alleghenies.

“In 1946 it literally was falling on itself. They took off the dome and took off the third floor. It was just not a very pleasant building (after the changes), but people were so indebted to the building. That building was ISNU.

Demolition of Old Main began  June 17, 1958. April Anderson said work was held up for about three weeks because a cat and her three kittens were found to be living in the building. It took some time to coax them out . The demolition was completed in late July. (Photo courtesy of the Dr. Jo Ann Rayfield Archives at Illinois State University)

Demolition of Old Main began June 17, 1958. April Anderson said work was held up for about three weeks because a cat and her three kittens were found to be living in the building. It took some time to coax them out. The demolition was completed in late July. (Photo courtesy of the Dr. Jo Ann Rayfield Archives)

“We were moving away from teacher education at the same time that building came down. So for me, it’s modernizing the campus. And it was right after the centennial, too. So the centennial happened in ’57; (Robert) Bone came in (as university president). And they hired Bone really to continue that idea of teacher education because people were very set on keeping teacher education on this campus, and not changing the name, and keeping that curriculum, and not going into this liberal arts education curriculum. But within the year, he is already pushing to change the names of the degrees, and then of course Old Main coming down.

“There were people in town who were trying to save the building. In fact they wanted to change the facade to make it look like it did when it was first built and then completely gut the inside and renovate it as we needed. But the cost to do so was just enormous. When the building was first built, the Panic of 1857 hits, so construction halts in 1858. All of that construction material sat out in the weather elements for almost two years. I think that it was a time bomb to begin with. When they built Old Main, all that was holding up that massive clock tower in that dome were two pieces of woods. It was never meant to stand.”

February 27, 1970: Will Robinson named head coach of men’s basketball team

Daniel Kelley ’70, former Alumni Association board member

Will Robinson

Will Robinson

“It was a historic time for Illinois State in that Athletic Director Milt Weisbecker, along with others in the administration, had decided to move ISU to Division I. Milt Weisbecker thought that basketball was the sport that could move the University to a higher level more quickly. He wanted to bring in a coach who could bring quality players, bring notoriety to the University, and had a track record of success.

“He also took a chance because he brought in a high school coach from Detroit by the name of Will Robinson, who became the first African-American Division I coach in the country. He brought attention; he also brought a lot of scrutiny to the University because of that decision.

“Will Robinson had been very successful in Detroit but he had been a high school coach. He had never coached a day of college basketball. As that decision was made, Will Robinson was also fortunate that Doug Collins was on campus. Milt Weisbecker, Will Robinson, and Doug Collins all coming together at a critical time in the University’s history put ISU on a path to success.

“Horton Field House in those early years was jam-packed with 7,000 enthusiastic fans. It was always loud and an exciting place to play. It was definitely a home advantage. That ties in well with the story of Will Robinson. Will was only here for five years, but had a lasting impact and served as the launching pad for Division I athletics at Illinois State.”

May 19, 1970: Students, construction workers face off over lowering of flag on Malcolm X’s birthday

John Freed, professor emeritus and author of Educating Illinois: Illinois State University, 1857–2007

“Clearly what you have is a buildup to this event. ‘69–70 is the most disruptive year in the history of ISU—period. On the one hand you have the mounting anti-war movement. You also have what you might call the radicalization of the civil rights movement. After all, ’68 had seen the murder of Martin Luther King. And then of course on December 4, 1969, the police raid on the Black Panthers and the killing of the two Black Panthers.

State troopers in front of campus flagpole

Illinois State Police guard the flagpole on Illinois State’s campus on May 19, 1970. The state police were ordered to the scene in response to a confrontation between students and construction workers over the former’s lowering of the flag in honor of Malcolm X. (Photo courtesy of the Dr. Jo Ann Rayfield Archives)

“Then the Black Student Association essentially makes all sorts of nonnegotiable demands. So you got the demand after December 4 to honor the black students. (Remember) this is a very small-town, conservative student body. And these African-American students are thrust into a totally overwhelmingly white institution in an extraordinarily conservative community. So you got these demands that play out for weeks and months about naming the Student Union after Malcom X, which never occurs.

“Then you got the May 4 killing at Kent State, and the demand that the flag (on Illinois State’s campus) be lowered. And the agreement that it be lowered for six days for students at Kent State, but also for the two Black Panthers who had been killed, and on May 19 again for the birthday of Malcolm X.

“The book describes these acts of increasing vandalism, smashing of windows, riots, the setting of a fire in a building (in the days preceding May 19). But I would emphasize this is a small minority of students. At the same time, the political leaders, the Republican establishment, are in a sense playing with fire. There is this business in McCormick Hall where they are rallying students in the name of patriotism against these upheavals.

“Then when you get to the 19th—the agreement to lower the flag—there is the confrontation between the construction workers and the students. SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and black students are lowering the flag. The construction workers insisted that it go up and threatened to come back to campus if it is lowered. (Normal) Mayor (Charles) Baugh refused to supply town police to defend the flagpole. (University President Samuel) Braden surrounded the flagpole with (university) vehicles, and essentially asks Gov. (Richard) Ogilvie to bring in the state troopers. The students have lowered the flag again, and it stays down because the construction workers don’t come back.”

June 23, 1988: Thomas Wallace (1988–1995) chosen as the University’s 14th president

Susan Blystone ’84, M.S. ’03, Illinois State editor-in-chief (Blystone covered Wallace’s tenure as the education reporter for The Pantagraph and wrote her master’s thesis about his presidency.)

President Emeritus Thomas Wallace (Photo courtesy of the Dr. Jo Ann Rayfield Archives at Illinois State University)

President Emeritus Thomas Wallace (Photo courtesy of the Dr. Jo Ann Rayfield Archives)

“Tom Wallace was pivotal in moving this institution forward. Most people would say that his methods were flawed, but I believe his intentions to improve the institution were pure. How he did it was highly controversial, very painful, and probably too much too fast. But I think time has shown he was brilliant, courageous, and had a significantly positive impact on the University.

“He came in when state funding was plummeting, yet he created a $1.5 million contingency fund, eliminated dry faculty promotions, and convinced the campus community to look beyond state dollars for support. He started the push for private funding, creating what is now University Advancement, and found creative ways to bring growth. We got the Student Health Center, two parking decks, the Center for the Performing Arts, and the Science Laboratory Building because he decided he wasn’t going to wait on the state. He just went out and found a way to use private funding.

“He challenged the whole state initiative that was forcing program cuts, saving the Agriculture Department. He went through the Board of Regents and the Illinois Board of Higher Education to negotiate a plan to significantly cut enrollment, knowing landlords in town would hate it but that it was necessary given the budget situation.

“He eliminated an entire college (College of Continuing Education). He eliminated all of the museums. In one fell swoop he cut 66 full-time AP/Civil Service jobs. He took away all of the tuition money for scholarships and budget for Athletics.

“He touched everything across campus, from improving technology with the elimination of party lines to starting the Katie School and an aquaculture program. He was just everywhere. Take the personality out of it, and look at the list. It’s mind-boggling, and yet he has been largely shunned on this campus.”

January 1, 1996: Board of Trustees officially replaces the Board of Regents

David Strand, university president emeritus (1995–1999)

“There were a number of factors that led up to the establishment of the separate governing boards for the public universities. For example, there was growing impatience about having to go through several layers of bureaucracy in order to be able to talk to anybody at the Illinois Board of Higher Education, in the General Assembly, or the governor’s office.

David Strand in front of the State Farm Hall of Business

President Emeritus David Strand in front of the State Farm Hall of Business

“Also there was more than $1.1 million in overhead costs associated with each coordinating/governing board. You multiply that by four, because there were four such units around the state, and you had several millions of dollars of annual expenses. The separate board effort was an attempt to reduce costs and streamline the communication process.

“This growing momentum led to the introduction of legislation to establish separate governing boards. The bill was signed in 1995, and the boards were established January 1, 1996.

“There were positive outcomes from this legislation. It gave us the opportunity to interact directly with the Illinois Board of Higher Education, contact members of the General Assembly, and even work with the governor’s office on special initiatives. Also, the bill afforded us the opportunity to be more entrepreneurial because we had more independence. If we had not had that level of independence, our first major fundraising campaign would not have been so successful. We would not have been able to go to State Farm and acquire that $9.5 million gift, which became the linchpin in order to get funding from the General Assembly for the College of Business building. Additionally, the acquisition of the Mennonite College of Nursing was facilitated by our independence on which we were able to capitalize.”

February 16, 2001: Board of Trustees endorses first Educating Illinois strategic plan

Jay Groves ’80, M.S. ’83, chief of staff

Educating Illinois is a document that is authored by the entire university community and even some members of the outside community. It really showed shared governance in action.

educating illinois“A lot of strategic plans get done and then put in a drawer. But that was exactly the opposite for Educating Illinois. It not only became a blueprint for Illinois State’s future success; it also became a marketing plan and a rallying cry for Illinois State University. And it was our signal to not only the internal community but the external community that Illinois State University had decided on its niche—it being the premier undergraduate institution with selected areas of graduate studies and research and scholarly activities. We have a long tradition of our faculty and staff members being very attentive to students but that was articulated very well in Educating Illinois. And Educating Illinois was a set of mission, vision, and values, and actions to back those up.

“All of our plans are grounded in Educating Illinois. And it’s what really helped separate us from some of the directional universities. I don’t think anybody would argue that in terms of undergraduate universities that focus on individualized attention, and that close faculty-to-student interaction, smaller class sizes, smaller faculty-to-student ratio that Illinois State is certainly the best in Illinois and among the best in the region.”

February 17, 2005: First major fundraising campaign raises $96 million

Al Bowman, university president emeritus (2004–2013)

“A lot of naysayers said that that we would never reach the $88 million goal, but we not only reached it but went beyond it. I think what reaching that goal reflected was a change in perception of Illinois State’s stature. People aren’t willing to invest millions of dollars unless an organization is held in high regard.

People standing in a line

President Emeritus Al Bowman (fourth from left) said the University’s first major fundraising campaign beat expectations.

“As I look back on the time I’ve been at Illinois State, from 1978, I saw a real change in the perception of this institution, beginning largely in the mid- to late-1990s. And the conclusion of this campaign brought those changes and perception full circle. And what really happened during that period, the overall national profile of Illinois State took a major step forward, and that progress has continued through this day.

“In many ways this institution had a prolonged adolescence. And it really didn’t begin to come out of it until the 1990s. There had been this constant tension across campus in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s about what kind of institution this place should be. Should it hold onto its teacher education roots and sort of make that the focus of the institution? Or should it turn its sights on more of a national profile with more national programs, with a stronger student profile, with more highly ranked academic programs? And in the end it was that more visionary view that won out.

“The timing (of the campaign) was critical because in many ways we sort of righted the ship and started heading in a positive direction at the right time. When you look at our continued progress during that campaign, for the most part we were raising $6–$8 million a year. Now for the fiscal year that ended June 30 of this past June, we raised a record $19 million.”

Kevin Bersett can be reached at


A good exercise! It would be good to do it prior to each Founder's Day. Thanks for the opportunity to comment. I'll do a little more reflecting before I respond fully, but off the top it appears that the seven prominent contributors are a bit short-sighted in their retrospection. (e.g. how about the day that the school charter was wrestled away from Peoria. Had to be a huge "cork-popper" for Bloomington; and the final completion of Old Main...what a great struggle; or the mustering of the Teachers' Unit during the Civil War; then there is the naming of the town after the college)

Maybe the time periods need to be split out by centuries or 50 year periods.

What about the expansion that President Al Bowman implemented?

I played for Coach Robinson, and played with Doug Collins. I dedicate 6 chapters in my book Swagger The Life and Times of Rick Whitlow to those years I spent with both men. It is written from an insiders perspective. I hope ISU will recognize my work because it is unlike anything else written about those historical years. Outskirtspress/

My website is actually Sluggish fingers at that time of day sometimes happens. Sorry.

Very surprised that there is no reference to dates of establishment that was clearly historic involving key figures in national and Illinois history -- (Wikipedia) ISU was founded as a training school for teachers in 1857, the same year Illinois' first Board of Education was convened and two years after the Free School Act was passed by the State Legislature. Among its supporters were judge and future Supreme Court Justice, David Davis and local businessman and land holder Jesse W. Fell whose friend, Abraham Lincoln, was the attorney hired by the Board of Education to draw up legal documents to secure the school's funding.[8][9] Founded as Illinois State Normal University, its name was reflective of its primary mission as a normal school. Classes were initially held in downtown Bloomington, occupying space in Major's Hall, which was previously the site of Lincoln's "Lost Speech". With the completion of Old Main in 1860, the school moved to its current campus in what was then the village of North Bloomington, which was chartered as "Normal" in 1865. The new town had named itself after the university. It would give priority to the establishment of Old Main, rather than its demolition.

I am also surprised that the turning point when ISU transitioned from its smaller teacher's college character to a more comprehensive university is not given a priority: In 1965 as the institution expanded and moved toward a full liberal arts curriculum, its name was changed to Illinois State University at Normal, and in 1968, to Illinois State University. I would certainly give it more prominence than naming a new basketball coach and the announcement of the first major fundraising compaign.

I like your choice of ISU going to D1. I started ISU in the fall of 1970, and going to basketball games was an event. I lived in Walker Hall, and we would get a block of 40 tickets for all the guys in 4North Walker so we could sit together. I remember standing in line all night for tickets to an ISU vs. Northern Illinois game. I wouldn't trade those fun times for anything! We went to Dayton during Doug Collins' senior year. What a memorable trip! Even though they lost to the Flyers, we had a great time. Watching Doug was always a treat! Nobody played harder than he did.