With Illinois State’s Founding Celebration right around the corner, we spoke with University Archivist April Anderson-Zorn to learn more about how Illinois State’s founding traditions have changed over the past 165 years.

Founders Day hasn’t been celebrated every year since our founding

The Founding Celebration is now one of the signature events on campus, but that wasn’t always the case.

“We started in the early 1900s having Founders Day,” Anderson-Zorn said. “But we weren’t always good about celebrating it every year.”

The first Founders Day was held in 1909, with the tradition really getting underway in 1913 with events to honor the University’s first president, Charles Hovey. It was during this time that Hovey’s Civil War battle swords were donated to the University, which are currently on display in Milner Library as part of its Finding Hovey exhibit.

Founders Day ceremonies merged with graduation celebrations during the Great Depression and remained that way until after World War II. In the 1950s, Founders Day became its own separate event once again, featuring a luncheon and a selection of speeches from campus leadership. By the late 1960s, celebrating the event once again fell out of favor and was celebrated sporadically over the next three decades.

“It was presidential, it was financial, and it was student culture,” Anderson-Zorn said. “Students were more concerned about civil rights and social movements during that time.”

In 1994, a plan was put forward to start celebrating Founders Day every year. Today’s celebration is a direct result of that push from the campus community.

“There was a big focus on school pride that was starting to resurface,” Anderson-Zorn said. “And even though leadership recognized we weren’t being consistent with celebrating Founders Day, they wanted to make it consistent, both as a recruitment tool for new students and a celebration of school pride for current students and alumni.”

The bell in the middle of the Quad is not the original Old Main bell

April Anderson-Zorn in Milner Library
Illinois State University Archivist April Anderson-Zorn

It is popularly believed that the bell on the Quad that marks the spot where Old Main stood from 1860 until its demolition in 1959 was original to the building. Even though it hung in the building for the longest amount of time, it wasn’t the first.

“The very first bell lasted until about 1880,” Anderson-Zorn said. “And then it cracked. Something happened where the bell failed and it had to be replaced. It wasn’t really that old considering that the building was still so new.”

The second bell, which is on the Quad now, was hung in Old Main until the building was demolished in 1959. The bell was preserved and placed on the Quad, thanks in part to the efforts of then-president Dr. Robert Bone, who oversaw many construction projects during his time as president.

“Placing the bell on the Quad was a way to remember Old Main and to remember its importance to the history of ISU,” Anderson-Zorn said.

The current bell ringing tradition started in 2002

The current bell ringing tradition started in 2002 as a part of the efforts to further solidify Founders Day as an important campus tradition. Like today, people across campus who represented Illinois State at its best were nominated to ring the bell on the Quad.

The indoor bell ringing ceremony held today started after a 2007 snowstorm made the outdoor event impossible. By then, the event had become popular enough that the campus community wanted to try to make the event happen on what was the University’s 150th birthday.

“McLean County Historical Society had a steamboat bell that they let us borrow and we brought it inside to ring the bell, which is how the tradition we do now got started,” Anderson-Zorn said. “It’s February in the middle of the Midwest, so you’ll always be fighting the inclement weather thing.”

An indoor replica of the Old Main bell funded by Illinois State Professors Carson and Iris Varner and cast by Professor Randy Reid ’87, M.S. ’91, M.F.A. ’96 was added to the ceremony in 2010. It is the one that has been rung ever since. The bell on the Quad is still rung every year, weather permitting, but that event is open to anyone on campus to participate in.

Anderson-Zorn was nominated this year to ring the indoor bell, which will be her first time taking part in this tradition.

“I may have started a bit of a campaign,” Anderson-Zorn said.

She will be joining Illinois State President Dr. Terri Goss Kinzy as a first-timer.

“It is exciting to take part in this important campus tradition, especially in my first year as president,” said Kinzy. “The Founders Bell Ringing ceremony really helps me connect with Illinois State’s heritage. But it is more than just looking into the past. It is about celebrating our present accomplishments and honoring the people who make up this University community. It is also about looking ahead to our continued shared success.”

The History of ISU (In 2-ish minutes)