Campus Life

From Humble Beginnings: Celebrating Utah State University's 125th Birthday

On July 2, 1862, just one day after our nation suffered the combined losses and casualties of 36,058 men in the Seven Days Battle during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln quietly signed a piece of legislation that would forever change the way Americans thought about education. The Morrill Land-Grant Act called for socio-economic equality in higher education. Through the sale and use of federal lands, institutions of higher education that were affordable and had a solid base in applicable practicum were established, President Lincoln enabled a wounded nation to heal herself through hard work and education.


Just 25 years after the Morrill Act set the stage for land-grant institutions to be established throughout the nation, the Utah Agriculture College was founded and designated to reside in Logan. In the past 125 years, a lot has changed for the school with its plowed fields that overlooked Cache Valley. Along with name changes and expanded facilities, that small school’s reach is now state wide, with one comprehensive regional college (USU Eastern campuses in Price and Blanding), three regional campuses (Brigham City, Tooele, Uintah Basin) and 34 Extension offices — including the USU Botanical Center and Swaner Preserve and EcoCenter.


Founded by the Utah Territorial Assembly on March 8, 1888, the Utah Agriculture College opened its educational doors Sept. 2, 1890. At its humble beginnings in the south wing of Old Main, Utah’s land-grant college included 139 students and nine faculty members.


Here’s a social and educational look at the school’s earliest days.


*There was a Preparatory Department to equip students for the rigors of college courses

*The minimum age requirement for Preparatory work was 13; 15 for college credit

*There were five major courses of college instruction offered, including Agriculture, Domestic Arts, Mechanic Arts, Civil Engineering and Business

*On admission, there was a $5 entrance fee; tuition was free

*There were mandatory non-sectarian weekly chapel exercises

*Also mandatory was military drill for men and women — women could opt for elocution and physical culture

*The first Thanksgiving Day football game inaugurated between the University of Utah and the college took place in 1894 and the Aggies won 12 to 0

*Twelve students formed the first graduating class in 1894


Today, in 2013, the university will again celebrate its Founders Day March 8. As part of the celebration, USU’s University Libraries assembled an exhibit that showcases prominent but, perhaps, not well known students through the decades.


Ten students, representing decades from the 1890s to the 1990s, are highlighted. Extensive narratives on each student are included in the exhibit at the Merrill-Cazier Library’s atrium. Highlighted below are snapshots of the students and their accomplishments.


The 1890s — Thomas Hyrum Humphreys. Born in 1874, Humphreys received his early schooling in the pioneer Bear Lake settlement of Paris, Idaho. He entered the Preparatory Department at the Utah Agricultural College in 1892 and graduated with a degree in civil engineering in 1897. He characterized his college career as consisting “chiefly of hard work.” He earned a degree in 1897 and the hard work paid off. He began his career with the newly created U.S. Reclamation Service in 1903, advancing quickly through the ranks, being appointed project engineer on the Klamath and Orland projects, two of the Reclamation Service’s earliest water development projects. He returned to Cache Valley for several decades, but returned to federal service as director of the Public Works Reserve in 1944 before retiring to Logan.


1911 — Luther M. Winsor. As a graduate in 1911, Winsor became the first from the institution to earn a degree in irrigation engineering, a field that would subsequently come to distinguish the university. Immediately after graduation he was given a horse and sent to the Uintah Basin to advise Ashley Valley farmers. The appointment gave Winsor bragging rights as one of the first county Extension agents in the Western states. In 1939, the federal government selected Winsor as the first technician to advise Iran on irrigation principles. The early contacts made by Winsor paid off following the Second World War, when the university provided agricultural expertise to the government of Iran for nearly three decades.


The 1920s — Mignon Barker Richmond. As the first Black woman to graduate from a Utah college, Richmond holds obvious distinction, but she left the school to pursue a professional career and extensive civic and religious accomplishments. She received a degree in textiles and clothing in 1921 and immediately began teaching her craft at the University of Utah. She also began a life-long association with the Young Women’s Christian Association. After the Second World War she returned to full-time work while maintaining community and civic involvements — she served as vice president and later president of the Salt Lake Chapter of the NAACP. She accepted membership on the boards of the Utah Community Service Council and on the Women’s Legislative Council, where she was instrumental in formulating anti-poverty legislation.


1931 — Edward P. Cliff was among the first forestry students to graduate from the recently renamed Utah State Agricultural College. He began his career with the U.S. Forest Service on the Wenatchee Reserve in Washington and remained in the Pacific Northwest until 1944 when he accepted an assignment to the Intermountain Region and then as Regional Forester for the entire Rocky Mountain Region. Beginning in 1950 he served as assistant chief for the U.S. Forest Service until he was appointed chief in 1962. He retired from the Forest Service in 1974.


The 1940s — L. Tom Perry began his college life in 1940 but, like many of his generation, he did not graduate until almost ten years later. Service to church and the country delayed graduation for many. When he enrolled in 1940 the enrollment at USAC stood at a near record level. When he returned in 1947, he became a part of a different kind of student body. Older and focused on completing their education, many of those returning GIs were married and some had young families. Hundreds of veterans enrolled at the college under the GI Bill, swelling enrollment to a new record of nearly 4,500 in 1948. Perry graduated with a degree in finance in 1948 and went on to distinguish himself in the field of business for more than 20 years. He also remained devoted to his faith where, in 1974, he received his church’s highest calling to serve as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, the spiritual and governing body of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


1958 — L. Jay Sylvester was a member of the second senior class to graduate from Utah State University — Utah Gov. George Dewey Clyde signed the official document effecting the name change from USAC to USU on Founders Day, March 8, 1957. Sylvester proudly donned the blue and white as a member of the freshman football squad in 1955, but it was in track and field where he emerged a star. In a 1957 spring meet he set new Skyline Conference records in both the shot put and the discus throw. He went on to be awarded All-American honors for both shot put and discus in 1958 and 1959, but his record-setting did not end with his college career. He set his first world record in 1961, something he would repeat three times during his career. In 1964 he won selection to the Tokyo Olympic Games. He regained the world record in 1968 and competed for the U.S. Olympic team in Mexico City and again at Munich in 1972, where, at the age of 35, he won the silver medal.


The 1960s — W. Brent Robinson was inspired after a high school class discussion about Sputnik to become an engineer. Once enrolled at USU, the Franklin, Idaho, student found a second passion — economics, and he pursued a double major in engineering and economics. His USU training prepared him to successfully complete an MBA at Harvard and enter the world of business where he soon began work in the banking industry. With a move back west to Boise, Idaho, he went to work for a bank that was eventually sold. The new owners appointed him president. At that time he was the youngest bank president in the United States. Through his career he has held executive positions at several retail banking institutions in the United States and Canada and has overseen the sale and mergers of more than 20 banks.


The 1970s — Mary Cleave became an adopted Utahan and stalwart Aggie when the Great Neck, New York native moved to Logan via Colorado to pursue graduate studies in the early 1970s. Her relocation was indicative of the changing demographic at USU during the 1970s, where more than 30 percent of the student body came from states other than Utah — or from other countries — giving campus a decidedly cosmopolitan flair. Cleave graduated with a master’s degree in microbial ecology in 1975 and, following commencement, applied to become an astronaut with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. That first application was turned down, but NASA encouraged her to pursue a doctorate, which she completed in 1980. She then reapplied and was accepted to the astronaut program. After her successful training, she served as part of the ground crew for five shuttle flights, and in November 1985 she boarded the shuttle Atlantis for her first orbit of the Earth. Included in her personal effects was a USU banner. She completed a second flight aboard Atlantis in 1989. She retired from NASA in 2007.


1982 — Norah Abdullah Al-Faiz is part of a long history of international students who have studied at Utah State University and continued on to distinguished careers. The first international students registered for classes at Utah State in 1916. As the institution initiated agricultural assistance programs with other countries following World War II, the international student population increased dramatically. While their numbers have periodically expanded or contracted, USU’s international student community has remained a vibrant part of the campus for nearly 100 years. Mrs. Al-Faiz was born in the coastal city of Shaqra in Yemen and graduated from King Saud University in Saudi Arabia. She traveled to the United States to study at USU where she earned a master’s degree in instructional technology. She began a career as a public school teacher after she returned to Saudi Arabia, where she ascended to head principal in the girls’ section at Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal’s Kingdom Schools. In 1993 she was appointed director general of the women’s branch at the Institute of Public Administration. In 2009, Mrs. Al-Faiz became deputy minister for Women’s Education; the highest position ever obtained by a Saudi woman. She was named by “Time Magazine” as one of the 100 most influential people in the world and has received the Distinguished Arab Women Award in Education from the Arab Women Foundation. During commencement 2012, USU awarded Mrs. Al-Faiz an Honorary Doctorate in Education for her “service as a powerful role model to women aspiring to careers in education …”


1990 — Russell Case. The arts have a tradition at USU that dates back to the institution’s founding. Artistic creations often resulted from practical training in carpentry and cabinet-making. Likewise, students enrolled in mechanical drawing courses were encouraged to explore their creativity. USU formed its first official Art Department when it hired Calvin Fletcher in 1907. He would guide the department for the next 40 years, and establish an artistic foundation that has prevailed to the present day. Case enrolled at USU in the late 1980s. With encouragement from his father, artist Gary Case, Russell explored his surroundings through the medium of watercolors. At USU, he expanded his proficiency with watercolors to oils. Pursuing a career as an art professor was Case’s original goal, but after studying with veteran faculty members Harrison Groutage and Gaell Lindstron, Case made the decision following his graduation in 1990 to pursue painting full time. It was a propitious decision and his landscapes quickly attracted public attention. His work has been featured in galleries from Jackson Hole, Wyo., to Santa Fe, N.M., where his paintings command considerable attention. He has won a number of prestigious awards and his work is presently represented nationally at the Prix de West in Oklahoma City, Okla.; Western Visions Shows in Jackson Hole, Wyo.; Coors Western Art Exhibition in Denver, Colo.; and Maynard Dixon Country in Mt. Carmel, Calif.


Happy Birthday Utah State University, and congratulation to all the students, across the decades, who have passed through your doors.


(With thanks to USU’s University Libraries and the USU Greats for the background information and research used in this summary.)


**Watch Utah State University Archivist Robert “Bob” Parson’s talk “A Few Things I’ve learned while Working in the Archives,” the 2013 Spring Friends of Merrill-Cazier Library Lecture.

illustration for USU's 125th birthday

1921 graduate Mignon Barker Richmond and coeds in interpretive movement

(detail from a larger work) Mignon Barker Richmond (second from left) joined coeds at UAC in an interesting outdoor performance. In 1921 she became the first Black woman to graduate from a Utah college. (Photo: USU Special Collections and Archives)

Track coach Ralph Maughan and athlete L. Jay Sylvester

USU alum, world champion and Olympic athlete L. Jay Sylvester with his coach and mentor Ralph Maughan. (Photo: USU Special Collections and Archives)


During USU's 2012 commencement, Norah Abdullah Al-Faiz received an Honorary Doctorate for her "service as a powerful role model to women aspiring to careers in education." (Photo: USU Public Relations and Marketing)


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