The History of Missouri Valley College

Located in America’s heartland, Missouri Valley College today is a vibrant center of higher learning with growing national and global outreach, a destination for students from all fifty states and some forty foreign countries. Its beginnings can be traced to 1726, when the Reverend William Tennant opened the Log College in Pennsylvania with plans to found dozens of other Presbyterian colleges along the way as pioneers settled the continent. Among them now are Princeton, Davidson, Westminster, and Missouri Valley College.

The core idea of basing a college on spiritual values, intellectual inquiry, family love, and service for people with special needs took root in western Missouri in 1840 when Archibald W. Ridings organized a college on his own farm so that his wife’s young brother, handicapped in a hunting accident, could nevertheless receive a thorough education in the liberal arts. He named it after his hometown in North Carolina, seat of the nation’s first state university. Forced to close by financial reverses, Chapel Hill College was succeeded in 1852 by McGee College, which flourished for a time, by 1870 even surpassing the fledgling University of Missouri in numbers of students and faculty. Yet, without an endowment, dependent on tuition, it foundered in the recession of 1873. Presbyterian synods in the area resolved, this time, to raise a permanent endowment for a worthy successor, and thus Missouri Valley College was established in 1889 in Marshall, Missouri. The city’s winning bid offered funds for the endowment, land for a campus, “fish, game, cheap fuel, good soil, two railroads, no debt . . . and no saloons.”

On a foundation of solid rock arose Old Main, a sprawling three-storey brick building with towers, turrets, gables, and Gothic adornments in the Victorian style of the era. It housed all functions of the College: classrooms, offices, gymnasiums for men and women, a chapel, dining hall, library, museum, dorms, and laboratories. Still presiding over the campus today, it was put onto the National Register of Historic Places in 1948 and renamed to honor the Rev. Dr. George P. Baity, an early graduate and president of the Board of Trustees from 1918 to 1945.

The history of the College is told by the large room on the south wing’s third floor. Cruciform in shape, with its original stained glass windows and vaulted wooden ceilings, it has served as a chapel, a gymnasium, and, now, a high-tech Learning Center. One of the most beautiful rooms in Missouri, it provides a peaceful setting where students do research and receive individual tutoring in a variety of subjects.

In 1890 students planted 1,200 evergreen and deciduous trees on the campus. The arboretum boasts magnificent specimens of many species, including ginkgo biloba trees, American chestnuts, a sycamore, and the state’s largest catalpa tree, which stands 89 feet high and 215 inches around with a crown spread of 65 feet. Bees were kept to facilitate the fertilization of plants and trees that make this campus the garden spot it is today.

Among the first students to be enrolled was William Ira Ferguson, whose indomitable spirit, immense erudition, and selfless service have not only symbolized but actually forged the character of Missouri Valley College. Graduated in 1897, he filled several pulpits in churches nearby, returning to teach astronomy, math, and foreign languages. An avid sports fan, he formed the first football club on campus, dubbed the sports teams “Vikings,” and coined the College’s motto, “Valley Will Roll!” He wrote welcome letters to incoming students as well as their parents and offered many other kinds of personal encouragement, typified by his signature thumbs-up gesture. Called by his fond nickname, “Pop” Ferguson remained a teacher, confidant, and tutor until the age of 95 years. Memorabilia of this legendary Viking are now proudly displayed in the Ferguson Center, named in his honor.

Another indispensible figure in the formation of Missouri Valley College was the Rev. Dr. William H. Black, who served as its first president from 1890 through 1926. A forceful speaker and personable leader respected in both regional and national educational and ecclesiastical circles, he brought the College to international prominence. His insistence on intellectual integrity and high academic standards enabled Missouri Valley College to join Harvard, Radcliffe, and Cornell in a select group of colleges whose graduates were automatically admitted to the University of Leipzig in Germany without further examination.

Able to secure funding from various sources, President Black built seven buildings on campus. The most notable of them, Stewart Chapel, was erected with a generous gift from A. C. Stewart to commemorate his father, a famous Confederate general. Its dedication in 1906 was attended by an overflow crowd of more than ten thousand people, including the governor of Missouri, the chancellor of Washington University, the presidents of the University of Missouri and the State Normal School at Warrensburg, and other luminaries.

In 1892 Missouri Valley College became officially affiliated with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, which had been instrumental in its founding, and which, under President Black’s leadership, was united with the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1905. Disputes arose over control of church assets. The Cumberland group claimed ownership of Missouri Valley College and appointed a rival board of trustees. Finally, on May 6, 1918, President Black was vindicated by a decision of the Supreme Court of the United States ruling the union legal and awarding assets to the united church.

The 1920s were good for the College. Morrison Gymnasium, Gregg-Mitchell Field, Murrell Memorial Library, and Young Hall were built with generous gifts from all the College’s constituencies. Then, in the year after President Black retired, Volney Ashford joined the team. A new era was born. Enrolled in 1927, as a freshman he led the football team to an undefeated season during which the Vikings were not scored upon, nor did any opponent manage to make more than two consecutive first downs.

A football genius if ever there was one, Ashford returned to coach football (and eight other sports) at Missouri Valley College from 1937 to 1971. His overall record of 197-55-12 ranks him among the top ten college football coaches of all time. His teams put together the longest winning streak in the history of football. They won forty-one consecutive games, going undefeated and untied. That record stood for decades, even at the professional level, and still stands among small colleges. The only man ever in history to take varsity teams to national collegiate competition in five different sports, Ashford was inducted posthumously into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2009. The stadium on this campus is named in his honor.

Ashford took several football teams to national bowl games. The Torch Run, a longstanding tradition, was born at the Tangerine Bowl in 1958. It was organized by current faculty member Ed Leslie, a favorite student of “Pop” Ferguson and a player coached by Volney Ashford. Students showed the world what Viking spirit is made of by relaying a burning torch from Marshall to Orlando, Florida, a distance of 1,285 miles. This tradition continues to the present day at the annual Homecoming celebration, when the torch is run on foot from the home of the opposing team to our campus, where it lights a bonfire.

During the Second World War, Missouri Valley College served the nation as a place to train military officers. From March 1942 through October 1945, United States Navy Units V-5 and V-12 were stationed on campus in temporary buildings built by the Navy. After the war seven of these were converted to apartments for married students. Called Valley Forge, the community housed many servicemen and their wives, who returned to continue their studies and to become lifelong friends of the College.

In 1948 the American Humanics program was inaugurated on the Missouri Valley College campus, the vision of H. Roe Bartle, founder of the American Humanics Foundation, President of Missouri College, and later Mayor of Kansas City. Now at seventy-five colleges and universities nationwide, the program prepares students for leadership in nonprofit public service organizations such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. The national philanthropic foundation has been renamed the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance; now known as Nonprofit Agency Management, the College’s program remains the flagship of the national organization.

The 1950s and 1960s saw continued expansion. MacDonald Hall, a dormitory for women, was dedicated in 1951. Later a large additional wing was completed in 1967. Moreland Hall, a dormitory for men, was opened in 1963. In 1966 the Collins Science Center, named for former President Earle Collins, was built with a gift of $400,000 from Grover M. Hermann of the Martin Marietta Corporation. The new Ferguson Center was completed during the 1969-1970 school year.

But hard times came to the College in the 1970s. Stewart Chapel was destroyed by fire in 1973. Friends of the College rallied to recoup the loss. An enduring, significant relationship was formed with the J. E. and L. E. Mabee Foundation, Inc., of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Based on an oil fortune, it was established in 1948 to assist religious, charitable, and educational institutions. Its challenge grant drew funds for a new chapel and theatre begun in 1977 and finished the following year. Yet enrollments declined. At one point, football players recruited by Coach Ken Gibler constituted one fourth of the student body. Debts mounted until a reversal of fortune was accomplished by President Earl Reeves and his consultant, alumnus Dennis Spellman. With the help of the Mabee Foundation and many others, a debt of $5,000,000 was retired and the groundwork laid for financial recovery. From a generous alumna, Georgia Robertson Burns, came the largest ever gift to the College, more than $2,500,000 to build the multimillion-dollar sports complex named in her honor.

Reeves happened to know Helen Walton, so he approached her wealthy family in search of funding for the College. In the fateful year of 1927 the Walton family was living in Marshall. Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, was then a young boy who slid under the fence to see football games at the College for free. (Volney Ashford wisely instructed the maintenance crew never to fix that fence, which he considered a good recruiting tool.) On a visit to Thomas Walton, Sam’s father, Reeves was delighted to find that, almost sixty years later, the old man could still recall the names of every player on the football squad that year. He made a donation of $300 from his own pocket and encouraged the College to apply for a grant from the family’s foundation. Sure enough, a gift of $250,000 soon followed. The first grant ever made by the Walton Family Foundation went to Missouri Valley College.

Enrollments steadily rose, and by 1994 the endowment had topped $1,000,000. A $400,000 grant from the Mabee Foundation enabled a significant addition to the chapel and auditorium to be completed in 2002. Some 18,000 square feet of instructional space were added to create a Murrell Library Commons with high-tech classrooms. Alumnus and Trustee Al Eckilson donated funds to renovate the theatre and equip it with state-of-the-art systems for light and sound, the same as those used by the Royal Opera in London. The Eckilson-Mabee Theatre is now the most technologically advanced theatrical venue in the Midwest.

A major milestone was marked in 2011 when, for the first time in its history, Missouri Valley College was authorized to grant degrees on the graduate level. A Master of Arts in Community Counseling was formally approved by The Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

Since 2005, President Bonnie L. Humphrey has reinvigorated the entire enterprise. Under her leadership operating revenues have increased 43 percent, investments have grown 18 percent, and the College’s cash and cash equivalents have increased 362 percent. Enrollments reached a record of 1,476 in 2010; in addition to the graduate program in psychology, new undergraduate programs have been added in anthropology, public relations, hospitality and tourism, nursing, music, and dance; five new residence halls have been built; and every major building on campus has been refurbished, as have outdoor facilities for football, soccer, and track. Missouri Valley College has extended its international outreach, annually hosting the Maastricht Institute of Entrepreneurship, which brings successful business leaders from around the world to the campus for several days of conferences on business, finance, politics, and more. The Institute was founded by European hotel magnate Dr. Benoit Wesly, Chairman of the Xelat Group in The Netherlands, an Honorary Consul of Israel, and a Trustee of Missouri Valley College.

From its inception Missouri Valley College has been a beacon of enlightenment in and for the region. It was one of the first coeducational colleges west of the Mississippi River. Innovative in its educational policies and methods, it embraces affirmative action and nondiscrimination with regard to race, religion, national origin, or gender. Throughout its history it has championed Judeo-Christian values of compassion, civility, tolerance, and respect for all. Part of a nationwide network of Presbyterian colleges, it was founded for the specific purpose of educating the laity, not just the clergy, and it has always been fiercely nonsectarian, admitting students from a wide array of faiths as well as those with no religious preference. Students come here from all corners of the globe to learn the secrets of success. Missouri Valley College now faces the future with confidence, a leader in service to the region, the nation, and the world.