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Hail to MacMurray: A Fond Farewell

June 18, 2022
Annie Merner Chapel

In Praise of MacMurray

One hundred seventy-four years. That's a long time. MacMurray College was around much longer than Oldsmobile, Pan Am, Lehman Brothers, Polaroid ...or the Illinois Central railroad. More than twice as long as the Soviet Union existed. Or, for that matter, much longer than Acme Steel, the company that James E. MacMurray founded in Chicago.

One hundred seventy-four years. A good long, successful run. Thousands of students and hundreds of faculty and staff walked this beautiful campus. Young women and men learned about literature and chemistry and music and history in these buildings and in some that no longer stand. They made friends and discovered community in these residence halls, and on these athletic fields.

The school was founded right up the street in 1846. Peter Akers was a celebrated Methodist preacher and intellectual of note. Peter Cartwright, an acquaintance and political rival of Lincoln's, was a righteous, vigorous man of the cloth. A friend who knew both men said that Cartwright was the greater organizer, Akers the greater preacher. Cartwright was a man of affairs, Akers a man of books. Cartwright had superior force, Akers, superior dignity. They complemented each other well. There were others who pushed for the creation of a school for women, none more forcefully than Rev. James H. Dickens, a member of the Illinois Conference.

The principal founders had a vision, somewhat quaint by today's standards but ambitious for the time. A vision of young women—educated, refined, and fit to take their place in the world. Ready to become proper wives and mothers. Ready to become fine new teachers. Over the ensuing decades, obviously, this vision broadened and deepened.

Illinois Conference Female Academy, the first of our school's six names, was very small and only taught primary, elementary, and secondary level students. Although the first collegiate courses were added in the 1850s, it was another half-century before the full accredited four-year collegiate program was in place.

A college is built on the shoulders of many people—dedicated and caring instructors, coaches and advisers and strong and able administrators, staff, trustees, and friends. They all deserve to be remembered. But three individuals—Joseph R. Harker, Clarence P. McClelland, and James E. MacMurray—stand out in the early development of this institution.

The first is the English-born Harker, who had to quit his formal education at the age of ten to help support his family by working in the dangerous coal mines around Durham. The Harkers came to America in the early 1870s and settled in Du Quoin, in southern Illinois. As young Harker worked in the mines there, he also reignited his passion for learning through self-study. He received a temporary teaching certificate, left the mines for good, and by the 1880s Harker was in Jacksonville as head of the preparatory school for Illinois College. There he resumed his formal studies and earned his degrees.

Harker became president here, across town, in 1893. He was a strong administrator, a fine recruiter, a creative fundraiser and a visionary. More than any other person, he transformed this institution from a preparatory school into a college. The historian of MacMurray College wrote that Harker combined "the conflicting philosophies of the self-made, self-reliant man and the instrument of God, a combination of Poor Richard and the religious mystic." By the time Harker retired in 1925, after 32 years as president, Illinois Woman's College, as it was now named, was a healthy institution, meeting the needs and expectations of the young women of the time.

The second individual is Clarence P. McClelland, the kindly "Dr. Mac," a New Yorker who had worked for an insurance company before entering the ministry, and then assumed the presidency of a seminary for young women in New York State. He served at the helm of our institution for 27 years, from 1925 to 1952. He was a wise, progressive leader, who oversaw a growth in enrollment and in the school's financial and physical resources. These were the glory years of the women's college.

McClelland would have been unsuccessful, however, were it not for his partnership with the third individual, the Chicago businessman and industrialist, James E. MacMurray. His elder daughter Miriam had attended the college in the early 1900s. At President Harker's urging, MacMurray joined the Board of Trustees and quickly assumed its leadership.

During the McClelland years, aided in large measure by the philanthropy of MacMurray, and by his sage counsel, seven new buildings were constructed (including this one), the campus was beautified, the curriculum was expanded, the faculty was enlarged and its quality was greatly improved. As a result, the college’s reputation grew. Together McClelland and MacMurray strived to realize Dr. Mac's vision of creating "the greatest woman’s college west of the Alleghenies."

In 1930 Illinois Woman's College became MacMurray College for Women to honor its patron. Over his lifetime and through his estate, Mr. MacMurray gave what amounts to $80 million in today's money to the college, and thousands of students over the years have reaped the rewards of his generosity.

Yes, one hundred seventy-four years is a long time, and the college enjoyed great success and withstood much adversity. There were the fires in the 1870s that destroyed the first two incarnations of Main Hall, just yards from here. A spark from a photographer's flash started a fire in the old gymnasium in 1929 during a pageant that tragically took three lives. And there were always financial crises. The Great Depression was a particularly difficult time for the college. "When, oh when, will times be better," McClelland lamented.

But the college endured. The great 19th century lawyer and statesman, Daniel Webster, was representing his alma mater, Dartmouth College, in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, where he said: "It is a small college but there are those of us who love it." That also describes Mac, a small school with great character loved by all.

After World War II, "the times they were a changin'." Low birth rates during the Depression meant fewer entering college students. Coeducation expanded across the country at the expense of separate men's and women's colleges. MacMurray had to adapt in order to survive. Its answer, in the 50s, was the admission of men. The school newspaper heralded the news, "It's a Boy! Sally Mac Gets a Kid Brother." This change was warmly received by most although to this day some view the admission of men as a terrible mistake. Yet without men MacMurray would not have been able to continue for another 60 years.

One of my best friends, who graduated in the first class of men in 1961, often says that Mac changed the course of his life and pointed him in new and fulfilling directions. He met a MacMurray woman who became his wife. They were married for 59 years. Stories like this abound. One woman wrote about a lifelong friendship: "So we've known each other for 63 years. I always say the best thing about Mac is the friends that were found there…really good and true, and I thank you." There is a small card in a 1939 student scrapbook: "Welcome to MacMurray. This is your home now. Love it as we have loved it. Find here what you have come to find." Perfect.

MacMurray College reached its enrollment peak in the late 60s and early 70s, yet it could never overcome its financial issues. State support favored public institutions over private colleges. Two-year colleges emerged, as did online learning. Heightened competition for fewer students led many schools to subsidize tuition at unheard rates, that we could not afford to do. All of these trends contributed to Mac's challenges. And then there was the pandemic. And although there were many generous donors over the years, there was never another James E. MacMurray.

Throughout its history what MacMurray offered was quality, integrity and decency, outstanding teaching, a caring and supportive learning environment, a sound educational philosophy that worked as well in the 2lst century as it had in the 19th, and a common-sense curriculum that prepared women and men well for careers and for life. The MacMurray Plan, the core liberal arts curriculum established in the 60s, was nationally recognized for its innovation. It was supplemented by top-notch professional and career programs.

Ultimately, however, the college succumbed. We are not alone. Over 75 institutions—public and private—have been forced to close their doors in just the last six years.

This is a sad day, but the splendid legacy of MacMurray College lives on. For one thing, there's the MacMurray Foundation & Alumni Association committed to carrying on the college's birthright and heritage

But foremost are the life stories of the thousands of women and men this small college has touched—MacNation. And not just the students, but their children and grandchildren and the countless others who have benefited and who will continue to be guided by the values instilled here—Knowledge, Faith and Service, Wisdom, Duty and Reverence.

One hundred seventy-four years. A good long run. But, for now, goodbye, old friend...and thank you.

Allen W. Croessmann '68
June 18, 2020

MacMurray Alumni Foundation