A College Commences


January 19, 1992|By CARLETON JONES

In the Sun Magazine's Back Tracks column of Jan. 19,Western Maryland College was incorrectly labeled a stateschool. It is private.

* The Sun regrets the error.

On a September day in 1867 a "commencement" exercise was held high on a Western Maryland hill. The event marked the birth of a new Methodist college, created by some idealistic locals who speedily put together a few cash loans, donations and land transfers. The land included eight acres of one of Carroll County's tallest hills, just west of Westminster.

As it opened, Western Maryland College became the first coed institution of higher learning south of the Mason-Dixon Line. It was created a good nine years ahead of Johns Hopkins University.


An imposingly rustic, five-story building with cupola and crocketed eaves -- typical of mid-Victorian workaday institutions -- was soon finished and for years housed the entire school. The first class to graduate -- three women and four men -- received their diplomas in 1871.

Today, an old caboose of the Western Maryland Railroad -- a line founded the same year as the liberal-arts college -- is a visual highlight of the school's Bair Stadium. The railroad relic is as good a symbol as any of the college's foundation, says President Robert H. Chambers.

He sees the 125th anniversary this year as a low-key affair. "We are downplaying things somewhat," he says, and "we don't plan a single major event. But we want people to realize that the college has been here a long time."

WMC's first six presidents were Methodist ministers and its first full century was under religious auspices, but the college is no longer affiliated with a church, Chambers notes. "Yet," he adds, "people still think of us as a religious institution; we are a state institution. Our name also implies we are in Western Maryland but we're in central Maryland."

The 125th anniversary will mark the first full year of what President Chambers calls the new "walking campus." Construction of a garden plaza opposite WMC's $6.2 million Hoover Library building eliminated a central college drive that provided parking for visitors and brought the auto age right into architectural conflict with the dorm and study areas.

Chambers says students and visitors who want to get a quick review of college history need only look in the library. Virginia muralist Ellen Elmes, a 1969 graduate of the college, has created panoramic mural of WMC history for the library lobby -- from the days of the "Old Main" building, constructed in the 1860s and razed in 1959, up to the opening last year of the magnificent, domed library.

It memorializes hundreds of WMC happenings in pictorial vignettes, including the "parlor nights" of the Victorian age, when once a week chaperoned men and women could mingle, and the "daisy chain" of the early 1900s, when men and women would march in graduations weighted down with a huge chain of flowers. There are also portraits of Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Elvis and every single WMC president, from a rather dour-faced J. T. Ward to a usually smiling Chambers.

The hundreds of figures in the mural include the college's first foreign student: petite, pretty Misao Tsune Herati of Japan, whose moving commencement address related that days "on the hill" would be "a green spot in her memory forever." Today, WMC houses about 1,300 students from 20 foreign countries and 30 states.

In a central spot on the new college plaza, the cornerstones of the original college buildings have been enshrined. On top of the structure is the "Old Main" college bell that rang for classes long ago.

Editor's note: This is Carleton Jones' last Back Tracks column. He is leaving The Sun after 23 years. All of us here wish him well.

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