Roanoke College

A Brief History of the College


Roanoke College was founded in 1842 as the Virginia Institute, a preparatory school for boys near Mt. Tabor Church, about eight miles from Staunton, Virginia. The dreamchild of two Lutheran pastors, David F. Bittle and Christopher C. Baughman, the school attracted local boys to its classes to prepare them for Gettysburg College and, hopefully, its Seminary. In 1845, the state incorporated the school as the Virginia Collegiate Institute. Bittle left the school to return to full-time ministry in Maryland. Baughman, seeking a better location and a greater population from which to recruit students, moved the Institute to its permanent home in Salem, Virginia, in 1847. He served the school as principal until 1853, when the Virginia Legislature granted the Institute its collegiate charter under the name Roanoke College and David Bittle returned to accept the presidency.

David Bittle was a man of great vision who believed deeply in the value of education. Under his able and vigorous leadership, the College grew not only in physical size but also in enrollment and reputation. Roanoke was one of the few southern colleges to remain open during the Civil War. The College also saw the importance of maintaining alumni ties. An Alumni Association was begun in the early 1870s and held regional and on-campus reunions. The Roanoke Collegian, first published in 1875, was an outlet for literary expression, student activities and alumni news. At the time of Bittle's sudden death in 1876, the College could proudly boast 171 students, seven faculty, 13,000 books, and Bittle's pride and joy: 10,000 mineral specimens.

Roanoke College's second president, Thomas Dosh, arrived shortly after and was inaugurated at the College's June commencement. He intensified and enforced strict graduation requirements, but he returned to a professorship in the Theological Seminary within a year. He remained on the Board of Trustees of the College until his death in 1889.

Succeeding Dosh was alumnus Julius Dreher (Class of 1871), who continued the progressiveness of David Bittle by strengthening the College's financial base and further expanding student enrollment. At the age of 32, he not only was noted for being one of the youngest men to serve as a college president but also for emphasizing internationalization of the student body long before it came into vogue. From the 1870s through the 1890s, Dreher recruited heavily among the Choctaw in Oklahoma Territory. Many of these students returned to leadership roles in the Choctaw Nation. The first Mexican student came in 1876 and the first Japanese student in 1888. The first two Koreans ever to graduate from an American college or university received their degrees at Roanoke (Surh Kiu Beung in 1898 and Kimm Kiusic in 1903). Dreher served as president for 25 years until, at the age of 56, he married and began a second career as a U.S. consul in Tahiti, Jamaica, Canada and Panama.

President John Alfred Morehead (Class of 1889), a clergyman, strengthened the College's ties with the Lutheran Church, encouraged the church's contribution to the endowment and continued private fundraising efforts. The result was increased building activity in the teens that included Sections IV and the Commons, allowing more students to live and eat on campus, as well as a gymnasium-now basketball cheers could be added to those around the football field. Roselawn was built in place of the president's former home. Morehead increased the size of the faculty and the student body, which surpassed 200 for the first time. World War I called Morehead to Europe, where he first served as Chairman of the European Commission of the National Lutheran Council and then worked for wartime relief through the church. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace prize-all of which the College students could keep up with in the student newspaper, The Brackety-Ack, begun in 1915.

Near and dear to the hearts of 29 classes of alumni is Roanoke's fifth president, Charles J. Smith (Class of 1901), affectionately known as "Dr. Charlie." Under his leadership, the College enrollment grew from 200 to over 600 and the faculty increased from 16 to 44. Curriculum changes brought the B.S. degree, expanded course offerings, majors and more electives. Campus improvements included the construction of Alumni Gym, Lucas Hall chemistry building, an infirmary, faculty apartments, Smith Hall dormitory for the first women students, and the expansion of the physics building. But beyond its physical appearance, the campus took on a new look in other ways. With the improvement in public education, one of Smith's first decisions was to eliminate the preparatory school. He also encouraged women to enroll, and in 1930, women were admitted on a status equal to men. During the 1940s, they held down the fort during World War II. Women were here to stay, but football was not. One of Smith's most difficult-and controversial-decisions was the elimination of the football program for economic reasons. Upon his retirement in 1949 Smith was named the first-and only-Provost of the College.

When Dr. H. Sherman Oberly took the helm in 1949, he faced the challenge of declining enrollment following an initial postwar influx. Oberly met the crisis with a vigorous recruitment plan, an increase in admissions staff and a revitalization of alumni chapters. His approach succeeded and the College enrollment increased from 364 in 1951 to more than 800 in 1963. The College added Bartlett and Fox halls to accommodate the larger student body and purchased the Methodist Church buildings for a chapel, dormitory and office space. But the capstone to Oberly's presidency was the new library, opened in 1962 with its "Operation Bookswitch," whereby all 30,000 books were moved in two hours and 13 minutes. When Oberly retired in 1963, he initiated the College's largest fundraising campaign, "The Living Challenge," whose goal was to raise $2 million by 1967, Roanoke's 125th anniversary year.

President Perry Kendig supervised the biggest expansion in Roanoke's history. Participating in the college boom across the nation, Roanoke's enrollment jumped from 800 to 1,250; its faculty increased to 65; and its endowment climbed from $1.1 million to nearly $5 million. The building program was even more dramatic. Three dormitories (Crawford, Bowman and Marion), four fraternity houses, Antrim Chapel and the science complex were built under Kendig's leadership. Academically, the College introduced the 4:1:4 calendar, with its January interterm, and named its first Bittle Scholars. The College also changed socially, integrating smoothly in 1964 and phasing out dress codes, ratting, May Day, and Homecoming; students began to participate in College governance on committees and to attend faculty meetings. And, of course, in 1972 the Roanoke basketball team won the NCAA Division II championship.

Norman Fintel, president from 1975-1989, faced the obstacles of economic retrenchment and a potential decrease in student population head on. Admissions recruiters hit the road and the resource development staff undertook an aggressive fund-raising effort, particularly its decade-long "Sesquicentennial Campaign." Student numbers increased and the endowment climbed dramatically from $5 million to $25 million. The building of Bast Center to replace Alumni Gym, the purchase of Elizabeth Campus and the old Roanoke County Courthouse, the addition to Olin Hall, and the renovation of Sections, the Student Center, and the Library all enhanced the physical facility at Roanoke. The academic climate improved with a further revision of the calendar, the introduction of the honors program, and an increase in financial aid to attract more students. The campus grounds improved as well, as brick walkways replaced asphalt and new landscaping included flowers and shrubs. On the athletic scene, the 1978 lacrosse team won the NCAA Division II title, and the basketball team won the ODAC crown in each of the first seven years it was in the league.

In 1989, David Gring inherited a college on the brink of a Sesquicentennial celebration. The College's celebration included Founder's Day activities, fireworks, the publication of a new College history and the dedication of the newly renovated and expanded Fintel Library, named in honor of Norm and Jo Fintel. The conclusion of celebrations also marked the end of the 1992 campaign and the beginning of a new focus, the 2002 "The Difference" Campaign. This new direction included the addition of Belk Fitness Center, Colket Center, Sutton Commons, the renovation of the old Roanoke County Courthouse (Francis T. West Hall), and the announcement of several new professorships. The student body improved as average SAT scores of accepted applicants increased; minority population doubled from a decade earlier; and students now represented 38 states and 24 countries. Faculty holding terminal degrees increased from 84 percent to 95 percent, and the student/faculty ratio was 14:1. Continued emphasis on faculty-student interaction was evidenced in independent studies, internships and the creation of the Summer Scholar program. Endowment through the 2002 Campaign increased to $93.9 million, with alumni giving also increasing to 38 percent. U.S. News & World Report, which had previously ranked the College on its best Regional Colleges in the South list, moved it to the rankings of the Best National Liberal Arts Colleges. In 2004, the College was granted a Phi Beta Kappa charter. Gring retired the same year.

Dr. Sabine U. O'Hara served as the College's 10th president from 2004 to 2007. She came to Roanoke in its 49th year of a balanced operating budget and led a strategic planning process that resulted in Roanoke focusing more on integrative learning and strengthening students' first-year experiences. The College established an Undergraduate Research Assistant Program, completed fundraising initiatives and began construction on four new residence halls-the first on campus since 1968. Donald J. Kerr stadium, seating more than 1,000, was completed, as were renovations to Trout and Miller halls. The Goode-Pasfield Center for Learning & Teaching was established and the Joanne Leonhardt Cassullo Professorship in Art History was created. O'Hara also integrated her philosophy of sustainable economic development and global education. During her last Roanoke commencement in May 2007, the College's largest class of seniors-410- graduated.

Michael Creed Maxey was named president of Roanoke College in 2007. He previously served the College for 22 years in the capacities of director of planned giving, director of capital resources, vice president for resource development and admissions, and vice president for college relations and dean of admissions and financial aid. Maxey outlined a goal to increase retention rate and strengthen a quality curriculum in creative and experiential ways; he also announced the creation of several new professorships in science, history, religion and music. In 2009, the College instituted a new Intellectual Inquiry core curriculum with nearly 80 courses and installed a new national honor society, Alpha Epsilon Delta, a health pre-professional society for students preparing for careers in medicine. These changes attracted a record number of freshman applications for the fall of 2010.

In September 2010, a director of student/faculty research was named, a new position that oversees the College's six research programs: the Undergraduate Research Assistant Program, Summer Scholars, independent studies, internships, the Bondurant Fund and the Center for Community Research. One of the goals of the most recent strategic plan is to provide a broad, deep and experiential education to College students, and to this end, Roanoke College has made studying abroad more financially accessible, strengthened the honors program, and brought the number of endowed professorships to eight. This record number strengthens the College's academic program, gives prestige to the professors, and influences recruitment. The College also has made faculty compensation a priority.

The College has received numerous accolades in the past few years. The Princeton Review lists Roanoke in its 2012 guidebook, "Best 376 Colleges," which features the top nine percent of colleges in the nation. The College was named to a list of national up and comers in the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges rankings for 2011, where it is classified as a Tier 1 national liberal arts college. The College also was recognized by Campus Activities Magazine as the 2009 "Campus of the Year" for its diverse social and academic student activity programs. Roanoke is on the U.S. News and World Report list of colleges that award the most merit-based financial aid; 31% of Roanoke students receive merit-based assistance.

Building and improving campus facilities continues, and the College now has more than 50 buildings. A hallmark was the 2010 reopening of the renovated and expanded Lucas Hall-the College's first LEED-certified project. Blue Ridge Hall, Shenandoah Hall, Tabor Hall and Afton Hall also were recently renovated, and a new tennis complex was just built on the Elizabeth campus. Plans are underway for a new campus community center, including recreational and athletic facilities that will enhance the College's exemplary athletics, intramural and community programs.

It is easy to see that the College's rich history and its vision for the future combine to bring out the best in a liberal arts education.