Most of those who live in the St. Louis area would not be surprised to know that the two oldest institutions of higher education west of the Mississippi River are located within the region. But the identity of one might be surprising.
Those universities are, of course, Saint Louis University, founded in 1818, and Lindenwood University, founded as the Lindenwood School for Girls, in 1827.
Yes, Lindenwood University, the generally modest, low-key liberal arts school, situated on 500 acres in St. Charles and located 24 miles from St. Louis, is the second oldest American college west of the Mississippi River.
The fact that this revelation may come as a surprise to many readers is a testament to Lindenwood’s laudable tendency to set goals and achieve them, without giving in to the temptations of self-promotion.
Lindenwood is more than just a beautiful urban campus, it is a respected college of higher education and an asset to St. Charles County as evidenced by the J. Scheidegger Center for the Arts, which offers performance space to St. Charles City schools as well as professional companies.
In truth, Lindenwood can trace its roots back even earlier than its 1827 founding to the period shortly after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, when local lands came under American control. George Champlin Sibley, an explorer, Indian agent and politician, traveled the territory with his wife, Mary Eaton Sibley, trying to establish peaceful relations with the neighboring Osage tribes. While tending to traditional territorial matters such as setting up a postal system, securing supplies for the government and keeping the peace on the frontier, the couple, with Mary in the lead, turned to educating children at Army and trading posts. George served as the postmaster of Fort Osage, while Mary ran the school, until the post was closed in 1825. The couple then relocated to St. Charles, where, in 1827, Mary began teaching the young women of the community.
Those humble beginnings mask a number of important facts. First, the 1827 dedication date marks Lindenwood as the second oldest college west of the Mississippi River and the first women’s college in the same region. Second, the Sibley family, impressed with the beginnings of their experiment, purchased 280 acres of land in 1829 – a tract known as the “Linden Wood” due to its large number of linden trees. That land served as the seed for the college and, of course, provided the school its name.
In 1832, the Sibleys made plans to open up the school and its offerings by fashioning a boarding school, serving roughly a dozen students. Mary ran the school and developed a firm curriculum including grammar, spelling, writing, speaking and literature. Other fields of study such as French, music and practical arts were available to those who paid an extra fee.
During the 1840s, the school grew but continued improvements resulted in a financial strain. By the early 1850s the school was nearly broke, and the Sibleys offered the property name to the Presbyterian Church. The resulting deal incorporated the school, by a special act of the Missouri Legislature, as the Lindenwood College for Women and placed it under the governance of 15 directors appointed by the Presbyterian Church of St. Louis. The cornerstone of a new administration building was laid on July 4, 1856. That event heralded a period of marked growth for Lindenwood and the surrounding city.
Growth in the modern era
Lindenwood College grew and prospered, passing a number of significant milestones through the years. In many ways, the college and the city ran parallel in their growth and prosperity. The Administration building, known as Sibley Hall, was enlarged in 1881 and 1886, and the institution built four new buildings between 1900 and 1920.
The college became a co-educational institution in 1969, changing its name from Lindenwood College for Women simply to Lindenwood College, with separate colleges for men and women. A formal merger eventually took place in 1983.
The college began a number of graduate programs in the late 1970s. At the same time, the St. Louis Cardinals football team built a practice field and facility on the Lindenwood property, and the college joined the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics [NAIA] for athletic competition.
While the 1970s and ‘80s seemed to show promising growth for Lindenwood, higher education economics are often hard and always unforgiving. The college enrollment fell below 800 students during the ‘80s and the institution was in danger of shutting down by 1989 when the school hired Dennis Spellman as its new president.
Spellman immediately began a long-term plan for saving and enlarging the university. During his tenure, the university built eight new residence halls, Hunter Stadium, the Lou Brock Sports complex and a student center eventually named for him, as well as completing a number of improvements to existing buildings. When Spellman died in 2006 he was succeeded by Dr. James Evans, who became Lindenwood’s 21st president.
Lindenwood’s expansion continued under Evans. In late 2008, the university opened the J. Sheidegger Center for the Arts, a performing arts venue that benefits both the university and the community. Additionally, the university built more residence halls, a new home for the university president and, in 2011, the Evans Commons student center.
During Evans’ tenure, the board of governors also approved construction of a Student-Athlete Center, adjacent to the university’s Hunter Stadium. The 43,000 square-foot building is three-stories tall and contains locker rooms, a student-athlete academic center, coaches’ offices and meeting rooms. The center opened in fall 2012, the university’s first year in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association [MIAA], which is considered to be one of the top conferences in NCAA Division II.
Evans also oversaw the university’s investment in adult education, buying properties throughout greater St. Louis area and designating them as Lindenwood Site Centers for Adult Education. His bio on the university’s website notes that Evans was the driving force behind the creation of a day college at the university’s Belleville, Ill., campus.
In 2001, Lindenwood partnered with Belleville civic leaders to establish an extension location in the Metro East. In 2003, the university took ownership of the former Belleville West High campus and in 2004, received approval to offer bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in business administration, human resource management, corporate communication, criminal justice, and professional counseling. In 2009, the Belleville campus became the university’s first extension site to offer day classes. However, on May 13, 2019, the university announced that after the conclusion of the spring semester in May 2020, traditional daytime undergraduate programs will no longer be offered at the Lindenwood Belleville campus though evening classes will continue. In the official press release, the university said, “Consolidating undergraduate programs to the St. Charles campus will allow the Belleville site to focus on graduate and accelerated evening programs.”
In 2012, Evans spearheaded the acquisition of the former Barat Academy building to create a Lindenwood University School of Nursing and Allied Health Sciences in Dardenne Prairie. At the same time, St. Charles Community College entered into an agreement to share space in the Nursing School. In February 2017 SCC purchased the 69,000-square-foot building and 28-acre lot from the university, renaming it The Center for Healthy Living and using it to house an extension of the community college’s nursing and allied health and workforce development programs.
Following Evans retirement in May 2015, Dr. Michael D. Shonrock assumed the role of university president. His tenure saw the launching of the university’s strategic plan.
This past May, the university named John R. Porter its 23rd president.
According to the university, Porter has worked for 33 years for IBM, most recently in a senior management role with IBM Business Partner – Gulf Business Machines in Dubai. He will begin his tenure on July 1.
He has served as a member of the board of trustees at Evangel University, from which he holds a bachelor’s degree, and also has experience as a university fundraiser. He has an MBA from Washington University in St. Louis and is working toward a Doctor of Education degree from Johns Hopkins University with an anticipated graduation date of May 2020.
Porter and his wife, Beverly, will reside in Lindenwood House on campus. They have three adult children, all of whom live in the Kansas City area.
“I have always aspired to lead a university because of my admiration for higher education” Porter said. “I have prepared myself for this throughout my career and look forward to leading this great institution.”
What lies ahead
Conversations with Lindenwood administration and alumni reveal fond memories of the school and high hopes for its future.
Terry Whittum, a senior vice-president for enrollment at the university, said he came to Lindenwood from the east and was immediately impressed by the physical beauty of the campus – its Linden trees and wide, spacious lawn facing Kingshighway. He said he and his wife have found that there was nothing in Boston that could not be found here, in St. Louis and St. Charles, and usually at much less cost. This, of course, includes the Stanley Cup, which he said he is happy the St. Louis Blues won.
Dr. Mary Hendricks-Harris, superintendent of the Francis Howell School District, is a Lindenwood graduate with master’s and doctoral degrees in education. Hendricks-Harris praised the support and backing she said she found at the university, along with faculty members who would go beyond expectations to help foster student success. She said the instruction is not standardized in the now expected manner, but was individualized to allow for differences in student interests and goals. At Lindenwood, she said she felt like a person, not a number, and that the university practiced what other institutions preach.
Quietly over the years, Lindenwood has built a jewel in downtown St. Charles. The previous two years have seen the largest freshmen classes in the institution’s history, with current applications hitting new highs. The student body is diverse, even cosmopolitan, and the administration and faculty have a right to take pride in what they have built and sustained. The relationship between the city and the college has been mutually beneficial.
So what does the future hold for Lindenwood?
Higher education is going through a transitional phase. Whittum offered that demographic concerns are the most pressing issue Lindenwood and other institutions of higher learning face. However, he said the numbers, while concerning, are not an insurmountable obstacle, and that Missouri is better prepared to meet these challenges than many other states.
Whittum added that Lindenwood will be making changes to its adult education programs in the near future and that the next few years appear very bright.