150? Cool. Top 10? Awesome!

(Republished with permission from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This article originally ran in the News section on Sunday, Sept. 14, 2003. View related article, Journalists back watchdog role despite 9-11, also from Sunday’s P-D.)

By Susan Thompson of the Post-Dispatch

Good times are rolling at Washington University.

Last month it cracked U.S. News & World Report’s top 10 for the first time, tying with Dartmouth for ninth-best university nationally.

The recognition came like icing on the university’s birthday cake – over the top and sweet.

The university passed the 150-year mark this year. And on Sunday it’s throwing itself a very public birthday bash, complete with more than 200 activities between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. on the main and medical school campuses.

It’s a family affair with lots of kid stuff and a birthday cake, 8 feet in diameter and made of lollipops in the school’s colors, red and green. Everything is free and everyone is invited.

This is no impromptu affair. It comes from two years of planning and with a purpose. “We believe that we have something to celebrate and we want to share with the community what we’ve been doing,” said Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. And with the families and friends of the university’s more than 10,000 employees, he added.

If only Wayman Crow – who secured the university’s charter from the state of Missouri on Washington’s birthday in 1853 – could see the place now!

Originally the preserve of a few students of means, mostly male, the university today welcomes the children of the vast middle class. Half of the students are female, and they come not just from St. Louis, but from all 50 states and 90 foreign countries.

The original, inflexibly one-size-fits-all curriculum of Latin, Greek, German, French, math and science has given way to studies in everything from accounting to zoology – subjects that weren’t in any university’s catalog 150 years ago.

Much the same could be said of the general way other U.S. colleges have changed over the years. Yet each has evolved in its own way – Washington University into a medium-sized university noted, according to Wrighton, for its unique mix of research, visual arts and social work, among other disciplines.

More than most, Washington University, with 13,000 students now, has been moving up in national stature. In 1994, it came in 20th in U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of national universities. Last year it placed 12th, and this year it leaped three more places. The university has improved in several of the magazine’s measures, including quality of students, number of applications and selectivity of admissions. The university also has strengthened its faculty, rewarded it with competitive pay and invested in equipment and buildings, Wrighton said.

In the magazine’s separate assessments of medical and social work schools, Washington University’s have been consistent standouts, with both placing second nationally in the latest lists.

At 150 years of age, Washington University is middle-aged in the university big leagues it belongs to now. It’s younger than most of the Ivies but senior to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Duke and Stanford.

Washington University’s first 100 or so years are the stuff of its archives now. But some still around have lived its last 50 or so years and can remember when.

George Pake, who joined the physics department as an assistant professor in 1948, remembers when the campus library was small and there were only one or two residence halls. Pake also vividly recalls the years of student protests against the Vietnam War, in particular the day when protesters, bent on shutting the university down, blocked his way to a lecture hall. He stood his ground, and they let him through to teach his class.

Pake, who later became provost and later still a university trustee, is an emeritus trustee now, retired and living in Tucson, Ariz.

Josephine Simpson and Jim Burmeister arrived at Washington University in the 1950s and have yet to leave.

Simpson came as administrative assistant to the athletics director in 1957 and has held the same job ever since, through several bosses plus changes in the university’s conference affiliations. She was in the thick of preparations for presidential election debates, held in the university’s field house in 1992 and 2000.

The earlier one was her favorite because the university had only six days to prepare. “Everyone worked as a team,” she said. “That was a joy to watch, seeing it all come together,”

In her earlier days, there were fewer sports, most of them for men. Then gender equity came into the picture, and women’s sports were added. Always, the students have been scholar athletes, she said: “They want to play sports but they’re here for an education.”

She marvels at technological advances the years have brought. “I never would have dreamed when I started that I would end up with a computer on my desk,” she said.

Burmeister started at Washington University as a high school student, working part time scoring exams on an IBM machine for the psychology department. After high school he became a student, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science and master’s degrees in business administration and psychology.

In his student days the university was basically a streetcar college with, he guesses, about 80 percent of its students from the St. Louis area. Yet there was no lack of student activities. Standouts in Burmeister’s memories are the annual, student-run and still-going-strong Thurtene carnival and the now defunct Bearskin Follies, a program of humorous, student-written sketches. He tried out with a group from his fraternity but didn’t make the cut.

Burmeister went on to become a university employee and now wears three hats as executive director of university relations, adviser to Thurtene and director of commencement, an event he recalled being held in the field house in former times. Then it got too big and moved outside to the Brookings Quadrangle.

Building for the future

Simpson and Burmeister see the students today as much the same as those of nearly a half century ago – smart and hard-working. He sees only one difference: Today’s students are more socially conscious and dedicated to community service. “I hate to say it but we just really weren’t,” he said.

Despite all the new buildings on campus, it hasn’t changed all that much in Burmeister’s eyes. “It feels the same as when I was a student,” he said “… It still feels like home.”

The university’s sesquicentennial celebration continues through the spring with special seminars, concerts, lectures and other events.

The busy year will include a groundbreaking in April for the new $56.8 million visual arts center, being named for St. Louis businessman Sam Fox, who donated the lead gift. In May, the Olin Library is to be rededicated after a $40 million renovation. Midyear will see the opening of a new earth and planetary sciences building. A new three-story Eliot Hall, replacing the high-rise dormitory of the same name that was torn down this summer, is to be ready for occupancy next fall.

After that, the next major building in waiting is the long-planned university center, a gathering place for the campus. Wrighton says the university has earmarked some funds for it and ground could be broken in 2005. But that’s getting into the story of the second 150 years.