by Debbie Coleman-Topi
In the decade following the Civil War, higher education was only a dream for all but the most elite young adults. But a handful of hard-working hopefuls with limited economic means were allowed to scroll their names onto Park College rolls by adding farm chores to their academic pursuits.
The students accepted an early version of work-study programs when they milked cows, cooked and helped prepare native limestone that would become some of the first buildings to stand on the campus.
Unknowingly, the founder of Park who devised the early work-study program, and the students who accepted the challenge, helped shape a legacy that continues to guide the early Missouri college more than a century later, even as the college celebrates its 140th anniversary.
“The school was unique in its day,” said archivist Carolyn Elwess, a 1971 Park graduate. “We're awful proud of this little school, that's for sure.”
Park President Greg Gunderson referred to the school's unique approach of never turning away anyone who wants to enroll, a tradition still followed at Park.
“If we don't stand for anything else, it's innovation,” he said. “We've been committed to that.”
A book chronicles the college's ascent from a vision of its namesake, George Park, to the worldwide instructional institution of today. The book, “Fides et Labor” (Latin for Faith and Work, which also serves as the school's motto) “140 Years of Pioneering Education—The Story of Park University,” by Bill Beck, tells the story of how Park had wanted to form a college in the area since 1851.
But the vision became a reality only after Park met John A. McAfee, who provided a necessary component when he established the area's first high school, “The Park College Academy,” in 1885.
The early school, equivalent to today's high schools, enrolled teens who attended for three or four years and acted as a feeder school to what became Park College. (The academy disbanded after Parkville built a public high school in 1927, according to the book.)
Park University was, and continues to be, in some ways, unique among institutions of higher education. While some other early colleges offered programs featuring manual labor, Park was unusual in that all of its students worked together, family-style, to make the college viable. For instance, young men provided firewood and water for the school's cook stoves each morning, which female students used to prepare meals for teachers, staff and students.
A few other facts demonstrate Park's unusual legacy:
•Park was co-educational from the first, with three female students among the four first graduates in the class of 1879.
•The school enrolled its first foreign student from Japan as early as the 1880s and the first foreign students to graduate, a small group of Canadians, also graduated during that decade. Park continues to be ethnically-diverse today, with more than 370 international students representing 60 countries including Saudi Arabia, China, Brazil, Kenya and Nepal.
•Many ex-slaves moved to Parkville following the Civil War and several worked for the college for many years.
•Park President William Lindsay Young ignored controversy of the day when he encouraged a group of Japanese Americans to enroll at Park in 1942. The administration and students were protective of these students, who were escorted when they left campus.
•A modern military program provides active duty and military veterans and their families with online and on-site classes at 40 campus centers, 33 of which are on military bases located throughout the country. “We were kind of pioneers… and rapidly expanded and are still recognized as a leader in providing education to the military,” Elwess said.
•Began accepting African Americans in 1950, four years before the landmark Supreme Court ruling Brown vs. Board of Education.
The school was ahead of the curve in accepting African Americans and was publically criticized for its decision to integrate early. Despite this criticism, during the second semester of that year a unanimous vote by staff and students allowed African Americans to live in the school dormitories, rather than require students to board in town, as was the common practice.
·Park is among the top-ranked private colleges and universities based on annual return on investment percentage based on certain parameters, according to the 2015 PayScale College Return on Investment (ROI) Report.
·The university rests on 700 acres, which includes an elaborate underground space housed in mined caves created using the area's natural, native limestone. The underground provides for commercial space as well as classrooms and university offices.
·Established a semi-professional singing group, “The Park Singers,” which performed at alumni and corporate meetings and other public gatherings from 1951 until it was disbanded in 1975. “Our singers were very popular and originally entertained veterans in veterans' hospitals,” Elwess said. “It's a thing that a lot of our alumni fondly remember.”
Park will wrap up a year-long anniversary celebration with an event designed to raise money for scholarships and show off the school's newly-renovated Norrington Center, designed to house the McAfee Memorial Library, a new café/coffee shop, high tech classrooms and meeting spaces and a student lounge.
The event, Ballyhoo, begins at 5 p.m. Tuesday, May 17 at the college's Norrington Center on campus, 8700 N.W. River Park Dr., Parkville.
A riverboat cruise down the Mighty Missouri will feature horsd'oevres, beverages and music. Cost coincides with the college's founding year at $1,875 and cruise is available for $5,000 and higher sponsorship level.
For tickets, visit www.park.edu/ballyhoo or call Associate Vice President of Constituent Development Nathan Marticke at Nathan.firstname.lastname@example.org or call 816-584-6844.