Washburn University celebrates 144 years

Richard Kelly

This story was revised to reflect clarifications to buildings damaged in the tornado

When Washburn University was founded in the 1800s, it consisted of a single building and went by a different name. It all began with the announcement of Lincoln College on Feb. 6 1865, 144 years ago, which became the first higher education school in Topeka.

The college was named for Abraham Lincoln and his support of anti-slavery toward the end of the Civil War. It began as a private Congregational school.

In 1868, the school changed its name to Washburn University after Ichabod Washburn donated money with the agreement that Lincoln College would change its name to Washburn College. The board of trustees voted Nov. 19 to do this after Ichabod Washburn started donating the money in October. Unfortunately, Washburn passed away on Dec. 30 of the same year, and Washburn didn’t receive any more money after the first payment was made.

“The legend is that he was going to give a lot more money, like $100,000,” said Martha Imparato, the special collections librarian at Washburn. “But this was his first installment. But, we can’t substantiate that story, so I just take it that he gave the $25,000 and he basically saved the college.”

In the mid 1870s, Washburn moved from its original location at 10th and Jackson to its current location. John Ritchie donated 160 acres to Washburn, but the acreage wasn’t used at first because of its distant location from Topeka. When the location was moved to where it is today, there was only one building on campus, known as Rice Hall.

The original campus actually held both high school and college classes because there were so few students, and it could occupy all the high school and college students at once.

“Something a lot of people don’t know is this is where Washburn Rural got its start,” said Imparato. “It wasn’t until 1918 that they became a separate school, but they were still on campus, they just had their own building for classes.”

Washburn greatly expanded in terms of students in its time. When Lincoln College was in its final year in 1968, only five to six college students were estimated to have attending classes there.

In 1906, the first mention of the nickname for Washburn showed up in a print story about athletics. They were referred to as “the sons and daughters of Ichabod.” In the late 1930s, the logo was chosen in a contest to see who could design the best one. Bradbury Thompson had the winning entry. It was first shown in the 1938 yearbook. The colors, however, were chosen at an earlier point. The official blue of Washburn is known as Yale Blue, because many faculty members received their education from Yale at the time.

With the tornado of June 8, 1966, many of the buildings on Washburn’s campus were damaged to the point that they were demolished or in desperate need of repair.

John Henderson, former WU president, was one of the main contributors who moved the campus forward after the tornado. He helped raise $50 million to build the Law School building, Mabee Library, Garvey Fine Arts Center and Henderson Learning Resources Center. There is now a building with his name on campus. The Garvey Fine Arts Center also got its name from the Garvbey family, who had a long history at Washburn. The name Garvey did not take effect until Henderson’s name was dedicated to his building. Even today, renovations are going on to the university, with the finishing of updating Stoffer Science Hall just taking place.

Washburn is a school of high tradition and has been through its share of changes in 144 years. But as its 144th anniversary is celebrated, people should take the time to appreciate the university. The name of each building is significant and there’s history to be found behind every turn.