Gary Kremer traveled to Lincoln University in the 1960s as a college freshman from northern Osage County - the first in his family to attend college.
And that experience changed his life, he told LU students, faculty, staff and friends attending Thursday morning's annual Founders Day Convocation - just as the acts of two different groups of pioneers changed the face of Missouri education.
Founders Day celebrates the soldiers of two Civil War Missouri Colored Infantry units who, in February 1866, pledged more than $6,000 to start a school for freed slaves and other black people in Missouri.
Kremer noted: "The founders who we traditionally honor on this day are the black Missouri soldiers ... who had been denied an education by Missouri law prior to the Civil War, because whites feared that literacy would lead to rebellion."
But no laws prohibited them from learning reading and writing during the war and they wanted to pass that opportunity along to others.
"So, in September 1866, Lincoln Institute here in Jefferson City accepted its first students," Kremer said. "By a somewhat ironic twist of fate, none of those black soldiers ever attended Lincoln Institute.
"Although one of them, Logan Bennett - who lived the bulk of his life here in Jefferson City and for whom a residential hall is named - would show up every year for this event, still wearing the blue uniform of the United States Colored Infantry."
At the end of Thursday's
program, the audience got a taste of a message they may hear frequently in the coming years, as incoming President Kevin Rome promised that "the best is yet to come."
Kremer earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from LU, and was a history professor at the school from 1972-87.
Although he remembered and thanked LU's original founders, Kremer said a second group of "founders" also is important, "and that is the group who transformed Lincoln Institute from what was little more than a high school and a vocational training school into a university that was, for a generation during the 1920s, 30s and 40s, widely referred to as "The Black Harvard of the Midwest.'"
When Nathan Young became LU president in 1923, he "quickly moved to attract a much higher caliber, trained professor than those individuals who had taught here up to that time."
Young's efforts helped attract teachers like:
• Sterling Brown, who had studied at Harvard and "brought to his students a love of language, particularly poetry," and later was identified as "one of the greatest 20th century American poets."
• Cecil A. Blue, also a Harvard graduate.
• Lorenzo J. Green, a Columbia University graduate.
"Professors Blue and Green, who called themselves the "Color Boys,' named their house "The Monastery' because they both were bachelors," Kremer said. "During the 1930s, The Monastery became a gathering place for black intellectuals from all over the country, who sought companionship and conversation with the Color Boys."
Kremer also noted that the house, 504 Lafayette St., is slated for demolition as part of the new Lafayette Street interchange with the U.S. 50/63 Expressway.
• Playwright Thomas D. Pawley III, "a classmate of Tennessee Williams at the University of Iowa during the 1930s," came to teach in 1940 and planned to stay for one year - but still lives in Jefferson City today.
After their own graduations, Kremer told LU students, "You, too, will be a part of Lincoln University's past, in a sense, a founder, someone who has paved the way for a new generation to succeed.
"It's a noble inheritance."
Rome said studying history is important because it "tells us what happened in the past," and the present "tells us, most of the time, what's happening right now."
The future "gives us hope and possibilities," Rome said.
His said the challenge to Lincoln is making sure that Missouri legislators, the people of Jefferson City, the state as a whole and the nation is, "The best is yet to come from Lincoln University. Maybe we were once the "Harvard of the Midwest,' but maybe we will be the "Harvard of the United States.'"
Thursday's Founders Day program also honored two employees for 25 years of service, 15 employees who retired in the last year, and the Goodwin Family of St. Louis for their three generations of continued work on behalf of LU.