HUNTINGTON — Though Marshall University has always represented progress in Huntington, it was never more clear than in the spring of 1961.
On March 1, 1961, the West Virginia Legislature passed a bill that made Marshall College a university. The following day, Gov. William Wallace Barron, a West Virginia University alumnus, visited Huntington and signed the legislation at the newly named university.
In the March 3, 1961, edition of The Herald-Dispatch, reporter Harry Flesher wrote “Gov. Barron was cheered as he rose, was cheered as he made his announcement of what he was going to do at the conclusion of his remarks, and was cheered again as he signed the Marshall University act.” Flesher reported that more than 2,000 people attended the ceremony.
The signing of the bill in Huntington marked the first time in state history that a bill was not signed in Charleston.
After Barron signed the bill, he gave the pen to Marshall College President Stewart H. Smith.
“Attaining university status is one of the great milestones in the long history of Marshall. It is indeed a red-letter day in the life of the institution named to honor one of our greatest Chief Justices, John Marshall,” said Smith in the March 2, 1961, edition of The Herald-Dispatch.
“We shall not strive to be a ‘big’ institution but rather we shall direct our energies toward building a university with a great intellectual challenge.”
The move to make Marshall a university culminated on Oct. 19, 1960, when the state Board of Education adopted a resolution introduced by Huntington resident Raymond Brewster, a member and past president of the board. The resolution endorsed university status and urged action by state lawmakers.
A bill was introduced by Cabell and Wayne county House of Delegate members and supported by representatives in the Senate. Democratic Majority Leader William Moreland debated the passage of the bill, saying he believed the state could not afford two universities. The bill was passed and signed the next day by Barron in Huntington.
When the bill was passed, J. Frank Bartlett, Marshall’s dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, believed the name change would be a boost for the university’s enrollment.
“It will encourage many students who otherwise would go out of state to come to Marshall,” Bartlett said March 2, 1961.
From a log cabin to a university
Before it was ever known as Marshall University, the state’s oldest school of higher learning went through a number of changes over the years.
In 1837, Cabell County prosecuting attorney John Laidley and other influential men from the Guyandotte area of Huntington gathered to establish Marshall Academy.
The academy was housed in a log cabin that formerly housed a school named Mount Hebron. In 1938, the General Assembly of Virginia chartered the school, and a two-story brick building was built to replace the log cabin.
After the Methodist Episcopal Church assumed financial control of the academy, the name was changed to Marshall College in 1858.
In 1867, the newly established West Virginia Legislature appropriated $30,000 to re-establish the college, which was disbanded during the Civil War.
The early college offered teacher training and college prep classes, similar to a junior college. It was not until the State Board of Education approved the granting of bachelor’s degree in teaching to Marshall College in 1920, that it offered certified college courses.
Four candidates were in the first graduation in June 1921.
From the first accreditation to the renaming of the college, Marshall University has proven it could expand and progress with a focus on the future.
While it started out as a log cabin, Marshall has grown into a technologically advanced institution of higher learning.
Following the new name, many remnants of the old Marshall College were reinvented as construction covered much of the campus in the 1960s.
South Hall, now known as Holderby Hall, and University Heights, an off-campus apartment complex for nontraditional students, were built after university status was attained.
Other work included Smith Hall-Smith Music Hall complex; a men’s physical education building, now Gullickson Hall; Campus Christian Center; West Hall, now Buskirk Hall; South Hall, now Holderby Hall; the maintenance building; and the “wrap-around” addition to the James E. Morrow Library.
Marshall’s impact on the Tri-State
At the time Marshall received university status, the college had 4,035 students and employed a couple hundred employees. More than 45 years later, Marshall University has a student enrollment of almost 13,300 and is one of the largest employers in the Tri-State. As of October 2008, Marshall had 1,925 employees – 1,559 full time and 366 part time, according to the university.
Aside from the employment aspect of the university’s impact, Marshall sports also cross state lines as alumni and fans alike come together on game day to support the Thundering Herd. Thousands descend on Huntington to watch Marshall’s teams battle it out with rivals.
The impact of Marshall on the community, especially Marshall sports, was never more clearer than the months and years following the tragic 1970 plane crash that killed 75 people, including members of the school’s football team, coaches, staff and supporters.
Following the crash, the community came together not only to support the young football team, which was made up almost entirely of freshmen, but to honor, celebrate and remember the people who lost their lives in the crash.