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EWU celebrates 125th birthday today

When Catherine Simpson was a college student in Cheney in the 1930s, she worked at Showalter Hall for a quarter an hour.

Showalter Hall is still on the campus at Eastern Washington University, but almost nothing else about Simpson’s days as an undergrad would sound familiar to today’s students.

She attended Cheney Normal School, which granted three-year certificates to teachers headed to one-room schoolhouses. She knew most other students by name. Just about every campus function, from the gym to the administrative offices, was located at Showalter.

“Showalter Hall was it. That was the building,” said Simpson, 95, who now lives in a Spokane retirement center. “The 25 cents an hour paid for my room on campus.”

A lot more than the price of housing has changed since then. Cheney Normal went through various incarnations to become Eastern Washington University – and the campus grew from hundreds of students to thousands.

Student enrollments boomed after World War II and again in recent years, with EWU posting record enrollments of more than 10,000. It’s a history to which school officials are paying extra attention these days, as EWU’s 125th anniversary arrives.

“Eastern has followed a pattern that many small, regional universities have followed, evolving from normal schools to teachers colleges to regional, comprehensive universities,” said Charles Mutschler, university archivist and a busy man in recent weeks.

The school plans to celebrate with a birthday party today and a month of events.

Simpson won’t be able to make it to the festivities. But a permanent monument to her legacy still sits on campus. The Jore School, a one-room schoolhouse from near Newport that Simpson attended and that is kept up thanks to her donation to the school, now sits on the campus, a reminder of EWU’s deep roots in the region’s educational history.

GI Bill

On April 3, 1882, the Benjamin P. Cheney Academy opened, named for the man whose $10,000 donation started it all.

This was seven years before statehood for Washington, at which time the academy became Cheney Normal School.

In 1937, the school began granting four-year bachelor’s degrees and re-formed as the Eastern Washington College of Education.

“Most of our enrollments in 1939-1940 were young women,” Mutschler said. “Probably about two-thirds of our student population was young women planning to become teachers.”

That changed when all the returning servicemen from World War II began looking for career training with help from the GI Bill.

“The gender ratio at colleges like Eastern changed,” he said. “We became more or less fifty-fifty.”

As Eastern added fields of study and saw enrollments boom, it changed its name in 1961 to Eastern Washington State College.

In 1977, the school became a regional comprehensive university – granting bachelor’s and master’s degrees. In the years since, EWU has expanded its presence in Spokane and added graduate programs; it granted its first doctoral degree, in physical training, in 2005.

Mutschler sees a common thread through the school’s history: an effort to help residents of this region, many of them the first generation in their family to attend college, get the education and training necessary to raise their standard of living.

“We seem to have had a lot of people all through the years who use their education as a doorway to opportunity,” he said.

College debt

Back in the 1920s, Simpson certainly fit that profile. Her father had homesteaded and tried various other things to make a living around the Northwest, but times were always tough for her family. She was one of seven kids that her mother, a professional dressmaker, had within 14 years.

“All without electricity, without running water, without a telephone, without roads – and without a school,” Simpson said.

She and her siblings attended one-room schoolhouses all over the region, and an older sister of hers became a teacher. That helped Simpson decide what she wanted.

“I always wanted to be a teacher,” Simpson said. “It was just a foregone conclusion that I would go to college.”

After graduating from Deer Park High School, she attended Washington State College on a scholarship.

But her sister was loaning her the money for tuition and other expenses – $50 a month – and she feared the specter of a big debt at graduation.

“So I was just piling up college debt,” she said. “Fifty dollars a month.”

Then, as now, school in Cheney was known for being a relative bargain. Her sister told her, “You can go to Cheney Normal a lot cheaper,” and she made the switch. It was there that she met her future husband, Claude. They both graduated in 1933.

She eventually taught all over the world, from Alaska to Australia, started a long-running kindergarten in Pullman, and raised three children with Claude. He died in 1999, and she’s been trying to compile the elements of her biography – a story that includes locations around the world and a huge network of lives she influenced as an educator.

“I have a stack of diaries you can’t leap over,” she said.



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