Fairmount College: A History of Wichita State University
Formerly Fairmount College and Wichita University, today’s Wichita State University has a long history: 131 years, to be exact!
Fairmount College began offering classes in 1895, nine years after it had been founded by the Rev. Joseph Homer Parker. The school was affiliated with the Congregational Church and, according to Wichita.edu, the student body consisted of students whose parents wanted them to attend a Christian college and students whose responsibilities, both family and financial, limited their options for higher education.
Appearances must have been important to the founders of the school, because trees were actually shipped in from New England to be planted on what would much later become one of the largest colleges in the state of Kansas.
Though the idea of attending college was (and is) to obtain a degree, the students of Fairmount College were particularly interested in something else: athletics. By the second day of school, a group of students were already meeting to discuss the formation of a Fairmount College football team.
Sports Come to Fairmount College
Before long, Fairmount College would be home to not only a football team, but also to basketball, baseball, and track teams for men and a basketball team for women. The Fairmount College football team went on to famously host the first-ever nighttime football game west of the Mississippi River in 1905. On a wheatfield lit by the glow of Wichita-produced Coleman lanterns, the Fairmount College “Wheatshockers” defeated Cooper College, known today as Sterling College.
The team earned the unofficial name the “Wheatshockers” due to the fact that many of the students at Fairmount paid tuition with money they earned by harvesting wheat. When harvesting, wheat is tied together into bundles called shocks. Therefore, the students were deemed the “Wheatshockers”. Though the school never officially adopted this name, it stood the test of time. Over the years, however, the name was shortened simply to the “Shockers”, which was officially adopted by the school.
According to Wichita.edu, Fairmount College was in a poor financial state by the mid-1920s, and moving to public ownership seemed the most viable solution. The idea went to the polls in 1925, but failed. By the next year, however, the need for a new system was still present. A renewed effort was made in 1926. This time, when it was taken to the polls, it was overwhelmingly accepted.
The Municipal University of Wichita
I know, I know. “The Municipal University of Wichita” rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it? It’s a wonder we ever changed this name at all! (Only kidding, I promise.) During this time, it was commonly called Wichita University, which is much less of a mouth-full.
During the fall of 1926, the school saw its first official semester under its new name and ownership. With just 569 students at the time, the University would see tremendous growth in the following years, continuing to prosper even through trials like the Great Depression and World War II.
As the school grew, more schools were added and the faculty became more and more diverse. The school had always placed a strong focus on music, and in 1944, a group of representatives from Wichita University and alumni Robert and Myrabel Hollowell gathered and formed the Wichita Symphony Orchestra.
A New Mascot
Until the late 1940s, the students of Wichita University were known as the Shockers, but their mascot was a simple shock of wheat with no name or face. In 1948, the school’s Kappa Pi, an honorary art fraternity, hosted a competition in which students could design a mascot for Wichita University. When it came time to choose a winner, a design by Wilbur Elsea, a Junior at Wichita University, was selected. He had designed a tough-looking shock of wheat that would serve as an early version of today’s WuShock. The name WuShock came from another student competition held the same year. This time, Freshman Jack Kersting won, having submitted the name WuShock. While the “Shock” portion of the name is self-explanatory, Kersting derived “Wu” from the initials of “Wichita University”.
In 1954, a cheerleader by the name of Dave Johnson developed the first costume for the new mascot. To date, the school has officially embraced five redesigned versions of beloved, if bizarre, mascot.
Pizza Hut Opens On Campus
Just a few years after a costumed Wu made its first appearance, something completely different would debut on campus: Pizza Hut.
The world’s very first Pizza Hut was founded on June 15, 1958, by brothers Dan and Frank Carney, who were students at Wichita University. Together, the brothers started their business with a $600 loan from their mother. The combined effect of the small, brick building’s hut-like appearance and the sign’s small size (it could fit no more than nine letters) yielded the restaurant’s name, Pizza Hut. On the first night of business, the Carney brothers gave away free pizza to get people to try it and they were a success!
The 1950s brought even more changes, as research emerged as a major part of the University’s mission and dormitories returned to the campus. As for sports, the Missouri Valley Conference offered one of the strongest basketball conferences in the United States, earning the nickname the "Valley of Death”. Despite stiff competition, the Shockers reached the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) Final Four for the first time in 1965.
Wichita University Expands
By the time that WWII had ended, Wichita University needed to expand. Quick and inexpensive additions were built, significantly changing the look of the university. The new buildings demonstrated International architecture styles. Among them were the Duerksen Fine Arts Center and the Levitt Arena, known as the "roundhouse". Then, of course, came the Corbin Education Center, designed by renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
According to Wichita.edu, in 1963, a long battle ended with legislative approval of a new state university. Wichitans responded with a $1.5 million levy that would pay the bonded indebtedness and provide a perpetual endowment for the new state institution.
By this time, Wichita University neared a total of 7,000 students. In 1964, the school had 857 graduate students, and nearly a third of its students attended part-time.
Becoming Wichita State University
Wichita State University had a rough start. National searches for new faculty members took place, and other transitional challenges occurred. But before long, things started looking up for the Shockers.
Wichita State University students passed a referendum that authorized half the cost of Cessna Stadium in 1968 and it was built shortly thereafter. The school’s debate team would also win the national title that year.
As trials continued, WSU persevered. When a number of national crises including the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy; racial tensions and the Vietnam War created turbulence, WSU responded well. According to Wichita.edu, a student movement resulted in cooperation among faculty, students and administration to pass the Joint Statement of Rights and Freedoms of Students, making Wichita State the first campus to offer the document to all campus constituencies and to have all respond positively.
Oct. 2, 1970 saw the darkest day in Wichita State University History. It was on this day that one of two planes carrying Wichita State University’s players, staff and fans to a football game crashed. En route to a game in Utah, the plane crashed near Silver Plume, Colorado, taking the lives 31. Football continued briefly but was discontinued in 1986 due to increasing debt.
The 1970s brought with them many additions to Wichita State University, including a school for health professions, a collection of outdoor sculptures and the Edwin A. Ulrich Museum of Art.
The Shocker women's bowling team won the national title in 1975, beginning a tradition of outstanding achievement for both men and women in the sport. Baseball returned to intercollegiate sports in 1978, and four years later the Shockers finished second in the College World Series. They went on to win the national championship in 1989.
Women now made up the majority of students, ethnic minorities made up 12 percent of the student body and the number of graduate students had tripled.
Today, Wichita State University has continued to expand, continually developing new schools, programs and organizations. One of the most significant additions of late in the Innovation campus, which is currently being expanded to offer more academic facilities, student housing and retail locations. The original Pizza Hut building still stands, and is being relocated to the Innovation Campus where it will serve as a museum. Today, Wichita State University has over 14,000 students with the sixth largest number of international students at any doctoral school granting institution in the nation.
Learn more about Wichita State's history.