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A Narrative History of Radford University

The Beginning

The institution now known as Radford University was founded by the Virginia General Assembly in the Spring of 1910 as the "State Normal and Industrial School for Women at Radford" and was known more commonly as the "Radford Normal".  The school grew out of a late nineteenth century effort to expand Virginia's public school system and to prepare a sufficient number of teachers for that system. The school was to be located on 33 acres in east Radford known as the "Heth Grove." On October 3, 1911, the school's Board of Trustees appointed Dr. John Preston McConnell as president of the institution.

The Administration Building, the first major construction on Radford's campus, was started in 1911 and completed in 14 months. Renamed Founder's Hall in the 1950s, the building was renowned for its ornate interior features and its distinctive copper dome, and was said to be one of the most notable structures between Roanoke and Bristol.  Dedicated on August 9, 1913, the Administration Building housed administrative offices, a gymnasium, an auditorium, classrooms, the college library, and a swimming pool. President John McConnell and William Gilbert, professor of History, were the only two employees present at the dedication.

Founder's Hall

The Administration Building

The school's first session opened on September 17, 1913.  Students who arrived that fall had several options. Those who had come from 2- and 3- year high schools could complete their high school degree and earn up to a two-year Normal School Diploma. Students who had graduated from a 4-year high school could choose to pursue an "industrial" degree in the rural arts, household arts and manual arts. Courses were designed to give students a well- rounded education focused on teaching in the primary and secondary schools.

With no dormitories of its own, Radford Normal School rented two nearby buildings for student housing, Heth House and La Belle Inn. Life on campus was very strict and required the ladies to be "Southern Gentlewomen," observing Victorian values and prudence.

Dr. McConnell selected the school creed from an 1852 Daniel Webster quotation:

"If we work upon marble, it will perish.
If we work upon brass, time will efface it.
If we rear temples, they will crumble to dust.
But if we work upon men's immortal minds,
if we imbue them with high principles,
With the just fear of God and love of their fellowmen,
we engrave on those tablets
something which no time can efface,
and which will brighten and brighten to all eternity."

The school colors of purple and gray were chosen, a chapter of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) was established, and an Alma Mater was written in 1913. The Student Government Association was established in 1914 and adopted the Honor System in 1917.

Alma Mater

Hail all Hail! To our Alma Mater
Bare our heads, make the welkin ring;
Hers our hearts and our fond allegiance
Honors to her we bring.
Praise her broad and lofty aim,
Her purpose ne'er will fail;
Hail to thee, our Alma Mater,
Hail, all Hail!
Hail, all Hail! To the Radford Normal
Give three cheers, and then one cheer more;
Let the praise of our Alma Mater
Echo from shore to shore;
She is ours and our loyalty
will never, never fail.
Hail to thee our Alma Mater,
Hail, all Hail!

Radford's campus continued to grow in the late teens and early 1920s. Tyler Hall, the school's first official residence hall, was built in three sections: the first opened in 1915, the second in 1916, and the third was completed in 1923. The Radnor, the school's first annual, was published from 1914-1917 and discontinued due to World War I. The successor to the Radnor, renamed the Beehive after the school seal, was first published in 1924. The Grapurchat, the first student newspaper, began in 1921.

Radford State Teachers College

In 1924, the school's name was changed to the Radford State Teachers College. For several years the curriculum had been undergoing revisions, high school courses had been dropped and the state had mandated that Radford focus on preparing teachers for rural school systems. While observing state guidelines, Dr. McConnell insisted that "good teaching required good courses whether it prepares teachers for rural or city schools." His dedication to equal opportunity for Radford's students continued throughout his presidency. Radford's first Bachelor of Science degrees had been awarded in 1921. The student teaching program had been expanded outside the city of Radford to the surrounding counties and towns. In 1928, Radford built its own training school, McGuffey Hall, now known as Whitt Hall, which is home to the College of Business and Economics.

The Student Activity Building, now known as Lucas Alumni Hall, was built soon after McGuffey Hall and contains many of the same architectural features. A majority of the funds for this facility had been donated by students, faculty, and staff over an eight-year period.

The first sorority chapter was established at Radford in 1929. Sigma Sigma Sigma (Tri Sigma) was founded with 25 students and heralded the beginning of a new social era of sororities and societies at Radford. The strong traditions of the Ingles and Pocahontas Societies were bid farewell as the main campus organizations.  The names of the societies were commemorated in the naming of two residence halls in the early 1950s.

The May Day celebration, which had long been a popular spring athletic program, became more elaborate and formal in the mid-1930s. The crowning of a May Queen became the major campus social activity of the year. During the mid- and late-1930s, Radford's dedication to the advancement of education in Virginia continued with participation in the "Virginia New Curriculum." Progressive educational ideas and programs were instituted at the McGuffey training school, bringing teachers, supervisors, and education officials from across the state to Radford. The hope was to continue to enhance Radford's reputation as an excellent teaching facility in Virginia.

On November 15, 1937, Dr. McConnell resigned his position as president due to ill health. Mr. Jeremy Pate Whitt, the school's registrar, was named acting president until a successor could be chosen. Dr. David W. Peters assumed the role of president of Radford College on January 1, 1938.

Radford had come through the Depression relatively unscathed. In fact, several new initiatives had begun including the construction of McConnell Library, expansion of the stone wall which surrounded the campus, and the reconstruction of a log house, originally the birthplace of Mr. Whitt, which was to serve as a museum during its 20-year existence.

Many federal programs designed to improve the economy benefited the Radford campus during the 1930s. Improvements were made to existing buildings and a dining hall (present-day Walker Hall) was built in an area that was originally designated for Ingles and Pocahontas Society Homes. The Beehive yearbook was discontinued due to funding difficulties in 1930, but launched again in 1937.

War and Marriage

Dr. McConnell passed away on October 13, 1941, signaling the end of an era at Radford. The coming year brought World War II and caused disruptions on the campus with many of the faculty serving in the armed forces. A War Defense Council was organized in 1942 and campus programs were coordinated with the city. Classes were modified to focus on the war, including courses such as Geography for the War, War Craft Math, and PreFlight Aeronautics.

As the war progressed, Radford continued to survive through enrollment drops and further changes. In 1943 a merger was proposed between Radford and nearby Virginia Polytechnic Institute as part of a statewide effort to consolidate higher education institutions and give students the best opportunity for a broad professional and technical education. As the Women's Division of V.P.I., Radford students would have the opportunity to pursue the same programs available to men and duplicate courses were eliminated between the two schools.

Immediately following the war years, enrollment expanded at an amazing rate. Peacetime made money available for new construction and renovation. In 1948, Radford College began to expand outside the stone wall which had surrounded the campus for many years. Ingles Hall, a  new dormitory, was completed in 1950, and in 1951 a new McGuffey school was constructed, reflecting modern elementary school design. The 1950s brought many physical changes, but a leadership change also took place when Dr. Peters passed away on August 2, 1951. Once more, Jeremy Whitt was asked to serve as acting president, a position he held until his own death just a few months later.

Dr. Charles Knox Martin, Jr. officially became Radford's third president on January 17, 1952. Under the Martin administration, Radford continued to grow and prosper throughout the 1950s with many additions, including Peters Hall and, after a struggle with the legislature, the construction of Pocahontas Hall.

50 Years and Growing

The 1960s began with a celebration of Radford's first half-century. The school had seen tremendous growth and expansion, three identity changes, three presidents and only one Dean of Women, M'Ledge Moffett, who retired as Dean of Women in 1962 after serving in that post since 1920. In 1964, due to the immense progress made at Radford, the "marriage" with V.P.I. was dissolved and Radford College dropped "the Women's Division of Virginia Polytechnic Institute" from its name. With restored autonomy came pressures for change from many external forces. The turbulent 1960s were a strange experience on the Radford campus, partly because many of the "finishing school" characteristics instituted 50 years earlier remained intact under the administration of  President Charles Martin.

Students pushed for more and more freedoms at Radford, as they did at schools across the United States. One by one, many of the traditions which had defined Radford as a "Southern Gentlewoman's" school were abolished. The final major change that brought Radford into the present was the undergraduate admission of men in the summer of 1972.

In 1972, Dr. Martin retired from the presidency, assuming the position of college chancellor, which had been vacant since the split with Virginia Tech.  Dr. Donald N. Dedmon took office on March 20, as Radford's fourth president. During Dr. Dedmon's administration, Radford College grew in stature and size to a comprehensive, coeducational institution. The fall 1972 semester academic year marked the first time that men were admitted for the full academic year rather than just for summer school as had been the practice in the school's first years in operation.  In 1979, Radford was granted university status by the General Assembly, resulting in the school's fifth name change to Radford University.   In celebration of the Scotch-Irish heritage of Southwest Virginia, the "Highlander"  was also adopted in the 1970s as the nickname  for the athletic teams. In keeping with the Scotch-Irish theme,  the school colors were changed from the original purple and gray to the tartan plaid colors of red, white, blue and green. The school newspaper was renamed The Tartan and the literary magazine adopted the name Gaelic. The annual remained The Beehive.

Growth continued at a rapid pace through the 1980s with over 9,000 students attending RU per year by the end of the decade. The look and size of the campus also continued to evolve with the construction of a state-of-the-art sports complex named for Dr. Dedmon. The Dedmon Center was one of the first buildings designed with an inflated, air-supported roof, similar to that of the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. The location of the Dedmon Center was also a change for the campus, as new properties adjacent to the New River were acquired from the railroad.

In June 1994, after 22 years as president, Dr. Dedmon announced his retirement. Dr. Charles W. Owens, Vice President for Academic Affairs, was named acting president until a successor was found. After a national search, Dr. Douglas Covington was named the fifth president and took office in June of 1995.  After ten years of outstanding service, Dr. Covington retired in June of 2005. 

President Penelope Kyle

The Board of Visitors conducted a national search, and hired Penelope Kyle as Radford University's sixth president, and first female president, in June 2005. Upon assuming the presidency, President Kyle immediately focused on leading the university’s initiative to become one of the top 50 masters universities in the nation. The Radford University strategic plan “7-17”, completed in 2007 at her direction, identifies four strategic directives -- the investment in people, programs, global and local society and the future of Radford University.

Under President Kyle’s leadership, the university also added its first doctoral program with an emphasis in rural mental health and launched an initiative to grow graduate college student enrollment by offering additional doctoral and masters level programs. She hired the university’s first provost and created two new vice presidential areas of responsibility, Information Technology and University Relations. The Radford University Board of Visitors, at President Kyle’s request, has increased its membership by four positions to provide an opportunity for more diversity and leadership innovation within the governing body.

A native of southwest Virginia, President Kyle is a product of the Galax public schools system. She graduated from Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina and did her postgraduate studies in English at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. She received her Juris Doctorate from the University of Virginia School of Law and later earned her MBA from the College of William and Mary.

This history was compiled by David Horton, and is derived from information found in Radford College: A Sentimental Chronicle Through Its First Half-Century (1970) by Lanora Geissler Lewis Smith '43; History of the State Teachers College, Radford, Virginia 1910-1930 (1932) by Dr. Mary Ledger "M'Ledge" Moffett; and from the Radford University Archives. The history was updated and revised by Gene Hyde in February 2009. Please send any comments to Gene Hyde, Archivist.

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