BYU grew from humble, if not grim, beginning

Published: Monday, Nov. 15 2010 12:25 a.m. MST

The Brigham Young Academy, now a city library, was photographed around the turn of the century.

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PROVO — If you are going to tell the story of BYU, you have to begin in 1876 when LDS Church President Brigham Young told the school's first permanent head, Karl G. Maeser, that "neither the alphabet nor the multiplication tables were to be taught without the Spirit of God."

And that is about the level of education of the students at the time — it was more of a high school than a college. But it was a reflection of those times, and the charge to teach with the "Spirit of God" is still a part of the school's mission.

Brigham Young Academy began in the Lewis Building on Center Street and 300 West in Provo. Circumstances were difficult as a later BYU president, Ernest L. Wilkinson, recounted in the book "Brigham Young University: A School of Destiny": "The school was born in poverty, nurtured in conflict, orphaned by the death of Brigham Young … left homeless when (the Lewis building) was destroyed by fire … and nearly abandoned on many occasions because of lack of funds to carry on."

George Sutherland, a former student of Maeser and a justice of the United States Supreme Court, remembered the Lewis building as "a grim non-descript structure without beauty or grace or any other aesthetic feature calculated to invite a second look." After the building burned down and the school had a seven year stint in a ZCMI warehouse, it moved to the new Brigham Young Academy Building and Maeser left to oversee education for the LDS Church.

In 1903, the school officially became Brigham Young University (it had almost been renamed "Joseph Smith College"). President Anthon Lund, a member of the church's First Presidency, grumbled in his diary, "I hope their head will grow big enough for the hat."

Six years later, the first building went up on what was called Temple Hill. Instead of a temple on the site, the community had a university. In 1923, the Cougar was adopted as the official mascot. Accreditation followed in 1928.

The school survived the Great Depression. During World War II, enrollment fell at one time to 884, with women outnumbering men 6 to 1. At the end of the war it shot back up to 4,366.

Ernest L. Wilkinson became the university's seventh president in 1951. Buildings began popping up all over the place and enrollment was up to 13,326 by 1959. By then, BYU had its first LDS stake and its first doctoral program.

Dallin H. Oaks, who currently is a member of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve, became president in 1971. The J. Reuben Clark Law School was founded among other programs. (The law school was named after President J. Reuben Clark Jr., who had been a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' First Presidency).

In 1980, it was Jeffrey R. Holland's turn as the school's president (he also is a current member of the Quorum of the Twelve). The NCAA football championship in 1984 was a highlight, of course, of his administration.

The next BYU presidents were Rex E. Lee (1989); Merrill J. Bateman (1996), who is currently an emeritus member of the Quorums of the Seventy, and current president, Elder Cecil O. Samuelson Jr. (2003) of the Quorums of the Seventy.

Today BYU has 29,783 undergraduate students from 120 countries, 23 percent of whom are married. About 270,000 people have graduated from BYU since it began in "a grim non-descript structure" in 1876.

Sources: BYU.edu, "Brigham Young University: A School of Destiny" by Ernest L. Wilkinson and W. Cleon Skousen and "Brigham Young University" by Phil Schermeister.

e-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com

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