REXBURG, Idaho — Sitting in the newly dedicated BYU-Idaho Center — a massive 15,000-seat auditorium — was an awe-inspiring and touching experience for the oldest member of the Brigham Young University-Idaho faculty emeriti.
"I couldn't believe my eyes," Eldred Stephenson said. "It just blew my mind to see all those people."
After spending three-quarters of a century watching and helping Rexburg's college grow, the 97-year-old Stephenson said the dedication of the facility — which can hold every student, staff member and faculty member at the university — was very exciting.
The building, Stephenson said, ushers in a new period of growth at BYU-Idaho. And he was quick to point out how different today's campus is from the campus he first discovered 74 years ago.
It might be hard to imagine, but when Stephenson joined the faculty in 1937, at what then was Ricks College, the entire campus was so small it could fit comfortably within the new 435,000 square-foot BYU-Idaho Center — several times over.
"You wouldn't believe what it was," Stephenson said.
Back then, the campus consisted of just three buildings: the power plant, B-2 gymnasium and original Jacob Spori building, which housed the library, offices and classrooms.
"Our assembly hall was in the gym building and it would only seat about 250," Stephenson said.
That thought, he said, made him smile during the dedication of the BYU-Idaho Center.
Stephenson was the campus registrar for much of his 41 years at the college.
According to the BYU-Idaho Alumni Office, Stephenson is the oldest living faculty emeritus and one of just two living faculty emeriti to remember Ricks College before World War II.
When asked about the faculty of that era, Alumni Director Steve Davis said the only person who'd be able to speak definitively on the subject is Stephenson himself.
In those days, enrollment fluctuated in the low hundreds, a far cry from the nearly 13,000 students who today populate BYU-Idaho each semester.
Ricks College was locally run and relied heavily on church funding, as was the case with most of the early junior colleges or academies operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the church tried to sell or close all its junior colleges because of financial difficulties. Stephenson said he didn't realize how precarious his position was when he first was hired.
The church tried to give Ricks College to the Idaho Legislature three times between 1930 and 1937, but each time was rebuffed. Expecting the institution to close, the LDS Church reduced its yearly appropriation from more than $40,000 to $10,000.
"For the next two years the church did not want it, the state would not have it and the local board hardly knew what to do with it," former Ricks College President Hyrum Manwaring wrote in an official history just before Stephenson was hired.
Stephenson had nothing but praise for Manwaring, who made just $250 a month as president. He credits Manwaring's perseverance as a key reason behind the school's survival.
Enrollment at the college increased as the Depression ended and the United States was about to be plunged into the Second World War.
The war years and his role in the military is another era Stephenson frequently reflects upon.
In 1943, he left Ricks College to join the Navy. He served in the Pacific Theater aboard a destroyer escort, eventually visiting Tokyo just weeks after the Japanese surrender.
During those years, Stephenson said, change came to Ricks College. At one point, he said, more than 100 women enrolled at the college, alongside just three men.
That ratio changed dramatically after the war, as veterans flocked back to school to make use of the G.I. Bill. Stephenson returned to Ricks in 1946. As the college registrar, he had a hand in helping many of the returning soldiers. Later, he served as a chaplain with the Idaho National Guard.
Even today, Stephenson, just a month away from his 98th birthday, remains active as a veteran.
Stephenson remained at Ricks College until his retirement in 1978.
Bob Hansen, a fellow faculty emeritus, said Stephenson is a kind, competent man with "a jovial spirit about him."
"Eldred has always been a gentleman," Hansen said.
Stephenson has also been an active member of the community, serving a short term on the Rexburg City Council. He also served as president of the Lions Club and, in 1960, helped found the Beehive Credit Union.
"He's a very kind, gentle, hardworking, dedicated and honest man," Beehive CEO Dan Owen said.
Today, Stephenson still keeps busy, even 33 years into retirement. He's an avid golfer and loves to travel to visit family. He also keeps a keen eye on all of the exciting developments at BYU-Idaho.
"I have been blessed to work at Ricks College and to live and raise a family in Rexburg," he said.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company