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McDaniel College celebrates its 150th birthday

McDaniel College celebrates its 150th birthday
Stephen Harlan puts his signature Saturday on a sign marking the 150th anniversary of McDaniel College in Westminster. (Ken Koons, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The streets of Westminster, and particularly those in the vicinity of McDaniel College, were filled early on a cool, sun-splashed Saturday morning with alumni, students and their families, many dressed in green-and-white sweatshirts and other college garb.

They were there to participate in McDaniel's annual Homecoming on the Hill event and to celebrate the 150th birthday of an institution that began after the Civil War as Western Maryland College. Events included campus walking tours, receptions, a memorial bell ringing and tailgating before the Green Terror football team clashed with visiting Muhlenberg College in the afternoon.

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Some started their day taking in a lecture delivered by James E. Lightner, McDaniel College's official historian, in Peterson Hall's Rice Gallery.

"Welcome to the birthday party! We're here to celebrate the 150-year history of this grand old college that has played a role in so many pivotal lives," said Lightner.

An illustrated timeline from the private college's founding to the present lined the walls while a display case in the center of the gallery held assorted college-related memorabilia, such as a Western Maryland College jacket, photographs, football programs and even a vintage, worn leather football helmet from the 1920s.

Lightner, 80, graduated in 1959 from what was then Western Maryland College, and returned in 1962 to teach math for the next 36 years, retiring in 1998. He is the author of "Fearless and Bold: A History of McDaniel College, 1866-2002," and is also a college trustee.

During a brief lecture, he provided a thumbnail history of the college before a mostly alumni audience of nearly 75.

The college was founded in 1866 by Fayette R. Buell, who bought 8 acres on a rise overlooking the town now known as College Hill.

With the financial help of a local Methodist minister, J.D. Ward, and John Smith, who was president of the Western Maryland Railroad, it opened its doors to students the following year.

Ward served as the first president of the college. Smith, who was the first president of the college's board of trustees, proposed naming the college Western Maryland, presumably because of his connection to the railroad, according to Lightner's book.

The first coeducational college south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and one of the first in the nation, from its founding Western Maryland was open to students regardless of race, religion, gender or ethnicity.

"Student enrollment went from 70 to our student population of 1,600 today," Lightner said.

The college ended a 106-year relationship with the Methodist Church in 1974 and since that time has been a nondenominational institution.

During a walking tour of the exhibit in Peterson Hall, Lightner pointed out the "Rules of Deportment" dating from the late 19th century that governed students' lives — including Rule 11, which clearly stated segregation of the sexes would strictly be maintained.

"Never associate or converse with any student of the opposite sex, except in the presence and hearing of a teacher, without special, proper permission," according to the rule.

"Western Maryland/McDaniel College has successfully survived serious debt, several economic depressions, two world wars, and even some earthquakes," Lightner said. "But we have stood firm and resolute, never closed our doors, and never seriously considered doing so."

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When asked about the decision in 2002 to change the college's name, a move that met with disapproval from some alumni, Lightner explained that it was done for both financial reasons and to create a clearer image for the school.

It was named for William Roberts McDaniel, whose association with the college spanned 65 years from his days as a student to professor, administrator and trustee.

"People thought we were a state school, and we're not in Western Maryland. They already have a college there, and it's Frostburg," he said with a laugh. "It also pushed us up in the alphabet, and applications doubled after the name change."

"Students who come here love the place," Lightner said. "They become family and love the place as much as I do. I'm not married, I have no children. 'The Hill' is my family."

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