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John Beuerlein’s pursuit of authenticity required a borrowed bell.
Beuerlein, the president of Drury University, said the handbell he held was borrowed from Ruth Sorenson, who was given the bell upon her retirement from Nixa Public Schools.
Before shaking the bell above his head, projecting its clear, shrill, tuned tone through the air, Beuerlein shared how Drury’s first president did the same thing 150 years ago from a classroom window in Burnham Hall.
“None of the students that were accepted that day were fit for college. They had to have additional training before they were prepared to take the classes that were considered college level classes in the United States,” Beuerlein said. “Six professors were hired to teach them, and at 1:30 in the afternoon, Drury’s first president, Dr. Nathan Jackson Morrison, stood out an open window on the second floor, and with a dinner bell borrowed from a local boarding house, signaled the beginning of classes.”
A century and a half later, Drury has more than 45,000 graduates spread out across the world, and educates them on a more than 90-acre campus with 45 buildings.
“May that sound ring in the next 150 years of Drury University,” Beuerlein said.
Founder’s Day convocation
The Springfield campus hosted a day of special events Monday to mark the school’s sesquicentennial. Before Monday’s bell ringing, students were assembled on a practice field to form a large “150,” recorded with drone video.
Afterward, Beuerlein and other university officials held a ceremonial dirt-turning for a freshly planted Burr oak tree, then met in Stone Chapel for a Founder’s Day Convocation.
The program featured Missouri Poet Laureate David Harrison reading his new poem, “Missouri,” and the debut performance of “To Freedom and Truth Be Restored,” written by Carlyle Sharpe and performed by Drury singers and musicians.
A discussion panel featured Beuerlein with past Drury presidents John Moore and Todd Parnell, as well as university archivist William Garvin.
The event seemed a little surreal for Chloe Harner and Abi Brightwell, two sophomores and Judge Warren White scholars.
“I haven’t been here very long, so to just think of how long all of this has been here,” Harner said. “There are a lot of people who have been here before us who have paved the way for what we are learning now. I’m feeling gratitude and excitement for the future.”
The event drew plenty of alumni, as well.
Educator and counselor Chris Wheat graduated in 1975, and felt like he could attend classes next semester.
“Being here on campus, it seems like I really haven’t left,” Wheat said. “I still feel like a student, actually.”
From small beginnings
Drury is taking a year to celebrate its past as it builds for the future. It was founded in 1873 as a way for its founders, a group of Congregationalist home missionaries, to establish a liberal arts college in Springfield similar to Dartmouth, Yale and Harvard in the Northeast.
In addition to educating students, Drury University played a central role in healing between the North and South of the U.S. Civil War. Springfield and the surrounding area was a moral and literal battleground.
“They wanted to create a school that would bring people together, and their recipe for doing that was education,” Beuerlein said. “They felt like if you could create a place where there was a spirit of liberal pursuit of the truth, in terms of bringing all points of view to the table for a civil discourse, you could do that.”
Monday’s ceremonies were a beginning of the yearlong celebrations. From an art exhibit to a national keynote speaker and much more, the university will mark the anniversary throughout the school year.
The university is also in the midst of its Fortify the Future fundraising campaign. According to its website, the $50 million campaign has so far raised more than $23 million for new buildings, endowments and student success services. Beuerlein, who earlier this month committed $1.5 million to the campaign, said the university is ahead of schedule meeting its goal, and may respond by pushing the target higher.
That campaign will be critical to ensuring another bell ringing after 150 more years.
“We are faced with the same hardships and adversity that all liberal arts universities are, in an environment where the value of a higher education is in question,” Beuerlein said. “People want to get degrees that lead immediately to jobs, and so they ignore all the other wonderful things there are to learn, that present themselves in this university setting.”