The University of Minnesota campus is beautiful, to be sure. But have you ever stopped to wonder about the people behind the names inscribed on the buildings? Among the University Presidents and Deans, here are a few other outstanding folks whose dedication to education and civic life earned them a place in the physical and philosophical lives of students for years to come:
Maria Sanford was one of the first female professors in the U.S. Using her dowry funds to pay for her training, she was hired in 1880 by University of Minnesota President Dr. William Watts Folwell – a hire he considered one of his proudest accomplishments. A professor of rhetoric and elocution, she was a champion of women’s rights, supported the education of African Americans, and pioneered the concepts of adult education and parent-teacher organizations. She was an accomplished and prolific public lecturer and was a leader in the conservation and beautification of the state of Minnesota. Sanford Hall on the U of M campus (the first women’s dormitory) is named in her honor, as is Sanford Middle School in Minneapolis and Maria L. Sanford Elementary School in Montevideo. In 1958, 38 years after her passing, she was chosen to be one of two representatives of MN in the Statuary Hall at the US Capitol.
Ada Comstock had a lifelong dedication to academia. Born in Moorhead, MN – where you can still visit her home, which has been designated a historic site by the city and the MN Historical Society – Comstock graduated high school in 1891 at age 15. She studied at the University of Minnesota for two years before transferring to Smith College. She came back for a graduate course in teaching at Moorhead Normal School (now Minnesota State University Moorhead) before pursuing her master’s degree at Columbia University (whew!). She was 23. Comstock began her non-student career at the U of M in the rhetoric department under Maria Sanford. At 24, she was promoted to the position of instructor and, within seven years, she was appointed the school’s first Dean of Women (and a full professor two years after that). Minnesota’s loss was Smith College’s gain. In 1912, Comstock became Dean and then acting President of first Smith College, and then Radcliffe College. In 1943, she convinced Harvard to accept classroom coeducation. Having lived a life with room for academia and not much more, Comstock married Yale professor emeritus Wallace Notestein a week after her retirement at age 67. In addition to Comstock Hall at the U of M, Ada Comstock is honored on buildings at Radcliffe and Smith as well.
William J. Murphy
William J. Murphy neither attended nor taught at the University of Minnesota, but he did endow a portion of his estate to the University for the purpose of “establishing and maintaining a course of instruction in journalism.” William J. Murphy’s career was initially aimed in the direction of law, but during his time practicing in Grand Forks, North Dakota, he purchased the daily newspaper, the Plain Dealer. He built up the circulation and influence of the paper before selling it a few years later. He must have found this kind of “flipping” intoxicating because he went on to similarly buy, improve, and sell the Grand Forks Gas & Electric Company and the Crookston Water Works Power & Light Company before purchasing (along with Gilbert A. Pierce) the oldest daily newspaper in the Northwest, the Minneapolis Tribune. When Murphy bought the Tribune, it was in debt, had sub-standard business management and was using out-of-date equipment. Under Murphy’s ownership (Murphy was the sole owner from 1893 until his death in 1918), the paper was an early experimenter with the use of color, brought the first Mergenthaler typesetting machines to Minneapolis, and introduced the first cartoon on May 4, 1894. Before Murphy’s estate contribution to the University of Minnesota, journalism on campus occupied a more ephemeral space in the form of The Minnesota Daily (est. 1900) and the first continuing courses in journalism, developed by William Kirkwood, the director of publications at the College of Architecture. The establishment of a journalism department in 1922 and the erection of Murphy Hall in 1939 gave journalism a dedicated home at the U of M.
Roy Wilkins was raised in the Rondo Neighborhood of Saint Paul. He graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1923 with a degree in Sociology. While at the U, he worked as a journalist at The Minnesota Daily, the editor of The Appeal, and after graduation, he became the editor of The Call. In 1931, he moved to New York City to work as assistant NAACP secretary. From here, his life centered around activism during the Civil Rights Movement. He served as an advisor to the War Department during WWII, co-founded the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, became the executive director of the NAACP, helped to organize and participated in the March on Washington, testified before many Congressional hearings, conferred with Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter, served as chair of the US delegation to the International Conference on Human Rights. Wilkins remains a somewhat controversial character in Civil Rights history: His belief in achieving reform through legislative means and his opposition to militancy brought him into conflict with younger activists. He was also criticized by some of his peers, including W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, for his cautious approach, his suspicion of grassroots organizations and his positive attitude towards anticommunism. The Roy Wilkins Center for Human Relations and Social Justice was established at the University of Minnesota in 1992 and Wilkins Hall was erected on campus in his honor in 1996.
Wylle B. McNeal
Wylle B. McNeal directed the U of M’s School of Home Economics (now the Department of Family Social Science) from 1923 until 1950. A champion of new programs for women throughout her career, the University saw the number of women receiving bachelor’s degrees grow by 371 percent during her tenure. McNeal Hall – the current home of the apparel design, graphic design, interior design, housing studies, and retail merchandising programs and the Goldstein Museum of Design – was named in her honor in 1960.
Izaak Maurits Kolthoff
Izaak Maurits Kolthoff is considered the father of modern analytical chemistry. Born in the Netherlands, Kolthoff showed an early interest in chemistry. Discovering, however, that the University of Utrecht required students to have studied Latin or Greek, Kolthoff (who was already fluent in Dutch, English, French and German) decided to pursue a degree in pharmacy instead. When the language requirement was lifted seven years later, Kolthoff added a PhD in chemistry to his “Apotheker” degree. By the time he received his PhD, Kolthoff had already published 32 papers across multiple fields. Kolthoff researched and lectured at the University of Utrect on electrochemistry until the University of Minnesota offered him a one-year appointment in 1927 – which became his permanent position as a professor, researcher and chief of the analytical division of the school of chemistry. During WWII, Kolthoff worked on a research program backed by the US government to develop a low-temperature “cold process” for producing synthetic rubber. He also served as chairman of the Committee on Analytical Research Methods and worked with the Rockefeller Foundation to relocate scientists who were persecuted by Nazis in Europe. He spent much of his life working with scientific and political leaders on issues he felt strongly about, including opposition of nuclear weapons testing and promoting peace. He was accused by the House Un-American Activities Committee of belonging to subversive organizations – perhaps because of his clear opposition to Senator McCarthy’s activities – but had no actions taken against him. Many regard Kolthoff as key to elevating the reputation of analytical chemistry and transforming chemical analysis from a qualitative to a quantitative science. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, was involved in founding the American Chemical Society (ACS) Division of Analytical Chemistry, and the Analytical Chemistry Division of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, was the first recipient of the ACS’s first Award for Excellence in Education, and served on the editorial board of two ACS journals. Kolthoff retired in 1962, but did not stop working. By the time he passed away in 1993, he had written 945 papers and was estimated to have touched the lives of more than 1,100 doctorate chemists. He is honored by the University of Minnesota in its 1972 chemistry building, Kolthoff Hall, the I.M. Kolthoff Enrichment Awards for Undergraduate Students and the Kolthoff Lectureship in Chemistry, which brings preeminent scientists to the University for seminars and workshops.
Kathleen Ridder was a lifelong lover of sports. It was, perhaps, the drive she acquired through athletics that helped her rack up titles such as educator, activist, writer and philanthropist over her 94 years. Born Kathleen Culman, she moved to Duluth with her husband, Robert Ridder, in 1943, where she pursued a teacher’s degree at UMD before relocating to Saint Paul. She spent much of her life fighting for women’s access to education and athletics – a thread woven through all of her work. A supporter of the Republican party, she supported legalized abortion and the proposed the Equal Rights Amendment at the 1980 Republican National Convention. Ridder also served on nonprofit boards, University committees, the Met Council, the MN State Board of Human Rights, the Saint Paul Urban League and the Minnesota Foundation Board of Trustees. She established the U of M’s first endowment awarded to a female student-athlete (the Kathleen C. Ridder scholarship), collaborated with Marlene Johnson to set up the Minnesota Women’s Campaign Fund (an effort to encourage more women in political office), and she and her husband gifted $500,000 towards the building of the first women’s-only college ice hockey facility – Ridder Arena, home to Minnesota Golden Gophers women’s ice hockey. While her husband passed away before the arena was completed, Kathleen Ridder dropped the ceremonial first puck on opening night in 2002.
Barbara Barker Center for Dance
Barbara Barker led the U’s dance department from 1986 until she retired from teaching in 1998. Prior to her time at the U, Barker danced professionally with Ballet West in Salt Lake City and in revues at the Lido in Paris, and received an M.F.A from the University of Texas at Austin, where she also taught in its theater and American Studies programs. Perhaps most impressive is her work following her teaching career. Beginning in 1998, Barker was the guide of the de Mille Project – an attempt to document the choreography of Agnes de Mille. The project filmed dancers who had worked with de Mille as they taught their roles to young dancers. The project has been cited as a model of documentation by the National Initiative to Preserve American Dance. An authority on 19th Century American ballet and musical entertainment, Barker wrote Ballet or Ballyhoo: The American Careers of Maria Bonfanti, Rita Sangalli and Giuseppina Morlacchi and edited the memoirs of Bolossy Kiralfy, a 19th Century producer. At her death in 2002, she was working on a book about Agnes de Mille’s choreography. The Barbara Barker Center for Dance was built in 1999 and houses the U of M’s dance program.
The Darker Side
Just as Lake Calhoun’s name was recently reverted to its original Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska, due in part to John C. Calhoun’s pro-slavery stance, there are a few names on U of M campus buildings that are under consideration to be changed.
Lotus Coffman, University President from 1920 until 1938 and the eponym of Coffman Student Union, forced segregation on the campus by refusing black students admittance into certain white housing facilities. In addition, a task force comprised of students, faculty and staff are also urging for the renaming of Coffey Hall, Middlebrook Hall and Nicolson Hall due to the enforcement of anti-Semitic and racist practices by their namesakes: President Walter Coffey, Comptroller William Middlebrook, and Dean of Student Affairs Edward Nicolson.
A Fresh Perspective
Next time you are strolling around the University of Minnesota campus, we hope you find yourself inspired not only by the current energy and innovation, but also by the remarkable history woven throughout the grounds.
This story is made possible by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens of Minnesota.