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Celebrating Olivet College's History of Education for All
Feb 20, 2013

By seniors Rebecca Anderson and Sarah K. Smith

Since 1894, Olivet College students and employees have come together to celebrate the founding of the institution by Reverend John J. Shipherd in 1844. However, the term “Founders’ Day” was not coined for the event until 1924. Olivet College was one of the first colleges in the United States to admit women and minorities, which delayed the retrieval of a state charter until 1859. Four years later, Olivet College graduated its first class, which consisted of three women. But this is not where the history of Olivet College begins; the story starts with Shipherd’s journey to Michigan in 1843.

In November of that year, Shipherd left Oberlin, Ohio on horseback and headed toward the Eaton County spot on the Grand River, now known as Delta Mills, where he planned to build his new college. While riding north from Marshall in Calhoun County, Shipherd lost his way in a dense growth of oak trees in Walton Township. He spent the night in the log house of Mr. Hiram Burroughs, and was redirected to his destination in the morning. However, the road was barely visible, and he soon found himself back at the hill covered in oak trees. He did this once or twice more before finally discovering the road to Delta Mills. Looking back upon his ventures around the hill in Walton Township, Shipherd could not help but remember the beauty of the location and “feel God’s calling” toward the land. Shipherd decided to build his college on the hill, naming the location Olivet after the Mount of Olives from the Bible. On Feb. 24, 1844, Shipherd returned to Olivet with 39 missionaries and founded a manual labor school that provided an education to anyone, regardless of gender, race or financial means.

Whether it was luck or divine intervention that called Shipherd to Olivet, the college community is thankful for the man who traveled from Ohio to establish the institution. “Without Olivet, I wouldn’t be the person I am today,” said Josh Walle, a senior from Holt. “I have a wonderful son, an amazing Greek family, and more friends that I can count; and for that I am grateful.”

Recent graduate Libby Lydy 12 added, “Attending Olivet College was one of the best decisions I have made. It helped me grow as an individual by offering opportunities to get involved around campus, and the relationships established with faculty and staff was truly a one-of-a-kind experience that has helped me build connections in the work force. I am continually thankful for my choice to attend Olivet.”

Founders’ Day is important to Olivet because it celebrates more than just the founding of the college; it celebrates the founding of a local community. Students, staff and community members have been celebrating Founders’ Day for over a century by participating in various activities. Annual events include a program and processional to Shipherd’s grave. Past special events include: scenes from the early days performed by various societies and the Union in 1924; dedication of the Barker-Cawood Education Library in 1972; presentation of the theological film “Dust and Destiny” in 1974; a potluck with reflections, recollections and folklore about Olivet in 1976; the installation of President Donald A. Morris in 1978; and the reenactment of the life of Sojourner Truth, a former slave and women’s rights activist, by Battle Creek Public School District educator Donna Collier-Turner in 2004.

This year, on Wednesday, Feb. 20, Founders’ Day events include:

12:15 p.m.-Founders’ Day trivia in the Kirk Center

1:30 p.m.-Founders’ Day program in the Olivet Congregational Church featuring keynote speaker Jason Conkin 97, regional vice president and commercial casualty underwriter for Arch Capital Group in Chicago; Procession to Father Shipherds grave for wreath laying ceremony; Cookies and hot chocolate in the Kirk Center

No matter the activity, the Olivet community comes together to celebrate the founding of the college by Shipherd. “Last year, I lit the Lamp of Learning and represented the students,” said Student Government Association President Branden Dyer, a junior from Charlotte. “The Lamp is significant for the college as a symbol of students’ quest for knowledge. It’s a tradition that is truly unique to the founding of Olivet College.”

Although, at the time, many laughed or scoffed at Shipherd’s and his missionaries’ vision of higher education open to all, he never wavered in his dedication to Olivet. According to Wolcott B. Williams in his book History of Olivet, It is easy to start a colony in the woods, but to start a college without buildings, money, or students must require faith, courage, hard work and self-denial.”

Olivet College, 169 years after its founding, continues to be a campus community that strives to provide education and opportunities to all who set foot on campus. With the college’s current vision, Charting the Course for Olivet College 2020 and Beyond, Olivet looks forward to the future of the institution by continuing to provide an opportunity to all students who want to obtain an education. Its rich history is embedded in the roots of the oak trees that surround the campus; and as they grow, so does Olivet.

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