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Column: Local residents made their community college possible

WORTHINGTON -- Thirty years after Worthington Junior College began classes in its 14th Street wing of Worthington High School, the college moved to its location on Lake Okabena's north shore. This was 1966. This time -- unlike the first time -- there was community hoopla.

The first building on the new campus, the only building to begin with, was scheduled for dedication on Turkey Day. The "grand opening" was made a major Turkey Day event. Featured speaker was Walter Mondale, then Minnesota's senior U.S. senator. There was a crowd; Worthington's community pride was stirred. Besides speaking, it was left for Senator Mondale to "seal the corner stone," which had been laid long before. By Turkey Day, the building was complete and the first classes had been convened.

In conversations that day, Mondale was briefed on the proposal to make two years of education beyond high school -- K-14 -- mandatory for a diploma. The argument was that a 12th-grade education, a standard laid out for the 19th century, was no longer sufficient for most young Americans entering the work force.

The Minnesota State Junior College board had pressed the Minnesota Legislature for approval of the K-14 proposal. Mondale agreed the U.S. Congress should give it study.

There was excitement for the college beyond the dedication of a new building on a sightly campus. Artemis Marie (Artie) Cale and her sister Ilma Cale, who lived on the family farm on Worthington's north side, had both died. It was announced they left a legacy of $25,400 to the WJC library. (It always must be noted that "in those days" $25,400 was counted a significant bequest.)

Night classes, which the college had offered since the 1950s, became more popular. People in the work force were learning a 12th-grade education was not adequate. By that Turkey Day of 1966, there were 111 students enrolled in night studies. A dormitory committee also was formed to attempt to bring a dorm to the new campus.

Everything said to this point gets ahead of a basic story:

For about a quarter-century, Worthington Junior College, like all Minnesota public junior colleges, was the responsibility of the local school board. Each year, District 518 authorized and paid a WJC budget.

It probably does not need to be said that a college was a heavy financial responsibility for a local school district.

The Minnesota legislature was pressed to begin underwriting some of the expenses of the state's junior colleges, just as it lent state support for freshmen and sophomores at the University of Minnesota and at Minnesota's state colleges. One of the leaders in the junior college lobbying effort was WJC's dean, W. Donald Olsen. Olsen, who was Worthington's college administrator for 31 years, became a familiar and respected figure among state legislators.

Somewhat reluctant at first, legislators began to respond favorably. State aid to junior colleges grew from one legislative session to the next until one day -- without a prior committee hearing, without a floor debate -- the House-Senate Compromise Committee discussed a budget proposal for the annual appropriations bill:

"We are authorizing so much money for Minnesota junior colleges -- and we have no way to guide how this money is spent -- we are authorizing so much money we ought to take over the colleges and make them state colleges."

So it was, via an amendment to an appropriations bill, the Minnesota State Junior College system was created and Worthington Junior College became a Minnesota education facility.


It must be noted --

The State of Minnesota did not build that first building dedicated on Turkey Day 1966. District 518 built that building, just as it had built the original WJC building. District 518 bought the land for the college campus from the estate of Walter Thompson, grandson of Worthington hotel builder Peter Thompson.

There was a substantial confidence by 1966 that Minnesota would act -- sooner than later -- to take responsibility for funding junior colleges. There also was apprehension that, without moving to construct a new building, WJC might be left in its existing 14th Street annex for a great long time -- or that the college might be shut down.

So it came to be:

The residents of Worthington, who authorized the creation of a college in the bleak year of 1935, authorized construction of a large and all-new building on a new, lakeside campus in 1965. Ultimately, Minnesota paid for the building and assumed full financial responsibility for the college.

It is Minnesota West Community and Technical College today, with campuses at Worthington, Canby, Granite Falls, Jackson and Pipestone, along with learning centers at Fairmont, Luverne, Marshall and Redwood Falls. It is sprawled across southwest Minnesota with locations in nine communities.

But it was authorized and begun by voters at Worthington and it then was moved into the new era by voters at Worthington. There might one day be a plaque memorializing those local residents, now largely gone, who showed selflessness and courage and who voted taxes upon themselves to create a college.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays, and this is the third ot three Reminiscing columns pertaining to Minnesota West's history.