Jim McKee: Kearney’s Learning Legacy | Nebraska
Today, we think of Kearney as the home of the University of Nebraska at Kearney, and perhaps recall its earlier role as a state normal college, as well as the city as home to a trade school.
There is another educational institution in Kearney’s past, which graduated as Nebraska Governor, State Representative, State Senator, U.S. Senator and later even served as a camp German prisoners of war, but who is now largely forgotten.
Around 1890, the United Brethren Church investigated Kearney as a possible site for a denominational academy. The city bought into the concept and although it offered 25 acres of land as a site and even offered financial assistance to begin construction, the church instead located its school in York.
In 1891, the Episcopal Church, led by the Reverend Anson Graves, chose the Kearney site and established the coeducational Platte Collegiate Institute of Higher Education in the Kearney East Lawn area. Graves became the school’s principal, with Clarence A. Murch and his wife Marcia joining the teaching staff. Virtually at the same time, the Episcopal Church established Worthington Academy north of Lincoln, which burned down and closed six years later.
Classes at Kearney began in September 1892, with many students arriving on the town’s new electric trams. The campus housed “three large, practical buildings” and housed nine departments, including college prep. Tuition for a 40-week year was set at $120, paid in advance, or a 10-week tuition of $10 plus $5 for room and $20 for board.
The school survived the Depression of 1893, which closed many institutions, with “generous assistance from the East”, but in the fall of 1898 changed its educational philosophy, becoming the Kearney Military Academy for Boys . Interestingly, a few remaining girls were also allowed to stay under the new manager, Reverend EP Chittenden.
In late 1900, the Omaha World-Herald reported that a disagreement between Chittenden and Professor Russell had escalated into a “full-scale mutiny”. Russell and about 40 students and a few faculty members stormed the campus and headed for the Midway Hotel. Russell tendered his resignation, saying he had not been treated fairly, and announced that he would start a new school.
Graves intervened and, after an investigation, determined that Chittenden’s explosive temper had forced a number of students to be expelled. Chittenden resigned and Russell was reinstated.
The school rebounded, and by 1905 enrollment had increased to the point that students seeking admission had to be turned away. In response to the growth, FG Keens donated $10,000, which was matched by a Mrs. Cochran, enabling the construction of a new building named Cochran Hall.
The $50,000, three-story, reinforced concrete and brick hall, electrically lit and steam-heated included the warden’s quarters, an infirmary, a chapel and rooms for 80 cadets. The hall was completed in December 1906 and dedicated on January 1, 1907, with a speech by William Jennings Bryan.
Perhaps the school’s best-known student was Dwight Palmer Griswold, who was born in Harrison in 1893, graduated from Gordon High School, attended Kearney Military Academy in 1910, was elected to Nebraska House in 1920, to the Nebraska Senate in 1925, became Nebraska’s 25th Governor in 1940, and was elected to the United States Senate in 1952.
During the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, 87 students were affected and five died. Enrollment plummeted at the end of World War I, and from 1919 to 1923 three buildings suffered severe fire damage and the school closed.
Professor Murch opened a business school at Kearney Opera House which lasted 10 years, closing when Kearney Normal School opened. The Military Academy, meanwhile, stood empty until it was donated to the town of Kearney, with the buildings turned into the NYA’s youth camp and learning center.
At the end of World War II, POWs were seen as a means to meet the agricultural production goals of the United States War Department, prompting the opening of approximately 18 small POW camps. Germans in Nebraska. About 300 prisoners were housed at the 35-acre Kearney Military Academy under Lieutenant Napier, who began treating prisoners like men instead of cattle, with excellent results.
Farmers in the Gibbon area contracted all Kearney prisoners for the spring of 1945, but by the end of the year all Nebraska subcamps were closed.
In 1948 the school was again renovated, becoming St. Luke’s Lutheran Hospital, which closed in 1952 and was converted into a nursing home in 1953. In 1973 it housed 126 residents and is today now run by the Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society. , with only the oft-renovated Cochran Hall remaining from the old military academy.
Historian Jim McKee, who always writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of Journal Star or [email protected]