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College trustee and Professor of Mathematics Emeritus explains to his Jan Term class that the theatre in Alumni Hall was designed to mimic a European opera house.

‘Fearless and Bold’ author takes students on Jan Term trip through college history

Jim Lightner
January 14, 2014

Where on campus is the portrait of Blanche Ward, wife of third president Albert Norman Ward? Who founded the college – and why was it named Western Maryland? Where is the Elderdice Theatre, and for whom is it named?

The 16 students in “Everything You Want to Know about Western Maryland/McDaniel College” are finding answers to these questions and many more as they explore the rich heritage of the college under the unparalleled expertise of the professor who literally wrote the book.

Their professor is Jim Lightner – 1959 alumnus, Professor of Mathematics Emeritus, trustee, college historian and author of the more than 700-page volume, “Fearless and Bold: A History of McDaniel College, 1866-2002.” No one knows more about the college’s history and the stories that breathe life into her triumphs and trials than Lightner.

While the Jan Term class is rooted in “Fearless and Bold,” Lightner sends his students on “scavenger hunts” to find portraits, cornerstones and information tucked into McDaniel’s nooks and crannies. He sparks their discussions and takes them on daily tours of sections of campus pertinent to that day’s decade.

And that’s when the real magic happens.

They pace out the footprint of Old Main where the stately building once stood atop “the Hill.” They chart the additions over the years – and actually see the enormity of the building that once was the college.

Surrounded by his students in Alumni Hall, Lightner talks about the theatre design that mimics a European opera house, about nearly a century of wooden seats and the slightly risqué practice of allowing men and women to sit next to each other where the women’s side and the men’s side met in the middle.

“I guess they figured they couldn’t get in too much trouble in the middle of the theatre,” says Lightner, who planned the course to not only give his students an appreciation of the Western Maryland/McDaniel people who have gone before but also to introduce them to historical research.

Moving on and sliding into pews in Little Baker Chapel, the students learn that the current organ is an amalgamation of two Baker Chapel organs and an organ from Alumni Hall. The visible pipes are original – repainted and re-gilded – but from the organ bought by then-president T.H. Lewis, stored and forgotten in the chapel’s basement, and discovered and recycled in the 1990s for the chapel’s centennial celebration.

Senior Michael Gainor, a Religious Studies major from Potomac, Md., can’t get enough – he revels in the long, proud history of what will soon be his alma mater.

“Caleb O’Connor is my hero,” says Gainor, talking about a former student and later friend of William McDaniel who should have graduated from the college in the late 1800s but didn’t, yet was a devoted supporter and alumni association member until his death in 1956. O’Connor is credited with the composition or lyrics of more than 200 songs, including many songs about the college and Yale’s “Down the Field,” according to “Fearless and Bold.”

In the late 1930s, O’Connor sat with McDaniel, then in his 70s and bedridden on the second floor of the house the college built for him behind the president’s house, and watched and described to his friend Billy Mac the football games as they were played on Hoffa Field.

In fact, O’Connor’s ashes were spread on the hill overlooking the field – and Gainor grins as he explains that he and his friends “pray to Caleb” during the home games.

Seniors Laura Dudley and Alan Lyons find the early struggles of the college’s founders particularly inspiring.

“It is really interesting how the college got out of debt and built eight or nine buildings in a decade between 1890 and 1900,” says Dudley, a Communication major from Olney, Md.

Lyons agrees.

“I was surprised at how many people were involved in the college’s beginnings who simply didn’t know what they were doing and had no idea how to start a college,” says the Political Science and International Studies major from Westminster, Md. “Any rational person would have pulled their money out and left, but they were committed to their idea and they did it.”  

Curious?

  • The portrait of Blanche Ward hangs in Elderdice Hall in the alcove outside of the Academic Affairs Office.
  • Westminster teacher Fayette Buell, founded the college with the planning and fund-raising support of the Rev. J.T. Ward, who would become the first president. Initial financial support came from Isaac Baile and John Smith, president of the Western Maryland Railroad who would become the first president of the college’s Board of Trustees.
  • The Elderdice Understage Theatre is in Alumni Hall. It was named for Dorothy Elderdice, class of 1911, who was “a well-known dramatist, costumer, teacher and early suffragist and feminist,” according to “Fearless and Bold.” She was Alumna of the Year in 1974 and the theatre was named in her honor in 1984.
 
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