Since 1872, Concord University has established a distinguished legacy of a quality education for many generations of families.
"All our past acclaims our future," wrote the English poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, who was born in 1837, the same year as Mercer County, the home of Concord University, was formed in old Virginia.
In the 1840's, to attract settlers, Colonel Henderson French established a land company in Mercer County. The early settlers felt the need for a church, and, in 1858, Colonel French gave land for this purpose. Captain William Holroyd, a licensed Methodist preacher, helped build the church, and French asked Holroyd's wife, Sarah, to name it. On the day of dedication, she said: "This church is where all denominations shall worship together in harmony, sweet fellowship and concord, and it shall be named 'Concord Church.'
The settlement also was called "Concord Church." A post office was established after the Civil War, and the University got its name when, on February 28, 1872, the West Virginia Legislature passed "an Act to locate a Branch State Normal School, in Concord Church, in the County of Mercer."
But land and a building were needed, and no State funds were appropriated. Five families-The Fannings, Frenches, Holroyds, Martins, and Vermillions-principally were responsible for meeting the challenge and getting the school established. Classes started on May 10, 1875, with 70 students. Captain James Harvey French was the first principal, and he served until his death in 1891.
Eventually, State appropriations for a new brick building were secured; the building was completed in 1887 on the site of the present Athens Middle School, and an additional appropriation in 1895 enabled it to be considerably enlarged.
In 1896, due to confusion with another West Virginia post office in Hampshire County called "Concord," the name of the town was changed to "Athens," an obvious choice of the old Greek city for a community that was a center of learning. But the school kept "Concord" as its name.
A tragic fire destroyed the handsome school building in November of 1910. The campus was moved to its present site, and a new building was completed in 1912 (Old Main) that currently is known as Marsh Hall.
Although firmly established, the essential character of the institution changed little during its first half century. It was small, rural, and isolated. Much instruction was only at the secondary level, and the two-year "standard normal" diplomas exceeded baccalaureate degrees through 1936. Until 1922, the only building on the present campus was "Old Main."
During the administration of Dr. C.C. Rossey (1918-1924), residence halls for women (the former McComas Hall) and men (Holroyd), and a gymnasium were built. Also, the academic program was upgraded considerably.
Since 1929, except for the ill-fated "merger" with Bluefield State College (1973-1976), Concord has experienced outstanding growth in enrollment, physical plant, curriculum and the quality of its faculty.
The administration of Dr. J. Frank Marsh (1929-1945) brought the University full national accreditation in 1931; also the institution changed its name twice, from "Concord State Normal School" to "Concord State Teachers College" in 1931, to "Concord College" in 1943, and to Concord University in 2004. The "standard normal" program was abolished in 1936. Marsh also greatly expanded the physical plant: an addition to the gymnasium; a President's House and five faculty homes; a swimming pool; additional residence halls for women (Sarvay) and men (White); a library (named for Marsh); and, a home management demonstration house.
The new President's House (1932) was built on State property (probably illegally!) with borrowed funds; Marsh personally paid monthly rent for most of the thirteen years he and his family occupied the home until the debt was satisfied. The president's wife, Florence, enjoyed entertaining, and hardly a week passed without a dinner, a formal reception or a small party for faculty and students, State Officials, guest lecturers and artists and friends. During the 1930's, overnight guests included Lowell Thomas, Amelia Earhart, Will Durant, Carl Sandburg and Metropolitan Opera stars Susanne Fisher and Muriel Dickson. During her bachelor son's presidency (1959-1973), Mrs. Marsh once again was hostess and presided over numerous social functions in the official residence. At the end of her son's presidency, still active at age 79, she had served for 30 years as Concord's "first lady."
During WWII, the University experienced campus-wide change of demographics as young men went off to war, to leave a student population composed mainly of young ladies, until 1943. That year, the University housed the U.S. Army Air Corp's 15th College Training Detachment. The program, which lasted throughout the war, brought classes of young soldiers in to train them as Army Pilots. They received both military and college credit training during their time here. The cadets, even after they left Athens, left their impression on the townspeople. In 1993, a special reunion was held of all known 15th C.T.D. Cadets. This extraordinary group of gentlemen composes an honored part of Concord's Alumni Association even today.
During Virgil Stewart's administration (1945-1959), the University experienced postwar growth in enrollment and physical plant. The Science Hall was built, a small temporary music building was erected, housing units for married students constructed, and a new athletic field developed.
Dr. Joseph F. Marsh Jr. son of the former president, served as president from 1959 to 1973. Additions to the campus during his administration were: the College Center (Student Center); new residence halls (Wilson, Wooddell and Twin Towers); additional married student housing; additions to the administration building; The Alexander Fine Arts Center; Witherspoon Park (faculty housing); The Leslie R. and Ruby Webb Carter Center (health and physical education); Callaghan Stadium; and the Maintenance Building. Also, the younger Marsh continued the expansion of the curriculum, emphasized quality and recruited a cosmopolitan faculty.
In 1973, the West Virginia Board of Regents had a bill introduced in the Legislature to merge Concord and Bluefield State colleges, which caused an uproar. All constituencies of Concord opposed the proposal. Although the bill failed even to get out of committee and died, the Regents pressed the matter after the Legislature adjourned and proceeded with an "administrative" merger. Since Marsh opposed the merger, he was fired and became president of a college in Pennsylvania. Dr. Billy L. Coffindaffer was appointed president of both Concord and Bluefield State, but after only two years of turmoil the Regents concluded (as Marsh had testified before the Senate Education Committee) that the arrangement would not work, announced that a return to separate administrations would take place in 1976, and appointed Dr. James Rowley as acting president during the interim.
With the administrative merger abolished, Concord enthusiastically welcomed Dr. Meredith N. Freeman as its new president in 1976. During his nine-year tenure, most of the wounds were healed, and once again enrollment increased and new academic programs were established. The physical plant was expanded with a major addition to the J. Frank Marsh Library and the development of Anderson Field.
Concord's current president, Dr. Jerry L. Beasley, assumed office on July 1, 1985, upon the retirement of Dr. Freeman. Beasley, originally from Hinton in Summers County, is a southern West Virginian who has chosen to remain and work in the Mountain State. During his tenure here the University’s enrollment has continued to grow, and Concord developed the largest endowment of any West Virginia public college. In the late 1980's and early 1990's, the Physical Plant at Concord saw several major changes. McComas Hall (Women's residence hall), the College Theatre, and the Old Gym were torn down. However, the Administration and Science buildings enjoyed a several million-dollar renovation that modernized the buildings.
During Dr. Beasley's administration, Concord has received national notice for its progressive efforts. These include the student volunteer organization HAPIN; the Summer Academy and Teacher's Institute, enriching learning in West Virginia secondary schools; the Concord Quest for Scholars; and the Bonner Scholars Program. Concord is the only state-assisted college chosen to participate in the entire Bonner Scholars program. There are now over 80 Bonner Scholars at work in West Virginia and beyond, learning what it means to lead by serving. Beasley’s administration also established a "Beckley Center" for Concord and developed a master's program in Teacher Education. Master's programs are also being developed for Social Work and Business Administration.
The first light of Concord was a flickering candle, but the flame did not die. Today, the light burns brightly. In the future, the light of Concord University will shine more widely and strongly. (Adapted from an earlier piece by J.F.M.)