By Tim Leeds
At a time when Montana State University-Northern and other small Montana universities are struggling to fund programs and increase enrollment, Northern still has something to celebrate - its 75th anniversary.
"I think it's a time to reflect on the history of that institution and how it's kind of come along," said Chancellor Alex Capdeville, an alumnus of Northern. "When you think of the fact that that institution actually started at the beginning of the Depression era, it's a living testament in my mind to the commitment of Havre and the Hi-Line."
The university will start the commemoration with a ceremony and birthday party today at 4:30 p.m. on the East Hall lawn by the Student Union Building.
Capdeville said the celebration does come at a difficult time, with a high level of competition for students and funding. Any loss of funding or students is a major challenge to a university of Northern's size, he said.
Northern will continue with the tenacity it has shown for the last 75 years, changing and improving with the times as it has throughout its history, he said.
The start of the institution was modest, with classes taught in the old Havre High School, which later became Havre Junior High School, on Third Avenue and Seventh Street.
Classes later were also taught in East Hall. That building, formerly a city water pumping station, was on land granted to the college. It was demolished in 1980.
With more than 20 buildings sprawled on the campus between 11th and 13th streets, construction under way on the university's $4 million Applied Technology Center, and an enrollment of about 1,500 students - in 1929 Northern had 80 - the institution has come a long way.
"It has been really wonderful to see it grow and develop," said Antoinette "Toni" Hagener, who moved to Havre in 1949 when her husband started teaching at the college.
The science building at Northern is named after her husband, Lou Hagener, who started teaching college science classes when Northern still used the high school building. The college library was across the street in the basement of First Presbyterian Church, Toni Hagener added.
The story of Northern's beginning starts with the end of another institution: the U.S. Army's Fort Assinniboine 6 miles south of Havre.
The fort was built in 1879 and was abandoned in 1911. The Montana Legislature in 1913 established the Northern Montana Agricultural and Manual Training School to be located on the fort grounds, but no money was appropriated.
Some of the fort's reservation was used in 1915 to house North Montana Branch Experiment Station, now the Northern Agricultural Research Center, a Montana State University agricultural experiment station.
Havre's college had to wait more than a decade, when the Legislature in 1927 authorized the teaching of college classes in Havre but still didn't fund them. It wasn't until 1929 that the Legislature appropriated money for the college's operation.
A faculty of five teachers, including Northern President G.H. Vande Bogart, taught the 80 students the first year.
The school was first called Northern Montana College in 1931, and became Montana State University-Northern in 1994.
Toni Hagener, who wrote "A Northern Reflection" in 1979 with her husband and updated the history of Northern in 2000, said there wasn't much on the campus when they arrived.
"Originally we only had mud for roads," she added.
When the Hageners arrived, Cowan Hall was under construction - construction began in 1947 but was delayed by lack of funds. Pershing Hall was completed in 1934, and Donaldson Hall was finished in 1936. The Industrial Arts Building, now the Metals Technology Building, was built in 1945. Some student and faculty housing was brought in from Columbus and Hungry Horse, Hagener said.
Northern was first authorized to offer a four-year degree, in elementary education, in 1954.
Norm Gorder attended Northern during the 1938-39 school year, taking classes in the high school and Pershing Hall and one class in the basement of First Presbyterian Church. Gorder took business administration classes and core classes like English and mathematics at the college.
"It's a very fine part of my life," he said.
Gorder has been involved with the university ever since, including serving on its foundation board for eight years, participating in its alumni association and working on its scholarship committee.
He said his connection with Northern was helpful in his 49-year career with Heltne's Oil Co., in both the classes he took and the Northern students he hired as workers at Heltne's.
He and the college students learned a lot from each other, he added.
"They were getting an education and so was I," Gorder said.
He has known every president and chancellor at Northern, from Vande Bogart through Capdeville.
"They all dealt at Heltne's," he added, with a grin.
Bear Paw Development Corp. executive director Paul Tuss said the economic impact of Northern on the Hi-Line is enormous, from the numbers of employees and students - and their money - to the impact of the educated workforce it provides and the programs and services it offers to the area.
Recent and planned additions are increasing the impact, he said. Creation of a two-year plumbing program at the university, the construction of the Applied Technology Center and a business incubator being planned at the college are examples, he said.
Capdeville said a lot has changed - like the addition of Brockmann Center and Vande Bogart Library - since he started taking classes at Northern in 1965. He earned a two-year certificate, a bachelor's degree and a master's degree at Northern.
The university is still looking to the future, he said, focusing on attracting students from two-year tribal colleges and from Canada, and trying to regain students from eastern Montana. Many of them had been leaving the state, especially to go to North Dakota, he said.
As important as additions like the Applied Technology Center and the plumbing program will be to the university, smaller improvements will also help Northern, he said. The university has been upgrading its dormitories, remodeling classrooms, and repaving streets and parking lots.
"I think that's going to make a big difference," Capdeville said.