Peru State College Ready to Celebrate 150 Years in Southeast Nebraska

The Peru State College campus in Peru, Nebraska. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)
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June 16, 2017 - 6:45am

Tucked into rolling hills in the southeast corner of Nebraska, a college campus is celebrating an impressive anniversary. Peru State College was deeded into existence as the first state-supported college 150 years ago this Tuesday. The school has had its ups and downs, but has survived as an important part of the state’s public education system.

The Peru State College campus features old oaks trees, red brick buildings, lots of green grass and a sense of history. It’s been there just about as long as Nebraska has been a state and it’s mostly because of the perseverance of an early Nebraska state senator named T.J. Majors. He wanted a college in Peru and agreed to a deal with his senate colleagues.

“If he would support putting not only the liberal arts campus, but the ag campus, the penitentiary, the state capitol and the insane asylum all in Lincoln, that in exchange for his support of putting all that in Lincoln, they would support putting the first normal school here,” Peru State College history professor Sara Crook said.    

Peru State College history professor Sara Crook. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

The normal school was basically a teacher’s college, but it got things started and became the first state-supported college in Nebraska on June 20, 1867. The first classes were held later that October.

“Because of the foresight of T.J. Majors to get this school as a normal school, that made it the first higher education institution, state-affiliated,” Crook said. “I think that probably gave it its niche in terms of having a distinction that a lot of others didn’t have.”     

Majors nurtured the school through its early years.

“It was sort of his pet project and he had a lifelong intense connection with seeing it prosper,” Peru State College history professor Spencer Davis said.

Through a number of different name changes over the decades, the school was more than just a place to learn.

Peru State College history professor Spencer Davis. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“The campus hosted events, debates, music. It had art displays,” Davis said. “So it was a kind of regional cultural center as well.”

Fast forward 150 years and it’s hard to miss the presence of Majors and other school founders, people like William Daily, who gave $500 to help start the school and served on its board for the first ten years. Peru State College now has about 2,500 students, 1,000 on campus and about 1,500 online and graduate students. Those pioneers knew a state-supported college was an important building block for early Nebraska.      

“They realized that this area needed educational opportunities,” Peru State College president Dr. Dan Hanson said. “They thought it was the best way to improve life for their children, to improve lives for their communities and the state of Nebraska was to provide higher education.”  

Since Hanson has been at the helm, Peru State has seen a rebirth of sorts. About $60 million worth of campus improvements have turned the school into a hidden jewel, with upgraded buildings, a new entrance and a new football stadium. The school is currently renovating its theater building that’s been around since the 1930’s. Hanson believes Peru State has survived significant lean times and threats of closure over the years because of local support.

Peru State College historical sign. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“It starts with a really loyal alumni who I think because of the small-college experience, they just have a real love for this place,” Hanson said. “The local community leaders and the people in the communities have seen this really positive interaction with the college over all these years so they know it’s just part of the fabric of southeast Nebraska.”

Dan Sullivan is an editor with the Omaha World-Herald and has finished a commemorative book about Peru State College’s history and 150th anniversary.

Peru State College president Dr. Dan Hanson. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“Almost every point where there’s been a major era in the state’s history, Peru has somehow either responded to it or been affected by it,” Sullivan said. “So they really do tie together. It’s no coincidence that they’re both 150. The school was part of the state’s foundation and has been with it every step of the way.”

Nebraska Senator Dan Watermeier represents District 1, where Peru State College is located. He thinks the school’s longevity is all about a local connection.

“I think the reason it’s around is because we have great support locally in southeast Nebraska, even from Iowa, Missouri, Kansas,” Watermeier said. “There’s a lot of support for Peru State College and they use it. It used to be deemed as more of a teacher’s college, and now it just reaches out to so many things. It’s far-reaching.”    

Peru State College will celebrate its sesquicentennial on Tuesday, June 20, with events in the afternoon and evening.



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