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Huskie Pride

DeKALB – Jerrold Zar of DeKalb has witnessed firsthand the growth of Northern Illinois University through the years.

Zar attended NIU as a student from 1958 to 1962, graduating with a degree in biology. In 1968, he returned to NIU as a faculty member and taught biology for 34 years.

On Thursday, Jan. 30, Zar returned to campus to attend a reception at the Holmes Student Center to kick off NIU’s 125th anniversary.

The evening’s reception included a sampling of the anniversary exhibit, photos with Mission and Mini Mish, speeches and performances by NIU’s concert choir, pep band, Silverettes and the NIU Black Choir.

“NIU has changed and grown through the years,” said Zar, who also is on the anniversary’s planning committee. “There’s more diversity, more students, more academic fields of study. I’d say there’s now an expansion of opportunities and a variety of fields and disciplines in which you can get a great education.”

Matt Streb, chief of staff for the office of NIU’s president and co-chairman for the 125th anniversary planning committee, described Thursday’s event as an “opportunity for staff, faculty, administrators, students and alumni to get together and celebrate NIU’s history.”

“It’s important to celebrate NIU’s past and look toward our future,” Streb said. “Understanding our past allows us to know where we’re going in the future. Everyone at NIU is doing wonderful things, we’re changing the future.”

Other upcoming events include a lecture titled, “Women at Northern: The First 25 Years,” at 6:30 p.m. March 24 in the Sandburg Auditorium in the Holmes Student Center, a Campus Anniversary Celebration from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. July 15 at the Holmes Student Center and the 125th closing convocation at 3 p. m. Dec. 1 in the Altgeld Hall Auditorium. For more information and a full list of anniversary events, visit

Meg Junk, NIU staff member on the 125th anniversary planning committee, said Thursday’s kickoff and the upcoming events are a way to show off Huskie pride.

“This is just the kickoff event for anniversary events all year long,” Junk said. “It’s about celebrating our history, but it’s also about all the changes NIU has gone through, the struggles we’ve faced, the movements we were a part of and the way we’ve evolved through the years.”

To celebrate NIU’s 125th anniversary, photos and stories of the university’s 125 key moments will be updated monthly on

“NIU has a fascinating history, and it’s always been more about the people,” said Melanie Magara, director of communications for the Office of the President. “It has always been NIU’s tradition to meet students where they are. Our educational traditions and close relationships with our students have been continuous through the years.”

The early history of NIU

On May 22, 1895, Gov. John Peter Altgeld signed legislation providing for the creation of a normal school in northern Illinois. Normal schools trained high school graduates to become teachers.

DeKalb competed with other northern Illinois towns to be the location of the normal school. Dixon, Rockford, Polo, Oregon, Fulton, Freeport and DeKalb were the main competitors, but it came down to a contest between DeKalb and Rockford.

According to NIU’s 125 Key Moments, the political connections of Isaac Ellwood and the large financial and land donations by Isaac Ellwood, Jacob Haish and Joseph Glidden swayed the selection committee.

On July 15, 1895, the decision to select DeKalb as the school’s location was announced and DeKalb celebrated with fireworks, flags and a 15-minute salute from every factory whistle in town.

Northern Illinois State Normal School opened its doors to 146 female and 27 male students on Sept. 11, 1899. Sixteen students who already had college credits – what we would call transfer students today – were the first to graduate from NISNS. Thirteen women and three men received their teaching degrees from NISNS on June 21, 1900.

Changes through the years

NIU has grown through the years, expanding its student body from 173 students in 1899 to 16,609 students for the 2019 fall semester. NIU also has expanded from being a school for teachers to now having seven degree-granting colleges and 39 academic departments.

The name “Northern Illinois University” also is fairly new and dates back to 1957. The university was known as Northern Illinois State Normal School from 1899 to 1920, Northern Illinois State Teachers College from 1921 to 1954, and Northern Illinois State College from 1955 to 1956.

The mascot has only been the Huskie since 1940. Previous mascots included “the Profs,” “the Cubs” and “the Cardinals.” The school’s original official colors were yellow and white and were changed to cardinal and black in 1906.

When the school was first opened, Altgeld Hall was the only building. The DeKalb campus now has 765 acres and more than 60 buildings. Classes also can be taken online or at the Chicago, Hoffman Estates, Naperville or Rockford centers.

In addition to its many successes, NIU has also seen dark times, including Vietnam War protests and the school shooting that left five students dead on Feb. 14, 2008. A moment of reflection is observed on campus every year in observation of the anniversary, with bells tolling five times at 3:06 p.m. Forward, Together Forward Scholarships are funded by gifts from more than 1,800 individuals and are awarded each year in memory of the students that were killed on campus.

Looking Forward

NIU is continuing to change, expand and grow. Last week, NIU announced that it will be the first college in Illinois to eliminate standardized test scores in general admission and merit scholarship decisions, a step which university administrators say will make college more accessible to all students.

NIU also has set a goal of enrolling 18,000 students by 2023. NIU saw its largest enrollment in 2009, when there were 24,424 students enrolled.

During her speech at the reception, NIU President Lisa Freeman said that what sets NIU apart from other university is its “deep commitment to values: curiosity and creativity, equity and inclusion, ethics and integrity, service and stewardship.”

“When you consider [the values], we are really all students, constantly learning and developing and getting better at each turn together,” Freeman said.

In the conclusion of her speech, Freeman said she looks forward with optimism at what NIU will accomplish in its future.

“We have been invested in our people, students, our campus, we’re removing barriers to a college education and working to narrow ethnic gaps, we’re making innovation and collaboration our priorities,” she said. “We are simply relentless in our desire to be the most welcoming community to faculty, staff, students and our region, [and] for that I thank you. Thank you for being part of a 125-year foundation from which amazing things will grow.”

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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