Nestled in the rolling hills of the Bluegrass in, obviously, the center of the state, Centre College holds a unique, central place in the history of higher education in Kentucky. Founded in 1819, Centre continues to have the distinction of being the premier liberal arts college in the Commonwealth and one of the finest small colleges in the South. U. S. News & World Report ranks Centre in the Top Fifty liberal arts colleges in the nation. Centre alumni include two United States vice presidents and two Supreme Court justices, including Chief Justice Fred Vinson, and John Marshall Harlan, who gave a dissenting opinion in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896. [Plessy v. Ferguson held that the "separate but equal" provision of public accommodations by state governments is constitutional under the Equal Protection Clause.] It is not unusual for presidents of other colleges and universities across the South to send their sons and daughters to Centre.
We recently walked the sweeping lawns and tree-shaded walks of Centre when we took our son Wesley there to participate in the Governor’s Scholars Program. Wesley will be on the Centre campus for five weeks, and although we miss him dearly, we are grateful that he has this opportunity. [The GSP Program ended July 29.] Dr. Clarence Wyatt, a professor of History—a leading scholar of the Vietnam War—serves as the GSP campus director. Wesley will study, among other things, literature and creative writing under the direction of Bob Foshee, an emeritus master teacher at Louisville’s St. Francis High School. The literature part of the class will concentrate on the novels, short stories, essays, and poems of Kentucky writers. What better place to read Kentucky literature—and to write—than at Centre College where Kentucky writers, including Richard Taylor, Ed McClanahan, Morris Grubbs, and Maurice Manning, will visit the class, sharing their passion for literature and writing.
We moved Wesley into Nevin Hall, an L-shaped dormitory tucked neatly in between Stevenson House and Breckinridge Hall, and across the street from Old Centre, the main building completed in 1820. We then strolled past the inviting benches of an outdoor classroom and an ancient Beech tree, past “the college centre” and a modernistic “flame” sculpture with a Goethe quotation etched at its base. “Where the lights are brightest, the shadows are deepest.” We continued on past an old Carnegie Library building and Sutcliffe Hall to the Norton Center for the Arts, the site of the televised vice presidential debate in 2000. At Norton, we heard a moving address by Dr. John Roush, Centre’s charismatic president.
With its antique street lamps, landscaped walks, and park-like setting, Centre looks like a liberal arts college ought to look. But there is much more to Centre than just an aesthetically pleasing campus. Centre’s history gives it a unique place in Kentucky higher education. Not that the school’s past was always without difficulty. Enrollment dwindled dangerously during the Civil War; Centre had only seven graduates in 1863, and the campus was occupied by Confederate soldiers before the Battle of Perryville, and by Union soldiers after the battle.
When the Kentucky legislature chartered the college in 1819, the state stipulated that “the college shall at all times be conducted upon liberal, free, and enlightened principles, and no student shall be excluded in consequence of his religious opinions, or those of his parents, guardians, or relatives.” Although the commonwealth turned the college over to the Presbyterian denomination of Kentucky in 1824, the state had already made it clear that “no religious doctrine peculiar to any one sect of Christians shall be inculcated by any professor in said college.”
ESPN recently ranked Centre’s October 29, 1921 victory over Harvard as one of “the century’s greatest upsets.” In 1921, the Harvard Crimson reigned as national champions and had been undefeated for five years, but little Centre defeated mighty Harvard 6-0 before 45,000 fans at Harvard Stadium.
Oh, there is a Murray State connection too. Former MSU president Kern Alexander played quarterback for Centre during his undergraduate days. With a storied past, Centre College continues to hold a central educational niche in Kentucky.
Copyright The Murray Ledger and Times 2006