Friday Club shares Westmar legacy

Sunday, May 13, 2018
(Photo Contributed) An old postcard photo of Thoren Hall at the time Westmar College was called Western Union College.

LE MARS — The Le Mars Friday Club met on April 20 in the home of Lee Susemihl, with vice president Joan Thomas presiding. The usual opening with the pledge to the U.S. flag and reciting the Collect occurred. After the brief business meeting, Lee Susemihl presented her dissertation on the significant role our local college had on Le Mars and her citizens.

Susemihl began by describing how Le Mars became the home of Northwestern Normal and Business College, founded in 1887 by Professor Jacob Wernli on land owned by the United Evangelical Church. tuition for the fall term was $13. After he severed his association with the school, an organization of local businessmen saw the value in having a college in town, and ran it for nine years; renamed in 1900 Western Union College.

However, the main building burned just before classes were to begin. Eighty-two students from eight states and 10 church denominations started classes in the downtown Senate Hotel.

Thoren Hall was built, named after the first President, Bishop Thoren, and stood for 90 years. In 1948, the confusion of the name with Western Union Telegraph caused the name to be changed to Westmar College.

In 1951 a fire destroyed the administration building of York College (also a result of merging many institutions), and their faculty and students came to Le Mars in 1954.

Westmar had the best 50 watt radio station in the U.S., and was the only station to relay 27 coded messages to President Harding in Washington, D.C. They broadcast entertainment, athletic contests, music, public announcements from the chamber of commerce, and vesper services.

Westmar trained cadets to fly airplanes during World War II and established a venetian blind company to help students afford tuition. The music and sports departments excelled. Glenn Jagodzinske played football at Westmar to help win five consecutive Tri-State Championships; he later coached for Westmar.

According to one yearbook, Jack Scott was the “winningest” college football coach in the nation.

Following many detailed descriptions of life on campus, Susemihl then listed the years various buildings were built and how they were used through the years.

A $6 million bond issue was organized when Le Mars decided to attempt to save the college’s accreditation after Teikyo of Japan withdrew and a California businessman expressed interest, taking out a loan, backed by the City of Le Mars. Enrollment lagged and Westmar closed in 1997. Besides the loss of jobs and commerce and students, the closure of Westmar eliminated the cultural diversity much appreciated by Le Mars’ citizens.

In preparation for her program, Lee had interviewed staff and students, and relayed their comments. She discussed many stories and pranks, including one from the 1930s when the bell in Thoren tower rang intermittently one spring night. Investigation found the bell attached by rope to a cow, casually grazing on campus.

The buildings and former students have taken on new life and most debts are paid. While the college ceased to exist 20 years ago, the spirit that is Westmar is alive and well across the country and in the world. All have a bond with the school and the values and studies that were taught there.

The Westmar Alumni Association oversees a data base of 13,835 alumni. Of that number 1,493 live within a 30-mile radius of Le Mars, and 4,246 live in Iowa. The oldest living alumnae is 102 years of age.

Following discussion of notable Westmar alumni, Susemihl served a festive luncheon at table.

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