The dream of an institution of higher learning held by Methodists from the first days of settlement in Kentucky came to fruition in 1858 when the Kentucky Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, voted to found a college at Millersburg. Classes began in 1866, after peace was restored following the Civil War, and the first commencement was in 1868. Begun as a training school for preachers, the curriculum expanded rapidly to include a solid basis of instruction in the liberal arts. Business classes were added when a demand for this instruction was identified. By the 1880s half of the alumni were employed as either teachers or businessmen.
Millersburg, located on a branch line railroad, proved too remote for effective student access. In 1890 the College moved to Winchester, in Clark County, which was served by two major rail lines. A fund drive resulted in money for new buildings, and the faculty from Millersburg settled into the hospitable environment of the college’s new home.
The early Winchester years saw other major changes as well. The first women were admitted as students in the early 1890s, a pioneering step for Kentucky Wesleyan College, which became one of the first institutions of higher learning in the Commonwealth to permit co-education. Intercollegiate athletics also became a part of the KWC scene with competitions in football, baseball and basketball, as well as a broad program of intramural sports for both men and women.
A Wesleyan tradition was born in 1905 when the main College building was destroyed by fire. One of the limestone ornaments that decorated the facade fell to earth, but remained intact. This bust of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, became a symbol of the Kentucky Wesleyan College spirit. Today it is mounted in a prominent place on the Owensboro campus and it is a focal point for many Kentucky Wesleyan College student activities.
World War I saw the re-introduction of a military science curriculum at Kentucky Wesleyan College, patterned after a short-lived program of earlier years. With the return of peace in 1918, the College resumed its place as a leading liberal-arts institution. Under Dean Paul Farrier, the curriculum was strengthened in sciences and humanities. A gymnasium was constructed for sports and physical education.
The Great Depression of the 1930s, followed by World War II, put considerable strain on the College. In 1950 the board voted to move the campus to Owensboro in western Kentucky. The city of Owensboro, led by KWC alumnus Talmage Hocker ’27, offered to raise $1 million if the College would come to Owensboro. The successful campaign led to the College’s move to temporary accommodations near downtown Owensboro in the summer of 1951. A farm south of the city was purchased and a campus was laid out. Construction began almost immediately and by 1954 the new campus was fully operational.
Kentucky Wesleyan secured full accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in 1947. Increasingly Kentucky Wesleyan College graduates were making their mark in the graduate and professional schools of the region. The strong curriculum in business and liberal arts was expanded to include major programs in pre-professional areas. Kentucky Wesleyan College earned an enviable reputation for the many students sent to medical, dental, law and graduate schools. The concept of the Wesleyan Spirit was strengthened with the founding of the Order of the Oak and Ivy in 1955 to honor students with outstanding academic and campus service careers.
Construction continued through the 1960s with additional dormitories. In the 1970s the first computers were installed and classes offered in this new technology. Other new academic programs added included nursing and criminal justice. A new library was built in the 1970s and a decade later a new Health and Recreation Center completed the College quadrangle.
Kentucky Wesleyan gained national recognition in athletics when its men’s basketball team won national championships in 1966, 1968, 1969, 1973, 1987, 1990, 1999 and 2001. No Division II school has ever surpassed this record. Numerous regional and conference championships also were won during this period in a variety of intercollegiate sports.
In the 1990s Kentucky Wesleyan College revised its mission statement to focus on preparing leaders for the 21st century. The college reaffirmed its commitment to the liberal arts and modified the general education program toward fulfilling the new mission statement. Grants from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to fund leadership education and from the Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation to establish a Leadership Lecture Series enhanced Kentucky Wesleyan’s reputation for academic excellence. Kentucky Wesleyan College became one of the first Kentucky colleges to offer computer terminal hook-ups in dormitory rooms by the 1990s. A capital campaign was initiated in 1997 to add endowment funds, construct new facilities and refurbish existing buildings.
The year 2000 started off with a bang as the Owensboro campus was severely damaged by an F3 tornado on January 3. True to the college’s spirit, the campus community looked for the silver lining and took the opportunity to improve campus by repairing and/or replacing damaged buildings to make the physical plant even better than before.
The years after were marked by a transformation of the campus with the addition and renovation of buildings following the devastation left by the tornado. New facilities included Winchester Center, Yu Hak Hahn Center for the Sciences, President’s Home and Steele Stadium. The fourth floor of the Barnard-Jones Administration Building became the Center for Business Studies and Massie Hall, a residence hall, was renovated.
New faculty and academic programs were added, and in 2007, the college’s first endowed chair, the W. Terry Woodward Endowed Chair of Entrepreneurial Studies, was established.
In 2008, Kentucky Wesleyan College celebrated its 150th year of existence. Students, faculty, staff, alumni and community friends joined together to celebrate our history of extraordinary accomplishments. We had a great time and look forward to many more years of service to our students, employees, alumni and friends!
In recent years, the famous Bob Dylan lyrics, “times, they are-a-changing” fit well when describing the College’s atmosphere. With new challenges in higher education happening daily, Kentucky Wesleyan’s leadership works tirelessly to predict and combat said challenges. Innovative partnerships with the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville, an overhaul of the College’s marketing and branding strategies and the introduction of new scholarship opportunities, including the Rogers’ Fellows Scholarship which awards a minimum of 12 full scholarships annually to college-bound residents in Clark County, Nev., all ensure that Wesleyan will continue to shine, just as the light from the cupola always has.