Rexburg and Ricks College: Minding Each Other’s Business


“In the mid summer of 2014, a hundred years had passed since I first stood on the Rexburg hill and shed bitter tears at what I saw; and then caught the vision of what might come to pass through the foresight and sincere efforts of energetic and determined men and women. …

“At the sun set of evening we overlooked the gilded scenes of Ricks College and Rexburg city. All that we had dreamed, and more, of their development had taken place. It was impossible fifty years before to even dream of what two or three generations of young men and women could do toward the further development of the Ricks College campus, and the city of Rexburg. It was all so substantial and beautiful to look upon!

“All we could do was to pronounce it all wonderful and good, and pray that their futures would be still greater and grander.” (From Memoirs of President Hyrum Manwaring, quoted in Ricks College: A Struggle for Survival by Jerry C. Roundy; Ricks College Press, 1976, p. 292.)

The year 2014 is not as far away now as it was when Hyrum Manwaring, eighth president of Ricks College (1931–44), dreamed that he and his wife Bessie “were permitted to come from the ‘paradise of rest,’ and view again all that had taken place on the old hill where we did so much of our earth work.” His dream, as it turned out, was remarkably true to what has actually taken place over the last six or seven decades in the Upper Snake River Valley.

Rexburg, Idaho, may be a small town, but it has some impressive things going for it. One is a solid sense of community, cemented by shared triumph and tragedy and enhanced by last year’s 1983 centennial celebration. The other is Ricks College.

From its earliest beginnings, Rexburg, unlike many frontier villages in the latter part of the nineteenth century, had purpose and direction. When railroad entrepreneur Thomas E. Ricks was called, under direction of the First Presidency, to colonize the Upper Snake River Valley in late 1882, it was with the intent to establish a close-knit community of Latter-day Saints. They would strengthen and protect one another while carrying on the vital work of the Lord in the yet-untamed Idaho Territory.

Thomas E. Ricks

Thomas E. Ricks, for whom Ricks College was named, was called by the First Presidency to colonize the upper Snake River Valley.

Having been called as bishop of the new Bannock Ward, Ricks called a public meeting on 15 March 1883 to dedicate the townsite to the Lord. At that time the new settlement was officially named Rexburg. (The German ancestral name of the Ricks family was “Rex.” Over the first several years, the town’s name was variously spelled—Ricksville, Ricksburgh, Rexford, Rixburg, Rexburgh. Many of the early settlers, however, who waged a constant battle with some of the area’s insect inhabitants, had another name for it—“Mosquito Flats.”)

By the fall of 1883, several hundred settlers had arrived, and the little town was humming with down-home activity. Under Bishop (and later stake president) Ricks’s direction, the Saints worked hard to sustain themselves and maintain close ties with the Church.

But they had more to deal with than roving Indians prevalent in the area or pesky mosquitoes. Anti-Mormon sentiment was rampant in the territory during those early years; many of the Church leaders suffered continuous harassment, and even imprisonment, by those who had no use for the new settlers. In the midst of these troubles, Latter-day Saint families were faced with the prospect of sending their children to a public school run by antagonists. Their concern prompted the establishment, in November of 1888, of the Bannock Stake Academy, an elementary school to be housed in the Rexburg First Ward chapel. This fledgling educational institution, with a total student body of fifty-nine, would one day become Ricks College.

Decades came and went, and with them periods of struggle and prosperity for the people of Rexburg. Severe winters, Idaho’s statehood, the coming of the railroad, expanding communication systems—all brought their unique benefits and challenges to these pioneer folk who were determined to make a good life for themselves and for those who would follow. By the turn of the century, a Salt Lake City newspaper was able to report that “Rexburg is the largest town in Fremont County [when Madison County was created in 1913, Rexburg became its county seat], having a population of about 1,400 souls. It has two semi-weekly newspapers, and the population grows daily. Saturday, and almost every day the main street is filled with teams. … The future of the Burg is great, and if you want your hat knocked off, just say otherwise.” (Deseret Evening News, 26 January 1900.)

The academy, too, was growing. A change in stake boundaries had meant a change of name to the Fremont Stake Academy, and on 25 June 1900, George Q. Cannon of the First Presidency laid the cornerstone for a new academy building. It was to be a modern, three-story stone structure containing administrative offices, a library, extensive classroom space, and a large auditorium. The building, dedicated on 12 November 1906 and named for Jacob Spori, the school’s first administrator, is still in use today.

By early 1902, the name of the institution had been changed twice—first to “Smith Academy,” honoring the Prophet Joseph Smith and President Joseph F. Smith, and then to “Ricks Academy” in honor of the late stake president Thomas E. Ricks. College classes were added to the curriculum in 1915, and eventually elementary and high school courses were dropped. In 1923 the school was given its present name, Ricks College.

The people of Rexburg, in those early days, were generally prosperous, civic-minded, and very patriotic. For example, World War I brought an outpouring in the town of U.S. national pride; 5 June 1917 was an official holiday in Idaho, set aside for young men to register for the draft. Rexburg volunteers numbered 324! Later that month, the largest battleship in the United States Navy was christened the U.S.S. Idaho. (In 1956, another Navy vessel would be christened the U.S.S. Rexburg.)

During the 1920s, economic hard times came to the little Idaho community; Rexburg’s population declined when many of its residents sought employment elsewhere. Historian Dr. David L. Crowder, who has just completed a centennial history of Rexburg, observes that “the 1920s and the 1930s were times of terrible economic conditions. By the time the Great Depression came along in 1930, Rexburg, based on agriculture at that time, had already gone through ten years of depression; so it was just another day in their life.”

Ricks College, too, was deeply affected by the depression, and it was rumored that the school would be closed. Several times the Church offered to give the college to the state of Idaho, and each time the offer was rejected. Finally, after much persuasion and sacrifice on the part of college administrators and faculty, it was decided to keep the school within the Church system.

World War II ended the depression as more jobs, more money, and more markets for farm produce became available. As the war progressed, Rexburg families cultivated War Gardens, rationed gasoline, and did whatever else they could for the war effort. At the college, the only male students were those too young to be drafted or who had some physical disability.

After the war, Ricks, with President John L. Clarke at its head, expanded steadily from a few hundred students to a few thousand students; campus facilities grew from two major buildings to eighteen. In 1948 the Church Board of Education authorized a three-year curriculum; a fourth year was added in 1949, and in the spring of 1950 the school’s first four-year students graduated. Then, in 1956, as part of a new overall policy for the Church school system, Ricks discontinued its junior and senior years.

With its future seemingly secure as a two-year institution, Ricks College administrators moved ahead with plans for the development of a first-rate junior college. But within months, both college and community were stunned by the announcement that it was planned to move the school to Idaho Falls, a larger town some thirty miles south of Rexburg. Townspeople rallied to the defense of their beloved “college on the hill”; school administrators, faculty, and students lobbied for staying where they were. The issue was weighed for the better part of four years, and in the end, the college stayed in Rexburg.

The 1960s and 1970s were periods of sustained growth for the community and the college. In addition to agriculture, new businesses flourished and fostered a stable year-round economy. And in the twenty-seven years of President Clarke’s administration at Ricks, the student body increased by more than three thousand percent—from 160 to 5,144, with representation from all fifty states and twenty-nine foreign countries. Now safely and permanently at home in Rexburg, the college could concentrate its efforts on academic excellence and a program of campus expansion. Both goals were intensified when Dr. Henry B. Eyring became the school’s tenth president (1971–77).

And then came the flood.

You haven’t really talked to a resident of Rexburg until conversation has turned to the flood. It was seven and one-half years ago, but more like seven seconds to those who lived through that calm, sunny Saturday morning, 5 June 1976, when the faulty Teton Dam burst, releasing billions of gallons of water to wash away their homes and their livelihoods. A Teton Flood Museum, housed in the historic Rexburg Tabernacle, documents the devastation and heartbreak. It’s an impressive collection of information and memorabilia; but more than that, it’s a moving testimonial to the fact that Rexburg began again, and has done as well—or even better—the second time around.

Rexburg mayor John C. Porter recounts his conversation with a representative from the Small Business Administration shortly after the muddy waters demolished Rexburg’s downtown business district. “He told me that experience has proven that whenever there’s a disaster, the area undergoes quite a growth. Business is good; the economy is good. Then there’s a letdown; the new building is over and it levels off a bit. But it never gets as bad as it was before.” Encouraged by such an optimistic outlook, many Rexburg businesses rebuilt—and the community came back. In fact, it came back stronger than before, attracting a number of new businesses and national chain stores to strengthen its economic base.

“Of course I don’t recommend a flood to anyone,” says Mayor Porter, “but there’s no question that some positive things have happened because of the flood; we had gone from about 4,000 population several years ago to around 7,000. Now we’re at almost 12,000; we’ve had quite rapid growth since the flood. Rexburg was a growing community before the flood.”

“The students here have everything to do with the atmosphere, which is one of harmony, support, and a spontaneous desire to do the right things for the right reasons.”

“The faculty,” he continues, “are very much like the students. That’s one of the reasons that the relationships between students and faculty are so healthy here; I have felt a natural affinity and mutual understanding between them. I would characterize both as willing to do anything for the Church, and they don’t fuss and mumble and murmur about it. That is simply the way they feel.”

A key to the president’s aspirations for Ricks College is his perception of gospel commitment. “I have a personal conviction that I came to some years ago about the blending of intellectual and spiritual things,” he reflects. “My conviction is that the blending is not only possible, but necessary, and that the foundation of that blending must always be spiritual. I’m not talking about balance; I’m saying seek the kingdom first, and then add other things. Because of the kind of world we live in today, I think those other things must include a very serious commitment to intellectual and professional concerns, self-discipline, awareness, and a commitment to quality in everything we do. I think the Church deserves the best—and I see Ricks College as a very healthy reflection of the reality of that blending.”

So there they are—the town and the college, both proud of their past and facing a promising future. Historian Dave Crowder reflects on the century just gone by:

“I think there are lessons to be learned here about human resiliency and adaptability, particularly when it comes to the interrelationship between Rexburg and Ricks. It seems that when things are going along fine, people tend to mind their own business. But when tragedy strikes—when the school almost closes, or when the floods come—they don’t mind getting in and minding other people’s business. This ‘love thy neighbor’ response has knit the college and the town inseparably together over these many years.

“I think we have learned, too, that ‘community’ is not a passive word. It’s an active sort of a word; and to develop a community there must be an ongoing dialogue between those who govern and those who are governed.”

Mayor Porter grew up in Rexburg, was a prominent newspaperman (now retired), and has been at the city’s helm for ten years now. He sees Rexburg’s connection with the college as a mutually rewarding, interdependent relationship. “They help us, and we help them,” he points out succinctly. Among other things, he says, “we’ve abandoned a number of streets where they’ve built buildings so that the campus wouldn’t have a street through it. But they let us use their facilities for some of our community events, and we do the same for them. We get along just fine.”

His voice softens a bit as he remembers. “I don’t know what we’d have done without Ricks College during the flood. [Situated on the gentle slope of a hill just south of town, the school was not in the water’s path.] They just opened up their facilities and fed four or five thousand people for almost a month. People moved into the student housing and had a place to live while they had their own places fixed up. We’re grateful for that facility up there.”

The college also contributes in a major way to Rexburg’s economy. “We might be able to get along without each other,” the mayor smiles, “but it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.”

A significant part of Rexburg’s future growth will undoubtedly be tied to the “college on the hill.” For Ricks College is fast becoming an unexcelled educational resource to the Church—and a top-quality two-year college in its own right. “Small enough to care—Big enough to serve.” That’s what you’ll read in a Ricks College brochure; and that’s exactly what you’ll find. “There are a lot of places that are striving to become as good as their image,” says college president Bruce C. Hafen. “I think at Ricks we have just the reverse problem. We need to have some way to make the public image come up to the level of what’s here.”

“What’s here” is a student body of about 6,500, 97 percent of them Latter-day Saints; a 249-strong faculty, many of them with doctoral degrees; some 250 staff members; and more-than-adequate facilities to accommodate both with ease. It’s a mix not found in larger universities, where freshman and sophomore students are apt to find themselves—or, more accurately, lose themselves—in classes of hundreds taught by student assistants. (The Ricks ratio is one teacher to every twenty-five students.) Similarly, because the Ricks student population is relatively small, a student can become just about as involved in college life as he or she wants to be.

“When I came to Ricks several years ago,” reflects Shanna T. Shirley, who earned degrees from both Ricks and Brigham Young University, “I came from a small Idaho high school where I had been at the top of the heap; I was involved in everything. If I had gone to a larger school at that point, because of the insecure feelings I had about even going to college, I would have melted away. But I found that Ricks was big enough so that I was stretched, and I struggled, but I was still able to maintain the self-assurance I had felt in high school. It was the perfect transition for me, and I left Ricks with a good, solid foundation for my upper-division classes at BYU.”

Indeed, one of the real benefits of a two-year college is participation, says President Hafen, himself the appreciative product of a two-year college. “I was involved in a wide variety of activities at Dixie College [in St. George, Utah] that might be called extracurricular, but to me they were actually curricular because they were so educational. Drama, music, student government, editing the school paper, athletics, the service clubs—there was an infinite variety.

“My days at that two-year college were among the busiest and happiest times of my life, because that was the way of life for everybody who was there. It was not a time of great specialization. Rather, it was a time for enormous exploration, trying to find yourself, discovery; and to have self-discovery you need experience with people and opportunities. As a result, I had a better idea of what I could do with my life.”

As the largest private two-year college in the United States, Ricks has earned a reputation for excellence across a wide spectrum of educational and cultural offerings. And you can’t say “Ricks College,” either, without conjuring up pleasant images of the school’s championship football and track teams, women’s sports, and a host of well-traveled student entertainment groups that have earned wide recognition.

A visitor can’t scan the campus without stopping for a long moment to take in the new Eliza R. Snow Center for the Performing Arts. One of the most stunning of the forty-five buildings on the 225-acre campus, the center houses a 500-seat drama theater, a 700-seat concert hall, a recital hall, forty-six music practice rooms, classrooms, and areas for art exhibits.

The self-discovery process is helped at Ricks in a number of ways. But perhaps most significant is that in a world of decaying moral values and faithless pessimism, this college has steadfastly maintained its commitment to the spiritual nourishment of those who live and work and study on its campus. Three LDS stakes and thirty-three wards provide ample opportunity for students to lead, follow, serve, and mature in a gospel-centered community of young adults. Here you find eighteen-and nineteen-year-old Relief Society presidents, stake board members, gospel doctrine teachers. Newly returned missionaries are “old-timers” whose leadership skills are highly valued and put to good use. Fast and testimony meetings are never long enough. The weak are strengthened, and the strong find new ways to serve.

Student Life Vice-President Dr. Mack G. Shirley believes that such a spiritual climate has a good deal to do with Ricks’ impact on the lives of its students. His observation is well documented. “When I wrote my doctoral dissertation several years ago,” he reflects, “I surveyed a sample of current Ricks students, alumni, community people, and high school educators and counselors. Among the questions I asked was, ‘If Ricks College is distinctive in any way, what makes it that way?’ And almost without exception, their replies singled out the religious atmosphere they felt here. That was several years ago, and I think it’s even more true today.”

Clearly, the atmosphere reflects the combined best efforts of faculty, staff, and students. Recently, an accreditation team visited the campus; their report cited “an experienced, extremely dedicated faculty and staff committed to the goals of providing quality education according to the beliefs and standards of the Church.” Academic Vice-President Dr. Dean Sorensen smiles as he reads the statement. “We couldn’t have written that any better ourselves,” he observes. He adds that “I visit a number of other campuses each year and serve on accreditation teams quite often. In my judgment, we’re well in the top 5 percent among quality junior colleges in the United States in terms of facilities, faculty, and the quality of our programs. All the data we get shows that we are a superior institution.”

President Hafen has a good deal to say about both students and faculty. “This place is tremendously reassuring for anyone who wonders about how the youth of the Church are doing these days,” he says. “If they will come here and visit with these kids, they’ll go away feeling very secure about the future of the Church. These are the future mothers and fathers and bishops and stake presidents who are really the heart and soul of the Church. They come here with a devotion to the Church, a testimony, and a desire to make the gospel the foundation of everything in their lives.”

The 93,000-square-foot Snow building was completed in mid-1982. Perhaps its most highly-prized addition is a 4,000-pipe organ, second largest in the Church, in the Ruth H. Barrus Concert Hall. The organ, handcrafted by Fratelli Ruffatti of Padova, Italy, “has the fire and brilliance of the most exciting organs I have ever heard in this country or in Europe,” says Dr. Darwin Wolford, a member of the Ricks music faculty and the man primarily responsible for securing the organ through privately donated funds. At a cost exceeding a quarter of a million dollars, the organ is the single most expensive piece of equipment on campus. “It will be a hands-on instrument,” says Brother Wolford. “We have a number of gifted organ students here, and they’ll be able to use this wonderful organ for practice and performances.” The instrument was formally dedicated in ceremonies last November.

The fine arts are an important part of the Ricks life-style. Students make their own music (it’s the only junior college in the country to sponsor its own symphony orchestra), produce their own plays (last summer the college Summer Repertory Theatre produced four—“Oklahoma,” “The Tavern,” “Kiss Me Kate,” and “Harvey”), and make sure that first-class entertainment rounds out the cultural experience. Coming soon is a campus-based FM radio station. It will be Idaho’s only classical station.

For the budding academician, Ricks has no shortage of “brain food.” The school’s academic programs have, in fact, attracted increasing numbers of top scholarship students over the past several years. “Last year,” reports Director of Admissions Dr. Hal C. Barton, “we had between three and four hundred young people qualify for our honors program. These are top students, many of them Kimball scholars.”

Both President Hafen and Brother Barton are quick to point out that the college, while attracting bright students, is also genuinely proud of its “open-door” policy, which allows students of virtually any academic standing to attend the school. “One of the things we keep in mind at Ricks,” explains the president, “is that we have a role to play for the late bloomer, not only socially but intellectually. There are many young people who come here not thinking of themselves as serious college students, but who leave here quite convinced that learning is pretty exciting.”

“I’d be the first to say that I hope we’ll never lose that open door,” says Brother Barton. “It’s an opportunity for many young people to graduate from high school, and then to try college on for fit, for size, for interest; we’ve found that many young people find themselves after high school, or after the mission experience, or after they’ve worked for a year. Our policy is not at the expense of the academician seeking professional progress—we have everything such a student needs—but we don’t want to deny any student an opportunity to explore.”

Brother Crowder smiles at his next observation. “I think it’s intriguing to look back and wonder how they did it, how they could possibly have survived. It’s likely that a hundred years from now, people will look back and wonder how we could possibly have survived, considering the primitive conditions in which we lived. And hopefully they’ll grow, as we have, to cherish the past, learn from its lessons, and apply them to the future.”

For a small town, Rexburg, Idaho, has made quite a name for itself. And for a small college, Ricks has made a very big impression. The year 2014 is, after all, not so very far off.

[photo] Situated in Idaho’s agricultural and ranch-oriented upper Snake River Valley, Rexburg and Ricks College enjoy a compatible, helping relationship. (Photography by Rod Boam.)

[photo] Beginning as Bannock Academy, Ricks College has grown to 45 buildings on a beautiful 225-acre campus.

[photo] The Jacob Spori Building was named for Ricks’s first administrator.

[photo] Across the line from the often nationally ranked Ricks College football team.

[photos] Left: Ricks College, situated on a hill and thus not flooded when the Teton Dam broke in 1976, provided temporary homes and thousands of meals as well as help in cleanup. Right: John Walker of the Agricultural Department, one of 249 Ricks faculty members. Ricks student-teacher ratio is twenty-five to one. (Photography by Eldon K. Linschoten.)

[photo] President Bruce C. Hafen, his wife Marie, and student body president Dave Thueson greet students at annual President’s Reception.

[photo] Some 6,500 students attend Ricks College, the largest private two-year college in the United States.

[photo] Left to right: Troy Roberts, Ron Leatham, and Dee Owens study in the kitchen of their student quarters.

[photo] “Small enough to care—big enough to serve” is the motto of Ricks College, where students enjoy a stimulating yet friendly atmosphere.

JoAnn Jolley, a free-lance writer, teaches the Cultural Refinement lessons in her Salt Lake City ward.