Notes on the History of

Itasca Community College

By Don Boese

Across the Range at the turn of the century school districts took very seriously the need to educate the influx of people arriving from diverse places. In our area, in the Canisteo District on the western Mesabi, John Greenway placed particular emphasis on educational opportunity wanting the very best in his Model Town of Coleraine and the rest of the district. Careful search was made for a superintendent finally enticing J. A. Vandyke to take the position. He was an exemplary school man and presided over the building of a district with a first rate reputation and a high school that was well known across the state for innovation and winning participation in academic and sports contests of every sort.

When the new Greenway High School building was completed in l922 it became possible to carry the idea of education opportunity further and to implement long thought of two year college programs designed to transfer to the U of M and other four year schools and Itasca Junior College was the result. The mining companies, in this case the Oliver dominated school boards as they did all community affairs and with support from them the school started off on a strong note.

The faculty — soon about a dozen in number — were carefully chosen and represented diverse and impressive academic background including degrees from U’s of Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois as well as from Columbia, a popular recruiting place for Itasca, Indiana and NWU, the Mass Institute of Technology, the U of Chicago and even the College of Constantinople in Turkey for the French instructor. The faculty was quite separate from the high school staff and provided rigorous academic standards with most of the students going on to professional programs at the U and elsewhere. A sound and, inexpensive for the student, two years of higher education was well provided. With a close knit student body at that time, faculty sometimes told them about their college experiences to try to convey something more of a college atmosphere.

The first dean of the college, Homer Dutter was a strong willed and dominating person who ran matters with an iron fist. His academic background was from Columbia. While demanding high academic performance, he was also very sports oriented. He went on to become the superintendent of the school district. In the thirties things changed gradually — Vandyke retired to teach American history with a strong moralizing philosophy. Dutter faced many demands as the depression required managing with ever less money. The original faculty dispersed and sometimes high school teachers were assigned to do college classes and sometimes college faculty was to teach high school students, although there was always a cadre of teachers whose assignment was for Itasca only. Enrollment in the district was growing and the space in the high school building was no longer so commodious as before and gradually the college seemed more of an afterthought rather than the kingpin of the Greenway District.

Despite all, it continued as a dedicated institution — for over a decade under the direction of Dean Joseph Davis — a soft spoken man, his fields were physics and math, and he was not always appreciated on the Iron Range. He didn’t have the boxing skills of Dutter who once knocked a student challenger out and Davis is still referred to by a current Iron Range resident as a “Wimp.” But Davis provided good direction always conscious of the need to maintain high transfer standards. Sixty-six percent of his students went on to get a bachelor’s degree, a higher percentage than among those who started at four year schools. Davis was often heard to say the “Itasca is a small school, but it is a good school.”

The 1940s saw the arrival of Harold Wilson as physics and math instructor coincident with the beginning of the war. Although the student body shrunk to alarmingly small numbers, opportunities were also presented. A course for those expecting to be drafted was in radio and drew well. Adults wanted a course for Civil Air Patrol duties including meteorology and navigation and another course was in federal tax law – thus branching out from the pure transfer curriculum of an earlier time. Still emphasis remained on transfer courses though, and pride at Itasca was expressed when students did very well on a national test ranking particularly strong in history, science and math. There were only ten graduates in l945 and rumors the school was going to close – but never had the school board considered that as a possibility.

Far from going under, the school was now posed on the edge of the biggest change in its entire history. With the GI bill veterans were returning and looking for education and as they came streaming back to Itasca in large numbers, the character of the school changed dramatically. The faculty was no longer the “final authority” as they had enjoyed for so long. They were challenged by people who had been to more places and sometimes done more than they had and who were not interested in sessions about what it was like to go to a four year school. These students also wanted input. With Davis having gone on from small Itasca to a big school in Texas where he served as administrator till his retirement, and with Dutter gone (he lost his job for what would today be called sexual harassment) Harold Wilson was appointed Dean.

The new students challenged the high school atmosphere, new young faculty were hired to deal with the larger numbers, and Itasca became the first junior college to have student representation in college faculty meetings (to this day the college has provision for student attendance at faculty meetings and committee meetings, from time to time that is taken advantage of) and a full-fledged student association followed.

The quarters for the school posed ever greater difficulties – now it was veterans mingling with the high school students and offering quite new perspectives to the innocent Itasca coeds. The high school administrators were not happy with this situation and the establishment of a college smoker in the building brought matters very much to a head — space was short and the college was an intrusion.

Moving into the 1950’s, there was not a whole lot of understanding in Minnesota for the junior colleges. Cedric Adams published a letter from a disgruntled student who had trouble transferring some courses to the University and gave credence to the idea that the junior colleges were a waste of time. Harold Wilson took Adams on in a lengthy letter pointing out what a disservice the comments were and how untrue they were. Actually at that point more who started in the junior colleges in the state were getting four year degrees than who started in the four year colleges.

The big issue in the l950’s was the growing demand for state aid to the junior colleges. Tuition did not cover costs and enrollment continued at levels higher than in the 1930’s, although keeping perspective – only 4% of Minnesota College students were in the 11 junior colleges. In l957 the legislature provided $200 for each student. That was not of much help at Itasca where the facility was inadequate and that wasn’t going to change the underlying needs.

The l960’s was the decade for major change. More demands were made for state action and in l963 there were 23 bills concerning the junior colleges before the legislature, including one calling for the establishment of a state system that would also build more schools. The bill passed after lengthy debate and argument. Local school boards could retain control or grant the state control. No question with the Greenway board but what all the local expense would be turned over to the state. So the college was under state control and the first name change, to Itasca State Junior College was made. Wilson applied for the new chancellor position, but no go. Phil Helland with no junior college experience was chosen.

Uncertainty as to what would happen next. Wilson soon found himself in a morass of red tape and circumstances much different from the immediacy of being able to just go to a local administrator to get what was needed. That hasn’t changed, needless to say. Discouragement with generic supplies rather than what was wanted – cheap substitute for Scotch tape as an example. And pressures continued from the high school necessitating an unpleasant 3 to 10 schedule for college classes.

It was clear that a new campus was needed and Helland agreed. Coleraine and Bovey who had so long supported the college at their expense wanted to see a site at the Coleraine airport area. The Grand Rapids school board ran the vo-tech and suggested the college merge with it and move to its location on the North central Experiment Station grounds just outside of Grand Rapids. Consternation – they couldn’t desert could they? And what’s more, to the great rival of Greenway, – to Grand Rapids??? Wilson really in the middle with the community looking to him for support to stay in Coleraine and yet he is a state employee with instructions to prepare to move which idea he liked anyway. A bitter episode in the history of Coleraine and Bovey, the loss of the college that had come to be taken so for granted. Jeff Davies led the fight for the faculty who supported staying in Coleraine but the argument was based on justice, not on dollars or what would be best for the college.

In the spring of l967 the move took place. It was a major problem to decide what belonged to the high school and what would be moved. Wilson left much behind to soothe feelings towards the “traitor.” Faculties were happy with new offices and lack of a heckling principal – now Itasca was a real college. A delegation of faculty went to see Wilson and expected he could do something about what to him, a farm boy, was the “delicate aroma” that sometimes pervaded the campus from the neighboring North Central cattle barns. Wilson had no solution for that one. The move was of course vital to the continuation of the college and Wilson relished his years under the new circumstances, state red tape aside. He retired in l975 and as of 1997 was still doing very well and remaining active.

New president Bruce Bauer gave the school a turn in the direction of becoming a comprehensive community college, and after his untimely death at a young age, Phil Anderson following him as president continued in that direction.