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Omaha Magazine

When the University of Omaha Called North O Home: The founding of a school

Sep 30, 2020 12:23PM ● By Tim Trudell
black and white, old UNO buildings

Today, the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s campus spans nearly two miles, from 60th and Dodge streets south to Baxter Arena on West Center Road. With more than 15,000 students, it’s difficult to tell that the university once struggled to stay afloat. With the thought of creating a nonsectarian college run by a Christian organization, the University of Omaha opened its doors in 1909 with 30 students. Located in the Kountze Place area of North Omaha, the University of Omaha occupied the property of Oak Redick, who sold his mansion and 10 acres to the school’s founders. 

Redick Mansion, near 24th and Pratt streets, served as the university’s first academic hall, with upper floor rooms serving as classrooms. The university’s founders were instructors at the nearby Presbyterian Theological Seminary. They believed the city needed a university that could counter Creighton, then the major university in Omaha, said Les Valentine, the University of Nebraska at Omaha archivist.

“They thought it would appeal to all people—high income, low income, working class,” Valentine said. “Everybody could come to [University of Omaha]. Not everyone could go to Creighton, so that’s the real reason they wanted to have the school.”

The University of Omaha was the brainchild of the Presbyterian church and Bellevue College (not related to the current Bellevue University). Bellevue College once changed its name to the University of Omaha, but it didn’t last long. However, the school supported the church’s idea for a new university in Omaha. Bellevue College leaders thought the school could become part of a larger University of Omaha program, but some people feared the school would lose its identity and eventually be absorbed and moved to Omaha, according to the book, A History of the University of Nebraska at Omaha 1908-1983, by Tommy R. Thompson, a UNO professor at the time it was published. Bellevue College eventually removed itself from the new school’s development, so the Presbyterian church proceeded on its own.

With Redick serving as one of the new school’s trustees, the University of Omaha’s founders were determined to have the school succeed. They turned to funding assistance from the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations. Each organization required the school’s boosters to raise $200,000 in order to receive about $300,000 in grants. This would prove to be the first of several unsuccessful fundraising efforts on behalf of the University of Omaha. In order to ensure the university could open its doors in 1909, Redick offered to accept a smaller down payment for his property if the school’s trustees could raise enough money to open the school. Having achieved that goal, the Presbyterian Theological Seminary teachers realized their dream of opening the University of Omaha.

It seemed the school operated year-to-year in its early days. Besides Redick’s 10 acres, the wealthy businessman wanted the school to add another 15 acres adjacent to his former property. The school never had enough money to purchase the entire acreage. However, the University of Omaha would eventually expand to 15 acres.

The University of Omaha quickly outgrew Redick Mansion, so George Joslyn—who built Joslyn Castle for he and his wife, Sarah—donated money for a new building. Joslyn Hall, named in his honor, opened in 1917 with 30 classrooms. Redick Hall was eventually sold, dismantled, and moved to Minnesota, where it later opened as a hotel, said Adam Fletcher Sasse, who writes the North Omaha History blog. Several buildings would be located on the main campus, as well as the College of Finance and Commerce, and College of Law, at 13th and Farnam streets. Among the main campus buildings were Jacobs Gymnasium and Saratoga Science Hall.

As student enrollment continued to increase, student activities developed, including sports, fraternities, and other social organizations, as well as several incarnations of a student newspaper, with names such as The Censor and Yellow Sheet (it was printed on yellow paper) before settling on The Gateway, which is still published. 

As academic programs increased, including a successful education program, with about half of the school’s first graduating class of 13 becoming educators, the school continued to struggle financially. During its first decade, school leaders started looking for new sites, because they believed the school couldn’t expand in North Omaha, Valentine said. The North Central Association of Colleges and Schools declined to give the University of Omaha accreditation because it lacked facilities, he said.

“It had to move,” Valentine said. “It couldn’t be viable without accreditation, which it didn’t achieve until 1939.”

School trustees hired Charles Alden, a financial consultant, to organize a $30,000 fundraising campaign and a $1 million endowment campaign. The fundraiser proved successful, but the endowment hit multiple road blocks, eventually leading to Alden resigning and moving away from Omaha. In the late 1920s, as financial and physical issues continued, school leaders started to explore options. In the end, they decided to donate the university to the city of Omaha. This move required a public vote by Omahans. In 1930, the measure passed by a little more than 1,000 votes, garnering about 56% of the approximately 53,500 votes cast. The school moved to its current location along Dodge Street in 1938.

Sasse wonders what might have been if the school remained in North Omaha.

“Look at Creighton,” he said. “They stayed. They’re an economic juggernaut. It’s easy to see that if [University of Omaha] had stayed, it could have dragged the rest of the community to grow, too.” 

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This article was printed in the October 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.