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Eriksmoen: Webster Merrifield remembered as 'father of secondary schools' in ND

In the field of education in North Dakota, Webster Merrifield is singled out as having the greatest impact at both college and high school. He was president of the University of North Dakota from 1891 to 1912.

Noted historian Elwyn Robinson wrote that Merrifield was "the greatest hero in the history of UND." Nationally acclaimed educator Vito Perrone, who was an education dean at UND from 1968 to 1986, called Merrifield "the father of secondary schools in North Dakota."

In 1895, the governor of North Dakota cut the appropriations for UND by 90 percent, leaving only enough money for the upkeep of the buildings and salary for a janitor. Almost everyone thought the college would close and Merrifield would leave.

The University of Montana was so confident that he would abandon North Dakota to become their new president that the Montana Daily Independent wrote, when he arrives, the college would have a man with "finished scholarship, ripe and varied experience, masterly executive ability, never swerving energy to interest and inspire enthusiasm, and a full sense of the dignity and responsibility of this influential position."

Instead of resigning, Merrifield accepted a drastic salary cut and convinced most of the faculty to do the same. He then gathered some close, dedicated friends and raised enough money to keep UND afloat.

Perrone wrote that when Merrifield became president, "There was a blurring of the lines between secondary schools and colleges and universities."

Almost all of the students arriving at the colleges were not academically prepared to take college courses and needed considerable preparatory work before embarking upon this challenge. Merrifield created for himself the unpaid position of "state inspector of high schools" under which he was "responsible for developing curricular standards and graduation requirements for high schools."

Merrifield was born July 27, 1852, on a farm between Williamsville and Newfane, Vt., to John and Louisa (Williams) Merrifield. Although the family was not wealthy, Webster's parents saw to it that their children received an excellent education.

John invested in land outside of Vermont, including a speculative purchase south of Grand Forks. He was involved in Democratic politics and served in the Vermont general assembly in the late 1870s.

For the first five years of his formal education, Webster went to school in Williamsville. He then attended the prestigious Powers Institute boarding school in Bernardston, Mass. Webster graduated in 1872 and accepted a teaching position at Colfax, Ind., to earn money for college.

It was written that Merrifield "early learned New England thrift and resourcefulness which greatly helped him when compelled to work his way through college and when he later became the head of a young and struggling western institution."

He enrolled at Yale in 1873 and found outside employment to help him with future college expenses.

Despite a heavy workload, Merrifield excelled at Yale. He received several prizes for his English compositions and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and became co-editor of the school newspaper, the Yale Record.

Of fragile health, Merrifield came down with "a severe fit of sickness," forcing him to miss classes for a prolonged period of time and causing him to resign from his position at the Record.

Merrifield received his bachelor's degree in 1877 and, in the fall of that year, accepted a teaching position at Siglar, a boys' school in Newburgh, N.Y. There, he became friends with Wilmot and Ellen Hawkins, who likely told him that their oldest daughter, Mary, now Mrs. James Twamley, had recently moved to Grand Forks.

After two years at Newburgh, Merrifield decided that he would return to Yale in the fall of 1879 to work as a Latin and Greek tutor. Since his father had purchased land near Grand Forks, he decided to make a trip there in the spring to check on the farm. Merrifield also hoped that the change of climate would produce some relief from his chronic hay fever.

He took a train to Fargo but had to walk the remaining 80 miles. Merrifield's friendly and genuine demeanor fit in well in Grand Forks, and for the short time he was there, he became a justice of the peace.

Merrifield returned to Yale and in 1883 received a message from James Twamley that a new university was being built at Grand Forks. It would open in 1884, and someone who could teach Latin and Greek would be needed. Twamley was on the board of regents, which would be making the personnel decisions for the school.

The president of UND was William Blackburn, a celebrated theological scholar. The only other teacher at the time was Henry Montgomery, an instructor in the natural sciences.

When Merrifield was hired, the board also employed Emma Mott as an English teacher. Besides Latin and Greek, Merrifield also taught literature and political science and served as the faculty secretary and university librarian.

Twamley believed that Blackburn "was too closely identified with the Presbyterian teachings and this interfered with the true atmosphere of what a university should be." At a board meeting on May 12, 1885, the president was fired and Merrifield was asked to become the new president. He declined, and Montgomery was given the position on an interim basis. Merrifield was given the task of finding Blackburn's replacement.

After a thorough investigation, Merrifield believed he had the ideal candidate, Homer Sprague. He was a Civil War hero, school administrator, author, former legislator, and "one of the most sought after lecturers in America." The frosting on the cake was that he too was a Yale graduate who also had been a tutor there in Latin and Greek.

Sprague became the new president of UND and very popular in North Dakota. Many residents even pushed to have him nominated for the U.S. Senate. However, he angered Alexander McKenzie when he came out against the Louisiana Lottery.

Since McKenzie controlled the state legislature, he exacted revenge by having the legislature slash Sprague's salary, forcing him to resign in March of 1891. This time, when the board approached Merrifield about becoming president, he accepted.

We will conclude the story about Webster Merrifield next week.

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