When the Oregon Legislature allotted $175,000 to build Southern Oregon State Normal School in 1926, it was the third attempt to start a higher education institute in Ashland.

When the Oregon Legislature allotted $175,000 to build Southern Oregon State Normal School in 1926, it was the third attempt to start a higher education institute in Ashland.

First opened as Ashland Academy in 1872, the school had closed twice because of a lack of funding.

But new school president Julius Churchill had plans to build an 18-room campus at a site on Siskiyou Boulevard, and he had 33 years of education experience working in his favor.

When classes began that summer, 173 students studying to become teachers paid $6 per term in tuition to begin classes.

Enrollment at the school fluctuated over the next 20 years while Churchill, and later president Walter Redford, struggled to secure state funding needed for new buildings and faculty.

By 1940, enrollment began shrinking, and the start of World War II took away most male students and faculty.

With only 72 students registered in fall 1945, the state prepared to close the book on the renamed Southern Oregon College of Education.

"The school was going to be abandoned," said Ken Bartlett, who would later become a professor.

The state had sent Elmo Stevenson to act as president and close the school, but when Stevenson arrived, he revitalized the campus instead.

By the end of 1946, Stevenson had brought enrollment up to 500, hired more faculty, and reinstated a lost sports program.

"The school wouldn't be anything without him," said Bartlett, who was hired to teach chemistry in the 1950s.

A charismatic leader, Stevenson gave speeches wherever he went to promote the school, according to Arthur Kreisman, a professor and historian at the school who wrote the book "Remembering: A History of Southern Oregon University," in 2002, detailing the school's history.

"Wherever three people gathered, there was Elmo selling the college," said Kreisman, who was hired by Stevenson in 1946 and stayed with the school as a professor, dean, university historian and emeritus professor, until his death at 94 last January.

In his book, Kreisman credited Stevenson with establishing the institute as it's known today, transforming the campus over his 23 years as president — nearly twice the tenure of any other president.

"He was a very outgoing person," said Dan Bulkley, who began teaching physical education at the school in 1950, and remains as emeritus faculty today, at the age of 95.

"He would charm anyone, that was his strength," said Bulkley, adding that Stevenson was friendly and generally well-liked, despite his insistence that the faculty wear ties all the time.

"I guess maybe all his ideas weren't popular," he said.

Stevenson oversaw the construction of a dozen new buildings on campus, including the Suzanne Holmes and Cascade dorms and the McNeal athletic complex.

Under Stevenson's leadership, several community partnerships began.

In 1969, a tiny 10-watt radio station called KSOR began out of a campus basement, and later blossomed into Jefferson Public Radio, which broadcasts throughout Southern Oregon and Northern California.

The Rogue Valley Symphony Orchestra was founded by assistant music professor Frederick Palmer, who acted as its first conductor, with help from Stevenson.

Under his watch, the small teaching school had expanded into a college with multiple disciplines and a graduate program.

"The school wouldn't have been anything without him," Bartlett said.

By the time of Stevenson's retirement in 1969, and death in 1973, the school, then called Southern Oregon College, had weaved strong ties into the community.

In the 1970s, the college helped save the struggling ski area on Mount Ashland, running the resort while it recouped financially before selling the ski area to a private owner Dick Hicks in 1978.

"The college had clearly saved the ski resort for the community," wrote Kreisman.

In the 30 years since Stevenson's retirement, the college has been run by seven different presidents and was renamed Southern Oregon University in 1997.

More than 6,500 students attend the school today, pursuing the original discipline of education and more than 30 other degree offerings. The school still trains the majority of teachers who work in Southern Oregon schools.

Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or tristow@mailtribune.com.