Western New England University celebrates centennial

Feb. 15, 2019 | Payton North

The latest building added to the Western New England campus lineup is the University Commons building. This structure is 70,000 square feet, featuring four floors of dining options and meeting space.
Photo Credit: Matthew Reilly

SPRINGFIELD – With its classic New England campus featuring stone and brick walkways, matching red brick buildings, advanced facilities, intimate class sizes and an “everybody knows everybody” feel, it’s no surprise that hundreds of students choose to attend Springfield’s Western New England University (WNEU) annually. In fact, this year is all about hundreds for the campus, as Western New England is celebrating their centennial year. For 100 years, WNEU has educated 47,345 students through more than 90 bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral programs, and has worked to foster what is known by students and faculty alike as “the Western New England Way.”

A Memorable Past

Western New England’s inception began as a division of Northeastern College in 1919, prior to its separation from the college in 1951. As a branch of Northeastern, Western New England’s first classes were held in rented rooms of the Springfield YMCA building at 122 Chestnut St. The school had a graduating class of 13 students at its first commencement in 1923. As the years passed, the school established an Alumni Association in 1925, a Board of Governors (now referred to as the Board of Trustees) in 1930, and the School of Commerce and Finance became the School of Business in 1931.

In 1951, Western New England College – now University – was granted a charter and soon after the School of Law was reinstituted. Since then, five presidents have been at the helm of the University, including Dr. John D. Churchill (1951–1954,) Dr. Beaumont A. Herman (1955–1976,) Dr. Richard F. Gottier (1976–1979,) Dr. Beverly White Miller (1980–1996,) and the University’s current President, Dr. Anthony S. Caprio (1996–present.) In 1956, during President Herman’s tenure, the original 34 acres for the campus on Wilbraham Road was purchased. Shortly after the land purchase in 1959 the campus’ first building was opened, Emerson Hall, which still stands today and is home to various classrooms and faculty offices.

Classes were discontinued at the YMCA building in 1962 with the opening of a second classroom building on campus, the Joseph J. Deliso Sr. Hall, which is now used by administration and the President’s office.

In 1970, engineering students petitioned that the schools mascot be the Golden Bear, and the schools’ first football game was played. By the time the 1980’s rolled around, the campus was bustling with activity as it offered five schools (Business, Arts and Science, Continuing Education, Law and Engineering), as well as 14 varsity sports.

On Nov. 7, 1986 a five–ton bronze statue in the shape of a golden bear, affectionately named “Spirit” was delivered to campus. Today, the bear remains next to the St. Germain Campus Center building and is often featured in students’ photos with friends from their first days up to graduation.

A 23–Year Growth Spurt

One word came to Caprio’s mind as he visited the Western New England campus for the first time 23 years ago: potential.

“I remember thinking ‘what a lovely campus,’ we have really, a stunning campus,” Caprio shared with Reminder Publishing as he reflected on his first trip to the school in 1996. “I could immediately see how paying attention to the campus and the facilities on the campus and the nature of what those facilities look like would be key to the future of Western New England, because we were so lucky to have all this space to work with.

“The potential was so there, everything looked great, but I could see in my own imagination all the things that could occur on a campus like this.”

Caprio’s office is lined with memorabilia including black and white photos of individuals posing outside of the once newly constructed Emerson Hall, as well as the iconic cupola, now used as apart of the campus’ logo, being gingerly placed atop Deliso Hall by a substantial crane. Over the years following the construction of Emerson and Deliso, 26 additional buildings were added to the campus, with 10 constructed during Caprio’s time as President.

As the years of Caprio’s incumbency passed, the University purchased additional acreage abutting the property to allow for expansion.

“A lot of people initially said, ‘Why are you getting this land and spending money on land?’ I just remember saying to folks, land is as good as money in your endowment because it is yours, and it will be there forever, and you never know what needs you’re going to have with that land,” Caprio shared. “Chances are, you’re going to be able to do great things for the University and to have more of a protected environment, too.”

In 2002 Western New England’s Golden Bear Stadium opened for play, beginning the school’s move toward the development of the schools outdoor sports complex.

“My very first year here I realized that we could do well by revamping our athletic program and making it into a really challenging but fulfilling athletic opportunity for so many of our students,” Caprio noted, “A lot of our students are athletes. We’ve moved heavily into recreational sports now and we have a director of recreational activities.”

Nearing the school’s centennial year, the 2010’s brought many historical changes, including the college's first doctoral program, Behavior Analysis. Finally, on July 1, 2011 the school, once referred to affectionately as Western New England College or WNEC became Western New England University. With the University status, the campus experienced growth in diversity, expansion of graduate and doctoral offerings as well as entrepreneurial culture.

“Part of our drive to become a university – when we were granted university status – it was in recognition of the fact that even before we did extra, additional things to move toward University status, we had such a wide range of programs that would in any other state have easily qualified being a university. Yet, we were still a small college in a university setting, so we had the best of both worlds, I think.

“Everything we do is technically to support the learning process, of course you have to have good activities, you have to have good residence halls, you have to have proper recreational stuff, dining facilities – that’s all part of the deal. But the real important part is to produce and have great programs and everything that goes along with helping students to be able to join these programs,” Caprio noted. “It all goes hand-in-hand.”

In its largest building project to date, Western New England constructed the school’s University Commons building which is 70,000 square feet offering four stories of dining options for students as well as meeting and performance space.

While WNEU has been keeping busy over the years developing new buildings and opportunities for students both educationally and in the form of physical structures, the school has also launched their latest venture: “The Magazine.” The bi-annual publication focuses on campus happenings, faculty research and alumni accomplishments.

“I’m a firm believer of always paying attention to all the details, and there’s nothing that should be out of your realm, even when you’re the president of a University,” Caprio joked.

“For a long time I had been thinking, we are a University now. The word University, u–n, one, uni, unified, all that stuff. Although we had raised the quality of all our other publications like ‘The Communicator’ and ‘Perspectives,’ I said, it’s all these little pieces of things that we try to pull together, and we’re still functioning perhaps too much in the silos in the individual colleges and in the School of Law,” Caprio reflected. “I wanted to have one high-quality, dynamic magazine that is of interest to anybody who picks that thing up and looks at it.”

Symbolically, Caprio noted, the University’s magazine represented the beginning of a new era for the University – the next 100 years.

An Anniversary to Remember

In celebration of the centennial, Western New England is offering numerous opportunities for current students, alumni and faculty alike to honor the place that many consider home. Kicking off 2019, the University began the “Campaign for Our Second Century” fundraising event on January 9, with a lofty goal of $35 million. January 9 was specifically chosen as the kickoff date as a nod to WNEU’s first year in operation, 1919, with Jan. 9 translating to 1-9-19.

“Between one-third and two-thirds [of funds raised] is going to go to financial aid endowment, so we’re looking for scholarship money for students,” Caprio shared. “Things are expensive and they’re not going to get any cheaper. You can only make so much money out of your tuition, and the truth of the matter is we give a lot of that money back in the form of scholarship aid.”

In addition to funding going toward financial aid, the University is looking to once again invest in the campus and its current buildings by renovating the St. Germain Campus Center. The Campus Center once held all dining facilities, however with the opening of the University Commons in the 2017–2018 school year, the building is now ready for a significant remodel.

“We’re going to be building out a new career services office and a new advising center, both of which we received contributions to do,” Caprio stated.

Finally, Caprio explained the remaining funds would assist in athletics, specifically a potential women’s sports expansion.

While the Campaign for Our Second Century fundraiser is a main component to the centennial year, the campus will also be hosting numerous alumni receptions and a heightened homecoming experience with centennial flair. At the start of each new school year Western New England hosts Convocation to welcome freshmen to the University. This year, Convocation will take place on the first day of classes, however, Caprio explained, classes will not be held. Instead, following Convocation, students will be invited to a centennial activity which will be a food-related event outside near the University Commons.

The Western New England Way

Though the University features stunning, classic brick buildings, immaculate landscaping complete with blooming flowers in the spring and summer seasons and colorful leaves in the crisp autumn, what truly represents the campus is its students. Caprio earnestly described the student body in a word: nice.

“They have respect for each other, they have respect for their faculty, they don’t talk to you as if you’re some stranger and therefore they’re not going to talk to you,” Caprio praised the students. “It’s a very nice feeling. I think we’re just so lucky to have the kids that we do have at Western New England.”

In fact, Caprio shared with Reminder Publishing a story of a stranger who had recently approached him. The stranger explained to Caprio that as they were listening to the radio, Western New England was being discussed.

“I was talking to somebody the other day who I didn’t even know who said, ‘I just heard somebody talking on the radio, and this person was being interviewed, and he said he had been at the Western New England campus and he was utterly amazed that people really do wait and hold the door open for you.’” Caprio explained. “I had heard that kind of statement be made other times, but hearing this from a stranger who happened to hear it on the radio from another stranger and remembered it, I thought well that’s good – I’m glad that still exists.”

Caprio is referencing what is referred to as the Western New England Way: acting in a respectful manner, holding open doors and helping out a fellow Golden Bear.

“I think that’s something we really try to stress, that people have to be polite, people need to be courteous to each other. This is not an environment that really needs to tolerate anything but great social interactive behavior among people. I think our faculty and staff appreciate it, and I think our students do too,” he reflected.

The Dawn of a New Era

With the first 100 years under the University’s belt, Caprio’s vision for the next 100 years is simple: keeping Western New England’s core beliefs alive.

“An institution has a body and it has a soul and it has genetics – it’s almost like a living entity. It’s got its history, it’s got its traditions, and I hope whatever this place will look like that there will always be remnants of what Western New England has always stood for,” Caprio explained, noting that he has spoken to individuals who were amongst some of the earliest graduating classes over the years.

“It was always interesting to hear how they described this place and that it was a place that people saw was providing them a better future, that they were going to have great job opportunities, that they developed some good friendship with like–minded people, that they were serious about getting an education, they wanted to contribute to society to make it a better place. All those things ... that’s not changed. I think people still have those concepts in their mind and I hope we’ll be able to continue to nurture that and make sure that doesn’t go away,” Caprio closed.

While the future for Western New England is bound to be bright, one thing is for certain: for the next 100 years the campus will continue to foster a culture that emphasizes the importance of a close-knit community and preserving the Western New England Way.

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