The Dickinson Press has kindly offered me the opportunity to write a monthly column featuring some aspect of Dickinson State University. With gratitude for this kind offer, I’ll use the first of these columns to review the history of our hometown college.
The citizens of Dickinson, Stark County, and other counties west and south of the Missouri River willed our University into existence. A little over a century ago, the citizens of what was then called “the Western Slope” formed a group that promoted an amendment to the North Dakota constitution that, if passed, would create a normal school in Dickinson.
This group included prominent citizens with names that live on in our history like Dickinson Superintendent of Schools Peter S. Berg and Dr. Victor Hugo Stickney. The Dickinson Press provided editorial support for the statewide campaign to convince North Dakotans to add a West River normal school. In the November election of 1916, the voters added Dickinson Normal School to the North Dakota constitution with a 16,000 vote margin.
The story of our origin remains important. From the start, the citizens of western North Dakota had to fight to add a university in our part of the state to the list of schools east of us. That fighting spirit remains part of DSU’s DNA. To this day, the whole of the West River region strongly support Dickinson State in a way that is noted by those elsewhere in the state. Western North Dakota and Dickinson State have promoted each other, fought for each other, and benefitted each other in a unique way for over a century, through both lean and prosperous times.
Following the election that created Dickinson Normal School, the Board of Regents (which was the forerunner to what is now known as the State Board of Higher Education) requested an appropriation of $281,000 to bring the new institution into existence. By the time the first president, Dr. Samuel T. May, arrived to lead the fledgling school, the governor had cut the budget to $20,000.
Also, its first summer session in 1918 took place as a pandemic of what became (incorrectly) known as the Spanish Flu started to ravage the world. But neither budget concerns nor a pandemic was enough to stop the formidable Dr. May from willing the school into existence, first on the top floor of the Dickinson Elks Building and later on the Signal Butte slope we now call “the hill.”
In its early days, Dickinson Normal School’s primary mission was to educate and credential teachers for western North Dakota, especially its one-room schools. Our most advanced degree was a two-year standard teaching certificate. My maternal grandmother, Lillian (Behrenfeld) Walker, who grew up near New Leipzig, was one of the students who earned that degree and then taught in a one-room school near Mott.
For several decades, we operated under the name Dickinson State Teachers College, retaining the emphasis on educating future educators but now offering four-year degrees.
My father, Ted Easton of Beulah and Bismarck, was one of the future teachers who earned his bachelor’s degree from Dickinson State Teachers College. He then earned graduate degrees at the University of North Dakota and the University of Colorado, which led to a distinguished career as the president of several community colleges across the country. His mother, Josephine (Morgan) Easton of Page and Beulah, earned her Dickinson State standard teaching certificate a few credits at a time over many summers, finally finishing just after her son, then taught in one-room schools in western North Dakota.
By the time I entered what was then known as Dickinson State College in the late seventies, our school had expanded into degrees in addition to teaching, including business, nursing, science, social science, and several others. I graduated in 1980 with a degree in business administration and accounting, then attended Stanford Law School and practiced law in Bismarck.
Since 1987, we have been known as Dickinson State University. In 2018, we became the state’s only “dual mission” university, with an emphasis on adding both career and technical education and graduate degrees to our traditional four-year degrees.
My wife and I are proud that our son, Nathaniel Easton, graduated with a DSU business administration degree in 2016. He then earned two master’s degrees from the University of Massachusetts. He is now pursuing a PhD at the University of Connecticut.
For our family, Dickinson State has been a very important institution. It has formed us at critical points in our lives and provided us with a wonderful education and great opportunities outside the classroom. But the Eastons are only one such family. There are so many other families that have sent their sons and daughters to this special institution.
Why? Because Dickinson State changes lives. Because we are small, our faculty and staff can provide individual attention to our students. In my fifteen months as president at DSU, many alumni have told me about a professor who took them under their wing when they were struggling with their studies, nurturing them to success.
That is the magic of Dickinson State. We change lives. We hope you will help us change your life or the life of a son or daughter who would benefit from our small campus community with big opportunities.