On October 1, 1891, more than 400 enthusiastic young men and women were on hand for opening day ceremonies at Leland Stanford Junior University. They came from all over: many from California, some who followed professors hired from other colleges and universities, and some simply seeking adventure in the West. They came to seize a special opportunity, to be part of the pioneer class in a brand new university. They stayed to help turn an ambitious dream into a thriving reality. As a pioneer faculty member recalled, “Hope was in every heart, and the presiding spirit of freedom prompted us to dare greatly.”
For Leland and Jane Stanford on that day, the University was the realization of a dream and a fitting tribute to the memory of their only son, who died of typhoid fever weeks before his 16th birthday, at an age when many young men and women were planning their college education.
From the beginning, it was clear that Stanford would be different. It was coeducational at a time when single-sex colleges were the norm. It was non-sectarian when most private colleges were still affiliated with a church. And it offered a broad, flexible program of study while most schools insisted on a rigid curriculum of classical studies. Though there were many difficulties during the first months (housing was inadequate, microscopes and books were late in arriving from the East), the first year foretold greatness. As Jane Stanford wrote in the summer of 1892, “Even our fondest hopes have been realized.”
What manner of people were this man and this woman who had the intelligence, the means, the faith, and the daring to plan a major university in Pacific soil, far from the nation’s center of culture?