WAHOO – The history and accomplishments of a short-lived college in Wahoo was shared recently at a gathering of the Saunders County Genealogical Seekers.
Carl Wirth, a John F. Kennedy College graduate, shared not only the history of the college during its 1965 to 1975 operation, but also related some personal stories about his time on the campus in northwest Wahoo.
Wirth was one of many students who came from the east coast to attend college.
He said the original plan was to name it Wahoo College. But, the founders then opted to name it after the U.S. president who was assassinated in 1963.
“That did attract a lot of students though from the east coast,” Wirth said.
Kennedy College was one of five colleges formed in Nebraska during the mid-1960s and came about from an initiative by Parsons College in Iowa. It was the last of the five colleges to close.
“Those 10 years that Kennedy College was open was just a flash in Wahoo’s history,” he said.
But, he added there was a lot that happened during those 10 years.
Both Ted and Robert Kennedy visited Wahoo during those 10 years. It was not too long after Robert Kennedy’s visit to downtown Wahoo that he was assassinated in 1968.
During its operation, Kennedy College made a name for itself in athletics, especially women’s sports.
Wirth said this was in the days before Title IX and opportunities for women’s athletics were not as recognized.
The Kennedy women won both softball and basketball championships. A woman’s basketball team from Kennedy College was among the group to head to China, after President Richard Nixon opened to door to relations with that country.
Wirth also shared information about the three fires on campus, one of which cost the life of one of the dorm mothers.
The loss of life was felt across campus, but Wirth said the fire that claimed Old Maine, a campus building that had been passed down from the former Luther College, was even harder.
“It was devastating. It took the heart out of everybody,” he said.
At peak enrollment, there were 690 students on campus. Wirth said it is hard to have an exact count of the number of students who attended Kennedy College, as student enrollment was a fluid number.
Some of the coming and going of students related to the United State’s involvement in Vietnam at that time. He said the war was a factor in some students enrolling in the college, and the draft was a factor is some students leaving.
Kennedy College had the support of the community. Financial woes dogged the college for many years and community campaigns were held to raise money to keep the college going.
But, Wirth said enrollment continued to drop after the war ended and the community was getting tapped out for resources.
The college declared bankruptcy in 1975 and closed.
Still, he said the college and its legacy should be remembered.
“There were many lasting things that came out of the college,” he said.
Wirth thanked the community for supporting the college and its students. The east coast kid who became a history teacher and now lives in Omaha said he likes sharing the history of the college.