What’s in a name?
Much of the university’s history can be read in the names of campus buildings
Newcomers to the Chico State University campus But the most interesting names are the least recognizable ones, those that honor historic campus figures, names like Laxson, Kendall and Meriam. Who are these people? What roles did they play at the university that got their names on these buildings?
Chico State is nearly 120 years old, making it the second-oldest school in the California State University system, so it’s got a lot of history. It will add to your stay here to get to know some of that history, beginning with learning something about the people behind those names on all those buildings. Here they are, in alphabetical order:
Art Acker began at Chico State in 1923 and remained on campus for 38 years. At this point he’s a campus legend remembered for bringing a cougar—the original wildcat—to basketball games, leading the hoops team to its first conference championship in 1924 and again in ‘25 and ‘26. Later he was nicknamed “the Grey Fox” for his wise, wily ways.
The 1920s—those were the days, when a student might potentially run into a wildcat in the brush around the Sacramento River and have it be adopted by the basketball coach as a mascot. (After its death, the animal was stuffed and placed on display, but it’s been lost to a campus fire.) Acker wasn’t daunted by the feral creature or by the “ragged looking bunch” of athletes he said he encountered when he first arrived on campus. He’d been a track star himself, earning a spot on the 1912 Olympic squad, till an attack of appendicitis cut short his hopes.
Acker’s overall record is a winning one. Acker Gym was dedicated in his memory in 1973, prompting him to say, “It was hard to believe so many people would be so kind and gracious to an old man who did nothing more than try to help those who were so willing to learn.”
Harlen Adams Theatre
A 500-seat auditorium in Chico State’s Performing Arts Center is named for Harlen Adams, who until his death in 1997 at the age of 93 was often be seen in attendance at events there—and sometimes on the stage, acting in plays. Adams was active in community affairs; he was a theater booster, and he lent prestige to the local chapter of P-FLAG—Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (he had a gay son). He was variously described as a professor, traveler, actor and philanthropist.
Adams was born in Provo, Utah. He attended Brigham Young University, Harvard and Princeton, eventually earning a doctorate in English literature from Stanford. He served on the Chico State faculty from 1939 to 1974, moving up to dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, dean of the School of Education and executive dean—but in 1967 he readjusted his priorities, moved out of administration and back into the classroom, devoting his energies to the Department of Speech and Drama.
Chicoans off campus knew him best for his participation in theater and his involvement with local charities and social organizations. He traveled to more than 100 countries, and in 1978 the MacArthur Foundation named him a “Most World-Minded Citizen.”
Former Chico State President Robin Wilson paid tribute to Adams as “an oak of a man, tough, sturdy, perennially productive, above all sheltering.” One of his former students endowed a scholarship for theater students in Harlen Adams’ name, saying, “Harlen always has his feet on the ground and knows how to look at the world. He’s a great example for students.”
John Ayres was one of the first art professors at Chico State. His specialty: medieval art and studio painting. His work in the Bay Area inspired renowned San Francisco critic Alfred Frankenstein to champion him as one of the West Coast’s best artists. And he remained an active studio artist during his tenure at Chico.
From 1946 to 1967, he chaired the Art Department, building the staff from two instructors to 25. In 1976, he retired, remaining in Chico. Ayres Hall, which headquarters the department, was named for him in 1979.
Bell Memorial Union
The student union is named for Hugh McKee Bell, who is still remembered appreciatively for turning down offers from Harvard and Stanford to remain at Chico State.
Bell came to Chico in 1928 as an assistant professor of psychology. Within three years he’d moved up to dean of students; in 1946 he was named dean of student personnel and remained in that position for 10 years. After his retirement, he traveled to England, where he was fulfilling a Fulbright lectureship at the time of his death, in 1968.
Aymer J. Hamilton
Aymer J. Hamilton was the 10th president at Chico, from 1931 to 1950, when it was a teachers’ college. He served longer as president than any other and saw the first students receive their master’s degrees here before his departure.
Under Hamilton, Chico State operated the building bearing his name as a laboratory school. The Hamilton building was converted to other uses in 1970.
Daniel Heistand, a band director, arranger, performer, teacher and conductor, for many years led the Chico Symphonic Band, a joint university-community effort. He was widely known in Chico when he died in the mid-1990s. Heistand Hall is found within the university’s Performing Arts Center.
Holt Hall, the labyrinthine life sciences complex, is named for Vesta Holt, who was one of a handful of female academics of her era. She had an impact at Chico State, helping to found the Eagle Lake Field Station near Susanville, founding a chapter of the academic biology fraternity on campus and assembling an impressive collection of local plant specimens.
Holt, a Stanford Ph.D., came to Chico State in 1926 and became head of the Biology Department in 1931. In the ‘30s, she helped develop science guides for elementary-school teachers and co-authored the Manual for the Study of Common Plants in Northern California, a standard reference work that she later updated. She was a member of the faculty for 31 years.
Former university President Glenn Kendall was a courtly character, a Southerner who presided over the campus for 16 years, from 1950-66, during a time when enrollment quadrupled, from 1,500 to over 6,000, as did the size of the faculty, from 78 to 305. Under Kendall’s watch, Chico State changed from a teacher-training school to a full-fledged university. The administration building is named in his honor.
Kendall was born in Unionville, Tennessee, in 1901 and spent 16 years teaching in rural Kentucky before moving onward and upward. He was a director of the Department of Immigration and Naturalization in 1947 and afterwards served as a division chair at San Francisco State.
Chico State underwent massive changes in Kendall’s tenure, yet he is remembered for his “'incredible attention to good will,” which seems to have helped ease growing pains for the institution and the surrounding community.
He died in March 2004 at the age of 101.
Langdon Engineering Center
Herbert Langdon came to Chico in 1946, during a growth era for colleges, as GI Bill-funded World War II vets flooded the halls, and at a time when all hailed technology—and the engineer, as its representative, was its high priest. Before Chico, he worked as an engineer and educator in several other locations, including Turkey.
Langdon taught the first courses in applied sciences at the college and became chairman of the Engineering Division. He’s largely responsible for developing the department into one large enough to need its own building. Langdon helped plan the engineering building; ironically, the contract for its construction was assigned only days before his unexpected death in 1965 at the age of 54.
Herbert Langdon’s wife, Virginia, worked for many years at the Chico State library and is remembered still by staffers there.
Robert Laxson was born in 1912 and came to Chico in 1946. You could fairly say music was his life, and you could fairly say that through his enthusiasm for local classical performances he left a legacy that still survives in the North State Symphony Orchestra.
Laxson was a perennial presence at university concerts in his day and the first conductor of the Chico Community Symphony, which later became known as the Chico Symphony Orchestra. He spent 22 years at Chico State.
But Laxson was also a sports devotee—he was a college athlete and served on the Far Western Conference governing board. He also served as a vice president of the Chico Community Concert Association, which helped support symphony presentations, and often would be seen escorting visiting artists to the stage or providing the piano accompaniment for performances.
Laxson died on a spring Saturday in 1968 at the age of 55. He was at work, as usual—in Sacramento, judging a music competition. Laxson Auditorium was dedicated in the pianist and professor’s name in 1979. It continues to host performances of the North State Symphony, as the Chico Symphony is now called.
The library is named for a truly admired man who played an intimate part in the development of Chico into the friendly, downtown-based community that it remains today. Meriam’s presence was often felt at Chico State. He is the only person to have been awarded an honorary degree by the university.
Ted Meriam was born in Chico in 1910—only a decade after Gen. John Bidwell died—and had such a long tenure in the city that in later years students, thinking he’d been here forever, would believe he’d known Bidwell personally.
His father, Morrison Meriam, taught psychology on the campus between 1902 and 1934. Ted Meriam attended college here for two years, then transferred to Stanford, where he earned his degree in economics in 1931. Then he returned to Chico and in Chico he stayed, worked and built a reputation as a man who cared about the city’s reputation, its history and its future. He married his wife, Opal Meline, here in 1934.
He worked for 46 years in the finance office of a downtown department store, M. Oser & Co., for the most part as its chairman. The list of his community and campus accomplishments is lengthy. He helped spearhead the restoration of Bidwell Mansion and the Stansbury Home. He was elected to the City Council in 1947 and was Chico’s mayor from 1949 until 1959, the longest-serving mayor ever. In 1961, he became one of the initial members of the state university’s Board of Trustees, serving as its chairman in ‘68 and ‘69.
At the Meriam Library’s dedication in 1981, Meriam recalled that as a Stanford student he had not merely disliked but “loathed” history. Yet as one of Chico’s most prominent citizens, he had become a chronicler of local history. Dedicating the library to Meriam was a direct tribute to the man, whose other public passion, besides Chico itself, is the collecting of rare books. The late campus historian W. H. “Old Hutch” Hutchinson paid tribute to Meriam for keeping Chico a “beloved spot.” And the local daily editorialized: “Meriam’s love affair with Chico has been more intense and consistent than that of anybody else in modern times.”
Meriam died in 2001 at the age of 91.
O’Connell Technology Center
When the university dedicated the John F. O’Connell Technology Center in this alumnus’ name in 1992, it paid tribute to a man who lived “the American dream” by attaining wealth and power in his lifetime.
O’Connell was a powerhouse during his Chico days: He came to Chico State in 1933, becoming a football star and student body president.
In the war years, he went to work for Bechtel, a massive engineering/construction company with worldwide influence, and rose through its ranks to its presidency, becoming a political power—"friend and advisor to governors and presidents and cabinet members.” And he accumulated substantial wealth. At Chico State, both the O’Connell building and an endowed professorship are named for John O’Connell.
Ruth Rowland Taylor Recital Hall
The recital hall, located in the Performing Arts Center, is named for the woman who founded the university’s A Cappella Choir and played a role in organizing the Chico Community Concert Association. Rowland Taylor was a vocalist who had performed with the Chicago Opera Ensemble and the Florentine Choir of Italy and an educator with a degree from DePaul University. An energetic professor who divided her time between education and performance, she arrived on campus in 1929 and chaired the music department between 1932 and 1955.
Rowland Taylor also had a love for opera, and she produced six operatic productions during her tenure. (The first, Bizet’s Carmen, was presented at the Senator Theatre.) Two music education scholarships are awarded in her name.
Jane Shurmer’s 30-year career at Chico State began in 1938. She’s the woman responsible for developing competitive female field hockey, basketball, softball and swimming teams, and she was recognized as a top sports educator.
Shurmer was a trend-setter, working at the beginning of her career to eliminate prejudice against women’s competitive sports—"unladylike,” they called it, but Shurmer wouldn’t accept that. She actually initiated intercollegiate competitions here in 1939.
Her special passion was for women’s field hockey, for which she became a nationally registered umpire and managed a sectional team for the National Hockey Association. In 1965, Shurmer led this team on a tour of Australia and New Zealand—she had seen her dream that women be perceived as competitors in the world arena come true.
In 1973, Shurmer was inducted into the Chico Sports Hall of Fame. Many women she coached and taught have in turn become coaches, educators and competitors. The Shurmer Gym was dedicated in her honor in 1976.
The humanities and language arts building is named for Alva Park Taylor, a Shakespearean scholar who once chaired the Humanities Division.
Taylor earned his doctorate from UC Berkeley and came to Chico in 1929 to head up the English Department. Known as a “colorful personality” and as a man with “great dignity” to staid Chicoans, he cultivated an interest in the Elizabethan era, making musical instruments like those used in that period and hosting weekly chamber music sessions in his home. He was an accomplished viola player as well. He retired in 1953, and after his wife’s death in 1995 he also parted with his Chico home, spending the rest of his life in England.
Turner Print Gallery
The Janet Turner Print Gallery honors an artist whose detailed prints of birds and wildlife have been exhibited in every state and 50 countries and whose vast print collection forms the backbone of the gallery’s holdings.
Turner’s talents were widely appreciated. She received a Guggenheim grant in 1952 and in 1959 began teaching at Chico State. In 1975, she was named Chico’s Outstanding Professor of the Year. Turner died in 1988.
Wismer Arena Theatre
Court Theatre patrons are familiar with the Wismer, a “black box” theater that’s used to stage student productions throughout the year. Larry Wismer co-founded the summer-stock program in 1967 and helped build its reputation and popularity through his retirement in 1980.
Wismer spent 17 years on campus, teaching acting, directing and theater history. He directed more than 100 plays and in 1970 was chosen as an Outstanding Educator in America. Like many of his contemporaries, after his retirement he remained in Chico, and he was often seen at the theater he helped build. He died in March 2004 at the age of 90.
This is a revised version of a story written by Elizabeth Kieskowski that originally appeared in 1995.