Lander University’s spacious plaza was celebration central Tuesday (March 15), as the school honored 150 years of educational excellence amid a blast of fireworks, games, dancing and music mixed with moments of nostalgia.
The event, which launches a year-long Sesquicentennial observance, could not come at a better time in the University’s history, said Dr. Richard Cosentino, the 12th president to lead Lander.
With nearly 4,000 students, “Lander is the biggest and the best that we have ever been,” Cosentino said, telling the crowd of more than 2,000 that Lander is the fastest-growing public university in South Carolina. “I couldn’t be more proud.”
The growth of the modern University is not unlike that of the early college when the Rev. Samuel Lander founded the Williamston Female College in 1872. The private college opened on Feb. 12 with 33 students and upped its enrollment to 44 students only 24 hours later.
Lisa Wiecki and Dr. David Mash of the Jackson Library, who researched the school’s history for the book, “Lander University,” to be published in April, said the college immediately caught the attention of families seeking a place where their daughters could be educated.
Their talk, “A Wellspring at Williamston,” focused on the college’s “foundational years,” a period of time when the college began the mission “to impart health and vigor of body, mind and spirit.” The college’s first president saw Williamston’s chalybeate spring, believed to promote health and healing through is mineral properties, as a symbol of the benefits that the college offered.
In 1884, he wrote, “About 12 years ago, there sprang into existence near this fount of health, the fountain of learning which since then has sent forth copious streams of mental and moral culture to gladden and adorn full many a happy heart.”
Sepia-tinted photographs from the college’s first two decades, shown in a state-of-the-art auditorium with advanced technology, took participants back to a time when “hanging out” for college students meant gathering with friends around one of the school’s fountains or strolling through the garden.
When the college outgrew the infrastructure of Williamston, nearby Greenwood clamored at the opportunity in 1904 to relocate the successful college to its own growing community. Lander welcomed its first male student in 1944 and was fully coed after World War II.
“Over the next several decades, Lander College continued to grow and transform, first becoming a state-assisted institution in 1973 and then, in 1992, becoming Lander University,” said Damion Moragne, a Lander senior, who led the University’s official program to kick off the celebratory year.
“And just think of the accomplishments we’ve seen in just the last 30 years. New buildings and facilities. New academic programs. New student life opportunities.”
Before a nostalgic moment in the evening -- the ringing of the original bell – Moragne said, “What began as a small, private, female college is now a thriving university, with more students than ever before and programs that educate scholars around the globe,” Moragne said.
The bell, stored in the University’s archives, was made by Meneely and Kimberly of New York, one of America’s most famous bell casting foundries. The 225-pound bell was shipped to Williamston on Feb. 11, 1876 – the same year that the foundry cast another important bell – the 13,000-pound “Centennial Bell,” made in honor of the nation’s 100th anniversary. That bell still chimes daily from the steeple of Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
Cosentino joined student government leaders to ring the bell and mark Lander’s past and celebrate its future.
For Lander University Board of Trustees member Anne S. Walker of Sumter, the evening represented an opportunity for those who love Lander to finally come together after two years of a pandemic and find joy as a community.
Walker, who graduated from Lander in 1972, said, “It’s just very exciting to have this night. I am so proud of Lander and all that we have accomplished.”
Alumna Libba Stevenson of Greenwood earned her business administration degree in 1984. She said her years at Lander “were the best years of my life.”
As the sparkle of blue and gold fireworks faded in the night sky, Lander education major, De’Asia Jenkins, described the night as “very special.”
The senior from Eutawville said the event, being held during her senior year, marks “the end of an era for me, and the beginning of a new one.”