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Western History Through an Expert’s Eyes

Western History Through an Expert’s Eyes

A University’s History

What better way to know the history of Western Colorado University than from an institutional legend? History Professor Duane Vandenbusche, Ph.D.—who has taught at Western for more than a half century and is Colorado’s State Historian—recently concluded a virtual lecture series focused on the history of Western. The 16-session lecture series was hosted by the Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum and reached a worldwide audience.

Vandenbusche shared the early history of Western, founded in 1911 as a two-year school for teachers. The Colorado State Normal School was the first college on the Western Slope with 10 faculty and 13 students.

Evolving Over Time

In 1923, the institution evolved into a four-year program and was renamed Western State College, with an iconic “W” built on nearby Tenderfoot Mountain overlooking the school. The W remains one of the largest man-made letters, at 420 feet tall. It was whitewashed in 1924.

Vandenbusche shared about the evolution of buildings constructed on grounds, such as Crawford Hall named after Buell Crawford, a Western football player who died at the age of 22. Western’s official colors were chosen in 1923—crimson for the color of Indian Paintbrush which grow on the hillsides in the Gunnison Valley and slate representing sage. The fawn was the school’s original mascot representing alertness, strength, speed, curiosity, grace and sensitivity.

historic western building

In the 1950s, the Mountaineer would replace the fawn as mascot through a student contest.

Vandenbusche also shared how Western weathered dark times in both Colorado and national history. President Sam Quigley, who established Western as a liberal arts college, was removed by the state legislature that was dominated by the Ku Klux Klan. During the Great Depression, salaries at Western were cut by almost one-fourth. Yet, from the depression, enrollment increased under the presidency of Charles Casey who guided the school from 1930 to 1946—Western’s longest serving president.

Music camps flourished at Western into the 1960s, as did athletics following World War II. A construction boom began again with Mountaineer Bowl being constructed in 1948, becoming the highest college football field in the nation. Western student Pete Peterson was a heavyweight boxing champion in the state and later returned to the school to serve as the head football coach. A wintertime powderpuff football game was featured in national film.

Vandenbusche teaching

Athletic Archives

The mid-century brought the “father of Nordic skiing” to the forefront of Western history. Sven Wick joined the faculty in 1949 and took over Western State Ski Team, developing it to one of the best in the country. He went on to become an Olympic ski coach and produced 19 Olympic competitors. Western hosted the 1966 NCAA championships in skiing at Crested Butte.

In the 1960s Coach Tracey Borah led the school’s wrestling team to two NCAA championships.

The 1970s saw enrollment grow to 3,350 students, and the top social group on campus was the Luftseben. They were known for their parties, dressing up at homecoming and for supporting good causes. The group has continued to have reunions since the mid-1970s.

The 1980s and the coming of Title IX brought women’s athletics to Western along with a statewide water workshop. It was also the greatest football and cross-country era at Western. Multiple national championships were earned—eight for the men and four for the women.

Another ambitious construction campaign came with the turn of the century under presidents Jay Helmen and Greg Salsbury. Taylor Hall was renovated, the Borick Building constructed, the Mountaineer Field House was built and the Paul M. Rady School of Computer Science & Engineering was founded.

A Professor and a Witness

Perhaps most unique to his presentation was that Vandenbusche has experienced much of Western’s past firsthand. From coaching track to his outdoor history lectures during a pandemic, Vandenbusche is as much a part of Western as any figure he names. And for someone who has read all the local newspapers from 1880 to 1975, Vandenbusche’s history of Western is one to treasure.

“The Gunnison country has done much more for me than I have for it,” Vandenbusche told the Crested Butte News in 2015. “I love it. Why wouldn’t anyone want to be in the best fishing, skiing, mountain climbing and biking places, and one of the most beautiful areas in the world? It’s been a love affair for [more than] 53 years.”

Watch the full virtual lecture with Professor Vandenbusche, PhD.

Learn more about Western’s History department.

To check out the podcast series, click here.


Author Credit: Chris Rourke

Photo Credit: Western Archives

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