Seattle in the 1860s was a rugged town full of ambitious pioneers. Roughly 300 settlers lived in the heavily wooded area, and few had risked their lives to farm or cut trees. Entire families had uprooted and moved west to shape a thriving new community on the frontier.
From the beginning, local leaders embraced higher education as a key to success. On Nov. 4, 1861, just 10 years after the first settlers arrived at the mouth of the Duwamish River, the Territorial University of Washington opened at present-day 4th Avenue and University Street, where the Olympic Hotel sits today. Asa Shinn Mercer, a prominent member of one of Seattle’s founding families and the only college graduate in town, was hired as the University’s sole instructor and president.
The fledgling university taught primary-school subjects alongside college-level courses during its first few decades, all the while struggling to survive due to lack of funds and low enrollment. By the 1880s, however, the UW’s operation was more secure and the University was building a reputation for academic excellence. Still, the UW’s growth was not a foregone conclusion. The University needed support. It needed advocates. The UW needed its alumni.
When Washington achieved statehood in 1889, a small group of UW graduates answered the call and secured a bright future for the state’s flagship institution. Their legacy—the UW Alumni Association—has united alums in support of the University for the past 125 years. What began as a small network of pioneers more than a century ago has blossomed into a global community of Huskies who love the UW and believe in higher education.
Edmond S. Meany, class of 1885 and 1889, was the most influential alumnus in the UW’s early history. Born in East Saginaw, Mich., he moved west with his family in 1877 and arrived in Seattle at the age of 14. He immediately entered the preparatory program at the Territorial University, having promised his father he would earn enough money to pay his own tuition. When his father drowned in 1880 while prospecting for gold along the Skagit River, Meany became responsible for supporting his mother and sister.
Like many pioneers, Meany took whatever jobs he could find. He left the UW for two years in order to help the family, delivering newspapers and occasionally writing for them. After he returned to the University, Meany graduated as valedictorian of his class in 1885 with a bachelor’s degree in science. He followed his undergraduate studies with a Master’s in science from the UW in 1889. A prolific writer and historian who ultimately worked his way up in the newspaper business to become editor and publisher of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Meany was elected to the state Legislature in 1890 and became an energetic advocate for the UW at the state level.
He introduced legislation that secured funding to relocate the University from its 10-acre campus downtown to its current location between Lake Washington and Lake Union. When the corner-stone for the new administration building (now called Denny Hall) was laid on July 4, 1894, Meany pledged his commitment to the University in front of 1,000 attendees: “If there remains strength in this arm or loyalty in this heart, I desire to consecrate upon this corner-stone…all that remains of that strength and that loyalty to my alma mater.” He would devote the next four decades of his life to serving the UW.
Beginning in 1888, commencement exercises included an Alumni Reunion and Dinner. But it was the establishment of the UW Alumni Association in 1889 that gave graduates a formal seat at the table. Soon, alumni were supporting UW students and the University’s mission in myriad ways. In 1890, the UWAA’s first officers were listed in the school’s official catalogue: President C.C. Ward, class of 1889, Treasurer M.E. Adams, class of 1888, and Secretary Lizzie Ward Meany, class of 1885, Edmond’s wife.
Serving as the UWAA’s third president from 1892-93, Meany also worked as UW registrar and secretary of the Board of Regents, putting him squarely in charge of the University’s business matters. Within a few years, he was teaching history and forestry classes and came to be known by many endearing titles: Keeper of Traditions, Grand Old Man of the University, and Ideal Alumnus.
Many of the traditions Meany “kept” were ones he also invented, such as Campus Day, which lasted from 1904-34. For one day, classes were cancelled while students and faculty worked together to clear weeds, build pathways and make other physical improvements to campus. This was followed by singing, speeches and a lively dance in the evening. Campus Day often included visits by politicians as well as the involvement of local alumni.
Leading up to the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909, the UWAA began to take a more active role in the UW community. In 1906, the University began issuing four-page newsletters twice a month “with assistance from the Alumni Association.” Within two years, this modest publication evolved into the Washington Alumnus, and Meany was a frequent contributor. The Washington Alumnus turned into its current format, Columns, in 1989.
Meany was intimately involved in courting the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, which was hosted on the UW campus and introduced Seattle to the world stage. The AYPE attracted 3 million visitors and left a permanent legacy at the UW—transforming campus with several new buildings and landscape designs, including Rainier Vista. Meany worked with the Daughters of the American Revolution to commission the iconic statue of George Washington as a permanent addition to campus.
In 1914, the auditorium built for the AYPE was renamed Meany Hall—the first time the Board of Regents bestowed such an honor on a living person. Meany died inside Denny Hall in 1935, while preparing to teach a class, at the age of 72. In reporting his death to the alumni community he helped create, the Washington Alumnus described Meany as “Washington’s Greatest Alumnus.” It was the end of an era that dated back to the University’s pioneer beginnings.
Less than a year later, R. Brondson “Curly” Harris, ’31, was hired as executive secretary of the Alumni Association and the transition to a younger generation of leadership was under way. Under his direction from 1936-64, the Alumni Association solidified its legal status, formally incorporating as an independent, non-profit organization. And those articles of incorporation were visionary indeed, identifying the purpose of the UWAA: to advance higher education in the state of Washington. That provided the foundation for future efforts of legislative advocacy that in 2010 became formalized as UW Impact.
Many longstanding traditions were also created during this time, including the UW’s alumni lifetime achievement award. Established in 1938, the Alumnus Summa Laude Dignatus is still presented to an alumnus each spring by the University and UWAA.
A vocal champion for higher education, Harris was famous for going off the UW payroll each legislative session to meet with lawmakers in Olympia on behalf of the UW. He brought youthful energy to the task of leading the UWAA and advocating for higher education’s power to transform individual lives and shape entire communities—a role the UWAA embraces to this day.
Derek Belt, ’04, ’11, is a frequent contributor to Columns. UW Historian Antoinette Wills, ’75, provided the historical research for this article.