The Elmhurst Academy and Junior College lasted only five years and had only one president. It was by design a transitory phenomenon, “a stage in the development of the institution into something larger,” said Paul N. Crusius, a key faculty member of the era. Still, “it was in a sense beginning all over again.
Herman J. Schick, a son of German immigrants and a Proseminary alumnus, led the initial efforts to reorganize the school along collegiate American lines. President Schick increased the faculty by 30 percent, hired the first two professors with doctorates, and aggressively added courses in the natural and social sciences. He also encouraged his students as they busily manufactured new traditions. In 1920 the premier edition of The Elm Bark, the first student newspaper, rolled off the presses. The first three social fraternities arrived on the campus. Rugby supplanted soccer as the fall sport; the following year, football supplanted rugby. In 1923 the College held its first Homecoming, and two alumni wrote the “Alma Mater.”
Swelling enrollment compelled the construction of a new dormitory, ultimately called Schick Hall. To clear the site, the College demolished the barn and the rest of the working farm. In its fiftieth year the school opened its first free-standing library. Memorial Library—named in honor of Evangelical Church members who lost their lives in the Great War—was built in part with money raised in a development campaign led by Reinhold Niebuhr.
Ever loyal and impatient, Niebuhr continued to both support and impel his alma mater. “In spite of the progress that has been made there is as yet no cause for complacency,” he wrote in The Keryx in 1920. “At this rate it will be fifty years before we have a first-class college. We have fallen too far behind the procession to make a policy of gradual development at all acceptable now. We need a heroic attempt to get abreast of other denominations” and their colleges.
In 1924, responsibility for the “heroic attempt” fell to Reinhold’s brilliant younger brother. Helmut Richard Niebuhr was 30 years old, and only 12 years out of the Proseminary, when he chose the presidency of Elmhurst College over an invitation to teach at Yale. He was the first Elmhurst leader to hold a doctorate (from Yale Divinity School). His presidency was destined to be lightning-swift and utterly transforming. The historian Melitta Cutright called it “a dizzying period of change and dreams ....He sought nothing short of excellence.”