by Silvia Pettem (pubished in the Daily Camera, May 11, 2008)
The University of Colorado’s recent commencement with more than 5,000 graduates was in stark contrast to the small graduations in CU’s earliest years. Six students made up the first graduating class, in 1882. Three years later, commencement was cancelled because one of the students had died, another was too distraught to continue her studies, and the third (according to a newspaper account) “did not quite succeed in finishing the prescribed course.”
Only two students were in the 1887 graduating class, and one of them was the University president’s daughter Jennie. Joseph Sewall had been forced to resign due to the low enrollment and even lower finances. He managed to delay his departure, however, until Jennie’s graduation so he could present her with her diploma.
Jennie, also known as “Jane,” never forgot her years at CU. She’s best known for her book Jane, Dear Child (Univ. Press of CO 1957), a rare first-hand view of Boulder and the CU campus in the 1870s and 1880s.
Although she wrote the book decades later, Jennie vividly remembered her arrival in Boulder at the age of 12. She had come on the train with her mother and siblings to join her father as he presided over the University’s opening in September 1877. At the time, the “University Building” (still-standing as Old Main) was CU’s only structure.
“It loomed before us gaunt and alone in the pitiless clear light,” Jennie wrote. “No tree nor shrub or any human habitation was in sight. Vast expanses of rock and sagebrush were its only surroundings.”
The Sewall family moved into the solitary building, as did the janitor and his family. Classrooms, the chemistry lab, and even the dining room all were packed into three stories. At the time, the University’s 44 students lived in Boulder, and they all walked to class.
After the construction of the President’s House (now Koenig Alumni Center) in 1884, the Sewall family became that building’s first residents. Jennie’s reminiscences included sliding down the banister, still a very prominent feature in the entryway. Both Old Main and the original President’s House are now on the National Register of Historic Places.
For twenty years, Jennie taught history in the Denver public schools. Then she moved to Boston and made it her permanent home. She combined her love of teaching with a love of travel and also led students on chaperoned tours to Europe. Eventually, she crossed the Atlantic 110 times, made five trips to South America, took several more voyages to Africa, then traveled for six months around the world.
Early year commencements were held in the chapel on the first floor of Old Main. Richard Whiteley, one of the students in the first graduating class, gave a farewell address. “This week is the last that we shall pass in college together,” he told his classmates. “Our little bark is coming in on the wings of Time, the voyage is over, the haven is reached.”
Jennie died in 1960 at the age of 95. But during those first graduation exercises, she probably was sitting in the front row.