The return of Warren D. Parker to the presidency was welcome news for faculty, students and community residents alike. Over the next several years the school exuded an atmosphere of well-being. The quality of student enrollees increased dramatically with the increasing number of high schools in the area. Kindergarten was added to the Model School program, and new opportunities enriched the lives of students—especially the founding of the Normal Badger and the beginning of organized athletics.
This first campus newspaper began as a monthly in 1895. Student-run and written, the paper covered athletic events, general campus news, essays, poetry and humor. From reviews of lectures to a three-column critique of the Iliad, the Badger attempted to offer something of interest to everyone. But the financial condition of the paper was usually precarious. Single issues of the 8-page paper sold for 5 cents, although one could purchase a yearly subscription for 50 cents, in advance. In 1896 the paper changed its format into a 16-page magazine. Yet editors constantly battled to put together enough contributions to fill out each issue.
Toward the end of the Parker years, sports became a feature of extracurricular life at River Falls. The formation of a baseball team was the start. Baseball, like other sports at the time, was given no financial support by the school, and few schools in the country had anything resembling a coaching staff. Thus, the fortunes of normal teams rose and fell according to the degree of interest of the students. Early games were intramural in nature, but competition soon expanded to include games against area high school teams.
The sport lowest in faculty esteem was football. Not only was it a brutal sport, it was felt, but it was also too degrading for young men who someday sought to inspire and instruct the youth of the commonwealth. Nevertheless, in 1894 the men of the normal formed a football team. The “Normal Nockers” made their own red and white uniforms, but disdained the use of helmets. In the fall of 1895, the normal and River Falls city teams happily mauled each other on a fairly regular schedule. In one of the milder confrontations, which the Nockers won 10 to 6, the River Falls Journal was able to report “only two bloody noses and one arm in a sling.”
On the evening of Nov. 29, 1897, a fire of unknown origin started in the third floor chemistry lab of the Normal School Building. Students, faculty, and citizens raced to battle the blaze and salvage what could be carried out of the burning building (including the school’s grand piano and bust of Daniel Webster). Within hours, however, the school had become “but a shell of staring ruins.”
When the walls caved in, President Parker climbed on a wagon and shouted that school would assemble in Thelander’s Opera House the next morning at 9 a.m. Only a half day of classes was missed—the town offered churches, lodge rooms, and other buildings as meeting places for classes. But once again the normal was in a struggle for survival. Other communities, especially Eau Claire, lobbied hard to be the site of western Wisconsin’s rebuilt normal. Even the Governor and the state’s leading newspaper in Milwaukee supported the relocation. Within a month after the fire, however, the Board of Regents authorized a new building for River Falls. What is now South Hall rose on the foundations of the original building, taking only nine months from start to finish and costing a mere $33,000.
Citing ill health (in part caused by the stresses of the fire and the rebuilding effort), President Parker resigned in the summer of 1898. It would be up to a new president to give River Falls Normal a fresh start.