Eugene H. Kleinpell was born in Monona, Iowa, in 1903, the son of parents ambitious to see their son educated. He did not disappoint, earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of Iowa, a master’s at the University of Chicago, and a doctorate in history at the University of Ohio. During the depression he taught at Culver Military School in Missouri; the new state college at Havre, Montana; and Morningside College in Iowa. From there he became president of Valley City State Teachers College in North Dakota. When he came to River Falls in 1946, he was the first president selected with the input of a faculty committee and the first president with an earned doctorate.
Historian John Lankford, who taught at River Falls during the Kleinpell era, noted that “the selection of Eugene Kleinpell as Jesse Ames’ successor was a fortunate choice. His temperament and outlook were a happy mixture of the best qualities of both Crabtree and Ames: bold in design, able in political skill, and painstaking in attention to administrative details, he labored to guide the institution through the years of rapid expansion which followed the end of the war.” A local businessman once said that River Falls “got a dreamer for a president.”
President Kleinpell arrived on a campus that consisted of North Hall, South Hall, the Manual Arts Building, and the farm, located at the site of today’s Agriculture Science Building. But campus expansion was in full force throughout the 1950s and 1960s including farm land purchases and the construction of residence halls, Chalmer Davee Library, an agriculture building, Hagestad Student Center, Karges Physical Education Center, Ames Teacher Education Center and a new heating plant.
One of his first moves was to create the college’s divisions of humanities, social sciences and professional studies. In his more than two decades as president, he oversaw many efforts to meet the needs of the burgeoning student body: creation of the Foundation in 1948 to support college activities and expansion, creation of a general education program, transition to a liberal arts college in 1951 and a state university in 1964, and installation of the graduate program offering teachers the opportunity to earn the master of science in education degree. Later organized into three divisions—Arts and Sciences, Education and Psychology, and Agriculture—the college now had many new majors and degrees.
By 1950, enrollment was 896, an all-time high. After that, enrollment declined slightly, but was followed by a record 1,000 students in 1956 and a steady increase into the 1960s with the arrival of the baby-boomers.
Upon becoming part of the Wisconsin State University System in 1964, the campus was truly a cultural resource for the region’s residents. With 2,500 students, the university offered a host of events such as conferences for language arts, grassroots politics and rural life, a coaches clinic, the fine arts festival, distinguished women lectures and journalism day. The campus and surrounding community enjoyed performances by the new St. Croix Valley Summer Theatre and visits and speeches by luminaries such as Andy Warhol, John F. Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Indira Ghandhi, Margaret Bourke-White, and others. Outstanding teaching and leadership began to be recognized with the new Distinguished Teacher of the Year Award following the opening of the Ames Teacher Education and Lab School housing the College of Education in 1962.
Although student activities languished during World War II, they quickly revived with the returning students. The Student Senate took on additional responsibilities and earned respect from the faculty for its hard work. Debate teams returned to competition. The Meletean and Student Voice staffs labored to tell the River Falls story. And events like Homecoming, Winter Carnival, Sadie Hawkins Day and others enjoyed resounding success. The wearing of “beanies” by freshmen until the Homecoming game was introduced in 1949 and survived until the student unrest of the late 1960s.
Between 1946 and 1950, the basketball team won four state championships, was invited to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics tournament three times, and had the nation’s leading scorer, Nate Delong, on the team. The small, 600-seat gym in North Hall overflowed with enthusiastic supporters. The “Feed the Field House Fund” campaign to build a new gym became the first priority of the fledgling River Falls State Teachers College Foundation. Although the fundraising drive failed, the team’s success brought national attention and sparked local pride.
More than 75 years into the school’s existence, the first on-campus residence hall was built. Named for long-time Dean of Women, Irma Hathorn, the dormitory housed 100 women. The basement was often used for dance and TV parties, and male students were allowed to use the recreation room to play ping pong and watch TV. “Good-night” times were strictly enforced—10:30 p.m. on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends.
Through the late 1950s and early 1960s several more residence halls were built, changing the social dynamic on campus and sounding the death knell for the off-campus boarding houses. Hagestad Student Center, which opened in 1959, offered new choices in food and recreational facilities as well. Social fraternities and sororities finally made their appearance on campus in the 1960s. Membership from these “Greek” organizations often provided the principal leadership for student activities. And the groups also offered an escape from the pressures of stud—in 1961 Phi Nu Chi became the first fraternity to push a hospital bed from River Falls to Hudson, accomplishing the feat in 1:58:28.
In the late 1960s, students and staff began to feel the social unrest of the nation with the onset of the Vietnam War and the war on poverty, racism and pollution here at home. When Kleinpell retired in 1967, it was truly the end of an era.