John Q. Emery, 1843-1928, was a child of the frontier, moving with his family in 1846 to Dane County, Wisconsin Territory. He was educated in a country school and at Albion Academy, later becoming a teacher, superintendent and principal. Immediately prior to his appointment as president of the River Falls Normal School, he served for 16 years as principal of Fort Atkinson High School.
Emery inherited a stable, well-functioning school, but one that failed to measure up to the Regents' expectations. A visiting committee of Regents raised two primary concerns, citing the poor preparation of the students admitted to the school and the small and inconsistent enrollments. During his four years as president, Emery did succeed in increasing enrollments and in pleasing the Regents. Near the end of Emery’s tenure, another visiting committee noted that the “number of pupils enrolled and the attendance was good throughout the year. We found the school large in numbers, in a happy state of discipline and worthy of much general commendation. Teachers and pupils seemed alike earnest and hard working and on such terms of agreement as left little to be desired and furnished no justification for criticism.”
For students, little changed with the turnover of the presidency. Emery attempted very little innovation in the method or direction of the school. As faculty member Alice Shultes noted, Emery “recognized and appreciated the traditions of the school and held it to its high standard of excellence.” Most students continued to come from the local farming communities in and around River Falls. “College” life consisted of earnest study during the week with trips home on the weekends and during breaks to help with the family farm. Because of these divided responsibilities, student retention was a difficult problem.