Unless you’re a Hoosier (a.k.a. current or former resident of Indiana), if you’ve heard of West Lafayette, Indiana, it’s likely because of Purdue University.
With 40,000+ attendees, famous graduates, and an impressive basketball program, the Big Ten member is the area’s most well-known institution. Because of that, any tour of this Midwestern town should start with a visit to the home of the Boilermakers, so that’s exactly what we did.
We began at the Purdue Welcome Center. It’s located inside the Memorial Union along with the Union Club Hotel, the largest hotel in the county. After a quick view of the campus map with our guide, Cindy, we jumped into a golf cart and rolled out.
Our first stop was just past the Wetherill Laboratory of Chemistry before a 52′ stretch of railroad tracks embedded in Centennial Mall. Since 2005, “Crossing the Tracks” has been a tradition. In the Fall, incoming Freshmen jump over the tracks to mark their start at the university. In the Spring, graduating Seniors jump back the other way, symbolizing their entry into the professional world.
Fun Fact: The lighting fixture in Catalyst Cafe, the coffee shop in the Wetherill Chemistry Building, represents the molecular structure of caffeine.
Purdue is a land-grant university. It’s one of eighty-six chartered through The Morrill Acts, which provided public lands to a state if it used the proceeds from the sale of that land to maintain a college or university. This Act was in response to the Industrial Age and the belief that the average man should have an education.
The focus was on Agriculture and the “mechanic arts,” a.k.a. Engineering. They also emphasized military leadership; the first act was signed in 1862, when the Civil War demonstrated a desperate need for training.
By 1869, the Indiana General Assembly had chosen Lafayette for the new institution. Local residents donated 100 acres and Tippecanoe County ponied up $50,000, but the big windfall came from an unmarried merchant banker. This man gave $150,000 of his own money to found the university.
His name was John Purdue.
Ever since that beginning, the house that John built has been known for excellence. The average high school GPA of admitted freshmen is 3.7 on a 4.0 scale. Two Nobel Laureates have taught chemistry at the school.
Amelia Earhart counseled students at the Department of Aeronautics before her fateful flight, and the Purdue Research Foundation provided her plane. In addition to the original disciplines, the education and business programs are also respected.
But Purdue is particularly known for one type of alumni: astronauts. It’s called the “cradle of astronauts,” and twenty-four alumni have been selected by NASA to join the space program, including “Gus” Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Neil Armstrong.
Inside the Hall of Engineering named for the famed moon-walker is a replica of Apollo 1. There’s also a display honoring Chaffee, who, along with Grissom and fellow Purdue graduate Ed White, died when the command module caught fire during testing.
As we continued our tour, I realized this was not the campus I’d seen nearly thirty years before. That one was all parking lot. This one was sidewalks and trees and fountains. It looks less like an industrial park and more like the college campus it is. They’d begun landscaping about twenty years ago, give or take a few, and now the grounds are welcoming, with trees and fountains. It’s also bike-friendly, and was labeled a Silver Level Bike-Friendly University in 2016 by the League of American Bicyclists.
We stopped at the statue of John Purdue sitting on a bench. It’s said that he would sit there every day during construction of his institution. He’s buried nearby, but there’s no engraving on the marker. He was a crotchety old man, but he believed in education and the school that bore his name would be his monument.
The courtyard where both his statue and grave reside contain the Hello Walk. When students walk the sidewalks on this plaza, they’re encouraged to put down their phones, metaphorically tip their hats, and say “Hello” to everyone they meet.
None of the original structures of the university remain except for University Hall, which was built in 1877, but the past is still present. As we approached the Class of ’50 building, Cindy barely eased the pressure on the golf cart’s pedal as we rolled by. She knew we were on a schedule and didn’t have much more time to explore, but this building was special.
“It’s my favorite building,” she said, because it was built by the first graduating class after World War II. “They were different from any other class. They’d seen war and grew up during the Depression.” She paused. “My dad went to college on the GI Bill, so this means a lot.”
Cindy completed our visit by passing the Unfinished P, a sculpture that represents the drive to never stop learning. It’s a fitting monument at a university, and was a fitting introduction to the rest of our tour of Lafayette.
Why Boilermakers? In 1891, the university was accused of recruiting athletes from boiler shops. In a gesture reminiscent of Yuma High School’s Criminals and Chicago’s “Second City” moniker, they thumbed their noses at the accusation, adopted the name for their athletic teams, and bought an 85,000-pound Schenectady No. 1 Locomotive engine.
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