Defining moments: Still on a pioneer's path

In 1881, before the transcontinental railroad had successfully breached the Cascades, the son of an Indiana farmer arrived in Olympia with his wife and young daughter. The little town he glimpsed through the train window reminded him of a New England village rescued from the pages of history, its muddy streets rutted by the great wooden wheels of prairie schooners that had, throughout the 19th century, carried pioneers from the East in search of opportunity.

In this issue of Arches, you will read remembrances of this visionary man who began his work to found the University of Puget Sound in 1884, almost as soon as he had settled here. Were it not for one crucial decision he made years before, our university might not exist today. After returning to the family farm following service in the Civil War and fighting under General Sherman, David LeSourd decided to attend college to seek his calling in life. At Battleground Collegiate Institute he prepared to become a Methodist minister, and came west to spread the gospel. His decision to attend college was a transforming moment that led him to take a train to San Francisco, then steamboats to Portland and Kalama, and finally another train to the shores of Puget Sound.

That transforming moment would lead to many others, of course, for the thousands of young people who have experienced for more than a century the distinctive learning environment at the university LeSourd helped create.

Fittingly, this university’s name has always associated us with a geographic place: the great inland sea called the Puget Sound that is such a natural wonder, a cultural intersection, and a magnet for travelers from east and west. From the time LeSourd first viewed it, this has been a place of rapid change and development and a perfect environment for an engaging educational experience. Like the Sound and like the great port of Tacoma itself, our campus is a crossroads and a connecting point. It defines a sense of place that allows for the special quality of human interaction that has shaped the university’s destiny from the beginning—a quality of innovation, civility, engagement, and determination—a quality that our pioneering founders were bound to capture.

This pioneering character is reflected in the people who are still drawn to this place. It is reflected in the campus they built, in the stately groves of fir trees that wind through it, and in the Tudor Gothic buildings that comprise it. Gothic architecture is said to manifest the inner spirit of those who created it: individualism, imagination, innovation, and strength. It sets the originality of individual expression and of a great purpose against the constraints of destiny. Those are qualities written in the stones of our campus, on the pages of our curriculum, and on the faces of our students, faculty, and staff.

As we at Puget Sound begin the exciting adventure of planning for the next generation of students who will come here, we are drawn, as David LeSourd was, by visions of what can be, just as we are inspired by our past. We respect our history and draw strength from those who foresaw the future we now inhabit; and like them, our eyes and our aspirations are on what lies ahead. We seek a course that is our own, a path to being different in order to make a difference, a road to making a better future. That’s why we are calling these our “defining moments.”

This ambition is everywhere evident in the Puget Sound experience. You can see it in our faculty, who are clear-eyed about their commitment as teacher-scholars dedicated to preparing students for leadership in whatever arenas of work or service they will engage. You can see it in our unique and celebrated orientation program. You can see it in the distinctive new core curriculum that guides our rigorous liberal arts program of study. You can see it in the active Puget Sound co-curricular life, in the imaginative theme houses on Lawrence Street, in ambitious student-initiated projects in everything from the Repertory Dance Group to Conspiracy of Hope to Food Salvage to the Social Justice Residence Program. And you will see it in the new science building now under construction, as well as in our new campus master plan as it takes shape—the “Tapestry of Learning” that will make Puget Sound, over the next 20 years, the most beautiful, intimate, and fully integrated living and learning environment available anywhere.

But perhaps you can see it most visibly in our alumni, who have made Puget Sound again this year among the top three small universities sending graduates to the Peace Corps, who are gaining entry to medical school at a rate 50 percent higher than the national average, who now head international corporations and high-tech industries, who are inventors and artists and writers, successful developers and educators and legislators.

Each of our graduates came here to find the transformational experience that would open up a new frontier, just as David LeSourd did when he set off for college. Our alumni came here to make their own way and to make a difference, too. They have done so, not only in the world, but here on campus, so that others may follow the trail they blazed and experience a transforming moment of their own.

I wonder if David LeSourd could have imagined all of that from his train window as he caught his first glimpse of the magnificent Puget Sound and the tracks of covered wagons in the muddy streets around it.