He who stands at the helm of the institution guides along a steady course charted by faith and a divine purpose. Those who have presided over the campus have led with spiritual insight and vision. Not only have they been keenly aware of “the brick and mortar” of the school but also of the students’ and school’s great capacity for good. Through numerous stages of development and changes in the institution’s name, their unselfish service and dedicated leadership continue to be inspiring.
Jacob Spori, a highly educated Swiss immigrant, was appointed the first principal of Bannock Stake Academy in 1888. The academy struggled to survive during the early years. A vivid example of sacrifice is portrayed by the selflessness of Principal Spori. One year when the academy was strapped for money, he applied his salary toward the school’s debt. He also worked on the railroad for a time using some of his earnings to help pay salaries of other teachers. Principal Spori stated, “The seeds we’re planting today will grow and become mighty oaks and their branches will run all over the earth.”
Several principals helped build the academy in the early years. Charles N. Watkins took over in 1891 followed in 1894 by George Cole and Douglas M. Todd in 1899. Principal Todd built the academy into a high school. Elementary students could attend local grade schools, but no high school existed in Rexburg at the time. Principal Todd once said, “This school will yet grow and surprise the world with its great men and women, because it was conceived in righteousness and dedicated to the service of God.”
Ezra Christiansen (who changed his last name to Dalby in 1907) became principal in 1901 and saw the opening in 1903 of the first building on campus (located on the site of the reminiscent Spori Building). Writing in the local newspaper, he once stated of the school, “It will shine as a beacon of light to the ends of the earth, and add to the beauty and glory of Zion through all the coming years.”
In 1915 the academy made the transition to higher education under the direction of a new principal. Andrew B. Christenson oversaw the laying of the cornerstone for a new gymnasium building that stood for many years near the site of today’s Eliza R. Snow Center for the Performing Arts. In 1917 the academy received state certification so graduates could teach in Idaho.
In 1918 the General Board of Education changed the name of the school to Ricks Normal College, and the title of principal was changed to president. The administration of George S. Romney began in 1917 and was a season of development as high school courses were entirely phased out and the college curricula was expanded.
The decades of the 1920s and 1930s were filled with uncertainty for President Romney and President Hyrum Manwaring who took over in 1931 during the Great Depression. Most schools owned by the Church were given to their respective states to administer, but the State of Idaho would not accept Ricks College. For ten years the college was in serious danger of closing. However, through the sacrifices of administration, faculty, and faithful Church members, the school remained open and became accredited.
President John L. Clarke’s 27-year administration began in 1944 and was one of pioneering and growth. New hope materialized when enrollment increased from a few hundred to several thousand students in the 1960s. Under the direction of President Clarke, facilities grew from two major buildings to about 18. In 1948 and 1949 third- and fourth-year college work was added to the Ricks College curriculum and baccalaureate degrees were offered. But in 1956 the third- and fourth-year programs were discontinued. President Clarke loved the young people and once stated, “Ricks was founded upon the firm belief there are extraordinary possibilities in ordinary people.”
Henry B. Eyring became the next president of Ricks serving from 1971 to 1977. His administration added more buildings, developed new technical and vocational programs, and refined the administrative structure. He also opened the college to those left homeless by the Teton Dam Flood. President Eyring was asked by the Board of Trustees to serve as the Commissioner of Education for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; subsequently, Dr. Harry Maxwell, the dean of academic affairs, was appointed acting president for eight months during a nationwide search for a successor.
Under the leadership of President Bruce C. Hafen from 1978 to 1985, Ricks added the Eliza R. Snow Center for the Performing Arts; the Livestock Center; Outdoor Learning Center; Viking Stadium; and Idaho’s first classical music station, KRIC-FM. He said, “May we never forget those tender moments of spiritual power and insight that tell us why we have such a college in the Church and what we learn when we come here.”
President Joe J. Christensen’s tenure from 1985-89 saw the college reach its enrollment limit of 7,500 students. He encouraged spiritual development and high moral values. As the school celebrated its centennial in 1988, there was also a reminder of “summits yet to climb.”
Following President Christensen’s call as a Church General Authority in 1989, Steven D. Bennion was appointed president. He encouraged the expansion of computers across campus; developed a leadership institute near Victor, Idaho; established a natural science center in Island Park, Idaho; and instituted the Sacred Music Series. The opportunity to purchase the 160-acre farm south of campus was in President Bennion’s words “heaven sent.” The John Taylor Building had been added and the Spencer W. Kimball Student and Administrative Services Building was in the planning and design stage when the native Utahn left in 1997 to become president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City.
David A. Bednar took the helm of Ricks College in 1997. His inaugural vision of “building something we have never built before in order to go someplace we have never been before” took on new meaning with the transition from Ricks College to Brigham Young University–Idaho. During his administration physical facilities expanded to include completion of the Spencer W. Kimball Building, as well as the Radio and Graphic Services Building, the Gordon B. Hinckley Building, the Student Health and Counseling Center, the Henry’s Fork Outdoor Learning Center, the Thomas E. Ricks Building, and University Village (family housing). Additions or renovations were made to the Benson, Austin, Smith, and Romney Buildings and the McKay Library.
As President Bednar accepted the calling to serve as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Robert M. Wilkes was appointed to serve as interim president effective December 1, 2004. He has watched over the continued, progressive transition with renovations now in progress of the Snow, Clarke, and Romney Buildings. On behalf of the University, he has expressed appreciation and acknowledgment to “the Brigham Young University–Idaho Board of Trustees for their vision of what we might become and for their generous and patient support of our efforts to pursue ‘the charted course.’”