The night is beautiful as only a Shimer night can be and I, the ghost of Frances Shimer who walks at midnight, sit alone in Metcalf Tower, looking down over the sleeping campus and thinking of the many changes which have taken place there. Thru the gates in front of me have passed many and various girls. I’ve watched them come and go, silently, all these years. Silently, but ever present, ever watching. I have seen some of my girls become famous while others have made successful homes. I’ve instilled in all, not only an education but a spirit and a determination; yet most of them have never seen me. I’ve seen fashions come and go, traditions formed, unseen in countless rooms. I have comforted girls through the pains of four wars. I’ve seen girls change from helpless darlings into women, equal to take their place and maintain it in the world of today. But now I am weary of my constant vigil and the girls become forgetful. So for those to whom I have become just a name, I set forth my history, -- my history and Shimer’s as I have seen it in the past 93 years.
I remember now as if it were yesterday, one day late in 1852 when Isaac Nash, my brother-in-law, came in with a letter from some men in a little town in Illinois, Mount Carroll by name, stating that they were desirous of starting a seminary and asking if he knew of any virtuous young women of sufficient spirit and education to undertake the task. Of course, Cindy -- Cinderella Gregory -- and I were the ones for the job. The doctor had told me just the other day that I had developed consumption and that I should try a change of climate. Here was the perfect opportunity and it appealed to my sense of adventure and challenge. Also Cindy had often expressed the ambition to work on the education of the “new west.” So at last after the proper arrangements and negotiations were made, Cindy and I set out alone on the biggest adventure of our lives.
For our times it was indeed a daring thing for two unmarried girls to do, as I was but twenty-five and Cindy little older.
I shall never forget that trip. For a while I thought that my insides would certainly be shaken out. It certainly was not the quick easy trip which it would be today. We went most of the way by stage over deeply rutted roads. Some times it took us as long as a day to go twenty-five miles. Once the stage almost turned over. As Cindy and I sat on the road bank while the men fixed the wheel we puzzled over the fools we had been to leave safe, comfortable homes in the civilized East for this. However, our spirits began to pick up as we neared Mount Carroll for the country was lovely, rolling, green and thickly wooded, and the people had at last heard of Mount Carroll and the seminary which was to be started there. Being the “seminary ladies” we were treated with a great deal of respect. Little did they know how young and inexperienced we felt.
Finally we reached Mount Carroll which we found to be a throbbing metropolis of eight hundred people, all enthusiastic about the new school and eager to be helpful. To our disappointment there was no school building but we were to start classes in the basement of the church. So on the fateful day of May 11, 1853, the Mount Carroll Seminary formally opened with eleven students and two teachers. What a contrast to the school of today! However, do not think that we were always so small. No indeed, by the end of our very first term the enrollment had jumped so that it seemed profitable to buy some land and build a school. Now, here was a task not to be taken lightly. After looking over every square inch of Mount Carroll I decided on a spot at the top of a thickly wooded hill, for since we were going to buy a small tract of land, I knew at once that it would be a beautiful spot for the campus I had dreamed of having some day.
However, I did have a little trouble with my backers as they thought that the price was way too high. I had just begun to give up hope when I hit upon a plan. I went to Savanna and bought a very nice piece of land. Then I went to work to let it be known that I had bought the land and was going to move the school to Savanna. When the businessmen of Mount Carroll heard this they decided that perhaps after all the price of the land was not too much to put into such a thriving enterprise and I got my land!
The new building stood about where Metcalf Tower stands today. Now was the time to organize on a business-like basis. So a charter was obtained and a board of trustees elected. We certainly felt as if now we were on our way. That fall we opened with twenty-five boarders and twice as many day students of both sexes. We found the boys especially handy in keeping the fires going in the winter.
From my earliest days horticulture had been a passion of mine and so every spare moment I would work around the grounds and soon people would stop and admire them. I always took great pride in the grass, flowers, and trees which surround Shimer and am so pleased that you do also.
Five years later one of my dreams came true and five acres of land were given to the school as a gift. Now we could really expand. And did we! By the end of the Civil War we were so crowded that it was necessary to make the seminary exclusively for girls. (I do miss the boys.) We were on our way to becoming a school which people would really sit up and take notice of.
But now I’m getting ahead of myself and skipping the most important part of you romantic young things. In 1855 we had hired a promising lecturer of Natural History, Henry Shimer. After what was in those days a whirlwind courtship we were married in 1857. Henry contributed to Shimer in many ways, including the red Box Elder bugs.
So our school continued to grow and prosper. True, we had our ups and downs but in spite of all we went forward. More buildings were built, more teachers hired, and many girls went through our gates of learning. I can remember the faces of each of them now as I sit here; young, hopeful, and eager to learn.
In 1870 Cindy decided to move on to new horizons and our partnership was broken up. It was indeed a sad parting as we had been through so much together.
Yet she assured me that she would always be with us in spirit and I’m sure that she is. From then on I was on my own and the full responsibility was shifted to my shoulders. No one ever took Cindy’s place, but our much loved Miss Joy came to me as assistant principal.
In 1896 my consumption began to return and, being over seventy, I realized that I could not guide my school much longer and I feared for its future. After much thought I transferred my control to the board of trustees and the institution was chartered as Frances Shimer Academy of the University of Chicago.
I was not wrong for a few years later, in 1901, I left you. You wept at the time and mourned your loss but I was there. I longed to take your faces in my hands and tell you not to worry that I should always be near to aid you when you needed me and so I have. All these years I have lived alone in Metcalf Tower, guarding you, and in the midnight hours, wandering through your deserted halls.
My position was filled by William Parker McKee who became near and dear to all of you and therefore to me. By this time the campus had grown and enlarged and we were justly proud of it. But as the saying goes, “Pride goeth before a fall.” On a night in 1907 I was just returning from my walk when I began to smell smoke. I turned to find my beautiful campus in flames. What a terrible night that was. In the morning, there was nothing but ashes. “Alas,” I thought, “here is the end of the school.” How I longed to return and help you through this crisis. Here was a challenge and I was not here bodily to meet it with you. However, under the forceful leadership of Mr. McKee the campus was rebuilt and improved until it included all of the buildings which you see today.
Your first junior college class graduated in 1909 and was I proud! In 1931 your authorized name became Frances Shimer Junior College. Now since 1939 Dr. Bro has been guiding you, and what a fine understanding job he has done. I like you, Mr. Bro. You’re Shimer’s kind of man.
Now here you are in this year of our Lord nineteen hundred and forty-five, about ready for another commencement. Spring has again come to Shimer and the campus is as lovely as ever -- yet it is a vastly different campus from that of the spring of 1853. You have a golf course, swimming pool, tennis court, lovely buildings, and even a disgusting thing called a smoker. You have come a long way, my school, and I wonder where you are headed now. I know you’ll do new and greater things and I’ll be there backing you every minute for I’m sure you can do anything you attempt. It is your school to make of it what you will. It is made up of all of you, your joys and sorrows, laughter and tears. It is in you and a part of you. You couldn’t forget it if you wanted to for you girls are Shimer, you make it and belong to it as much as I, and Shimer belongs to you.
God bless and guide you, my children, in all your future attempts. Goodnight!