Tuesday, August 03 2010 @ 09:54 AM CDT
Contributed by: Dory Goldberger
It's been 35 years since John F. Kennedy College in Wahoo closed. Some in the community still hope to find a use for the wooded, picturesque campus. They have words of advice for Blair, which just saw its college close.
WAHOO -- On a brisk night in March 1971, Linda Collins stepped outside her Wahoo home and watched the stately three-story brick building -- where she had fallen in love with her husband, Michael, while producing and performing in theater productions -- burn.
"It was an absolutely gorgeous campus before Old Main burned," she said of her alma mater, John F. Kennedy College, which closed in 1975.
The college's third fire in two years left its students, faculty and staff heartbroken, said Carl Wirth, who serves as the historian for the college's unofficial alumni association.
"It was just very devastating, because that was the centerpiece of the campus," he said.
Within four years, the college had closed after failing to overcome financial challenges and increase its student enrollment.
Thirty-five years later, the campus remains a heavily wooded, picturesque place marred by dilapidated buildings whose windows largely are broken out and roofs are leaking.
It's a quiet place today, with much of the campus having been sold over the years to private interests.
A boys' home used some of the buildings for a few years in the 1990s. A medical center, physical therapist's office and real estate office are located on parts of the old campus.
Some of the land was sold to a housing developer, and a developer built condominiums for senior citizens on part of the campus.
Other businesses -- a substance abuse treatment center, an arcade game repair shop -- have looked into locating there but never did.
Three of the buildings remain empty.
As the community of Wahoo has watched the closure this summer of Dana College in nearby Blair, they have begun looking into possible solutions for their own aging campus.
At a July 15 community forum, people interested in the college gathered to talk about possible solutions. Mayor Jerry Johnson said he organized the forum to take place at the same time as a reunion of John F. Kennedy College alumni.
Several alumni who attended the reunion also attended the forum.
Johnson said it would be cost-prohibitive to restore most of the buildings on the campus. And, since much of the campus has been sold off, it's unlikely another educational institution would be interested in it, he said.
"We've got to determine if there is a possible use," he said of the college. "With the economy today, there's just not a lot of speculators out there."
And, with Dana College closing, any speculators interested in buying a site for an educational institution likely would look there first, Johnson said.
When John F. Kennedy College opened in 1965, it was one of three private colleges that opened in Nebraska around the same time. The Wahoo college stayed open longer than either of the other two: Hiram Scott College in Scottsbluff and Pershing College in Beatrice.
Wirth suggested turning the land into a park and restoring the former president's house -- where the current owner of the property, Thomas Widlar, now lives -- into a library housing memorabilia from the college.
He said he and another alumnus have begun seeking grants and donations to collect and digitize printed memorabilia from the college.
"I really hope that the people of Wahoo are successful in some way to do something with the campus," he said.
Widlar said he has tried to find a buyer for the property for years and is in contact with potential buyers today, though he declined to elaborate.
He said he gained the property through a foreclosure in 1999 and moved to live on the campus in 2003.
"I've been trying to sell it since I got here," he said recently, standing on the front porch of the former president's house, now his home.
He said he realizes the property has become an eyesore but also criticized those who complain about the campus for not helping to do anything about it.
"I still think it's probably the nicest piece of property in Wahoo," Widlar said.
Johnson said he is considering calling together a facilities committee made up of public and private interests to examine possible solutions for the campus. He said it will be important for the community to think of non-traditional uses for the campus.
And he offered some advice to community members in Blair as they consider the fate of the Dana College campus.
"Don't hang onto that dream forever," he said of the idea of reusing the campus as a college. "I think that's what Wahoo did."