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Oakland University's Early History

  • Introduction
  • Origins
  • The Wilsons' Gift
  • What's in a Name?
  • OU's New Address
  • Planning the Curriculum:
    the Meadow Brook Seminars
  • Staffing and Buildings
  • The First Years
  • Motto and Seal
  • The First Commencement
  • OU's First Lady


Oakland University opened its doors in 1959, on a brand new campus carved out of the Meadow Brook Estate, with 2 buildings, 24 faculty and about 570 students.

The story of how a few men built this university from scratch is a unique tale of vision and dedication.


Entrance of Oakland University, 1959

Original entrance sign, built by J.A. Freedman, Inc. and dedicated Feb. 10, 1960



All photos courtesy of Oakland University Archives.
Last updated 08/15/2019

Water tower and barn on future OU campus




Higher education in Michigan

The idea to establish a university in Oakland County was first raised by the Oakland County Planning Commission in 1955.

Under the leadership of Robert Swanson, the Commission conducted a demographic study to investigate the need for higher education locally. With a population of 516,000 in 1957, Oakland County was by far the largest county in Michigan without a public institution of higher learning. The college age population was 44,000 and expected to increase to over 100,000 by 1970.

This was a time of growing demand for higher education in the United States. In Michigan, the legislature ordered a comprehensive study of higher education headed by Dr. John D. Russell . The Russell report, published in 1958, recommended the expansion of existing institutions and the creation of new campuses. Oakland County, especially, was developing quickly.

The first segments of I-75 were laid out in the mid- 1950s, and plans to expand it were under way.1


Matilda Wilson and Meadow Brook Hall

Swanson hoped to situate the future campus on the Meadowbrook Estate, a 1,500 acres property in Rochester, owned by the Wilsons.

Meadow Brook Hall and estate


Matilda Wilson, widow of automotive pioneer John Dodge, had lived at Meadowbrook with her second husband, Alfred Wilson, since the late 1920s. They built a 110-room mansion, Meadow Brook Hall, in the Tudor-revival style and ran extensive farming operations on their large estate.


Alfred and Matilda Wilson


By the 1950s Mrs Wilson was beginning to consider what to do with the estate after her death.

When Robert Swanson approached the couple, she was attracted to the idea of a college on her property. She already had connections to Michigan State University, having served on the State Board of Agriculture, MSU’s governing body, and befriending MSU President John Hannah.  At a lunch in Lansing in 1956 she mentioned the idea to Hannah, who expressed strong interest.




1. Michigan Historical Commission, A History of Education in Michigan (1963), p.354 ; see also George Matthews' draft of the history of Oakland University, Oakland University Archives, Historic Documents collection, Box 5, Folder “History – Matthews”); Herbert Stoutenburg, Oakland University: Its First Four Years (Ed. D. Thesis, 1968)


The Wilsons' gift


Woody Varner

In 1956 Durward B. Varner, MSU Vice-President for Off-Campus Education and Legislative Relations, heard that the Ford family and the Ford Motor Co. were giving Fairlane, Henry Ford's house, and some six million dollars to the University of Michigan to establish a branch in Dearborn.1


The news prompted Varner to visit the Wilsons, who decided to go ahead with the idea of a university on their estate that would be connected to MSU.

The deal was arranged by Varner and MSU President John Hannah during another visit to the Wilsons in late December. Hannah asked Mrs. Wilson for an additional two million dollars to erect the first building - a figure he had just conjured up during the drive from MSU.

As Varner later recalled, Mrs Wilson casually answered: "I think we could take care of that."2

The Wilsons would retain life tenancy at the Hall but would turn ownership over to the university upon their death.


The total gift of 1400 acres and two million dollars --  estimated conservatively at ten million dollars -- was made public on January 3, 1957.

"It is to the eternal credit of those who live in this area that they have combined their thinking and their resources to make available for the young people of Oakland County and vicinity what can, in time, become one of our state’s outstanding educational, cultural, and technical centers."3 - MSU President John Hannah


Ground breaking


On May 2, 1958 took place the ground breaking ceremony for the first building of what was then called Michigan State University Oakland.



Groundbreaking ceremony of Foundation Hall, 1958

President Hannah (center) and Matilda Wilson (right) break ground
for the first building of the future Oakland University, May 2, 1958




cover of groundbreaking ceremony program, May 2, 1958

Groundbreaking ceremony program




1. "Reliving the Past," OU News, May 1, 1992, p. 3; Interview with Durward B. "Woody" VarnerThe Oakland University Chronicles (1998), p.4-6.

2. Interview with Durward B. "Woody" VarnerThe Oakland University Chronicles (1998), p. 7-8; "Reliving the Past," OU News, May 1, 1992, p. 3.

3. MSU Press Release, Jan. 3, 1957:  Wilson Gift of estate to MSU for branch college

What's in a name?


The "Matilda R. Wilson College of MSU"?

This was the name that MSU administrators proposed for the new institution – but Mrs Wilson opposed it. She thought that the word "Oakland" should be part of the name.1


"Michigan State University Oakland"

Eventually the name "Michigan State University Oakland" was agreed upon, although discussions on whether there should be a hyphen before "Oakland" continued. For example, in July 1958 Varner stated there should be no hyphen but the first promotional brochures still included a hyphen.2


MSUO promotional brochure



Oakland University

At the same time the MSU Board decided that the new campus would not be a branch but an autonomous institution sharing with MSU a common Board of Trustees and President.

Before the first students graduated in 1963, the name was changed to Oakland University (but without any change of status).

This way, the new name could appear on the very first diplomas delivered to students graduating in April 1963 .3




1. Varner to Hannah, April 3, 1957, Oakland University Archives, Historic Documents collection, box 3, folder Correspondence 1956-1959.

2. Varner to Treaster, July 3, 1958, Oakland University Archives, Historic Documents collection, box 3, folder Correspondence 1956-1959. See the brochures "Introducing Michigan State University - Oakland" and "A Gift and a Challenge... To You and Your Community".

3. William W. Lutz, "Growth Dictates Name Change, Says OU Head," Detroit News, Feb. 17, 1963; Harry Salsinger, "MSUO Does Switch," Detroit News, Feb. 11, 1963.



1958 map of the west side of Meadow Brook Estate and future campus

Map of future campus on Meadow Brook Estate, 1958
(Oakland University Archives)


OU's New Address


The west side of the Wilson estate, where the new campus was planned, was at the limit between what was then Pontiac Township and Rochester.

Rochester was the mailing address for Meadow Brook Hall, and Mrs. Wilson was adamant that the new university should have that same address.

In spite of opposition from Pontiac leaders, and thanks to Mrs. Wilson's political connections, the address was officially decided as Rochester.1




1. Interview with Robert W. Swanson, The Oakland University Chronicles (1997), p. 11-12; Mailing address for MSU-O to be Rochester, Michigan, Oakland University Archives, Historic Documents collection.


Planning the Curriculum


In 1957 and 1958 the philosophy and outline of the curriculum were developed.

Several MSU faculty and staff planning committees were involved under the direction of Thomas H. Hamilton, MSU Vice-President for Academic Affairs.

The MSUO Foundation, a group of community leaders chosen by President Hannah to help build and promote the new university was also involved. It included influential business leaders like Roger Kyes, Vice-President at General Motors, Mrs. William Gossett, wife of a Ford Vice-President, Harold Fitzgerald, publisher of the Pontiac Press, and Al Gerard, who was chairman of the Community National Bank, as well as officials from the county and governments.1

Oakland and Macomb County residents were surveyed about their higher education needs by the MSU School of Education.2



The Meadow Brook Seminars


"Let's pull the brightest people we can find in the fields in which we want to work, to meet and discuss how we go about setting up this institution, what the components should be, what slant it should have, what stance should it take." -- Woody Varner, OU Chronicles



third Meadow Brook Seminar


In mid-1958 to early 1959, distinguished scholars and educators were invited to brainstorm ideas about the ideal curriculum.

Among the attendees were Henry Steele Commager, professor of history at Amherst College, Dr. Milton S. Eisenhower, president of Johns Hopkins University, and Henry R. Luce, editor-in-chief of Time magazine.

All in all 5 "Meadow Brook Seminars" were held to consider the curriculum in business administration, education and engineering, liberal arts and continuing education.

Participants were told they had a "clean slate" and were asked to propose an innovative curriculum, unconstrained by tradition.3

Such freedom to innovate pervades the proposals issued from the Meadow Brook Seminars. Self-confidence and youthful dynamism would sustain the development of Oakland University through at least its first decade.


As a result of these efforts, the following principles were adopted:

  • programs in business administration, education, engineering  and liberal arts.
  • strong support for continuing education.
  • emphasis on the liberal arts – even for professional programs.
    OU wanted to distinguish itself from existing universities that were moving more and more toward specialization and professional training.4
  • focus on academics.
    There would be no intercollegiate sports, no fraternities or sororities.
  • self-learning and freedom for students.
    The library and laboratory facilities would be critical to help students become independent learners.5
  • promotion of critical and creative thinking.
  • a global perspective, with emphasis on non-Western civilizations.6


"This should be a new-look university, … no nonsense, no frills. It was going to be meat and potatoes, as we often said. We're going to zero in on academic strength. We decided early on there would be no sororities, no fraternities—they fell clearly in the category of frills. No athletics, which was a jolt to a lot of people. We had no dormitories so it was going to be a learning setting." -- Woody Varner, OU Chronicles




1. Interview with Robert W. Swanson, The Oakland University Chronicles (1997), p.10.

2. "MSU-O: A Report of Progress," Michigan State University Magazine (Oct. 1958), p. 16.

3."Building Curricula at MSU-O: Liberal Arts," MSU Magazine, (Feb. 1959), p. 4-5.

4. Loren Pope, "MSU-O: A new approach to higher learning," MSU Reporter 4:1 (Sept. 1959), p. 2-3.

5. "Building Curricula at MSU-O: Liberal Arts," MSU Magazine (Feb. 1959), p. 4-5.

6. Ibid.

Staffing and Buildings


Woody Varner

The first chancellor


During the negotiations between MSU and the Wilsons, Durward B. Varner was MSU Vice-President  for off-campus education and legislative relations. He saw the potential in the creation of the new Oakland university and chose to become its first Chancellor.


George Karas in the 1960s

The first full time employee



The first full time employee of the new university was George Karas, who was first hired by Mrs Wilson to oversee the buildings and grounds of Meadow Brook estate and then became MSUO’s supervising engineer.



The first classes

The very first courses – under the direction of Lowell Eklund, head of MSUO’s continuing education program – were offered in Fall 1958.

These were continuing education courses in home economics, history, sociology, English and basic college subjects, held in a building of the Meadow poultry farm. For that reason, the first classrooms were nicknamed the "Poultry Parlors."1

Mrs Wilson even enrolled in the speed reading class.2


The first building

During a tour of Meadow Brook Farms it was decided that the first building on campus would be erected on the western side of the estate, in what was then pasture land for Mr. Wilson’s Belgian horses.


Meadow Brook Farms water tower


This location made most sense, because

  • This area has 150 acres of buildable land, and an additional 100 acres were accessible to the east along what was then Pontiac Road.
  • It was anticipated that the largest number of students would be approaching from the west and south.
  • A new interstate highway – I-75 – would be running between the Meadow Brook Estate and the city of Pontiac.
  • This location was further away from the Wilsons’ residence and would minimize disruption to them.3

Construction on the first building started in 1958, supported by Mrs. Wilson’s 2 million dollar gift. The total cost per square foot was only $14, which was unusally low for academic buildings at the time.


Foundation Hall



What would become South and North Foundation included 39 room classrooms and 2 large lecture rooms, a library, laboratories, and administrative and faculty offices.

The building was described as a "no frills", functional building but loaded with instructional technology. Every classroom was wired to broadcast or receive TV teaching.4


Next came the Oakland Center, which was built at a cost of $700,000. It included a cafeteria, a student lounge, a book store and student publication offices.


The first faculty

24 faculty were recruited in the months preceding the opening semester.

Varner gave priority to new PhDs rather than practicing professors, so the original OU faculty profile was very young (the average age was 34). There was a high percentage of PhD.s at a time when the average was only about 30% at most institutions.5


Students with a professor


To lead them Varner recruited Robert G. Hoopes, who taught at Harvard, Yale, and Stanford and was then Vice President of the American Council of Learned Societies.6




1. "Reliving the Past," OU News, May 1, 1992, p. 4.

2. "Reliving the Past," OU News, May 1, 1992, p. 3.

3. Varner to Breakfast Group, Jan. 23, 1958, Oakland University Archives, Historic Documents collection, box 3.

4. "MSU-O: A Report of Progress,' MSU Magazine, Oct. 1958, p. 16-17.

5. Cindy Goodaker, "OU: 25 years later," Oakland Sunday Magazine, Aug. 21, 1983.

6. Loren Pope, "MSU-O: A new approach to higher learning," MSU Reporter 4:1, Sept. 1959, p. 2-3.

The First Years


For the 570 students who enrolled in Fall 1959, tuition and fees were only $255 annually (compared to about $1,500 a year at UM and MSU).1

This, however, did not include living costs since there were no facilities yet on campus.

The first convocation took place on September 14, 1959 in the Oakland Center, with the sound of the hammer still in the background…2


Program of 1959 convocation



The curriculum

At first, business, education and engineering were "concentrations" within a common liberal arts curriculum. There were no departments until 1963, only 3 "divisions" (humanities, social sciences and maths and sciences) .

The curriculum placed heavy emphasis on general education. This array of general education courses – initially over 40% of the curriculum – was known as the University Course Program.

Oakland University was one of the first institutions to make a required study of non Western cultures: the Far East, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. According to history professor George Matthews, "at one point we were graduating more students who had a required course in China than any other university in the country.3


Life at Oakland

From the start students enjoyed a close relationship with faculty. Faculty and students mingled at picnics, square dances and other events encouraged by the Administration.4


Picnic at OU, Fall 1961


Some faculty members even wanted to remain small to preserve that personal atmosphere.5

There was no student housing, but students were accommodated in local farms.


Farm house used for student housing


A faculty subdivision was also built on the east side of campus to allow faculty to live close to their workplace.

In 1962-1963 the first dorms were built -- Anibal and Fitzgerald House, then Pryale and Hill House.

There were lots of extra-curricular activities the students could choose from. For example:

Although there were no intercollegiate sports in Fall 1959, the university offered archery, bowling, casting, golf and marksmanship. The next semester basketball practice and table tennis started.


Archery at OU


Dances were organized for the students and the OC was decorated at Christmas, thanks to a gift by Mrs Wilson.


Christmas dance



Students could compete in, or attend, the Miss OU competition.


Miss OU


The Oakland Observer, the first student newspaper, published five issues the first semester.6

Matilda Wilson maintained close ties with the OU community. She was seen on campus often and invited students to Meadow Brook Hall for various events - teas, balls, and of course graduation.


OU graduates at Meadow Brook Hall




1. Introducing Michigan State University-Oakland, brochure, 1958.

2. Cindy Hampel, "The way we were," Oakland University Magazine, Fall 1999, p. 8.

3. "Reliving the Past," OU News, May 1, 1992, p. 3.

4. Interview with Robert Swanson, The Oakland University Chronicles, 1997, p.22.

5. Cindy Goodaker, "OU: 25 years later," Oakland Sunday Magazine, August 21, 1983, p.13.

6. Fall Quarterly Report, 1959, Oakland University Archives, Historic Documents Collection, Box 6.





This motto comes from Canto XXVI, 1. 120, of Dante's Inferno.

 This is the three-line stanza:

Considerate la vostra semenza
Fatti non foste a viver come bruti
Ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.

Consider your birth
You were not made to live like brutes
But to follow courage and knowledge.


Professor Howard W. Clark, Assistant Professor of Classics, was the author of this proposal in 1962.

He chose this line because "These are the final words of Ulysses' great speech to his men urging them to sail on and on in pursuit of knowledge and experience of the world -- even beyond the pillars of Hercules, traditionally the frontier and limit of legitimate exploration."

Ulysses evokes curiosity, daring, fidelity, and practical wisdom.

His speech reminds us that the quest for knowledge also requires courage and entails responsibilities, but is at the heart of the human endeavor.




Seal of Oakland University


The seal was designed by John Galloway, head of the Art Department in 1962.

He chose a sail because its symbolism of the pursuit of knowledge matched the motto:

“Sails will be used by men, especially those of the heroic mould of Homer’s Odysseus, long after people will have become bored by our settling of new planets in outer space."2

Galloway also chose the university colors, black and gold on white.

The task to design an emblem was first given to students. A contest was organized in 1961 in which numerous sketches were submitted. The contest failed, so the task was given to an Emblem Committee, of which Galloway was a member.

The motto and seal were adopted by the Senate on January 7, 1963.   

Students embraced the sail as the university's emblem, and humorously called it the flying diaper.3

Today the seal is used primarily on Board of Trustees official documents and official University transcripts.4




1. virtute can also translate as "virtue and wisdom," or "fortitude and learning."

2. Memo from Emblem Committee, Sept. 10, 1962, University Archives. See also John Galloway, "A statement concerning three sketches for the MSUO emblem and colors," August 1962, University Archives.

3. Cindy Hampel, "The way we were," Oakland University Magazine, Fall 1999, p.11.

4. Oakland Post, February 9, 2011, p.10.

The First Commencement


In Spring 1963 the first students graduated.

MSU-O was now Oakland University, but was still attached to MSU.


1963 Commencement


At the commencement ceremony on April 20, 1963, 146 degrees were conferred.

Matilda Wilson was presented with an honorary degree.1


At the senior dance, organized at Meadow Brook Hall, Mrs Wilson gave each student a gold class ring set with a diamond and bearing the legend "Oakland University Charter Class."


OU Charter Class ring




Mrs Wilson presents rings to OU graduates


By then Oakland University had changed. The faculty had modified the original curriculum – adding new disciplines like sociology and the arts. The percentage of general education was reduced, and would continue to decrease. Enrollment was growing.2


"We can't be all things,but whatever we do, we ought to do well." -- Woody Varner3



1. Program, Oakland University Charter Class Commencement, April 20, 1963.

2. "Promise, Dedication, Camaraderie and Hard Work: OU Charter Faculty and Staff Look Back on 25 Years," Oakland University Magazine, Summer 1984, p. 4,

3. Interview with Robert W. Swanson, The Oakland University Chronicles (1997), p. 18.

OU's First Lady


Giant Happy Birthday sign on the outside wall of the Oakland Center, 1966


Matilda Wilson’s birthday (October 19) was the unofficial homecoming for the university, and Mrs Wilson’s Weekend was a social highlight on campus with a formal Birthday Ball. Mrs Wilson was presented with elaborate cakes in shapes illustrating the young university’s history.

Oakland’s biggest birthday party is a tribute to the woman who made the whole place possible, Mrs. Matilda Wilson. The first lady was, as always, the highlight of all the festivities.




Students sign Mrs. Wilson's birthday card (photo from Oakland Observer)

The Oakland Observer, Nov.11, 1959

Although it was Oakland’s first year in operation as MSU-O, students made and signed a large birthday card in honor of the school’s benefactress Mrs. Wilson. There was no known party thrown for her in this year but she was still celebrated by the student body who were just beginning to know their founder.



Mrs. Wilson holding a giant birthday card painted by OU students

In a letter published by the Oakland Observer, Mrs. Wilson thanked the OU students for their warm birthday wishes and the beautiful red roses card they created for her:

“The very beautiful Red Roses with your Good Wishes certainly started off my birthday in a grand manner. What could be more cheerful than a burst of red roses and I could hear some nine hundred voices ringing out good wishes.”

Even though the university had only been established a couple of years at this point, Matilda was a very popular and well loved figure on campus.



Mrs. Wilson blowing the candles on her birthday cake

There was no birthday event in 1961. The following year, the celebration of Mrs. Wilson’s 79th birthday began with a fairly modest surprise party in the Oakland Center.

She was invited for a meeting in the Okland Center cafeteria but was instead presented with almost every student gathered to sing “Happy Birthday”. The celebration was planned and executed by several OU students to show their great admiration and affection towards Matilda.

A gigantic card was presented to the benefactress, designed by an art major, which had the signatures of much of the student and faculty body. 29 candles adorned the marvelous cake made in honor of the birthday queen, a part of an inside joke for Matilda who was really turning 79.

As enrollment increased and the school grew, the occasion became more elaborate and spanned a whole weekend worth of festivities.



Mrs Wilson dancing with a student, 1963

Mrs.Wilson was honored at a party on the eve of her 80th birthday on October 18, in the Oakland Center.

The highlight of the gift presentations and the festivities was a gigantic sugar-paste replica of her 125-room Meadow Brook Hall residence where she had entertained students and faculty since the university opened in September 1959. The vast sugar confection, created by the Manager of University Food Services, Ed Goodwin, measured 64 inches long, 40 inches wide and a foot high and took around 150 hours to construct. The idea for the cake came from Mrs. Wilson’s great generosity during the many times that she invited Oakland students into her home for various functions.

Mrs. Wilson was also presented with a 15-foot birthday card, signed by all of the students and faculty, and 35 red roses signifying her as being the average age of OU's faculty.

Music for dancing was provided by Stan Kenton and his orchestra. Her celebration was truly an oversized affair.

Front page of Oakland Observer, with birthday message for Mrs. Wilson

OU students also put together a full page ad in the “Oakland Observer” student newspaper wishing Matilda a happy birthday and advertising a party in her honor the evening of her birthday.



Mrs. Wilson with bell

At exactly midnight on her 81st birthday, Mrs. Wilson helped students ring a bell “borrowed” and re-painted in OU colors, from the Delta Upsil-On fraternity at Michigan State University.

The bell ringing was the beginning to a semi-formal birthday party given by the students in honor of Oakland’s great founder. The theme of the special evening was the Meadow Brook Music Festival and a model of the Baldwin pavilion topped a five foot high birthday cake.

Mrs Wilson with 81st birthday cake

This was brought into the resident cafeteria in the middle of the festivities for presentation to Mrs. Wilson.

A student gives Mrs. Wilson a bouquet of red roses

The birthday queen was also presented with a bouquet of 32 roses: one red for her first 50 years and 31 yellow. A birthday card signed by about 1500 students, with a rendition of the pavilion by artist John Marshall was presented along with the roses.



Mrs. Wilson’s birthday was yet again a voluptuous and star-studded string of celebratory events for her 82nd year.

Mrs Wilson at the Corner stone laying ceremony for Wilson Hall


Students present Mrs. Wilson with a giant birthday card depicting Wilson Hall

On her actual birthdate, October 19, she laid the cornerstone of the new Matilda R. Wilson Hall, a multi-purpose classroom-office building named in her honor. In the cornerstone, according to Chancellor Varner, were sealed University catalogs, past issues of the Observer, and a copy of the 1957 Pontiac Press announcing the opening of the university.

The students took over the birthday festivities on Friday evening with a concert by the “Village Stompers” and followed on Saturday night with the official Birthday Ball.


Mrs. Wilson's birthday cake in the shape of the new Wilson Hall

MRs. Wilson cuts her birthday cake


This time cake-architect Ed Goodwin built a model of the new Matilda R. Wilson Hall, for which she had just held the ground breaking, thus continuing the tradition of grand cakes for the OU’s benefactress.



Mrs. Wilson with roses and her birthday cake


Mrs. Wilson annual birthday celebration started off with a friday night concert by a popular folk group called the Back Porch Majority in the Sports and Recreation building. The concert kicked off Matilda’s 83rd birthday weekend.

The Back Porch Majority on stage

In addition a Saturday night dance took place with the music of Jack Runyon and his orchestra in accompaniment. The high point of the entire weekend was when Mrs. Wilson was recognized and honored with birthday presentations which included another oversized card signed by her adoring students as well as a bouquet of flowers at her gala.

Students signing Mrs. Wilson's birthday card

Of course it would not have been complete without an elaborate cake symbolizing how much she meant to the university and her position as “first lady”. This year the cake had a more traditional rectangular shape than past years.

Mrs. Wilson probably had the biggest parties in Oakland County, according to an article in a local newspaper.




The text and photos for this page are the work of Vanessa Codorean for an archives internship, Summer 2019.

All images courtesy of Oakland University Archives.



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