A History of the Thomas More College Campus

A History of the Thomas More College Campus

The new campus for the former Villa Madonna College in downtown Covington was many years in the making, more years than probably anyone ever imagined when the project was first conceived. It would not have been possible, however, to anticipate all the reasons for the lengthy delay that would develop over time.

The primary impetus for the effort to provide new buildings for Villa Madonna was the necessity that an institution of higher learning be accredited – unless a legitimate accrediting institution or agency certified that a particular college met specific criteria, a degree from that college would have little credibility, certainly a hindrance for graduates hoping to go on to a graduate school or to enter some professions.

Villa Madonna College began in 1921 under the auspices of the Sisters of Saint Benedict with the purpose of training women to be teachers; in this capacity it was an extension of the sisters’ Villa Madonna Academy for girls. In the earliest days after Bishop Francis W. Howard made it a diocesan college for women in 1928, accreditation came from the University of Kentucky. At first, it was the small enrollment that was an obstacle to maintaining accreditation as a Senior (four-year) College.

But as enrollment grew, especially after it was made co-educational in 1945, it became apparent that the facilities in the several buildings just east of the Cathedral were inadequate for the expanding academic program – this would become a serious obstacle for future accreditation plans; even the addition of newly acquired buildings over the years was only a temporary expedient to improve the facilities.

After the University of Kentucky discontinued its practice of accrediting schools in 1953, Villa Madonna had to look elsewhere. As the college sought accreditation first from the Catholic University of American in Washington, D.C., and later from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the old campus became more and more of an impediment. But before a new campus could be built, a suitable spot had to be found.

Planning for a new campus began in earnest during the episcopacy of Bishop William T. Mulloy. Upon his installation as Bishop of Covington on January 25, 1945, Bishop Mulloy became at the same time the President of Villa Madonna College. In the spring of 1948, Bishop Mulloy approved the purchase of the Klaine Property on the corner of Grand and Highland Avenues in Fort Thomas, part of which he intended to use as the site of a new campus.

That he truly meant to build there is evident from the fact that the diocese sponsored an elaborate groundbreaking ceremony at the site on April 23, 1950, with the Apostolic Delegate to the United States, Archbishop Amaleto Cicognani, in attendance; he even planned to change the name to “Assumption College.” Bishop Mulloy admitted at the time that there were no immediate plans for construction, and, of course, there has never been an Assumption College in Fort Thomas.

Part of the reason that the Klaine Property was ultimately abandoned was the fact that many supporters of the college perceived a need for the campus to be more accessible for Covington and Kenton County from which the majority of Villa Madonna students came. Father John F. Murphy, whom Bishop Mulloy appointed as president of the college in 1951, with support from the Advisory Board of Trustees that he established in 1952, convinced Bishop Mulloy to look for a spot in Kenton County. When a space was located which seemed better suited for the college, Bishop Mulloy gave his permission for its acquisition.

That new property was the current location of Thomas More College. In May 1954 the College purchased the 70-acre List Farm on Turkeyfoot Road near the Summit Hills Country Club. Father Murphy (made a monsignor in 1961) sent a formal announcement to The Messenger on June 10, 1954. Official press releases noted that completion was scheduled for September 1957, with the beginning of construction slated for 1956; these projections, however, proved to be exceedingly underestimated.

Father Murphy was sanguine about the prospects for completion. Although a November 1954 visitation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) denied accreditation almost exclusively due to deficiencies in the downtown physical plant, Father Murphy nonetheless felt safe in expressing to Bishop Mulloy sentiments that turned out to be merely wishful thinking: “Please God, this time next year we will be done with the embarrassing and ham-stringing situation which lack of regional accreditation forces upon us.”

At first everything seemed to be on course. After Bishop Mulloy gave his formal approval on October 5, 1955, the architectural firm Thomas J. Nolan and Sons of Louisville was hired for the proposed building project. After Nolan drew up plans, Father Murphy pushed for their approval by stressing to Bishop Mulloy, “if we are to meet the occupancy date of September 1957, the construction will have to get under way this spring…” The plans were accepted in May 1956 and the project proceeded to the point that bids from select contractors were submitted per solicitation by Mr. Nolan.

But it soon became apparent that Bishop Mulloy was not pleased with the direction in which things were moving. As soon as bids started coming in during July, the bishop wrote to Father Murphy that the bids were “extremely high.” In an August 8, 1956, letter to Father Murphy, the Bishop was clear that even revised bids were “completely beyond our ability to finance…We shall have to curtail our building program for the College to the point where we can expect to meet the obligations in the foreseeable future.” Even revised plans did not satisfy the Bishop and in November 1956 he called a temporary halt to the college project.

A distressed Father Murphy listed for Bishop Mulloy the problems that a delay in building would cause. The main problem would be a consequent delay of accreditation from SACS, which demanded that buildings at least be under construction. Without accreditation from SACS, various foundations would not be forthcoming with funds and enrollment would lag because students would naturally fear that they would not be accepted into graduate schools.

But Bishop Mulloy did not change his mind —he told Monsignor Murphy “to notify your bidders that the bids were not accepted.” Father Murphy obeyed his Bishop, though he later informed him that when he told the SACS Committee that the project was postponed, they responded that there would be no need to continue negotiations for accreditation.

By the time the SACS conducted another study in April 1959, however, the College was able to show enough improvement on the prospect of financing future construction that accreditation was finally granted in December of that year. This was a real milestone of achievement that Villa Madonna College announced with enthusiastic fanfare; it also removed a major obstacle for securing funding the project on Turkeyfoot Road.

But Bishop Mulloy did not live to see the achievement of accreditation. He died on June 1, 1959, and decisions regarding a new campus were left to his successor, Bishop Richard H. Ackerman. (The former Auxiliary Bishop of San Diego was installed in Covington on May 16, 1960). Bishop Ackerman inherited some of the same problems in directing the building project on Turkeyfoot Road, though there were some reasons for delay that were beyond the control of anyone at Villa Madonna; one of the main problems was the placement through Northern Kentucky of a by-pass around Cincinnati (what is now I-275) as part of the Interstate Highway system.

During the planning for this by-pass in 1962, a preliminary study by the Kentucky Department of Highways proposed a route that would cut across the college’s property on Turkeyfoot Road. Monsignor Murphy was alarmed when he learned of this and wrote to the Commissioner of Highways to express his displeasure. As he pointed out, “the route for the circumferential highway…passes diagonally across the tract of land we have provided for Villa Madonna’s new campus. Obviously, this would completely eliminate the use of this property as our campus site.” His fears were somewhat allayed when representatives of the Highway Department assured him that this was only a preliminary plan that could be adjusted in consideration of the College’s needs.

In Monsignor’s view, it was essential that the highway be built as far north of the College property as possible. Believing that the Highway Department had stated that it was willing to change the route to accommodate the College’s land needs, the College purchased from Robert and Alvin Gould 37.5 acres south of its current location. He was then chagrined to see a site map that, in spite of all the discussions, showed the location of the proposed route still “far, far to the south of any location on our property which would allow adequate room for the development of our campus.”

Murphy was concerned because he could get no definitive answer regarding the route of I-275. In exchanges of letters with the men involved with the planning process, the answers were ambiguous, with indications that the route had been decided upon, yet was still open to change. Highway Department officials advised Monsignor Murphy to seek more land from the Kahmann property. The college reached an agreement with Fred Kahmann in 1966 which added another 105 acres for the new campus. Eventually a slight adjustment was proposed that would shift the south line of the right of way about 400 feet to the northeast, which Murphy accepted.

But that was not the end of the matter. Monsignor Murphy wrote to Highway Department Commissioner Henry Ward on July 19, 1965 that he had heard that some people were pressuring the Highway Department to move the line farther south after the College had already spent huge amounts of money for plans devised on the assumption that the site of the road had already been definitely determined. The College would face enormous financial damage if it now had to alter its plans.

At a meeting on July 7, 1967, the Highway Department presented a revised map that showed the intersection of I-275 and Turkeyfoot with an east-bound access ramp positioned a little further to the north. Murphy saw this as an improvement over the previous plan, yet “it is with a measure of reluctance that we acquiesce to this further encroachment into campus property, necessitating changes….on the basis of your assurance that no further modification is possible, we shall agree to go along with your proposal…” Once the route of I-275 and its Turkeyfoot ramps had been determined, the Board of Trustees accepted the state’s offer of $175,000 for a 22-acre right of way.

The other chief delay in building the new campus was unavoidable – raising the necessary funds. Bishop Ackerman was Chancellor when the college initiated the Building Fund Drive. With his approval the College sought professional assistance for staging this major fund drive. In June 1963 the Cumerford Corporation of Kansas City submitted a proposal that was accepted by Villa Madonna. College personnel contributed to the effort by making an analysis of anticipated enrollment and availability of other funds through 1976. The initial three-year phase of the fund drive was expected to raise $1,500,000.

One problem identified by the Cumerford study was that, in spite of the fact that Villa Madonna was a diocesan institution, there was a perceived lack of interest in the College outside of the Northern Kentucky area of the Diocese of Covington. (At that time, the Diocese of Covington covered the entire eastern portion of the state to the Tennessee border). Cumerford believed that this was largely due to the fact that there was no room for dorms at the present site, making it almost exclusively a “commuter college” for students who lived in the vicinity; this same perceived liability, however, was seen as a strength when considering area businesses, some of which would want to hire local graduates produced at Villa Madonna. The Cumerford Corporation concluded, though, that the campaign would succeed only if parish support was strong.

With its feasibility established, Bishop Ackerman prepared for the fund-drive by writing to the priests of the diocese to ensure their support. In his letter of April 13, 1964, he stated, “We must all recognize the need for building a new Villa Madonna College…unless it improves its physical plant it will lose its accreditation.” He further explained that “in its present condition the College cannot apply for the Federal assistance now available. To obtain this aid there must be a building plan and concrete evidence of it.”

He also appointed a clergy campaign committee that served as a steering committee; Mr. Justin Schneider, a member of the Board of Overseers (the Advisory Board of Trustees until the name was changed in 1962), was assigned as general chair of the Building Fund campaign. The Superiors of the three congregations (Mother Benedict Bunning of the Sisters of Saint Benedict, Mother Borromeo Rumke of the Sisters of Notre Dame and Mother Callixta Blom of the Sisters of Divine Providence) who were members of the Board of Trustees pledged their support in letters that were addressed to a clergy meeting on August 24, 1964.

In a letter he wrote to all campaign leaders, Mr. Schneider explained the full rationale for choosing the suburban site on Turkeyfoot Road rather than a space in downtown Covington as urged by city officials. He prefaced his remarks by pointing out that “the advantages of the suburban site always have clearly outweighed those of the downtown location” and he then enumerated them: the cost per acreage was much less; the surrounding area could be protected from the presence of “blighted” buildings; there would be room for building dormitories and ample parking areas; the new “circle freeway” would allow much easier access from all over Northern Kentucky.

On August 27, 1964, the College issued a press release describing the $5,000,000 long-range building program planned in two distinct phases. The initial $1,500,000 campaign was for the first phase of the project – Phase I would consist of the library, classrooms, food services, and residence halls for men and women. The anticipated date of occupancy was September 1966, though even then the College would need to continue utilizing some of the downtown classrooms for a time.

The fund-drive kicked-off with a planning conference held on November 15, 1964. Plans were drawn up for various categories of sources for donations (alumni, parents, businesses and foundations, parishes, etc.) and teams were assigned to carry out the solicitations for each. The priest committee devised a formula for determining an allotment to be met by each parish over a period of three years and Bishop Ackerman made clear his expectation that every pastor would do his share in making the campaign a success. The Cumerford Corporation assisted pastors to operate their parish funding campaigns. Much later, on March 2, 1966, a recognition dinner was held at the Town and Country Restaurant to celebrate the completion of the first phase of the fund-drive.

With the private Building Fund Campaign proceeding well and the prospect of procuring more money through the government, the stage was set for construction of the long-awaited new campus. A Board of Overseer’s Building Committee and a Faculty Building Committee were formed to assist with planning. But the campus to be constructed was not the one drawn up by Nolan and Sons in the 1950’s. “Because the previous plans had been rendered obsolete due to the need for relocation on another section of the tract,” new plans were required.

Starting from scratch, however, was not regarded as a daunting task. To select an architect, Villa formed a special committee; in its opening statement outlining the selection procedure, the committee emphasized that “we at Villa Madonna choose to stress the opportunity rather than the burden represented by the task before us. Our goal is to create a physical environment which will permit the fullest realization of all that is involved in the educational adventure.”

After an eight-month study during which the committee met with twenty-four architectural firms and traveled to other cities to see some of their works, the Perkins & Will Partnership of Chicago was selected in July 1964 to develop a new master plan. George A. Hutchinson was the member of the firm who headed the project, with James Caron as project architect to work closely with College personnel; local architect Robert Ehmet Hayes was also involved with the Perkins & Will team; Mr. Hayes was the architect on the ground and the person primarily responsible for working with the contractors and consultants once construction went forward. A team from Perkins & Will paid a first visit to Covington on August 26, 1964, to view the Turkeyfoot site and to meet with the Villa personnel and the Building Committees that would be involved in planning.

By early February 1965 Perkins & Will submitted preliminary budget appropriations and schematic drawings that took into consideration the college’s “necessary requirement of economy.” Members of the Building Committees met with Perkins & Will architects during March to review the plans. A number of concerns were raised, especially regarding the library and space requirements.

Apart from the members of the official Building Committees, other faculty and staff were invited to review materials and share their opinions. As Monsignor Murphy wrote to James Caron, he felt “this to be an essential point of internal public relations. Our faculty is particularly concerned about the construction since we have needed buildings for so long.”

Perkins & Will pointed out that because of “the amount of time devoted to the justification of the library scheme…it has taken us two months to go the distance which should have taken at most three weeks…”. Although the original projection of completing the design development drawings by May 15, 1965 was not met, Perkins & Will still expressed their opinion that the buildings would be ready for occupancy by September 1967. By the end of June, however, they were beginning to re-evaluate that optimistic projection.

While planning for the buildings was proceeding, another significant step toward financing construction came about by an act of the United States Congress – the Higher Education Facilities Act (HEFA) of December 16, 1963. Title I of this act provided federal funds for grants that were to be administered through the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), though disbursed according to provisions determined by the states. Each state was to form a commission with the task of formulating a plan that would determine how the Title I Grants would be distributed equitably among its institutions of higher learning for a period of three years; the state commissions’ recommendations would be finalized by HEW for the actual dispersal of funds. To Monsignor Murphy’s mind, such a grant to Villa Madonna “would be not only of real dollar importance but of critical psychological significance in our efforts to stimulate private giving.”

Monsignor Murphy was appointed to Kentucky’s Commission by Governor Edward Breathitt. When the Kentucky State Commission of Higher Education devised its plan in 1964, Monsignor Murphy voted against its approval because he said it discriminated against small, private schools.

The Kentucky Commission’s Plan established a system by which points were assigned to schools based on their ability to meet certain criteria. One criterion was the increase in size of numerical enrollment, for which colleges had to offer enrollment figures and projections; this, of course, was something on which a small school like Villa Madonna College could never hope to outscore its rivals. (Percentage of enrollment increase was also taken into consideration, but not as heavily weighted). Monsignor argued that this plan would effectively eliminate certain classes of schools that would “be penalized by reason of their continuing to follow their right to decide what kind and size their institution will be.”

Another criterion was the availability of non-federal funds to supplement the HEFA money. Bishop Ackerman had already emphasized that “the College must be built from the funds which will be realized through the Campaign. The Diocese as such will not borrow or assume any indebtedness…” But Monsignor Murphy later explained to Bishop Ackerman, “we can get the maximum allowable points in this category if you will guarantee to the College those funds equal to the 2/3 non-federal portion.” He stressed that this was “a mere technicality and the Diocesan funds would in no way be endangered. When the capital funds receipts come in, Diocesan Funds can be withdrawn.” Bishop Ackerman, however, demurred on this point and Diocesan funds were not pledged as part of Villa’s first application for a Title I Grant submitted on October 31, 1964.

In the first allotment of HEFA funds according to the point system established by the Kentucky State Commission, Villa Madonna was sixth on a list for which only the top five were to be granted a portion of the $2,603,118 per year set aside for Kentucky. A disappointed Monsignor Murphy expressed his hope to the Bishop that “it is possible for the program to be amended to reflect more accurately the needs of all higher education institutions in Kentucky.”

Monsignor Murphy was intent on gaining HEFA funding the following year. He wrote to Bishop Ackerman that “if we can show 100% of the non-federal funds as either ‘in hand or assured’, then we can score 10 points.” In response Bishop Ackerman pledged to the Building Fund $1,250,000. The Bishop’s assurance of funding support paid off – the state allotted to Villa Madonna a grant of $186,529 on an application for $685,829 made in July 1965.

Furthermore, there was still a possibility that Villa would receive at least part of the balance at a later date; in accepting the grant, Monsignor Murphy wrote to Ted Gilbert of the Kentucky Commission, “We understand that we are eligible to receive the balance of the full federal share without loss of points should funds be available at a subsequent closing date.” Gilbert wrote back that Villa could apply for the balance using a supplemental application form. By May 1966 the U.S. Office of Education (of HEW) bestowed on Villa both an addition to its original grant and a supplemental grant, which together nearly equaled the amount requested the previous July.

At the same time, Villa put in a second application as a result of another act of Congress. On November 8, 1965, Congress passed the Higher Education Act that continued the Title I Grants, but with some new stipulations – in particular, the new act removed the restrictions on the “categories” of college buildings that would be eligible for grants. Monsignor Murphy believed that since “other portions of this same project now become eligible”…it would be “possible for us to file a ‘companion grant’ to cover these newly eligible areas.”

On May 3, 1966, Villa put in an application for a new grant of $483,825, of which $419,058 was granted. Although they were tabulated and recorded separately, this new grant, along with the supplemental grant, brought the total of the Title I grant to $797,992.

The Higher Education Act of 1965 also opened new possibilities to receive government loans at a rate of 3 percent. Murphy moved quickly to apply for a loan under this new rate for Title III because he believed that “these funds are being granted rather rapidly.” The act required, however, that the loans be approved before construction began. Assuming that loan funds would not be available immediately, Monsignor hoped “that we can proceed with construction and still qualify for the loan in another fiscal year.” He wanted to apply for a Title III loan, even if construction was underway in the year prior to the year of the application, so that they might still meet the September 1967 deadline.

In February 1966, VMC got a tentative Academic Facilities Loan of $1,202,000, but could not get a loan for construction of dormitories; this was not because dorms were not eligible, as before the 1965 Act passed, but because the low 3% interest rate meant that “applications for housing loans have trebled.” Monsignor Murphy requested Bishop Ackerman to write to Kentucky’s U.S. Senators and Congressmen to support the loan application for dorms.

Alternatives for financing the dorms were available, though. In July 1965, Villa made an application to reserve funds for a College Housing Program Loan from the Community Facilities Administration (CFA) of the Housing and Home Finance Agency (HHFA). (The CFA was placed under the auspices of the recently created Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in January 1966). As the title indicates, these loans were primarily for dorms, student union buildings with dining rooms, and other buildings more directly related to students. The first dormitories for Villa were designed for 142 students, with rooms divided equally between men and women.

The College had a long wait to find out if the Community Facilities Loan would be approved because the Bureau of the Budget was delaying the release of funds. In order to expedite matters, Monsignor Murphy, Business Manager Robert Cornell, Attorney Charles Deters and Architect Robert Hayes met with Housing and Home Finance Agency representatives at the Regional Office in Atlanta on December 8, 1965; after this meeting Monsignor believed that they had verbal approval of the plans and could present them for bids as soon as the loan was approved.

The paramount problem delaying approval of the HUD Loan was that, since the plans for the new campus were based upon “interlocking” facilities, “the delay in clearance of the housing-union loan jeopardizes the beginning of construction of the whole project.” (The multiple uses of some of the buildings designed by the Villa architects meant that certain structures could be delineated for funding through more than one kind of grant or loan, all of which would need approval before building any of them). “If we cannot go out for bids now, we are advised it will not be possible to meet our occupancy date of September 1967.” Monsignor Murphy regarded it as crucial to occupy the new campus by that time because “we shall be totally unable to handle our enrollment in our present location at that time.”

Villa submitted its plans that were accepted with minor adjustments, but the loan was not approved due to the unavailability of funds. Nonetheless, CFA Regional Director J.P. Harris advised Monsignor that “this Office has no objection to your advertising for and receiving bids on this project.” HUD finally informed the College in March 1966 that it had received a fund reservation of $1,677,000.

With at least some kind of loan assured, Villa requested bids from contractors. The bidding was to have begun in March, but was delayed until April 14, 1966, because there were not enough bidders due to an “unprecedented amount of construction.” A new Title III Loan Application was submitted in May 1966 after bids had been received from the chosen contractor.

In December 1966 a final loan amount of $1,052,000 was approved under Title III of HEFA of 1963. According to the December 16, 1966, Project Summary, the total amount from Federal grants and loan relegated to Villa was $4,733,791, which included $1,580,000 from HUD, for which Monsignor Murphy signed the loan agreement on October 3, 1966.

A HUD newsletter dated September 2, 1966, stated that Villa Madonna College was “the first college in Kentucky to undertake a tandem housing-academic facilities project with financial aid from two federal agencies.” This was, in effect, because the architectural plan incorporated part of the student union facilities – particularly the dining room and mezzanine overlooking it – within the administration building, necessitating the division of applications to both HUD and HEW.

As noted above, the period of contract bidding began in April 1966. The general contractor selected on April 25, 1966, was the Universal Contracting Corporation of Cincinnati, headed by Mr. James Neumann. The contract awarded was for $3,856,413. The sub-contractors included Bertke Electric Company, Henry K. Lamping for plumbing, and Geiler Heating, Piping and Ventilating Company; all were from Cincinnati and were approved by HUD. HUD required that all hiring be done in accordance with federal Equal Employment Opportunity regulations, something with which Monsignor Murphy was in complete agreement.

Once the contractor had been chosen, construction could finally begin. The groundbreaking ceremony was held on an exceptionally chilly May 9, 1966. Participants, including Bishop Ackerman, Monsignor Murphy, and the Provincial Superiors of the three religious congregations, all bundled up in overcoats, turned the first spades of earth at the Turkeyfoot site.

With construction underway, some of the principals involved – college personnel, architects, engineers, etc. – met periodically to review the process and expenditures; change orders were approved as needed or requested, usually resulting in additional costs. The contractors and architects filed regular progress reports, with the inclusion of sequential photographs, for Monsignor and the Building Committees.

Work was delayed by the necessity of relocating power lines in the area of the library, which could not be done by the contractors because a new easement was required for the lines. Mr. Neumann warned that the delay could jeopardize completion by fall 1967. A new easement agreement was signed and construction of the new lines began in September 1966, but the old poles were not removed from the construction site until October 6, after the deadline Mr. Neumann had set.

Other things could not have been foreseen earlier, such as rainy weather and an eight-week construction workers’ strike in the summer of 1967, followed by another one the following year. Also, there were inevitable problems with various aspects of construction or materials used.

After a meeting with Universal Contracting on April 6, 1967, it was clear that, in spite of all their efforts, some of the campus buildings that had been anticipated for occupancy by September 1, would not be ready on time. In particular, more time would be needed for the administration building and library, although the dorms were on schedule. The new projection was that the main academic building would not be completed before January 1968.

On Tuesday January 23, 1968, the long-delayed cornerstone laying ceremonies were held, though this actually meant positioning the cornerstone into the base of an already standing exterior wall. The ceremonies began with a recognition luncheon sponsored by local Chambers of Commerce at neighboring Summit Hills Country Club, followed by the placement of the cornerstone by Bishop Ackerman, with assistance from Kentucky Governor Louie B. Nunn. The main event featured University of Kentucky President John W. Oswald as the guest speaker. The “1968” cornerstone encapsulated letters written by Bishop Ackerman, Monsignor Murphy, and officers of various College entities.

Some of the dorm rooms were in fact occupied in the fall of 1967 by an intrepid group of twenty-two male students, even though the work was not completely finished and stop gap measures were used to provide heat in the rooms. Students had to find transportation to the downtown campus for classes. But the decision to begin using the new campus for spring 1968 was not revoked, and classrooms that were sufficiently ready were used, in spite of shortcomings with the buildings and a shortage of paved parking lots.

Louise Schum Interiors of Hamilton, Ohio, was hired to be the interior decorators in September 1966, though the College switched to ISD Incorporated of Chicago the following spring. They planned for the library, offices, and dorm rooms, with several vendors supplying the various furnishings. Administrative personnel were given a chance to comment on the proposed furniture and room designs.

A contract was signed on December 21, 1966, with Cunningham – Ratyna and Associates, Landscape Architects, of Glendale, Ohio, for site development and landscaping. The landscapers awaited from Perkins & Will a completed master plan for the site that would show the locations of roadways and parking lots, as well as how areas were to be graded. Florence Nursery was hired to seed lawns on the property. Many trees were donated, including some removed by the Cincinnati Airport for expansion, some from the Hillenmeyer Nurseries in Lexington and pine trees from Marydale Retreat Center given by its Director, Father Tom Middendorf; unfortunately, some of the trees died. A final schematic design from Cunningham – Rayna was submitted on April 10, 1968. Cunningham – Rayna was also involved with the development of the dam and pond after a subsurface inspection was conducted in late 1968 by American Testing and Engineering Company. This was the site to which the tiny stone Monte Casino Chapel had been moved in 1965.

Even though it would still take time for the campus to be completely finished, plans were set in motion for the dedication ceremonies to be held in the fall.

Note: Phase II of the building plan was to be the Science wing, projected to begin in 1971 with the same Perkins & Will/Hayes Team. The old science teaching facilities at the downtown campus would be utilized for classes in the meantime. The Science wing was dedicated in September 1972 with ceremonies that featured an exhibit of moon rocks brought to Earth by one of the Apollo lunar missions.

Villa Madonna Becomes Thomas More

The idea of changing the name of Villa Madonna College had been under discussion at least since 1928 when Bishop Francis W. Howard made the College in Covington a diocesan institution under the joint tutelage of the Sisters of Saint Benedict, the Sisters of Notre Dame, and the Sisters of Divine Providence. There is indication that he considered calling it “Saint Mary College,” though nothing came of his desire to change it. In 1950 Bishop William T. Mulloy intended to christen under the title “Assumption College,” the new diocesan institution to be constructed on property purchased in Fort Thomas. (After Bishop Mulloy made the college co-educational to admit men in 1945, he apparently thought the name “Villa Madonna” sounded “too feminine”). That proposed name, however, did not survive for long after plans to build in Fort Thomas were abandoned.

Once the property on Turkeyfoot Road had been purchased, it seems there were no imminent plans to drop the Villa Madonna moniker, although Father Joseph Aud, briefly Dean (president) of the College before Monsignor Murphy, favored calling it “Badin College,” and even drew up sample stationery and newsletters bearing that name. (Father Stephen Badin had been the first Catholic priest ordained in the United States and had served for a time in what would become the Diocese of Covington).

One of the main reasons always enumerated for changing the title was the existence of the similarly named Villa Madonna Academy in Park Hills, and the fact that both had been established by the Sisters of Saint Benedict only added to the confusion; people asking directions to one were often directed to the other and even the post office sometimes mixed up mail to be sent to one or the other of the two. Some people also perceived a public impression that the current name “does not fit a growing co-educational college.” (That may have been a valid point if the story is true that when first coming to Covington, Bishop Richard H. Ackerman believed he was now chancellor of a women’s college). And in the minds of area residents, the name would always be associated with the hodge-podge of buildings in downtown Covington that had long before out-lived their usefulness for academic purposes.

If the name was to be changed, there seemed no better time to do it than when the “New Era” began with the opening of the campus on Turkeyfoot. As the process for building the new campus got underway in the 1960’s, the College’s Administration Committee and Board of Trustees discussed the matter of a new name to go with it. Some of the names proposed had a local, geographical focus (such as “Ohio Valley College”), while others were religious and historical; the idea to name it “Badin College” was revived and it even seemed to be the leading candidate for a time. It seems likely that the idea of naming it Badin College was eventually rejected because a Badin High School in Hamilton, Ohio, was founded in 1966.

On February 20, 1968, the Board of Trustees held a special meeting with faculty and staff who “gave their reaction to a proposed change in the College’s name.” On February 21, all eleven Board members voted for a name change. Before the Board took the final vote on whether to change, they sampled the opinions of the Board of Overseers, alumni, faculty, students, and the priest advisory council of diocese; the majority favored changing it, though Monsignor Murphy admitted that only some select representatives of alumni had been polled.

The name finally chosen by the Board of Trustees was, of course, Thomas More College. There was a precedent for that appellation because before Villa Madonna College became co-educatinal in 1945, there had been an informal program of college tutorial work for young men called St. Thomas More College. In recognition of this program, one of the buildings downtown was named Thomas More Hall. The effective date of the change was to be June 15, 1968, which meant that the registrants in the Summer Division courses that started on June 17 would be the first official “Thomas More” students.

As part of his statement issued on February 21, Bishop Ackerman noted that “Thomas More was a scholar, statesman, and layman committed to selfless public service…It seems fitting that his name should be adopted by the College as a symbol of its emergence into a new era on its new campus, as a reflection of its institutional direction, and as an ideal for all students and alumni of the College.” The Board of Trustees had confidence that “the great name of Thomas More best exemplifies the spirit that has contributed to the College’s greatness and to its goals for the future.”

Some alumni complained that they had known nothing of the impending change of name until they heard of it on the news or read it in The Messenger. Some felt that the decision to change had been made without adequate consultation with alumni and claimed that they would no longer support the College. To many of them the new name virtually meant that their alma mater was now “defunct,” and their degrees and class rings would need to be altered accordingly.

In his replies to these unfavorable reactions, Monsignor Murphy always thanked them for expressing their honest opinions, a trait he thought they gained from their education at Villa Madonna; at the same time he stressed that the College was not the buildings and a name, but “people, ideas and attitudes” and a “shared experience” that they would always retain – “Alma Mater is mother even with another name.” Overall, it seems that most people in the area accepted, and some even praised, the new name.

There were myriad other considerations attendant on changing the name. Along with trying to convince skeptical alumni of the validity of the change, it was also necessary to inform entities around the country of the Thomas More name. This meant contacting national and state governmental agencies and departments of education, educational and professional associations, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, testing services, other colleges and universities, many vendors, and the rest on a list so long it was almost inevitable that some would be inadvertently omitted. On top of that, it would be necessary to adapt all college memorabilia and paraphernalia, including items sold in the bookstore, to include a newly developed TMC logo. Even signs along the interstate and other roads would need to be changed eventually.

The official change of name was observed on Sunday June 16 with a program and presentation. The main speaker was Doctor Richard S. Sylvester, a scholar of “Moreiana” and member of the More Project at Yale University that was preparing the publication of several of More’s previously unavailable works. With that concluded, the College anticipated the formal dedication of the new campus in the fall.

The Dedication of Thomas More College – September 22-29, 1968

The opening of a completely new campus on lots that had until recently been farm land was a special occasion that College personnel wanted to mark with as much fanfare as possible. While some of the offices, classrooms and dormitories were already in use during spring 1968, the College also formed a steering committee in March to plan the dedication services to be held in the fall. This “Dedication Committee” was chaired by Attorney Charles S. Adams, a member of the Board of Overseers, with the rest of the roster filled out by priests, religious, lay faculty and staff, plus one student. Father Ed Baumann, Director of the Evening and Saturday Division, was named Executive Secretary with responsibility for implementing the program; subcommittees were formed as needed. The Board of Trustees would have to approve the final plans.

Part of the mandate for the committee, as stated by Monsignor Murphy, was that “in view of many factors affecting the College currently, it will be desirable to relate as strongly as possible to the community at large… to achieve this, the program should be expressive of more than Catholic concerns or themes.” The Dedication Committee made a sincere effort to make the “religious portion” of the events as ecumenical as possible. As the committee began its work, their focus on “more than Catholic concerns or themes” was evident. Among events discussed was an interdenominational service as part of the blessing ceremony, to which they also intended to invite the Apostolic Delegate to the United States, Archbishop Luigi Raimondi. Mass would be celebrated only on the opening Sunday, September 22, with Bishop Richard Ackerman to be the main celebrant.

Guest speakers were a matter of primary concern, and the committee aimed big. At the first meeting of the committee on April 11, they broached the subject of attempting to bring in the President of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson, popularly referred to as “LBJ”. The subcommittee on speakers and honorary degrees determined that it should be Monsignor Murphy who would be responsible for inviting President Johnson – the unanimous first choice for the main speaker – though they seemed to believe that his actual acceptance was a long-shot; from a practical standpoint, then, it only made sense to enumerate other choices. They also created a list of men to be presented with honorary degrees.

Over the first few meetings, certain ideas for events became fixed as part of the tentative schedule. Robert Bolt’s play “A Man for All Seasons” (about Thomas More) would be staged every evening during the week; there would be an art exhibit featuring works of faculty and students; there would be a musical programs with professional musicians, including some from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. The various subcommittees would work out the details. These subcommittees included areas such as: invitations, visitor accommodations, dinner and refreshments, budget, Liturgy, publications and physical arrangements.

In time for the committee meeting held on July 17, word had been received from the White House that President Johnson could not make a commitment to attend the Academic Convocation scheduled for Saturday September 28; an invitation was therefore be sent to McGeorge Bundy, former National Security Advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and current President of the Ford Foundation, as the second choice. Yet the president had expressed interest, so there was still a possibility that he would attend. At the same meeting it was announced that Archbishop Thomas McDonough of Louisville had agreed to be the principal speaker at the interdenominational service to bless the buildings on Sunday September 29. Archbishop McDonough would speak in lieu of the Apostolic Delegate who was unavailable.

The committee meeting held on August 21 showed signs of haste as the ceremonies were only a month away. Mr. Bundy had sent his regrets, so attention then turned to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart as the possible main speaker; after he declined attention turned to other less nationally known figures as time was running out. Doctor Martin E. Marty, Lutheran Minister, historian and editor of The Christian Century, was finally secured to be the principal speaker at the Academic Convocation.

The decision was made that the speaker would also be a recipient of an honorary degree, so Doctor Marty, along with Doctor Nelson Glueck, President of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and Mr. William Zimmer, President of Cincinnati Gas & Electric, would be the recipients; Kentucky Congressman Carl Perkins was invited to receive a degree, but could not attend. Lists of invitees – many of whom were college presidents – to various special luncheons and programs were finalized. It was also becoming apparent that the budget for the dedication was going to exceed the $5,000 that the Board of Trustees had appropriated to the committee the previous month.

At the final meeting held on Sept 18, most of the arrangements were finalized except for last minute details, especially with equipment. Parking would be available at nearby Saint Pius X Church and Lakeside Presbyterian Church, from which shuttles would transport guests to the campus; a large tent was procured for the services that were hopefully to be held outdoor, with space provided inside in case of rain; places were reserved for vesting and the order determined for the honorees, delegates and faculty in the Academic procession on the 28th; students would assist in giving tours of the facilities.

Nerves were undoubtedly a bit frayed, but people were most anxious over the one item on the agenda still left uncertain – the appearance of the President of the United States.

LBJ at TMC

Monsignor Murphy made a first attempt to solicit President Johnson in December 1967. He met with Kentucky Governor Edward Breathitt on December 4 and asked for his assistance in inviting the president. Governor Breathitt, a Democrat, did as requested, but received a response from a White House aide extending regrets that “in light of the many commitments he already has and the heavy official schedule he constantly must maintain, he just cannot hold out any hope he could attend the dedication.” In thanking the governor for his effort, Monsignor stated “naturally, we are very disappointed…”, though he could not have been very surprised.

Yet, as noted above, the Dedication Committee would call on Monsignor to try again to bring the chief executive to the dedication, but now with new grounds for hope. President Johnson stunned the entire nation when he announced at the end of a televised address on March 31, 1968, that he would not seek re-election that fall – this must have been at least one of the “sufficient changes in the national situation” to which Monsignor alluded in a letter to U.S. Senator John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky when he asked his help in making a new appeal to the president. He also wrote to Earle Clements, former Kentucky Senator and personal friend of the president, asking the same thing.

But the college’s renewed efforts to secure the president’s attendance brought no definite answer and left the question in doubt. Although the possibility remained, the prospects for a presidential visit seemed slim.

Note: Much of the information in the section below comes from a memoir written by Monsignor Murphy sometime after the end of his term as president of TMC in 1971.

Little changed until one day in September Monsignor Murphy got a phone call from a member of the White House staff asking if he was still interested in President Johnson attending the dedication. Of course, he answered affirmatively. He was asked not to share this with anyone else and was warned that it was still not a certainty that the president would be there. Yet monsignor was to be ready to meet with two Secret Service agents the next day so they could check out the campus for security. The agents believed the campus would be safe enough because it was outside of a city and access could be more easily controlled. But Monsignor would not know for sure if the president would arrive until his plane was actually in the air that very day!

While Monsignor Murphy anxiously awaited developments, he told only those who really had a need to know so they could be prepared for either contingency – a “Plan A” and a “Plan B” were prepared. Inserts announcing President Johnson’s presence were printed up to be added to the official invitations that would be handed out at the door on the day itself. Doctor Marty graciously agreed to have a shorter version of his talk ready in case he would be replaced as principal speaker. And the musicians were asked to be ready to play “Hail to the Chief,” if necessary.

On September 28, Bishop Ackerman and Monsignor Murphy were partaking of the pre-ceremony luncheon at the Town and Country Restaurant with members of the Boards of Trustees and Overseers when Monsignor was called to the phone around noon; the call from the White House simply informed him that the president was on his way. Plan B went into effect.

Monsignor Murphy was not among the delegation (headed by Fathers Ed Baumann and George Schneider, William and Thelma Muehlenkamp) that drove to the airport to meet President Johnson as he stepped off Air Force One at about 3:00. He had to go instead to the campus to begin the Dedication Ceremony on time. By then the inserts were being handed out and the news had been broadcast on local radio stations – word was out among the guests that the President of the United States would soon be joining them.

Monsignor Murphy met the president as his limo pulled up in the circle in front of the administration building; a bus crammed with the press also pulled up. Martin Marty was giving his talk as members of the president’s staff went into Seiler Commons to get things ready. According to Monsignor, President Johnson was very courteous and charming as he greeted students and others on his way inside; this was at a time when President Johnson would not always have received a friendly greeting in return from college students. After a brief wait in Monsignor Murphy’s office, they proceeded into the commons that was filled with a very enthusiastic crowd who seemed totally delighted at the president’s presence.

After the president, decked out in academic garb, received his honorary degree and gave his speech, he returned to the airport with Monsignor Murphy accompanying him in the limo. As Air Force One sat on the runway, Monsignor Murphy, Father Baumann and Father Schneider were treated by the president to a tour of its interior. They drank the proffered soft drinks and talked with him as he sat behind his desk. Monsignor noted that they “took samples of whatever else was on his desk…,” which perhaps included the gold-colored “Air Force One” pack of cigarettes and sky-blue book of matches that are now part of the TMC Archives’ collection.

Returning to the ceremonies at the campus, Monsignor Murphy was still basking in the glow of the moment as he was greeted by many other college presidents who were perhaps a bit envious of the good fortune with which the new college had been blessed. More than anything, though, he was relieved that there had been no problems to mar the occasion and that the president had departed Thomas More in safety.

The presence of President Johnson was without doubt the highlight of the dedication ceremonies, making it an unforgettable event for all who attended. But the other planned events contributed to the memorable occasion. Good weather certainly helped, though only the barbeque after the opening Mass on Sunday, Sept. 22, and part of the Solemn Blessing Ceremony on Sept. 29 were actually held outdoors.

Some results of the dedication, though, lasted much longer than the unfolding of the week-long events. Thomas More College initiated a Lyndon Baines Johnson Scholarship, and a commemorative booklet that the college sent to the President made its way into the permanent collection of the LBJ Presidential Library at the University of Texas.

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