Welcome to The Northern Almanac, a WNIJ living history project coinciding with NIU's 125th anniversary.
Leslie A. Holmes became Northern’s fifth president in 1949. A native of Freeport, Illinois, Holmes loved nature, studied geology and geography, and had done a stint as a geologist for an oil company. Before leading Northern, he was a popular professor at Illinois State University.
Holmes was conservative and religious, characteristics that would be sorely tested during the fast-changing period of his presidency, a period that was, arguably, the greatest time of change in the school’s history. He initially shared his forebears’ belief in keeping Northern a small teachers’ training school, but the 50s and 60s ushered in a population explosion in Illinois’s 21 northern counties. Holmes recognized that the growing demand for expansion and a broader curriculum could not be denied.
During Holmes’ 18-year presidency, enrollment grew from 2,000 to 18,000 students. Twenty-nine new buildings were added, including the student center, then known as University Center. He acquired the 60-acre Lorado Taft Field Campus in Oregon, Illinois. And he also oversaw the addition of Master’s and Doctoral programs, which promoted Northern to university status.
Holmes retired in 1967 and taught geography as a visiting professor at Arizona State University. He died in Tempe, Arizona, in August 1974, just three months after Northern’s governing board renamed University Center the Leslie A. Holmes Student Center.