The Northern Almanac Ep. 2 - 'John Williston Cook'

Feb 10, 2020

Welcome to The Northern Almanac, a WNIJ living history project coinciding with NIU’s 125th anniversary.

When it opened on September 11, 1899, Northern Illinois State Normal school had 173 students made up of 146 women and 27 men, and as long as they committed to teaching for a time in Illinois schools they paid no tuition.

Students came from 34 Illinois counties with nearly a quarter from DeKalb County. They paid $16 a year for incidentals, books, and supplies. They lived in "boarding clubs" in the nearby Ellwood neighborhood. Altgeld Hall was still under construction, so students walked on planks spread over the muddy worksite to attend classes.

Northern’s first President was 55-year-old John Williston Cook, who had spent 36 years at the Illinois State Normal School in Bloomington. Newspapers called him, “the crown prince of teacher education”. 

John Williston Cook

On the first day, President Cook assembled students with his 15 faculty members in the auditorium for opening exercises that included singing patriotic songs, reading scripture, and reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

Cook maintained a strong relationship with the City of DeKalb. He gained the DeKalb school board's approval to supervise the town’s elementary school system for teacher training.

The arrangement included building a school on campus, now McMurry Hall, at no cost to the town. Also, Cook was one of the first residents of DeKalb to own an automobile and delighted in giving students a ride on his way to school. He was a popular figure and a hands-on leader who guided Northern through its first 20 years.