Look Who’s Talking

‘John Purdue’ tells his own story and that of Purdue University’s dramatic beginnings

It’s the early 1880s. A scandal is brewing at newly founded Purdue University. A chemistry professor is wearing knickers in public, playing baseball with students and riding a bicycle to campus. Administrators are aghast. The professor gets a public tongue-lashing for his behavior from the Board of Trustees. Does he resign?

We find out from John Purdue himself, as dramatized in this video by author and historian John Norberg. Norberg gives John Purdue’s first-person account of his own life and the early life of Purdue University, his namesake.

Speaking from “beyond the grave,” John Purdue now has full view of Purdue University’s remarkable 150-year history. Through Norberg, he recounts a dramatic and devastating early fire and the dedicated people who responded by building Purdue “one brick higher.” He notes the University’s world-famous high-achievers in science and technology. He highlights faculty Nobel Prize winners and graduates who invented world-renowned technologies, products and foods. He also spotlights Purdue astronauts who have blazed outer-space trails, including the first trip to the moon.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1802, John Purdue was the only son in a family of 10 children. In his 20s, he taught school in Ohio, but left teaching after four years to pursue business opportunities. He came to Lafayette, Indiana, and decided to settle there to take part in its bustling center of trade. He ran a successful wholesale and retail dry-goods and grocery business for over 25 years.

During the 1850s, Purdue and a partner operated a profitable “commission house” in the city of New York. He ultimately amassed quite a fortune despite some losses in manufacturing and railway endeavors. He accumulated a great deal of his wealth by founding The Lafayette Journal, a Lafayette newspaper.

Influenced by the teaching he had done decades earlier, Purdue was an advocate for education in Indiana. After Congress passed the Morrill Land-Grant College Act in 1862, the Indiana General Assembly gave legal status to the Indiana Agricultural College in 1865. To secure a location for the college near Lafayette, Indiana, Purdue donated $150,000 in 1869.

The donation came near the end of Purdue’s business career, and made him the University’s primary benefactor. His endowment was combined with lands and buildings worth $50,000 that already had been donated by the citizens of Tippecanoe County.

With his large contribution, Purdue required that the institution bear his name and that it teach agriculture and the “mechanic arts.”

John Purdue died in 1876 at age 73. Per his request, he was buried across from University Hall in on the Purdue University campus.

These tales and more are woven into John Norberg’s latest book, Ever True: Celebrating the First 150 Years of Purdue University. Released in May 2019, the book commemorates and celebrates the University’s sesquicentennial.

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