The Universalist Church founded Buchtel College, the forerunner of The University of Akron, in 1870. Buchtel College was called a "centenary school" in honor of the church's 100th anniversary in the United States.
Local leaders had entertained the Universalists' proposals to build a new seminary, or perhaps an academy, to serve the young manufacturing city (population 10,000). But there was little interest in a seminary, and Akron already had a good high school, thanks to the success of the "Akron Plan"" for free, graded public education.
Industrialist John R. Buchtel was the key benefactor and proponent of a plan by the Ohio Universalist Church to build a college in Akron. Over the course of their lives, Buchtel and his wife, Elizabeth, contributed $500,000 to the college and its students.
It was clear the Akronites wanted a college, and a first-rate one. The churchmen agreed but made it clear they needed the support of the citizenry, namely financial help with the $60,000 bill.
The first individual to pledge financial assistance was John R. Buchtel. Although he had hoped to build a free public library with his fortune, he offered $6,000 for construction of a college building and $25,000 for an endowment. His only condition was that the community match his pledge. Beginning a tradition that continues today, 100 enthusiastic individuals and 13 businesses came forward with the matching resources.
Following curricula similar to that of the finest schools in the east, young Buchtel College prospered and was held in the same regard as Swarthmore, Middlebury, Syracuse, and Pittsburgh. Its entrance requirements were similar to Yale's, requiring an understanding of English, Greek and Latin grammar, ancient and modern geography, U.S. history, classical literature, and algebra to "equations of the second degree."
But running a college is an expensive proposition, and many colleges founded in the era failed for lack of financial support. Buchtel College supporters were, however, very generous from the beginning.
In 1872, Mrs. George Messenger, wife of the Universalist minister who first broached the idea of a college to John R. Buchtel, established the first endowed chair, the Professorship of Mental and Moral Philosophy.
Other early donors endowed professors' chairs in elocution and rhetoric, mathematics and theology. Although some of those areas of study are now archaic, the gifts nevertheless helped sustain small Buchtel College in its early years.