JMU almost wasn't.
With a slight twist of history, there might never have been a James Madison University.
Instead of James Madison University getting ready to celebrate its centennial, the folks at William Henry Harrison University in Harrisonburg could be gearing up for a big 100th anniversary celebration.
Its not all that far-fetched. In the 1930s, when a new name was being selected for the State Teachers College at Harrisonburg, there was a strong argument to keep the location of the school in its title. And there was at least some sentiment that the State Teachers College be renamed Harrison College.
The “Johnny Rockingham Says” column in the Feb. 5, 1938, issue of the Daily News-Record said that naming the teachers college after James Madison was a bad idea and “the suggestion that the State Teachers College be named Harrison College, instead of Madison College, seems to have met with tremendous approval.”
“Johnny Rockingham” claimed that Harrison deserved the recognition as much as James Madison did. Harrison, ninth president of the United States, is perhaps best known today for the fact that he was the first president to die in office and his administration, which lasted only one month, was the shortest in U.S. history.
Harrison is also noted for being part of perhaps American history's best presidential campaign slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler , Too.” Harrison was in charge of the forces that defeated Tecumseh's Shawnee Native Americans in the 1811 battle at Tippecanoe Creek in Indiana. John Tyler was Harrison's vice presidential running mate.
There was considerable opposition to removing all reference to Harrisonburg from the college's new name. The college had operated under three different names since its 1908 founding. All three contained the word “Harrisonburg.”
Those favoring Harrison College said it was a more appropriate name for the teachers college and had advertising value for Harrisonburg.
Two other “Harrisons” deserved recognition, the supporters of Harrison College added.
One was Thomas Harrison, who was responsible for the General Assembly selecting Harrisonburg as the county seat. Harrison also donated land for a courthouse in Harrisonburg, which was then known as Rock Town.
The other Harrison was Dr. Gessner Harrison, a native of Harrisonburg who was a professor of Latin at the University of Virginia in the first half of the 19th century. (JMU's Harrison Hall is named for Gessner Harrison.)
Despite the pressure for other names, Dr. Samuel P. Duke, president of the State Teachers College at Harrisonburg , prevailed in his efforts to have the college named for James Madison (not for Dolley, as rumor occasionally holds). Advertising a community wasn't part of the role of a college, Duke said.
Duke argued that the name “Madison College” would not only honor one of Virginia 's great statesmen but also a man who was an early champion of both public schools and higher education. Additionally, Duke said, no other college or university in America bore Madison 's name.
The name had dignity as well as looking and sounding good, Duke argued. The visionary president correctly anticipated the future by saying that Madison College would be an appropriate name for a coeducational institution if the school ever chose to follow that course.
The Daily News-Record columnist wasn't even convinced that Madison College honored President James Madison. “It is claimed by some,” the columnist wrote, “that those who suggested Madison as the new name did not have the president in mind, but Bishop James Madison.”
Who was Bishop James Madison? Born in Port Republic, he was the first Episcopal bishop of Virginia and was president of the College of William and Mary for 35 years.
Duke's argument to name the college for President Madison convinced the General Assembly and, on March 8, 1938, Governor James H. Price signed a bill re-designating the State Teachers College at Harrisonburg as Madison College.
The same bill provided that the Fredericksburg State Teachers College would be known as Mary Washington College . The bill also gave the state's two other teachers colleges (in Radford and Farmville) the option of switching names in the future.
If it weren't for the insistence of President Duke, today's cheerleaders could be yelling for “WHHU” instead of “JMU” or the JMU Dukes might be the JMU Bishops.
Sources: Harrisonburg Daily News-Record, Feb. 5, 1938
Madison College : The First Fifty Years by Dr. Raymond C. Dingledine Jr.