December 25, 2010 by Gerry Avant
Since the time President Henry B. Eyring headed it from 1971–1977, Ricks College has grown from a two-year school to a four-year program and has a new name, BYU-Idaho. However, he said, the spirit of the place is the same.
In a conversation with the Church News prior to going to Rexburg to dedicate the new BYU-Idaho Center and the newly remodeled and expanded Manwaring Center, President Eyring spoke of what he said in his mind always will be “the spirit of Ricks.”
Now first counselor in the First Presidency, President Eyring arrived in Rexburg in 1971 on the heels of the political and social tumult the 1960s brought to many campuses, including the one in Palo Alto, Calif., where he had been an associate professor of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “The culture was changing rapidly,” he said of that era and the atmosphere of unrest that prevailed on many campuses.
“Can you imagine coming out of Stanford to Ricks College? Ricks was a two-year school; although it had grown in the preceding decade, was still a small school.”
While many of his colleagues in academia might have regarded taking the helm of Ricks College as being a step or two down on the career ladder, President Eyring was eager to take on the job.
“Rather than being disappointed, I was charmed,” he said of what he saw when he arrived in Rexburg. “I said, ‘There is something here I didn’t know existed, a kind of down-to-earth, deeply faithful, very able but very modest people. They saw themselves as sort of rural cousins. They were strong. These were people who were happy to be who they were; they didn’t have pretensions and didn’t want to be something else. They saw themselves deeply rooted in the agricultural and pioneering spirit of Idaho.”
He said the people liked to tell stories of the early days of Ricks College. They told of Jacob Spori, who in 1888 became the first principal of Bannock Academy and donated part of his wages as a railroad worker to pay salaries of teachers at the school that eventually became Ricks College. “They talked about Hyrum Manwaring (Ricks College’s eighth president) for whom the Manwaring Center is named. He faced such financial difficulties in keeping the school going he offered to give the campus to the State of Idaho, but they wouldn’t take it.
“Ricks College had come from these struggling beginnings. I could feel that. I came in almost awe of the place. I wondered, ‘Do they really know how rare they are in this world?’ They were very content to be who they were. It was almost as if they were saying, ‘We are deeply devoted Latter-day Saints of pioneer stock. Give me a little bit of baling wire and I can make anything work.’”
President Eyring said he learned one of the greatest lessons of his life while at Ricks College, a lesson taught by his home teacher, a farmer who had never gone to college.
“Craig Moore came home teaching,” President Eyring recalled. “He said, ‘Brother Eyring, you’re spending all your time with the important people on campus, the professors and administrators. You need to get out with the working people, the regular people, in the shops, the power plant.’ I thought, ‘Who is this man? I’m president of the college. I have a doctoral degree from Harvard University. Who is he to tell me what I should do?’”
President Eyring said that Brother Moore gave him that same counsel two or three more times and then rang the Eyrings’ doorbell one night. “I opened the door and, without any introduction, Brother Moore said, ‘I’ve come to warn you for the last time. If you don’t get out of your office and quit meeting with the big people and meet with the people who really make the college run, you will fail.’ He turned and walked off the porch.
“That got me. The next day, I was out with the people. I went to the power plant and to the shops and motor pool. I met custodians and grounds people. I learned things there I had never imagined. I didn’t know who these people were before, but when I got out there and found how hard they worked, what their lives were like and some of the challenges they had, everything changed for me. I realized that my home teacher was right.
“Craig Moore taught me a true thing, and I’ve never forgotten it. Although he had nothing to do with the college, he was part of the spirit of that place,” President Eyring said.
President Eyring described the faculty who came to Ricks College as people who, in essence, said, “’I don’t care about my career track; I just want to be in this place, teaching students under the influence of the Holy Ghost.’
“We had some people who were very gifted, faculty some universities tried to hire away. The other schools had more prestige and they would have paid more, but these folks had another reason for being there. They felt, ‘Let me be in a place where I can take care of students, where the whole thing is lifting students and where I can be very open in my faith.’”
In all the years he was at Ricks College, President Eyring taught a religion class every term. “I taught those classes because I knew that’s where the school really is, in their hearts.”
As the conversation with the Church News concluded, it was apparent that President Eyring has fond memories of Rexburg and the school over which he presided, and looked forward to returning to the campus that has grown from the two-year school of his administration to the four-year institution it is today.