Mansfield’s first “president”: William Straughn
William Ringgold Straughn, for whom Straughn Hall is named, holds the distinction of being the last principal of Mansfield Normal School and the first president of Mansfield State Teachers College. Straughn is widely credited with the construction of numerous buildings on campus, including the auditorium that bears his name.
In fact, the history of Straughn Hall, an auditorium capable of seating 1167 people, is closely tied with the neighboring Elliott Hall. Elliott Hall was originally called the Arts Building and housed the music department as well as home economics. The proximity of the buildings was probably no accident and numerous concerts and other events have been held in Straughn.
By the 1960s, music and home economics had become very well known and as a result the departments outgrew the Arts Building. The music department moved to Butler Music Center in 1969 and the trustees renamed the Arts Building to the Home Economics Center. In the 1990s, after home economics was discontinued at Mansfield, the building became Elliott Hall. Straughn Hall, meanwhile, became associated with the theatre concentration of the communications department. Renovations were completed in 2002 and a picture of Straughn was hung in the lobby.
Straughn was born in Maryland April 23, 1882. He was educated in Maryland and Delaware schools, and graduated from high school in Laurel, Del. in 1899. In 1902, he graduated from Baltimore City College, an institution that grants both high school and college degrees. He did post-graduate work at Johns Hopkins and earned his doctorate from the University of Kansas City.
While attending college in Baltimore, Straughn worked as a newspaper reporter, considering the job a valuable aid in his education. His obituary adds that he found friends among reporters wherever he went.
Between 1902 and 1906, Straughn taught at Baltimore City College. He came to Pennsylvania in 1906 and was assistant principal and professor of literature and pedagogy (teacher training) at Millersville State Normal School. He worked there until 1911 when he became superintendent of schools in DuBois.
In 1914, Straughn was hired as the principal at Mansfield State Normal School. One of his first actions was to disband the fraternities and sororities at Mansfield. That meant the end of the Delphic and Philalathian (also spelled Philalethian) fraternities and the Clionian and Agonian sororities. Those groups had been operating since at least the 1890s. The official reasons given were twofold. First, there was a very real dichotomy between the wealthier urban students and the poorer rural students. Straughn felt that the operation of the fraternity system of the time only served to magnify that gap. In addition, he opposed such systems on religious grounds and instead encouraged the YMCA and the YWCA. For many years the “Y” organizations had their own building.
Fraternal organizations were allowed to resume operation in 1930, although they were limited to honors organizations. The first such organization was Phi Sigma Pi, which is still active at Mansfield University as a general honors society. When the chapter was formed at Mansfield State Teacher’s College, membership was only open to males studying education. Straughn’s son, William Jr. was a member.
Another major action early in Straughn’s tenure was to institute military training for the young men on campus in 1916. The military company was to be voluntary and similar to companies at many other schools. The volunteers received instruction in military science and physical fitness. However, a newspaper article announcing the program noted that the program is not intended to make a finished soldier out of the volunteers. The article also credits Congressman R.K. Scott with encouraging the program at Mansfield. The Mansfield company was holding drills by the fall of 1916.
Mansfield State Normal School lost eight students to World War I. One of those young men was Orson Wilcox, a standout football player who later transferred to the University of Pittsburgh. Wilcox earned the Croix de Guerre from the French government, but was soon after stabbed in the neck by a French teenager after Wilcox refused to give the young man some tobacco. The other students who died in the war included Leo Bachman; John Cox, who died of pneumonia at Walter Reed Hospital; Charles Crittenden; Theodore Frutiger; William Lloyd; Harold Peters; and Eldridge Shoup. A small plaque on campus commemorates those young men.
Straughn’s wife, Dorothy, who is generally only identified as Mrs. William Straughn, also became involved in the war effort, serving as treasurer of the Women’s Committee of National Council of Defense, Tioga Branch. That organization stood ready to lend the efforts of women’s groups to the war effort.
Prof. Straughn is further credited with overseeing construction of a number of buildings, including Straughn Hall, the Junior High School (now Allen Hall), science building (now Grant Science Center), heating plant, principal/president’s residence, and an infirmary (replaced by Doane Center).
In addition, Straughn was instrumental in having the former Y Hut built. The old Hut was at the present location of Manser Dining Hall and used most often for YMCA events. The current Hut was finished in 1969 after the old one was razed to make way for the dining hall. The president’s house was built in 1920 when Mansfield, like many other institutions of higher learning, decided that the principal/president should have a place to escape the duties of the office. Before the home was built, the principal lived in North Hall.
Perhaps Straughn’s most important contribution, though, was the transformation from a normal school to a teacher’s college. According to information from the state archives, normal schools in Pennsylvania were essentially secondary schools until 1923, meaning that incoming students did not need to hold a high school diploma. As far back as 1895, a state law was passed setting standards for degree-granting institutions. Normal schools, though, only offered teaching certificates.
In 1911, the school code was amended to set a procedure for the state to buy the normal schools. On July 30, 1913 West Chester became the first state-owned school. Mansfield was the last to be purchased in 1922. The following year, the 1895 law was amended to allow state-owned educational institutions to grant degrees even if they did not meet the property or charter standards. In 1925, the institutions were allowed to grant degrees as long as the schools had sufficient educational standards. The following year, Mansfield, along with nine other institutions, began awarding degrees.
In 1927, Mansfield State Normal School officially became Mansfield State Teachers College, though the school offered a college curriculum in 1926. It was around this time, too, that the title “principal” was replaced with “president.” In 1960, Mansfield became a state college and in 1983 it became a university.
Dr. Straughn was also widely sought after as a speaker and often spoke at the Tioga County Teachers’ Institutes. At that time, County Superintendent of Schools Edmond Retan was running the institutes. Dr. Retan later became director of the Normal School’s training school served under Straughn. Retan’s son, George, inherited that position after his father’s retirement in 1926. Retan Center is named for the father-son duo.
In the community, Straughn was a member of the Methodist Church, which Simon Elliott built. He was active in the Friendship Lodge 247 of the Free and Accepted Masons, Zebulon Chapter of Royal Arch, the American Political Science Association, Red Cross, General Sullivan Chapter of the Boy Scouts, and several other social organizations. He also helped to found both Corey Creek and Tyoga Golf Clubs and served a term as president of First National Bank.
Dr. Straughn passed away in 1936 at the Crile Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio from complications resulting from surgery. Arthur Belknap, for whom Belknap Hall is named, assisted with the funeral service. One of the pall bearers was Herbert Grant, for whom Grant Science Center is named. “His high idealism, his loyalty to his friends and to his principles, his fine home life, and his sympathetic interest in people all combined to make him an outstanding citizen in this section of the state,” Straughn’s very lengthy obituary read.