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Final chapter of NIU history project released

March 9, 2021

The final installment of NIU’s 125 Key Moments project has been released, bringing the university’s history up to the present day.

Chapter 12 includes celebrations of faculty excellence, prestigious national awards, an appearance in a major football bowl game, plans for a new research center and two new presidents, among other important developments. It also tells the stories of major challenges, including a two-year state budget impasse and the effects on NIU of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Key Moments project is part of the university’s 125th anniversary celebration. It began with a four-month-long review of university history by a panel of long-time NIU faculty, staff, trustees and community members. The selection committee engaged in long discussions about which moments in NIU’s history had the most long-lasting and significant impact.

“These were very lively conversations,” says Chief of Staff Matt Streb, who chaired the committee. “To look at the entirety of NIU’s existence and identify 125 events that made us who we are – it was extremely interesting and really inspiring. One thing we agreed on almost immediately was that we needed to tell the most important stories, both good and bad, because that’s what history gives us. I’m proud to say I think we succeeded in that regard.”

Serving with Streb on the selection committee were Michelle Bringas, director of the Asian American Resource Center; John Butler, member of the Board of Trustees; Sue Doederlein, retired associate dean, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; Anne Kaplan, retired vice president of the Division of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development; Mike Korcek, retired sports information director; Melanie Magara, President’s Office communications director (now retired); Leroy Mitchell, retired director of the CHANCE program; Sally Stevens, secretary to six NIU presidents; and Jerry Zar, retired Biology professor and vice president of research and graduate studies.

Once the key moments were chosen, Melanie Magara spent more than a year researching and writing up entries with help from staff in the Regional History Center and University Archives. Mike Korcek contributed seven stories about athletics.

Sources included books on NIU’s history by Earl Hayter, Bill Monat and Glen Gildemeister; letters and reports from the University Archives; The Norther yearbook collection, the Northern Star archives, the Alumni Association magazine Northern Now and faculty-staff newsletter NIU Today; regional newspapers and the DeKalb County Historical Society. Photography Manager Wade Duerkes supplied many project images; videographer Jim Barker found and edited a number of historical films and videos that appear with key entries.

“It was an honor to tell the stories of so many outstanding people and an institution that has literally changed thousands of lives,” said Magara. “The hardest part for me was keeping the stories relatively short, because no event was without its complications and backstories and unsung heroes.”

Even with length limitations for individual stories, the final product came in at more than 55,000 words – longer than an average novel.

Presenting such fact-heavy stories in a visually and technically accessible way was the challenge presented to Senior Web Developer Brian Walk. Utilizing the WordPress platform, Walk created an engaging experience, allowing readers to choose specific eras, read in detail or simply skim the topic via photos and captions.

“Being a part of this project has brought together things I really enjoy: looking through scores of old photos and documents, learning more about our shared local history, and being part of the NIU community,” said Walk.

“Having to do much of the work remotely this past year presented its challenges, but we managed to collaborate with our partners in the Regional History Center and University Archives, our great photography team, and our colleagues at DoIT. It’s been a great experience!”

Rich with information about NIU’s history, the Key Moments project will continue to live on the NIU website beyond the anniversary celebration. It may be accessed at  125keymoments.niu.edu.