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Profiles in Badassery: John Purdue

Ed. Note: This article is originally from 2010, but we resurface it every year for John Purdue's birthday on October 31st.

We're on the eve of the Bucket Game, where we annually establish dominance over that school to the south, What better person to profile than the namesake of our beloved University? He has figured prominently into the rivalry in the past. One of the more macabre stories in the rivalry involves Indiana students stealing John Purdue's body from his grave on campus. While I doubt this happened, it has lead to several urban legends about John Purdue's grave on campus.

I am thankful for John Purdue though. It is his distinguished name that allows us to fool people around the country. Because we are called Purdue University, many people think we are a private school and not a state school. Even Mrs. T-Mill once thought it was a private school, much like how I thought the University of Miami was a state school then it is a private school. Since we are all connected through John Purdue's name, let's learn a little more about this badass of a founder.

Early Life

Of everyone who has been profiled in this series, John Purdue is the oldest. He was born in a log cabin on October 31, 1802 in Huntington County, Pennsylvania. Ironically, it would be 101 years after his birth that the main event from last week's profile would take place. He was the only son that Charles and Mary Purdue had among 10 total children, apparently using the one Y chromosome that Charles Purdue had in his body.

Many of the details of his early life are sketchy. His father worked in an iron foundry in nearby Shirleysburg. The family was incredibly poor, however. Ironically, the founder of an institution of higher learning did not attend school until age 8, then had to drop out at age 12 to get a job. He was also from a German-speaking area of Pennsylvania, meaning that my recent desire to have Rammstein as pump-up music before games is even more apropos.

In the early 1820's his family moved to Adelphi, Ohio where his father died. One of his sisters also died shortly after the move. John Purdue became a teacher in Pickaway County. It was here that he began his career in business. After running a farm in Ohio for a few years he was persuaded by his neighbors to sell some hogs at eastern markets. He made a profit, and he began to sell livestock and crops on commission for his neighbors.

A business empire is born

In 1833, John Purdue opened a general store in Adelphi, Ohio. His store and other activities did well enough hat he was able to buy a farm for his family in Ohio, as well as other land in Illinois in Indiana. That land in Indiana was 240 acres in Tippecanoe County.

The county itself had only been formed in 1826, and it was mostly famous for the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. The city of Lafayette was far from the bustling metropolis it is today. Back then it was a frontier center of commerce on the Wabash River.  A year after buying the land, Purdue moved to Lafayette and quickly became involved in many civic affairs. He served on the first board of directors for the Lafayette branch of the State Bank of Indiana, and became a member of the Northwestern Freedmen's Aid Commission. Throughout his long stay in Lafayette, Purdue would donate generously to churches, libraries, schools, and other local organizations, further cementing his status as a badass.

Purdue became Lafayette's first incredibly successful businessman. Full details of his business ventures over the next several years can be found here, but he quickly developed one of the largest commerce centers outside of Wall Street in New York City. It is no wonder that the Krannert School of Management is one of the top business schools in the country with Purdue's early track record of success laying the groundwork.

Education was always important to Purdue, possibly because he never had a chance to go to school very long himself. In 1852 he was appointed trustee of the first public school in Lafayette. When the state of Indiana debated for a year over the legality of tax funding for public school Purdue kept the schools running with his own money.

Another cool story about Purdue occurred during the Civil War. He was a staunch Union loyalist. When the war broke out he donated money to the Union cause and became the largest pork supplier to the Union Army. At the time, Lafayette had a number of confederate sympathizers who began vandalizing his stores. As a result, he funded his own militia to protect local business called the Purdue Rifles. Yes, he was badass enough to have his own private army. You have to love frontier justice.

Founding Purdue University

The story of Purdue does not begin with John Purdue waking up one day and saying, "I think I want to found the greatest University in the history of the world so my boy T-Mill will have something to write about in 140 years." It began with the Morrill Land Grant Act signed by President Lincoln in 1862. It was set up to establish colleges in each state for the education of all social and economic classes in agriculture, home economics, mechanics, and other useful arts. The bill gave every state 30,000 acres of public land for every senator and state representative. The idea was that the land would be sold and the money from the sale would go to an endowment fund for the new colleges. The state of Indiana accepted its provision of the Morrill Act on January 2, 1865.

Naturally, Purdue himself was influential in getting the University that bears his name placed in Lafayette. There was fierce competition to find the location for the college that the Morrill Act would create. Indiana University, Northwestern Christian in Indianapolis (now Butler University), and the Stockwell and Battle Ground Collegiate Institutes battled for the school. When Albert S. White died in 1864 the Stockwell bid fell apart, and legal wrangling continued to delay the process. The state started State normal College (now Indiana State University) to relieve some of the pressure and legal battled, but there needed to be a breakthrough.

know that generations of us did not want to be Hoosiers waxing poetic of five dusty banners, John Purdue stepped in to save us all and give us a modicum of dignity. Tippecanoe County wanted the school, so various locals stepped up to donate land and money. They needed a major benefactor, however. Enter John Purdue. With nearly $400,000 in cash already secured, the state legislature was still stalling. Purdue offered $100,000 of his personal fortune to help found the school. His only condition was that it bear his name and that the college be located in Battle Ground (now West Lafayette). Contrary to popular belief, one of the conditions was not that each building must be made of red brick since he owned a brick foundry.  After more negotiations he upped his donation to $150,000 and 110 acres of land. He eventually had to mortgage most of his Walnut Grove Farm in Warren County to keep his pledge for the school.

The first meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Indiana Agricultural College with Governor Oliver P. Morton presiding as the Ex Officio board president took place on October 20, 1865. The first time the phrase Purdue University appears in the Board of Trustees minutes was on December 26, 1868. Purdue University was founded on May 6, 1869 as a land-grant university when the Indiana General Assembly, taking advantage of the Morrill Act, accepted a donation of land and money from John Purdue to establish a college of science, technology, and agriculture in his name.

Though much of the groundwork was laid in 1869, classes did not officially begin until September 16, 1874. There were six instructors and 39 students spread across three buildings. John Bradford Harper became the first official graduate of Purdue in 1875, as the only member of his graduating class. He earned a degree in chemistry, but became a civil engineer in both Colorado and New Mexico. Look for him in a future Profile in Badassery, as he had to be a badass to earn a degree in chemistry in less than a year.

Later Life and Death

John Purdue did not live very long after the school officially opened in 1874. On September 12, 1876 Purdue left the Lafayette Hygienic Institute where he was recovering from nervous chills and vertigo. Unfortunately, these were likely the early signs of the stroke that took his life. With his grand-nephew at the reins, Purdue took a carriage ride to the Purdue Agricultural Works and then crossed the Wabash River for a visit of the University campus. It was the opening day of classes and the third year the school had been in session. He visited with faculty and students and inspected the foundation of what was to become University Hall. Not long after returning to his rooms at the Lahr House he asked to be taken to the Hygienic Institute. Once there, he walked in the flower garden and then retired to his room.

Two attendants, sent to inquire about his needs, found him face down on the floor dying. A messenger was sent into the city to summon his closest friends. The following day two things happened. First, the deed to the land that Purdue University now stands was filed at the Tippecanoe County Court House and second, friends and associates met to plan his funeral. Purdue had requested that he be buried on the campus. A site was chosen by Trustees Coffroth, Stein, Pierce and President White just east of the yet unfinished University Hall. Purdue never married and left no heirs.

It is fitting that he died after visiting the school he worked so hard to build. He virtually gave his life to ensure that others would have what he lacked growing up. We have him to thank for the common bond we share as Purdue Alumni. He was the first true Purdue badass.