The Heart of Bradley

With a University involvement spanning six decades and four generations of his family, Max Wessler ’52 refers to what he calls “the Bradley heart.”

“The institution is impersonal, a bunch of buildings occupying a chunk of land in Peoria,” noted the professor emeritus of mechanical engineering. “But for many who have spent time here as a student or faculty or staff member, the brick and mortar and the grounds take on a personality and spirit that lives within. ... It’s the people ... who care, including students, trustees, custodians, faculty and administration and the aura of Lydia Moss Bradley and the school’s founding. It is something we have the privilege of sharing.”

Origins of a Legacy

Max Wessler ’52 and Ardith Mehrings Wessler ’52 stand next to Constance Hall, located across from where Ardith’s childhood home stood. More than 60 years ago, they didn’t expect to create a legacy that included children, grandchildren and other family members.

Photo by Duane Zehr.

Max was introduced to that spirit early in life through his mother, Wanda Proudfit Wessler, who attended Bradley’s Conservatory of Music around 1920. “Bradley was high in my consciousness because of my mom,” he explained. “She talked about it a lot.”

Max also acknowledged the school’s then-new Air Force ROTC unit influenced him to enroll as he contemplated the draft after high school. “If I was going into the service, it would be preferable to go in as an officer,” he commented. 

While Max arrived on campus after graduating from a small high school in Arenzville, Illinois, his wife, Ardith Mehrings Wessler ’52, was introduced to the University much earlier. When she was born in 1930, her family’s home was where the bookstore now stands across from the entrance to Constance Hall. The cornerstone was laid the same year she was born. “I like to say I was born at Bradley,” she said. “Going there was a given. My father would say, ‘Why would you want to go anywhere else?’”

Max was a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon, and Ardith was a Chi Omega. Their first meeting was at an exchange at the Sig Ep house which ended with them watching a lunar eclipse from the front lawn. Later, members of both groups serenaded them at the Chi-O house after they were pinned. From that beginning sprang a legacy that saw their three children and four of their nine grandchildren walk in their footsteps on the Hilltop. 

“I didn’t feel confident around the girls in the big school in the big city, but then I met this Chi Omega,” Max remarked, adding his high school had a total of 96 students when he graduated. “She was the best thing that happened to me at Bradley.” 

Their time as students gave the Wesslers a close-up view of an energizing era in Bradley’s history. They watched the groundbreaking for a new library and the construction of Robertson Memorial Field House.

Welcome Return

After earning his master’s degree at the University of Southern California and serving in the Air Force, Max returned to his alma mater in 1956 to teach mechanical engineering at the request of Russell Gibbs, founding dean of the College of Engineering. He would go on to earn his doctorate at Purdue University. 

The Wesslers, with young son Kirk Wessler ’77 in tow, moved into a house on Glenwood Avenue behind Bradley Hall. From the sunroom at the front of that house, they watched the Bradley Hall fire on January 12, 1963. 

The blaze, which gutted the historic campus structure, started in the rear of the building across the street from the Wessler home. Max remembers hearing the initial reports from the announcers covering the Bradley basketball game at Wichita State University. “The next morning, we took the car out and drove over several inches of ice to church,” he recalled. “There were still fire trucks and people around.” 

The Bradley heart was evident in the aftermath of the fire, Max said. “There was a scramble to find space on and off campus for classes, and professors were squeezed into one- and two-person offices in our building and across campus during the rebuilding process. I don’t think anyone complained. We were family.”

Ardith recalled the close-knit nature of the Bradley community, with many faculty living near campus. Among the people she and Max cited as friends, co-workers and neighbors who exemplified the Bradley “heart” were well-known campus figures, including Charles Orsborn ’39 MS ’51, Ruth Jass ’48 MS ’61, Ken Goldin ’64 MA ’72 and the late Orville Nothdurft ’35 and Dr. Martin Abegg ’47 HON ’93. “We were immersed in the Bradley community,” she said. “Happily so.” 

The University bought the Glenwood house and razed it to build Morgan Hall in 1967. The Wesslers, in turn, moved to 923 N. Maplewood across from the Field House. Fans of Bradley basketball since their student days, the Wesslers enjoyed the proximity to the center of the University’s sports universe. “Robertson Memorial Field House played a very significant part in our lives and the lives of our kids,” Max said. “We could wait until we heard ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and then head over to the game.” 

Forty years later, the Maplewood house was sold to the University and became part of the site of the Main Street parking deck.

Family Connections 

Max’s brother, Robert Wessler ’61, retired after a career as a music professor in the University of Wisconsin system. Ardith’s brother, Willis Mehrings, attended Bradley. The family legacy also includes son Peter Wessler ’80 and daughter Tammy Wessler Eggebrecht ’83. With excellent high school records, Max and Ardith’s children could have attended other schools, but after visiting campuses away from home, a variety of factors — the welcoming nature of the faculty, familiarity with the institution or the strength of their majors — drew all three to continue the tradition. 

Just as his parents met on the Hilltop, Kirk met his wife, MaryFran Pattara Wessler ’78, while both were students. Now, three of their five sons, including Luke Wessler ’05, have attended Bradley, as have three daughters-in-law. Peter, who spent 15 years as an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Music, and his wife, Carol, a longtime employee in the College of Education and Health Sciences, contributed son Daniel Wessler ’08 to the legacy, along with a daughter-in-law.

Ardith said, “Hopefully, some of the great-grandchildren can come to Bradley.” 

Since University connections encompass generations, Bradley comes up often in family conversations. “Everyone has an appreciation for and is interested in Bradley,” Max noted.

With a 41-year teaching career at the University plus work with a number of campus organizations, such as his 25 years as one of several faculty advisers to the school’s chapter of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, Max often sees students from decades past. “We meet them all over and in the most unlikely places,” he said. “Usually, I can look at them and recall them. Often, I can remember something about them. They are my family.” 

Through the years, the Bradley heart has been a valuable constant for the Wesslers, and they see that continuing. “The physical change to the school is tremendous,” Max remarked. “Obviously, we have been blessed with people who cared. We’re proud of Bradley; it’s an outstanding institution.”

— Bob Grimson ’81