Founding of Bradley

What had once been a large stretch of prairie-land became a seat of higher learning because of the remarkable courage, strength and determination of one woman - Lydia Moss Bradley.

After all her hopes, ambitions and dreams for her six children ended in their untimely deaths, Mrs. Bradley and her husband, Tobias, discussed how they might use their wealth as a fitting memorial to their children. Their first idea was to establish an orphanage.

Sadly, Tobias died in May 1867 before the couple could realize their dream. Alone, Mrs. Bradley devoted herself unreservedly to achieving their goal. After traveling to various institutions, she decided instead of an orphanage to found a school where young people could learn how to do practical things to prepare them for living in the modern world. In 1892, Mrs. Bradley purchased a controlling interest in Parsons Horological School in LaPorte, Ind., the first school for watchmakers in America, and moved it to Peoria. She specified in her will that the school should expand after her death to include a classical education as well as industrial arts and home economics: “…it being the first object of this Institution to furnish its students with the means of living an independent, industrious and useful life by the aid of a practical knowledge of the useful arts and sciences.”

Four years later, Dr. William Rainey Harper, president of the University of Chicago, convinced Mrs. Bradley to move ahead with her plans and establish the school during her lifetime. Bradley Polytechnic Institute received its charter Nov. 13, 1896, at which time Mrs. Bradley provided 17 1/2 acres of land, funds for two campus buildings, laboratory equipment, library books and annual operating expenses.

Construction moved quickly on Bradley Hall and Horology Hall (later renamed Westlake). Fourteen faculty and 150 students began classes Oct. 4, 1897 — with 500 workers still hammering away. (The Horological Department added another eight faculty and 70 students.) The formal dedication of Bradley Polytechnic Institute was Oct. 8, 1897. Less than a year later, the institute graduated its first student, Corinne Unland.

By 1899, there were 350 pupils in the School of Arts and Sciences at Bradley, almost equally divided between men and women. Classes included biology, chemistry, food work, sewing, English, German, French, Latin, Greek, history, manual arts, drawing, mathematics and physics. Pleased with its progress, Mrs. Bradley transferred the rest of her estate to the school, including nearly 1,000 different pieces of property, while reserving their use and profits during her lifetime. At Founder’s Day in 1906, she announced an additional gift to build Hewitt Gymnasium, now Hartmann Center for the Performing Arts. 

Mrs. Bradley died Jan. 16, 1908, at the age of 91. Her original vision continued to grow to meet the educational needs of the region. Bradley became a four-year college offering bachelor’s degrees in 1920 and a full university offering graduate programs in 1946, when it was renamed Bradley University.

Today, Bradley alumni total more than 70,000 worldwide. Prominent alumni include:

  • Ray LaHood ’71, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation, senior policy advisor for DLA Piper
  • General John Shalikashvili ’58*, retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
  • Congressman Robert H. Michel ’48*, retired congressman and longest-serving Republican leader of the U.S. House of Representatives
  • Lillian Glass ’74, noted speech pathologist and speech communication author and speaker
  • René C. Byer ’80, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, senior photographer for the Sacramento Bee
  • David Horowitz ’59, consumer advocate
  • Tana Utley ' 86, vice president of large power systems, Caterpillar Inc.
  • Kary Mcllwain ’81, chief marketing officer, Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago
  • Calvin Butler '91, chief executive officer, Baltimore Gas & Electric
  • Tami Lane ’96, Academy Award-winning prosthetic make-up artist
  • The Honorable Joe Billy McDade, ’59, ’60, United States District Court Federal Judge
  • Richard Teerlink ’61, retired chairman of Harley-Davidson, Inc.
  • James Weinstein '72, president and CEO of Dartmouth Hitchcock Hospital
     
    * deceased