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The First Commencement: Two Graduates in 1884

Although Coe College experienced a small downturn in enrollment in its third year, the total number of students was still above 200, guaranteeing a steady income for the college.  The good news concerning enrollment figures was complemented by the fact that two seniors, E. Belle Stewart and Stephen W. Stookey, were ready to graduate from Coe College.

Ms. Stewart was one of the three sophomores present when the college commenced operation in September of 1881.  The other two sophomores from that class were replaced by Mr. Stookey, who had been a student at Cornell before spending the 1881-82 academic year in charge of a grammar school in Illinois.

The commencement week activities began on Sunday, June 8, 1884 with a baccalaureate sermon by President Phelps at the Second Presbyterian Church.  His remarks--based on I Corinthians 13:9:  "We know in part"--expressed gratitude "for minds with which to know. . . that truth is knowable . . . that we are continually in close contact with truths that can be known . . . that knowledge can be communicated . . . and for the influence of the Christian religion on the human intellect."  He called upon both graduates to serve the world as good and faithful Christians.

After a reception at the college on Wednesday evening, the culmination of the week was the commencement exercise in the Opera House on Thursday evening, June 12. According to a reporter for the Daily Republican, "From parquet to pit the ladies and gentlemen in evening dress filled the house and made this audience a particularly attractive one.  The faculty, board of trustees, and the graduates occupied seats upon the stage, which was appropriately set for the occasion."  The evening's program included a performance by Fannie Sheffer, who would receive a graduation certificate for completion of her musical studies.  She performed piano compositions by Liszt, Schumann, and Beethoven.

Both Stookey and Stewart were called upon to address the Opera House audience. Stookey spoke on the tensions between conservatism and radicalism. In his address, Stookey offered a "glowing tribute" to James G. Blaine, the Republican candidate for the Presidency and a close friend of Iowa's Senator William Allison from Dubuque, who happened to be a member of Coe's Board of Trustees. The Blaine endorsement, "which gave his discourse that interest that always comes with the just expression of fresh and original thought."  Stewart's topic was "The Ideal in Literature," a speech earning an enthusiastic applause from the audience. The Daily Republican praised Stookey's voice and deliver commendations. 

Following these speeches, degrees were conferred on Stookey and Stewart, and Coe's first honorary LL.D. degree was given to Woolsey Welles [who was Welles?]. Coe College now had its first alumni, two alums who would soon return to Coe to fulfill important academic positions. Following her graduation, Stewart taught in the Preparatory Department for ten years (including her service as principal from 1886 to 1892) and was the college librarian for a year. Her brother, Robert Stewart, who graduated from Coe in 1888, donated the money used for the construction of Stewart Memorial Library.  Stookey would return to Coe as a faculty member and the college’s second Dean; in 1904-05 he served as interim president of the institution after the resignation of President McCormick.

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