NKU’s Founding President Dies at age 85


“Dr. Frank Steely was the ‘human cornerstone’ of NKU

News from NKU…

Monday – Nov. 29, 2010
For immediate release…

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. – Northern Kentucky University’s founding president, Dr. W. Frank Steely, passed away this morning. Dr. Steely was president from December 1969 to September 1975 and served on the NKU history faculty until his retirement in July of 2001. He was 85 years old.

During his presidency, which started on Dec. 11, 1969, and included the groundbreaking of the Highland Heights campus on March 31, 1971, Steely oversaw one of the greatest building booms in the University’s history. By the end of his presidency on Sept. 15, 1975, 12 construction projects, including everything from parking lots to athletic fields to academic buildings, were either being built or already completed.

“Dr. Steely was the human cornerstone of this university,” said Dr. James C. Votruba, NKU president. “He was a tireless and tenacious founding president. Frank Steely was given the Herculean task of building a university from the ground up – and he succeeded.”

A native Kentuckian, Steely was dean of Clinch Valley College at the University of Virginia when the Board of Regents recommended he be named inaugural president of Northern Kentucky State College. A year-and-a-half earlier, Gov. Louie B. Nunn had signed a bill that established a four-university in Northern Kentucky. NKSC would become Northern Kentucky University on June 19, 1976.

Ken Lucas, who serves on the NKU Foundation and is a founding member of the Board of Regents, said the challenges of starting the new school were immense: “We had no staff…no students…no budget…and no buildings. We literally started from scratch.”

Academic departments were initially put up in houses and barns. The photography studio was located in a farmhouse cellar and the music practice room was held in a renovated dog kennel. Steely once recalled of the early days, “Never before did so many do so much with so little.”

It wasn’t a job for the faint hearted. There were countless obstacles to overcome, struggles to be negotiated, naysayers to convince and, not least of all, funds to secure. Though a school on paper only, hardhats would become as common as backpacks during the Steely era. One newspaper even joked that more earth was being moved at NKSC than during the building of the Hoover Dam.

Community and campus leaders, not to mention state legislators, learned early of Steely’s tenacity. Named president in December 1969, Steely was still working for the University of Virginia in January 1970, when the Kentucky state legislature was to approve NKSC’s budget. Knowing how critical his presence would be for the budget debates, Steely rented a Jeep and drove non-stop through snow-covered mountains from his Virginia home to Frankfort to argue on behalf of the university.

Steely was right about the need to be there. By the time he arrived, legislators were reportedly already cutting the school’s budget. With hundreds of Northern Kentucky residents there in support, Steely and Charles Wiley, chairman of the NKSC Board of Regents, argued for the college’s budget. They were able to save most of it.

By the time Steely had returned to the faculty, the campus was flourishing with six buildings, 6,000 students and 150 faculty. And it was well on its way to becoming the major metropolitan university it is today.

Also during the Steely era, and as important as the arrival of earthmovers and cement mixers, was the formation of the NKSC Research and Development Foundation in the fall of 1970. Later renamed the NKU Foundation, it signified a new and long-term level of financial support. The foundation today is a major source of support to the university, through various scholarships, grants and awards.

Other milestones during Steely’s tenure included the merger of NKSC and Salmon P. Chase College of Law in June of 1972; the move by NKSC to the Highland Heights campus and Chase to the Covington campus; the first commencement at NKSC in May 1973; and the college’s conditional accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which led to full accreditation in December 1978.

Jack Grosse, dean of Chase College of Law from 1970-78 and 1992-93, said of Steely’s leadership: “It was pure divine providence that Frank Steely was the university�s first president. He truly was the right person for the right job at the right time.”

Today, NKU has nearly 16,000 students, and 2,000 faculty and staff. It has produced about 50,000 alumni and it remains one of fastest growing universities in Kentucky.

“Frank Steely’s greatest early achievement may have been his knack for hiring staff, faculty and administrators who believed in the future of the university,” Votruba said. “Much of what our campus is today and will be tomorrow can be traced to the work of these very special men and women.”

Steely “took on many a legislator and politician because he believed in this university and community,” Lucas recalled. “He was a ‘take no prisoner’ kind of guy wherever he was – on campus, out in the community or in Frankfort. He fought and fought for this university.”

Visitation will be held from 3-7 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 2, at First Baptist Church in Cold Spring. Service will follow the visitation. Graveside service will be at 2 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 3, at Hazel Cemetery in Hazel, Ky.

Gifts are requested to be made to the NKU Foundation in support of NKU initiatives named in honor of Dr. Steely.

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