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ETSU’s journey evolved from Normal to extraordinary

October 8th, 2011 10:21 pm by Rex Barber

One hundred years ago, a small normal school was founded in Johnson City.
A normal school was an institution to prepare teachers. And the one here, named East Tennessee State Normal School, was established to better train those who taught in the one-room schools of rural Appalachia. Twenty-nine students began the two-year program of instruction Oct. 2, 1911.
Today that school has grown into East Tennessee State University. There are more than 15,000 students attending bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral level courses in 11 colleges and schools. More than 80,000 people have graduated from ETSU in the past 100 years, many of whom live or lived in and around Northeast Tennessee, though alumni are scattered throughout the country.
The university will honor its centennial in a ceremony Monday morning, 100 years to the day since its dedication ceremony. According to a historic marker in Johnson City’s Oak Hill Cemetery, the first time the current Tennessee state flag was raised was during that ceremony.
The normal grew steadily during the first 15 years, becoming a teachers college in 1925. The school name was changed again to State Teachers College, Johnson City, only five years later in 1930. During the middle of World War II, in 1943, the school became East Tennessee State College. The initials ETSC can still be seen on a smokestack at the school coal plant. Finally, in 1963, ETSU was given its current name.
Through all those name changes there were classes passed, classes failed, lectures heard, papers written, books checked out from the library, scholarly papers downloaded from the library, studies done, dormitories built, dormitories demolished, programs added and relationships begun.
The story of the small institution of 1911 that grew into the university of today is too large to tell in a single newspaper article.
But that story –– how ETSU was established through legislation, how it got to be in southwest Johnson City thanks to the generosity of a visionary entreprenuer named George L. Carter, the divisive and energizing fight to get a medical school that had an impact on state politics, the tremendous task of the first president Sidney Gilbreath to find and recruit faculty and students and develop a curriculum, where all the popular student hang-outs over the decades were and are, the millions of dollars funneled to the school for important research, the discovery of ancient fossils in Gray and the subsequent establishment of one of the largest paelontology programs in the nation and many, many more tales –– is contained within the pages of a commemorative special edition marking ETSU’s centennial included in today’s newspaper.
Visit for an accompanying three-part video documentary about ETSU.

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