Conwell’s ‘acres’ of success

From its humble beginnings as a night school, Temple has become a first-class school.

To be in the first law class of Temple Owls cost $12 a year, a steal compared to today’s cost, which is more than 1,000 times that.

Temple got its start around the same time the Oxford English Dictionary was first published.

The year was 1884, and Dr. Russell Conwell, a prominent Philadelphia lawyer, Civil War captain, writer and pastor, had a vision.

The first Owls were a group of seven men who desired to become part of a Christian ministry and joined Conwell in his personal study for tutoring during the evening hours.

Soon after, the classroom moved from Conwell’s study to a tri-story row house at 1911 N. Marvine St.

It wasn’t until 1887 that Conwell was named the first president of Temple.

Legend has it, the Owl, a nocturnal creature, was adopted as the official school mascot by Conwell because of Temple’s origin as a night school.

Conwell encouraged his pupils to flourish, as he often said, “the owl of the night makes the eagle of the day.”

Temple College grew quickly. Enrollment jumped from seven men to 40 in 1885 and by 1888 grew to nearly 600. The first women came in the spring of 1888, along with the school’s charter.

By 1892, Temple’s first graduating class consisted of 12 men and four women, all of whom earned bachelor’s of oratory degrees. Students in early classes covered topics such as math, languages, logic and rhetoric.

Until 1894, Temple had no structures. That year the school underwent its first construction project, College Hall, which now is Barrack Hall.

At that time, the college was developing its football and basketball programs, which made Temple one of the first institutions to support extracurricular activities.

According to a 1896 promotional publication, Temple boasted 3,115 students, 13 official departments and 57 faculty members at the time.

By the turn of the century, Temple created its law school, and shortly thereafter, its College of Liberal Arts, School of Medicine and School of Dentistry were established.

In 1907, Temple College became Temple University. By 1911, the first state-appropriated funds came to Temple, amounting to $10,000.

Up until this time, Conwell funded the school from the earnings he made presenting his famous “Acres of Diamonds” speech.

After the death of his wife, Conwell was never the same. He died in 1925, after 38 years as president, making way for the university’s second president, Charles Ezra Beury.

It was estimated that at the time of his passing, Conwell was responsible for more than 100,000 students pursuing higher education.

Conwell and his wife lie at rest in the Founder’s Garden.

Throughout the 1950s, Conwell’s dream lived on as more than 20,000 students became Owls. Temple’s enrollment has grown to more than 37,000 students at nine campuses worldwide.

Throughout Temple’s 125 years, it has made its mark in the history books and in the Philadelphia area.

Temple holds plenty of the nation’s firsts. It was Temple professors who introduced the first spinal anesthesia in the United States and established the first clinic for psychosomatic medicine. In sports, the football team played in the first Sugar Bowl in 1935, only to lose to Tulane, 20-14.

Main Campus also served as a public platform for famous speeches in the 1960s. President John F. Kennedy spoke on Liacouras Walk, which was then Park Mall, and Martin Luther King Jr. at the Baptist Temple.

Today, one of every eight college graduates in the greater Philadelphia area has a Temple degree, helping the university earn the spot as the city’s third-largest private employer.

The Cherry and White family continues to grow into an expansive network because of one man’s dream to educate a few.

Matthew D. Wargo can be reached at

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