A view into the lives of Northern Arizona University’s former presidents since its establishment as the Northern Arizona Normal School in 1899.
Rita Hartung Cheng
Rita Hartung Cheng became the 16th president of NAU in 2014. Under her leadership, NAU pursued an aggressive agenda to thrive in the fast-changing environment of higher education—resulting in increases in first generation and underrepresented student enrollment and significant improvements in student retention and graduation rates. She focused on growing and enhancing diverse, market-driven programs and prioritized the institution’s financial sustainability. During her tenure, NAU received designation as a Hispanic-serving institution, attained a rank in the top one percent of all four-year public universities with the highest Native American enrollment, and created the institution’s first Diversity Strategic Plan. She amplified the university’s strengths and more than doubled research expenditures from $32 million in FY14 to $65 million in FY20, placing NAU in the top 200 of research universities—the highest-ever ranking. Dr. Cheng created opportunities through state-of-the-art educational, performance, and sporting facilities, including the Honors Residential College, the Science and Health building, the Wall Aquatic Center, the Kitt Recital Hall, the expanded and remodeled IMQ space in the University Union, and the Student Athlete High Performance Center.
She advocated for the expansion of international programs and partnerships, moving NAU’s long-term study abroad program to the seventh in the nation. Alumni and donor engagement saw extensive expansion during her presidency, raising more than $20.7 million in FY 20—the strongest Foundation fundraising year in history. Under her leadership, NAU successfully navigated the COVID-19 global pandemic prioritizing health and safety and ensuring the progress and success of NAU students.
John Haeger was elected president of NAU in 2001. He focused his presidency on rebranding NAU, resulting in NAU’s undergraduate enrollment rising 40 percent during his 13-year tenure. His efforts drove increases in out-of-state student enrollment and growth in partnerships with community colleges, fostering seamless transitions for students into NAU degree programs. He also implemented “the pledge,” a commitment to lock the tuition rate for four years for entering first-year students. His efforts led to increased diversity of undergraduate and graduate students. Among his other accomplishments are the construction of the High Country Conference Center, the expansion of the university’s nursing and health programs, the opening of the Native American Cultural Center, and the creation of NAU–Yavapai.
Owen Cargol was appointed president by the Arizona Board of Regents in August 2001. During his tenure, he worked to increase communication, created advisory groups to discuss campus issues, and addressed student fears after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Cargol resigned as president in November 2001.
Dr. Clara Lovett was named president of Northern Arizona University in 1993, becoming the first woman to hold the top post at one of the three Arizona state universities. During her time at NAU, she improved campus communication through a university-wide dialogue under the Pew Higher Education Roundtable. With input from faculty and staff, she revamped the institution’s mission statement and goals and generated support from the Arizona Legislature.
A native of Nebraska, Eugene Morgan Hughes joined NAU in 1970 as dean of arts and sciences. He became the academic vice president in 1977 and president in 1979. As president, Hughes focused on campus development efforts, enhanced health professions programs, and restructured the administration.
J. Lawrence Walkup
John Lawrence Walkup became acting president in 1957 after President Lacey Eastburn became ill. He was appointed president two months after Eastburn’s death. Walkup handled the furor over a bill proposed by Senator Robert Prochnow to establish a school of forestry in Flagstaff. The bill passed in 1958. Due to soaring enrollment in the early 1960s, Walkup initiated an extensive building program. The Arizona Board of Regents recommended that Arizona State College (ASC) become Northern Arizona University in 1966. A new indoor football stadium was named the Walkup Skydome upon Walkup’s retirement in 1979. Dr. Walkup remained an active member of the Flagstaff Community until his death in 2002.
Lacey Arnold Eastburn was named president of Arizona State College in Flagstaff in 1947. Eastburn initiated many major building projects, some of which were still in progress when he took a leave of absence for health reasons in September 1957. Dean J. Lawrence Walkup stepped in as interim after Eastburn took a health leave. He died in October of 1957 in Cottonwood.
Tom Bellwood joined NAU as dean of the Arizona State Teachers College (ASTC) under President Grady Gammage. In 1943, Bellwood became acting president and was appointed president after Tormey’s resignation in 1944. Bellwood established programs for veterans after the war, which resulted in enrollment increases. ASTC was renamed Arizona State College in 1945. In 1947, the College was authorized to grant bachelor’s degrees in subjects other than education. Bellwood resigned from the presidency that year for health reasons and resumed his duties as dean. He taught full-time from 1955 until his retirement in 1963. President Bellwood died in 1971.
Tormey became the 8th president of Arizona State Teacher’s College in 1932. Despite the economic challenges associated with the Great Depression, Tormey established community night classes to generate income and secured federal grants from the Public Works Administration to improve and expand facilities. In 1938, ASTC presented its first master’s degree in education. The first forestry courses were offered in 1939, a step toward the founding of a school of forestry. In the fall of 1940, students enlisted in droves for service as part of World War II. In June of 1944, Tormey resigned as president, and Dean Tom Bellwood was appointed president.
Grady Gammage was born in southwestern Arkansas in 1892. In 1925, Gammage joined the staff of the Northern Arizona State Teachers College as vice-president. He became president the following year. In 1928, the school received official recognition as a Class A four-year teacher training institution and a new name, Arizona State Teacher’s College at Flagstaff. During the Great Depression, Gammage made it possible for students to pay their expenses through barter, with dairy cows and potatoes underwriting room and board. Gammage became president of Arizona State University in 1933, a post he held until his death in December 1959.
A native of Indiana, Fassett Allen Cotton assumed leadership of the Northern Arizona Normal School (NANS) in 1925. During his tenure as president, Cotton established a two-year junior college course for non-education majors. In honor of NANS’s twenty-fifth anniversary, Cotton scheduled the first homecoming festivities. In 1925, the school celebrated its new status as Northern Arizona State Teachers College, a four-year institution with the power to grant the Bachelor of Education degree. Cotton left NAU in 1926. In 1936, he became the field representative for the Central Normal College at Danville, Indiana. He died in 1941.
In 1920, Lynn Banks McMullen left his position as head of the teacher training school at Colorado State Teachers College to become the fifth president of Northern Arizona Normal School. An energetic president, he encouraged the establishment of a student council, an orchestra, a chorus, and a glee club and revived the track team. In 1924, the Normal School in Tempe and the University of Arizona initiated a proposal to close NANS. Convinced that there was no future for the school, McMullen resigned in 1925. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1927 and served as the founding president of Eastern Montana College. He retired with his wife to a Montana cherry farm in 1945, where he lived until his death in 1963.
John Oscar Creager accepted an appointment as President of the Northern Arizona Normal School (NANS) for the 1919-1920 academic year. Creager, who restored order and confidence to the campus after Dr. Blome’s departure, resigned after one year because the altitude had affected his son’s health. He moved to Tucson and joined the faculty of the University of Arizona as Director of the School of Education. Dr. Creager died a few months after retiring from New York University in 1943.
Guy Edward Cornelius taught algebra and plane geometry in the Winslow school district as early as 1912 and later became district principal, then superintendent. In 1917, he was elected Vice President of the National Education Association and served as a wartime food administrator for Navajo County. The following year, he was named to the Arizona State Board of Education by Governor George W. Hunt before his appointment to the presidency of Northern Arizona Normal School (NANS). At the start of the fall 1918 term, the deadly Spanish Influenza swept through the school, and classes were canceled. During this hiatus, Cornelius received a commission as a lieutenant in the United States Sanitary Corps. He left Flagstaff for training in San Francisco. In 1918, Cornelius returned to NANS but resigned from the presidency at the end of the academic year.
In 1909, Rudolph Harin Heinrich Blome was named president of Northern Arizona Normal School. Under Blome’s leadership, a multitude of academic and recreational student activities were developed, including interscholastic sports. The number of students rose from 68 to more than three hundred. Blome expanded the facilities to accommodate the growth. Blome left his post in 1918, later becoming principal of Bisbee High School, and in 1919 became director of vocational education for Arizona. In 1921, Blome moved to Pasadena, California, where he died in 1923.
A. N. Taylor
Almon Nicholas Taylor was born in New York in 1855. From 1884 to 1889, he served as principal and superintendent of progressively larger high schools and attained an excellent reputation as an administrator and instructor. The Arizona Normal School Board invited him to apply for the position of teacher/principal at the new Northern Arizona Normal School (NANS) in Flagstaff. He became one of two faculty members in that first academic year (1899) and presented diplomas to the first four graduates in June of 1901. Taylor established a teacher training program and a modest library at NANS, and the institution acquired national recognition. He retired from NANS in 1909 and died in 1936.