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September 13, 2007

UPJ celebrates 80 years

Pitt’s Johnstown campus is gearing up for a whopper of a week to celebrate its 80th anniversary, including the inauguration of Jem Spectar as UPJ’s fifth president.

From a “kick off island party” to a community picnic to the induction of the inaugural class in a new UPJ Athletics Hall of Fame — not to mention a weekend full of homecoming events — the campus will be alive with music, food, entertainment, speakers, photography exhibits, a carnival, a parade, fireworks and sporting events the week of Sept. 23-30.

(For a schedule of events go to and click on “Inauguration Events.”)

Jem Spectar, who began his duties on July 1, will be inducted as campus president on Sept. 28 at 2:30 p.m. in the Pasquerilla Performing Arts Center, with a reception to follow.

The new campus leader will preside over an institution that has come a long way from a humble and sometimes shaky past.

Officially founded in 1927, UPJ actually started a relationship with Pitt before World War I, according to “The Evolution of a College: A Chronicle of the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, 1927-1993.”

The chronicle was written by the late Robert Hunter, who was a member of the UPJ history faculty from 1962 to 1986. It was published in 1994 by the UPJ Office of Institutional Advancement.

According to Hunter’s campus history, the Johnstown School Board approached Pitt prior to WWI about establishing an “extension class site” to accommodate a state law that at that time required teachers to take continuing education courses at local county or city teachers’ institutions.

In 1926 the Johnstown School Board sought a more permanent relationship with Pitt. On Sept. 24, 1927, the Johnstown Junior College of the University of Pittsburgh — UPJ’s first official name — was established in the west wing of Johnstown Senior High School.

UPJ would remain in the high school building until 1946, when the growing number of G.I. Bill students made it necessary to relocate to the Cypress Avenue Elementary School in Johnstown. Known as the “Asphalt Campus,” the Cypress Avenue school would remain the home of UPJ until the current campus opened in 1967.

The campus underwent a desperate struggle to stay afloat when the WWII war effort depleted the Johnstown area’s population. From Dec. 7, 1941, until Aug. 1, 1944, Johnstown’s Bethlehem Steel Co. plant alone sent 4,600 men off to war, Hunter noted.

That posed problems for UPJ because Pitt had stipulated that enrollment never be allowed to fall below 100 full-time students. The drain on the area’s population left UPJ with only 85 full-time students by fall 1943.

UPJ survived thanks to a United States Cadet Nursing Corps unit at Conemaugh Valley Hospital. Cadet nurses were required to take college-level science courses, so UPJ worked out an agreement with Pitt’s School of Nursing to offer the required classes. The program added about 50 students per year to UPJ’s enrollment, thus exceeding the 100-student minimum.

By January 1946, UPJ’s enrollment had grown to 384 full-time students, with another 95 scheduled to enroll for the summer session, according to Hunter.

In the 1960s, then-campus executive (the forerunner position of campus president) Theodore Biddle led the drive to relocate UPJ from downtown Johnstown to its current location in Richland Township, a 635-acre wooded area with, initially, six academic buildings, a library, a student union-physical education complex and five residence halls.

The current campus opened on Sept. 26, 1967, almost 40 years to the day after UPJ first set up operations in Johnstown Senior High School.

The guest of honor at the 1967 dedication ceremony was former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who traveled from his retirement home near Gettysburg to receive an honorary doctor of law degree. Eisenhower recalled how as a boy he had read about the Johnstown Flood of 1889. He told the audience he was happy to see Johnstown “as a thriving city with a great, new university.”

The campus has come a long way in 80 years. UPJ now boasts some 2,700 full-time and 450 part-time students, 70 student organizations, 143 faculty, 210 staff, nearly 40 campus buildings and more than 15,000 alumni. It is the largest employer in Cambria County.

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 40 Issue 2

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