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Honoring Alumni Loyalty

The Northwestern Alumni Association and past presidents look back at 125 years of alumni commitment.


Northwestern, ’tis of thee
Dear University,
Of thee we sing.

In the early years of Northwestern’s alumni association, graduates paid tribute to their alma mater at an annual candle-lighting ceremony, where this song, adapted from a poem written by College of Liberal Arts alumnus William Bernard Norton (WCAS1880), was sung, as it was at gatherings on campus and in cities around the country.

This year the Northwestern Alumni Association salutes alumni loyalty, tradition and the roots of the NAA that go back 125 years.

Northwestern’s first alumni organization, the College of Liberal Arts Alumni Association, was formed in 1881, the same year as the University’s first Alumni Day. Traditionally held the day before Commencement, Alumni Day featured a lively parade on Sheridan Road and an alumni banquet. Northwestern held its first alumni reunion in 1884.

By 1921 a general alumni association, now known as the Northwestern Alumni Association, was formed for graduates of all Northwestern schools.

“Your Alumni Association of Northwestern University is a sustained and practical means of expressing the loyalty we all share, of harnessing it in a big way, of making it articulate and effective, and we want every son and daughter of Northwestern to have a membership in it,” wrote first NAA president Rev. George Craig Stewart (WCAS1902).

More than 1,100 alumni signed up in the first year, and for $3 in annual dues, members received a subscription to the Northwestern University Alumni News, published nine times per year.

In 1954 the NAA eliminated the annual dues requirement, and the following year the NAA office moved to the John Evans Alumni Center on the corner of Clark Street and Sheridan Road in Evanston.

The next stage in the alumni association’s development took place in 1972. A committee of alumni leaders including Charles Clawson (SESP42), NAA president from 1974 to 1976, and Tom Hayward (WCAS62, L65), NAA president from 1976 to 1980, restructured the NAA leadership and approved the late Ray Willemain (C48), formerly University personnel director, as director of Northwestern’s alumni relations department. His initiatives expanded alumni clubs to cities beyond Chicago, formed alumni organizations for each school, introduced insurance services and created the alumni travel program with Alumni Holidays International.

As alumni increased their activity as advisers to their respective schools and officers in alumni clubs, many rose to leadership positions within the NAA. Louann Hurter Van Zelst (C49, GC51), longtime member of the School of Communication advisory board, became the association’s first female president, serving from 1984 to 1986. “At that time, many alumni identified themselves strictly according to the program or school they attended,” she says. “We tried to create a better awareness of their affiliation with the University as a whole.”

Also during this period, David Kragseth (C81, GC86), then a performance studies major, assisted alumni relations staff and NAA leaders as a work-study student. In 2002 he became NAA president, succeeding Ava Harth Youngblood (McC79), the first African American to serve as NAA president, and set a priority to increase student participation in NAA programs and events.

Under current president Rich Dean (EB69), the NAA now boasts approximately 190,000 members around the world. “While regional and national alumni club activities along with reunions remain the foundations of our programming,” says Dean, “it has been exciting to see how our alumni, from all class years, have embraced new technologies, especially when it has come to mentoring students and staying connected with each other through the NAA web site and our many online program offerings.”

The recent success of the 1998–2003 Campaign Northwestern (co-chaired by Hayward, now vice chair of the University’s Board of Trustees), which raised more than $1.5 billion for the University, is further evidence of the value of alumni support.  “The campaign showed us that alumni are committed to Northwestern’s growth,” says Hayward. “And through the NAA, that momentum is growing, and it’s helping the University achieve new goals for excellence.”

Members of the class of 1912 at Alumni Day 1922
Members of the class of 1912 at Alumni Day 1922 Courtesy of University Archives