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About Founders Day

Founders Day commemorates the university’s founding in 1853. It was the action of state senator Wayman Crow, who secured the charter establishing the university, and the educational vision of William Greenleaf Eliot that brought the new school into being. Its purpose: to educate the youth of St. Louis. On February 22, 1853—George Washington’s birthday—Missouri Governor Sterling Price signed Crow’s charter into law, establishing Eliot Seminary.

Because Eliot did not believe the new school should be named for him, the Board of Directors renamed it Washington Institute in 1854, since the charter was signed on Washington’s birthday. The name changed again to Washington University in 1857, and the amended charter was signed into law on February 12.


The university began celebrating Founders Day as part of the 100th Anniversary of Washington University in 1953 with keynote speaker, Charles Malik, Minister of Lebanon.  By the early 1960s, the annual event had grown to an entire week of activities that included basketball games, an Assembly Series lecture, and a Saturday evening dinner that honored distinguished alumni and faculty and featured a nationally prominent speaker. Speakers from this era of Founders Day celebrations included Art Buchwald, David Brinkley, and Pearl Bailey.

In 1977, the University elected to move the celebration to the fall. That year, Tom Brokaw, a young journalist and host of NBC’s Today show, was the keynote speaker. Washington University conferred an honorary degree on Brokaw at the event.

Now a retired anchor of NBC Nightly News and a best-selling author, Brokaw returned in 2002 to serve as the Founders Day keynote speaker. Other presenters from recent years have included David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Robert Gates.

Founders Day has always served as an important occasion to reflect upon the university’s progress, as well as its history. In honoring distinguished alumni, outstanding faculty and its most treasured friends, Washington University recognizes the many people who have contributed to the university’s past success and its bright future.

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