For John Finney, compiling his alma mater’s family photo album has been a labor of love.
For more than a century, the University of Puget Sound has been collecting photographs, film negatives — even some antique glass negatives.
More than five years ago, the 1967 graduate and retired associate dean began the daunting task of sorting through the images and trying to identify the people in them, whose stories would help tell the story of the Tacoma private liberal arts college.
This year, as UPS celebrates its 125th anniversary, Finney has teamed with George Mills, a 1968 graduate and vice president at the university, to recount the university’s history. They will offer an illustrated presentation on that subject March 11.
Finney volunteered to research the university photo collection, digitize the images and make them available online. The results can be viewed on the university’s website, under a section titled “A Sound Past.”
Finney’s quest began with boxes of images — thousands of them. He’d look at a photo, decide its interest level, then pursue the answers to a series of questions: Who are these people? Why was this picture taken?
He approached the job with a detective’s instinct for solving mysteries.
“Each image — it’s a puzzle,” he said. “Figuring it out is a lot of fun.”
Following the clues led Finney on a scavenger hunt across campus as he enlisted the help of staff members at the university’s Collins Memorial Library. He paged through old yearbooks and student newspapers. He tapped into his own 30-year history with the university, and he called on other longtime members of the academic community like Mills.
“Occasionally, we’d have an exchange,” Mills said. “He’d ask me, ‘Do you know who these people (in this photograph) are?’ And in some cases, I did.”
Mills also had an interest in the university’s history. His doctoral dissertation was on how institutions founded by churches can gradually transform into secular organizations.
UPS is just one example.
Pioneer members of the Methodist Episcopal Church founded the university in Tacoma, signing the articles of incorporation on March 17, 1888. One of the founders’ goals was to educate Methodist clergymen, some of whom were itinerant preachers without formal education, traveling by horseback throughout the Northwest.
For many years, Methodist ministers served as presidents of the university. It was not until 1980 that the legal relationship was formally changed, with the university gaining independence from the church but maintaining its historical affiliation.
Mills sees modern-day ties to the university’s Methodist history in the campus community’s commitment to social justice and acceptance. Those values, he said, are “easily tied to our Methodist roots.”
From the beginning, the fledgling institution suffered from an identity crisis, as well as financial challenges. It changed names several times over the years.
At its founding, the institution was called Puget Sound University. In 1903, it became the University of Puget Sound. Then in 1914 it was rechristened the College of Puget Sound. That name stuck until 1960, when it acquired its current name.
While the university is known locally by its initials — UPS — a recent campaign has emerged to change the nomenclature.
“Eighty percent of our students come from outside Washington state,” Mills said. Talking to potential students outside the region about UPS often generates quizzical looks.
“To be in Denver, and to talk about UPS, is to talk about people dressed in brown carrying large packages,” Mills said.
To differentiate itself from United Parcel Service, the Tacoma institution now calls itself simply “Puget Sound” on second reference.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Paralleling the name changes, the university also changed locations over the years. From downtown Tacoma, it moved to a series of new homes, including a site at Sixth and Sprague avenues, where Jason Lee Middle School later was built.
It spent a semester rooming with another struggling Methodist college in Portland before returning to Tacoma. At one point, classes were held at a Tacoma skating rink.
The first graduating class, in 1893, consisted of four students. The same year, an economic crisis struck the nation and the university felt its impact.
In its continuing quest for a permanent home, the university obtained land outside the city of Tacoma. Trustees created the University Land Co. in 1894 to sell residential lots that would surround a new campus. But the venture failed, thanks in part to the economic depression. The university never materialized, but the community still became known as University Place.
In 1923, ground was broken for the first building on what was to become the university’s permanent home at 1500 N. Warner St. in Tacoma.
“The citizens of the North End have adopted it as their place,” Mills said.
Generations of Tacoma kids have learned to ride their bikes on the park-like campus, learned to swim in its pool or learned to play an instrument through its community music program. Neighbors walk their dogs on campus and jog on its running track.
Campus events — everything from the recent appearance by Bill Cosby to student performances of music and drama — are open to the community.
Before the construction of the Tacoma Dome or the downtown convention center, the university’s field house often was the staging point for large events in Tacoma.
The relationship between the campus and community has sometimes grown contentious over the years, generating protests over issues such as the transfer of its law school to Seattle University, or the construction of a building that required the demolition of old campus landmarks.
The university continues to evolve, now focused on its mission as a liberal arts undergraduate institution. And it continues to inspire fierce loyalty among those whose lives it has touched.
Said Finney: “The University of Puget Sound is my home, my spiritual home. I will never leave.”
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635
IF YOU GO
What: An illustrated history of the University of Puget Sound
Who: George Mills and John Finney
When: 4 p.m. March 11
Where: On campus, Trimble Hall, Forum meeting room
TO LEARN MORE
An online collection of photos that tell the story of the University of Puget Sound is available through “A Sound Past,” part of the university’s online archive at bit.ly/11ZYEcm.