Alumna is an enduring symbol of educational access and inclusion.
Libbie Coy was the first woman to graduate from college in Colorado. She became a pillar on campus and in the community. Photo: Colorado State University Libraries, Archives & Special Collections
By Coleman Cornelius and Mark Luebker
Libbie Coy was one of those preternaturally gifted students – smart, motivated, with her own unique vision for the future – and she began to unfurl those gifts to her community when she started classes at the State Agricultural College of Colorado in 1880 at the tender age of 15.
The college had opened on the outskirts of Fort Collins a year earlier, on Sept. 1, 1879. In the first full year, more than three dozen students flocked to the new college from nearby farming communities to start preparatory classes before moving into more rigorous college studies. Coy, from a leading Fort Collins family, was among them. At 16 years old, this girl of the Great American Desert matriculated into college courses held in a single brick structure known as the Main Building, which rose above the bare ground like a sapling not fully rooted. In that building near College Avenue and Laurel Street, she took algebra, botany, chemistry, physics, literature, logic, philosophy, and French.
In 1883, her junior year, Coy was a featured orator in a public presentation that preceded the college’s first commencement the following spring. Her topic was “Anticipations of the Future.” According to the Fort Collins Courier, she predicted, with a dose of accuracy and a dash of one-upmanship:
“The mysteries of the planets will be dispelled. The material of the sun will no longer be unknown. The miner will be enabled to see with his improved instruments the precious metals within the earth. The passenger coach and Pullman car will be superseded by more improved means of travel. More improved methods of communication will take the place of letter-writing, newspapers, and the telegraph, and woman will be ruler of the world and assert her undisputed power.”
Coy graduated in June 1884 at 19 years old. She was one of three students in the first cohort of graduates from the Agricultural College of Colorado, along with Leonidas “Lon” Loomis and George H. Glover. She was notable not only for being among the first three to earn a Bachelor of Science at the college that would become Colorado State University, but for her status as the first woman to graduate from any institution of higher education in the state. Yes, the first woman to graduate from college in Colorado.
With that singular achievement, Coy stands as an enduring symbol of our land-grant University’s commitment to educational access and inclusion. Coy illustrated another tenet of the land-grant mission – the idea that educating children of the working classes would invigorate entire communities with knowledge, creating ripple effects in innovation and well-being. When she graduated, Coy became the de facto first lady of campus: She was hired as an instructor, was a co-founder of the college alumni association, married a fellow faculty member who served a stint as college president, launched college fundraising campaigns, and was a tireless volunteer in Fort Collins – a lifelong advocate of education.
Coy and her legacy will regain attention during this sesquicentennial year at Colorado State. Already, Loomis Avenue runs into the north side of campus, and the Glover Building, former site of CSU’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital, sits near the Oval; they are reminders of two initial graduates. Now Coy will have a marker: The University will rename East Drive, which runs alongside the Administration Building, as “Libbie Coy Way.” And this Founders Day, on Feb. 11, 2020, the 150th anniversary of the University’s official founding, Coy will posthumously receive the Founders Day Medal for embodying the institution’s values and its work in teaching, research, and service.
When she signed up at the college, Coy was the oldest daughter of a Fort Collins pioneer family. Her father was a civically engaged farmer who belonged to the local Grange, served twice as a county commissioner, and ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1890. Her fellow alumni had somewhat similar backgrounds: Glover was a farm kid from Longmont, Colorado, who later became a veterinarian and a seminal figure in the college veterinary school, now ranked the No. 3 program in the nation. Loomis was the son of an early Fort Collins banker who later became a prosperous area farmer. All three were the first in their families to attend college.
They also were among the first Coloradans to benefit from the Morrill Act of 1862. Signed by President Abraham Lincoln during the throes of the Civil War, the Morrill Act granted public lands to each state; proceeds from the sale and long-term management of those lands provided operating funds for public colleges and universities designed to educate the children of farmers and other working classes. It was a revolutionary concept that democratized higher education, previously the exclusive province of the elite and wealthy classes, and transformed traditional university curricula with the specific aim of driving scientific discovery and quality of life. The Morrill Act describes land-grant colleges this way:
… [T]he leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life. …
In 1868, eight years before Colorado gained statehood, settler Harris Stratton envisioned an agricultural college in Fort Collins. Other local leaders latched onto the idea, and on Feb. 11, 1870, the territorial governor of Colorado signed legislation to formally establish the college. A group of local property owners donated land for the school, followed by a few more years of administrative wrangling, financial scraping, and legislative tidying. Finally, in 1879, a full nine years after the State Agricultural College of Colorado had been officially founded, the school admitted its first students.
Even as Colorado State celebrates its 150th anniversary, the University recognizes the dark side of its beginnings. Like other land-grant universities, CSU grew from lands violently appropriated from Native Americans, who were forced from their ancestral homelands as the nation marched its boundaries westward. CSU was established on land that had been ceded by or seized from the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho people. Last year, the University adopted a land acknowledgment to recognize and honor the ties of indigenous people to the land on which the University operates. It is included in many campus events to express truth, gratitude, and respect for these connections. (Read more in Land Holds Memories).
When the college began, Fort Collins was a frontier town of about 1,300 people, located on the site of the former military camp that gave the community its name. The fledgling community had some 60 legal business enterprises, including four general stores, two milliners, a bank, and a jeweler; prostitution, gambling houses, and drinking dens were easily found. Prairie dog colonies were about the only feature between the town and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Indeed, some locals questioned the logic of building a college, especially an agricultural college, on the barren outskirts of Fort Collins.
Coy spent her adult life proving the value of that college and the education she gained there. After she graduated in 1884, Coy was hired as an instructor in the Preparatory Department, becoming the fourth female faculty member at the college. It made sense: Female students outnumbered male students at the time. In fact, women led the way academically in the early years of the college, earning 11 of 18 degrees awarded to students in the first five graduating classes. That pattern soon waned, yet the commitment to access threads through University history. (These days, women make up 55 percent of the University’s enrollment.)
In 1890, Coy married James W. Lawrence, a professor of mechanics and drawing who later became chair of the Mechanical Engineering Department. The Lawrences were an early campus power couple. He served from 1891 to 1892 as interim president of the college, while Elizabeth Lawrence, as she was then known, personified the connections between town and gown as a pillar of the campus and community. She served as president and secretary of the alumni association, which she established with Loomis and Glover. Through her college connections, Lawrence attended luncheons, dinners, card parties, and the occasional fishing expedition. She also led a drive to increase the mill levy for the college and helped organize fundraisers for campus needs.
After the birth of her son, George Coy Lawrence, she was active in local service organizations. Lawrence was most dedicated to the Fort Collins Woman’s Club, a reflection of her civic and intellectual interests. During club meetings, she expounded on topics including “Colonial Life,” “Schools, Universities, and Libraries of Russia,” and “Early Theban Kings and the Rise of Thebes to Power.” In one presentation, she addressed the question, “Has Monasticism Been the Cause of More Good than Evil to Education?” Her club promoted literary and scientific culture in Fort Collins and successfully landed funding from the Carnegie Foundation for a library. Through the club, Lawrence helped establish an adult education program, a nursery for the children of working women, and a town cleanup and paint day. As a force within the Woman’s Club, Lawrence organized art exhibits, community dances, and fundraisers for local schools – a seemingly endless stream of projects to boost education and community development.
In 1912, Lawrence’s husband was diagnosed with asthma, which led to his retirement. Meantime, the couple’s son, George, attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, later working as a draftsman for the War Department in Washington, D.C., followed by a long career with the Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, New York. Back in Fort Collins, Professor James Lawrence died in 1933 at age 74. Elizabeth Lawrence continued her civic involvement for another 11 years. She wrote a brief history of the Fort Collins Woman’s Club and donated family heirlooms and artifacts, including her wedding suit, to the local Pioneer Museum.
One of her last public appearances was in 1943, when she, Loomis, and Glover reunited for an alumni event. Lawrence died in Fort Collins in 1944, six decades after securing her place in the history of higher education in Colorado. During prescient remarks at commencement, she had described college discoveries in constant interaction with the real world – an idea utterly bound to the land-grant ideal.
“May we remember that the ideal is not built in a day,” she said in her graduation speech, “but that it is the growth of time, constantly changing as new thoughts unfold, as the mind expands under contact with the real.”
The Origin of Colorado State University
July 2, 1862
Land-grant Act: President Abraham Lincoln signs the Morrill Act. It provides states with public lands whose use and sale will fund colleges of agriculture and the mechanical arts to educate “the industrial classes.”
College Envisioned: Local settler Harris Stratton, a territorial legislator, conceives of an agricultural college in Fort Collins.
Official Founding: Territorial Gov. Edward M. McCook signs the act that formally establishes the State Agricultural College of Colorado in Fort Collins. On Feb. 11, 2020, Colorado State will mark its 150th anniversary; sesquicentennial celebrations run throughout the 2019-2020 academic year.
Claim Building: Locals construct a 16-by-24-foot brick structure at the corner of College Avenue and Laurel Street as evidence of good-faith plans to locate a college in Fort Collins. Five landowners and a Larimer County land company donated a total of 240 acres for use as the college site. (The donated land is different from acreage granted through the Morrill Act.)
Aug. 1, 1876
Statehood: Colorado becomes the 38th state. Now, it’s eligible to receive public lands to fund a college.
July 27, 1878
Main Building: A cornerstone ceremony starts construction of the Main College Building near College Avenue and Laurel Street. It cost $8,800.
At first, it housed everything: classrooms, offices, and student and faculty rooms. Later called Old Main, the building was between Spruce Hall and the Glenn Morris Field House; it was destroyed by fire in 1970.
Sept. 1, 1879
Classes Start: The State Agricultural College of Colorado opens its doors, initially offering preparatory classes before students move into rigorous college studies. Just a few students enroll, but the number quickly expands to several dozen.
June 5, 1884
First Commencement: The first three students graduate with bachelor’s degrees: Libbie Coy, left, George H. Glover, and Leonidas “Lon” Loomis. They establish the University alumni association. Coy is hired as a college instructor and becomes a pillar of the campus and community; Glover establishes the college veterinary program and grows into a statewide veterinary leader; and Loomis becomes a successful area farmer.