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Bronze statue outdoors of a woman in historic clothing, holding a shovel.

Oakland's History

Oakland University was established in 1957 when Matilda Dodge Wilson donated her estate to Michigan State University. Over the years, Oakland has developed into a prominent university with a rich educational history and deep roots in athletics.

Learn more about Matilda Dodge Wilson, the university’s firsts, OU’s athletics history and how the Grizz came to be.

Athletics History Golf Course History

The following is a timeline of the life of Matilda Dodge Wilson, OU founder.

Black and white photo of Matilda Dodge Wilson sitting in an ornate chair.

1883 - Born Oct. 19 in Walkerton, Ontario, Canada, to George and Margaret Rausch, German immigrants.

1902 - Graduated from Gorsline Business College and went to work as a secretary for Dodge Brothers Motor Car Company.

1907 - Married John Francis Dodge on Dec. 10.

1914 - Gave birth to Frances.

1917 - Gave birth to Daniel.

1919 - Gave birth to Anna Margaret.

1920 - Her husband, John, died of influenza Jan. 14.

1922 - Sailed to Europe where she lived for more than a year after her stepchildren contested her husband's will.

1924 - Her youngest daughter, Anna Margaret, 4, died April 13 from complications following the measles.

1925 - Along with Anna Thompson Dodge, Matilda sold Dodge Brothers Motor Car Company in May for a record $146 million. She then married Alfred Wilson on June 29.

1929 - Held a housewarming party at Meadow Brook Hall on Nov. 19, less than a month after the stock market crash.

1930 - Matilda and Alfred adopted two children: Richard, at 18 months, and Barbara, at 3 months.

1931 - Elected to the State Board of Agriculture, the governing board of Michigan State University. Her sister, Amelia, married John Cline, Meadow Brook Farm manager. Matilda's disapproval instigated a 30-year estrangement.

1938 - Her son, Daniel, 21, died Aug. 15 while on his honeymoon.

1940 - Appointed the first woman lieutenant governor of Michigan by Governor Luren Dickinson.

1952 - Matilda and Alfred built Sunset Terrace on the Meadow Brook Estate to use as a retirement home.

1955 - Received an honorary doctor of law degree from Michigan State University.

1957 - Matilda and Alfred donated their 1,400-acre estate, its buildings and $2 million to Michigan State University to establish Michigan State University-Oakland which became Oakland University. She also received the Distinguished Service Cross from the Salvation Army.

1962 - Her second husband, Alfred, died April 6 from a heart attack. She then moved back into Meadow Brook Hall where she lived alone until her death.

1963 - Gave each member of the first graduating class of Michigan State University - Oakland a diamond ring.

1967 - Suffered a massive heart attack on Sept. 19 and died at age 83 in Brussels, Belgium, where she had gone to tour horse-breeding farms.

First Student
Lynn Anderson Ruth, who was chosen from a pool of students who finished in the top half of their class, registered for classes at Michigan State University - Oakland in 1959 and received student number 000001, making history as the first MSUO student.

Anderson Ruth fondly remembers her college days, especially helping to create the original Student Senate, the OU chorus and Senior Ball at Meadow Brook Hall.
"We only had the Foundation buildings for classrooms. We had no residence halls and no library building. We created all our clubs and wrote our constitutional by-laws. It was fun creating from scratch. You learn so much doing this yourself."

First Employee
Black and white headshot of George Karas.
George Karas was responsible for the maintenance of Meadow Brook Hall and Meadow Brook Estate and the physical plant at Michigan State University - Oakland. He also coordinated the construction of the buildings for the university, starting with the Foundation Halls and the student center, and helped plan for the additions of the library, intramural buildings for athletics and Dodge Hall of Engineering. He and his wife lived in a cottage on the estate for seven years.

One of the fondest memories Karas, who retired in 1987, has of OU was when he, Woody Varner and MSUO campus planners Milt Baron and Harold Lautner moved the prospective campus from north of Deer Lake on Adams Road to the current location. The decision to move the campus site was made in a half-hour as they were driving around Meadow Brook Farms.

First Chancellor
Black and white headshot of D.B.
D.B. "Woody" Varner served as vice president of Michigan State University under President John Hannah and was present at Meadow Brook Hall when Hannah asked Matilda and Alfred Wilson to finalize the donation of their estate to establish a new university.

Varner later served as OU's chancellor from 1958 through 1970.

First Classes
Noncredit continuing education classes started in July 1958 in a converted chicken coop.

"We took one of the chicken coops and converted it into a classroom," said Lowell Eklund, former dean of Continuing Education.

The coop had ceramic tile and concrete floors with a few stray chicken feathers in cracks in the wall.

First Class, First-Year Students
Michigan State University - Oakland's first convocation was Sept. 17, 1959. First classes began on Sept. 21 with all first-year students. With 570 students and 25 faculty members, the university opened with three buildings, North and South Foundation Hall and a portion of the Oakland Center. The most popular major was teacher education, followed by liberal arts, engineering science and business administration. Tuition and fees were $255 annually. The charter class graduated 125 students.

First Research Grant
Paul Tomboulian, distinguished professor, received the first research grant on campus and initiated the first undergraduate research program in 1960. He introduced biochemistry to the university and the first science-based environmental health major in Michigan in 1966 and obtained the first external department accreditation on campus in 1967.

First Sport
In 1959, Hollie Lepley was hired to shape intramural and recreation activities at Oakland University. The intramural building was completed in 1963, and men's cross country became the first intercollegiate sport offered at Oakland in 1964.

First Mascot
Before becoming the Golden Grizzlies, OU's nickname was the Pioneers and the unofficial mascot was Pioneer Pete. Pete started out in the 1950s as an aerospace pioneer, but when a student drew a buckskin-clad Pioneer Pete, the image stuck. In 1997, Oakland University moved its athletics program from NCAA Division II to Division I and in 1998 adopted the Golden Grizzlies nickname and the Grizz mascot.

The First Honors College Group
The Honors College Group, who in 1958 helped create Oakland University, was the first group of its kind anywhere in the world. Consisting of six students from the nation's first honors college, they joined university presidents, nationally recognized deans, representatives from industry and leaders in education who were meeting at the Meadow Brook Seminars to create Oakland University. The names of these six honors college students were Arden (Art) C. Barie, Darwin J. Casler, Duane Chapman, Phillip T. Eckstrom, Terry Smith and Paul H. Woodruff.

In the early 1970s, when a discussion about the creation of an honors college within Oakland University gained momentum, it was directly on this historical tradition that OU leaders built. Launched in 1977, OU's Honors College owes its existence to many who came before and to those who have come after and have upheld the founders’ vision that guides the university through the present day.

First Honors College Graduates
The charter class of Oakland's Honor's College graduated its first six students in 1981.

First Distance Learning
Oakland's first distance learning classrooms were online in fall 1995.

First Performance at Meadow Brook Theatre
John Fernald, an internationally acclaimed director and head of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, was invited to establish a resident professional theatre company at Oakland University. The Fernald Company built a theatre and the curtain rose for the first time on Jan. 4, 1967.

First Performance at Meadow Brook Music Festival
Founding chairperson of Oakland's music program, Walter Collins, posed the idea of a summer music festival to bring the public to see OU's beautiful campus. On Feb. 29, 1964, ground was broken for the new festival, built to be the summer home for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, with money donated from the Kresge Foundation. The pavilion was completed in time for the festival's opening on July 23, 1964. The Howard C. Baldwin Memorial Pavilion borrowed 2,000 folding chairs from Rochester Schools to seat its patrons for the first shows.

First Founders' Day Celebration
In 1997, Oakland began celebrating Founders' Day with an annual event each April. Oakland was founded in 1957.

First Concours d'Elegance
The first Meadow Brook Concours d'Elegance was held in 1978 on the grounds of Meadow Brook Hall. It is considered one of the top classic car shows in the world, attracting thousands of spectators each year.

First Cable Hook-up
Cable was installed for the first time in the residence halls in 1996.

First Internet Site
Oakland University joined Merit, a regional research and education network in 1985, connecting the university to the Internet for the first time. Some of the first Oakland websites date back to 1995.

Meadow Brook Hall opened to the public
Meadow Brook Hall opened to the public in 1971, four years after Matilda Dodge Wilson's death. Currently, the Hall welcomes more than 100,000 visitors each year to participate in tours, educational programs and a variety of special events.

Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine
In 2011, Oakland established Michigan's first new medical school in 47 years. The charter class of 50 students welcomed the unique opportunity to combine science coursework with clinical training through every step of the program. Designed to train top-notch physicians, the medical school also places great emphasis on compassion and community well-being.

First certified LEED Platinum building
The 172,000-square-foot Human Health Building opened in August 2012. Housing the School of Nursing and the School of Health Sciences, the HHB boasts an energy-efficient and sustainable design that makes it the first higher education building in Michigan to be certified LEED Platinum.

First Horizon League athletic games
Oakland University’s Golden Grizzlies athletic teams made the move to the Horizon League in 2013. This change allows student athletes to compete with other high-level institutions that also value academics. More than half of the Horizon League student athletes have grade point averages of 3.2 or better, and the league exceeds NCAA academic averages in 14 of the 19 sports it sponsors, including men's and women's basketball.

When Oakland University decided in 1997 to move its athletics program from NCAA Division II to Division I, all aspects of the program were examined, including its mascot, the Pioneers.

To make sure its mascot was ready for big-time college athletics, the university formed a 19-member University-Wide Mascot Advisory Committee. The committee was charged with determining desired attributes in an athletic nickname and mascot and to come up with three names and graphic images to pass along to the President's Cabinet for consideration.

The Mascot Advisory Committee spent months working with a professional design firm — SME Design, one of the country's leading firms in creating sports brand identities — to suggest names, create designs and conduct survey and focus-group testing.

Committee members, representing faculty, staff and students, received hundreds of suggestions and narrowed down the possibilities to three - the Golden Grizzlies, Saber Cats and Pioneers.

Before becoming the Golden Grizzlies, OU's nickname was the Pioneers and the unofficial mascot was Pioneer Pete. Pete started out in the 1950s as an aerospace pioneer, but when a student drew a buckskin-clad Pioneer Pete, the image stuck.

When looking for a new mascot, the Mascot Advisory Committee established specific criteria and Pioneers failed to measure up in many ways. The committee's criteria included that the new mascot be animal-based, tough, unique, have regional ties, be collegiate, have graphic potential and be gender- and race-neutral. Pioneer Pete couldn't stand the test of time. He was neither gender- nor race-neutral, a problem many students wanted resolved.

Golden Grizzlies met the committee's criteria and when logo images were created, it quickly became the favorite choice among all groups tested.

"We are really excited about the new name," OU Athletic Director Jack Mehl said when the Golden Grizzlies mascot finally was selected by the President's Cabinet on March 23, 1998. "It's original, it ties in directly with our school colors, and it represents the new, aggressive nature of our athletic program's move to Division I competition."

The "Grizz" made its debut at OU's inaugural basketball game against Michigan State University in the new athletics arena on Nov. 17, 1998.

Oakland University

201 Meadow Brook Rd.
Rochester, MI 48309-4401
(location map)
(248) 370-2100