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Founders Day: A Brief History of the Beginning of SUNY Orange

June 9, 2024

As SUNY Orange kicks off it's 75th Anniversary season, we are celebrating the 74th Founder's Day with a revisiting of the story of how Orange County Community College came to be.

This story was written by Mary Ann Van Benschoten, former College archivist, on the occasion of the College's 60th anniversary. It has been edited slightly to remain timeless

A look back at Orange County Community College’s founding reveals a story of a successful grassroots campaign by a local community to establish a college. It all started in 1946 when a New York State report revealed that the Orange County area sent the fewest high school graduates to college.  The main cause of this deficiency was the lack of “schools of higher education in the area.”

Fred Germain Jr., the Middletown Chamber of Commerce secretary at the time, stated in a “New York Times” interview ... “we hung our heads in shame … then we decided to do something about it.”

Higher Education Committee

The Committee for Higher Education was formed.  It was comprised of the “movers and shakers” from the local area.  The Committee’s mission was two-fold: fact-finding and money-raising. From their research, committee members discovered that the best incentive for sending local students on to college was to establish one within easy driving distance where they could attend classes and yet live at home—saving the cost of room and board.

Raising the money to establish the College would be the real challenge. It was estimated that it would cost more than $2 million to start a college. By law the state would contribute half but that left $1 million that had to be contributed by the sponsoring community—a daunting task.  But the committee would not be defeated. The members determined that the cost of the property would be the “big ticket item.” Members of the committee approached Mrs. Christine Morrison to see if she would be willing to donate her 16-acre, $3 million family estate to the cause. She graciously agreed, but there was still one major hurdle.

When her husband, John Morrison, died he left the estate to Christine for “lifetime use” and upon her death the ownership of the property was to transfer to Horton Hospital. The hospital would lose its intended endowment if Mrs. Morrison gave the property to the college. The Horton Hospital board agreed to accept $75,000 (its budget deficit at the time) as compensation for the loss of the estate. Once again the Committee for Higher Education got busy and raised almost all of the money before the campaign officially got under way.

The New York State Board of Regents unanimously approved the creation of the college in February 1950 and Governor Thomas Dewey gave his approval in April.  On June 9, 1950 the Orange County Board of Trustees unanimously voted to sponsor the new college and it opened its doors to students on September 21. The cost of tuition was $200.

Affordable college education had arrived in Orange County, thanks to much hard work and dedication by many area residents. To this day, SUNY Orange continues to serve the students of Orange County, and beyond. It truly is a really great story of what a community can accomplish.