No Central president served as long in the position as Robert E. McConnell, the namesake for McConnell Hall, who was the school’s chief administrator from 1931 to 1959 (28 years).
McConnell was born in Meadford, Ontario in 1897 and earned a BS degree in animal husbandry from Montana State College in 1921, an MS from the University of Wisconsin in 1923, and a PhD in psychology and school administration from the University of Iowa in 1928.
From 1923-25, he taught education and psychology at the North Dakota Agricultural College in Fargo, then was associate professor of education and psychology at Marshall College in Missouri in 1926-27. It was while teaching at Marshall, that McConnell met Alma Eastwood, whom he would marry in 1929.
That same year, McConnell accepted the position of chair of the department of education at the Cheney Normal School (now known as Eastern Washington University).
Assuming his post in 1931, McConnell immediately had to deal with the impacts of the Great Depression, which had resulted in drastic cuts in state spending for the school as well as declining enrollment.
Following several very lean years, during which employees had salaries reduced by nearly one-third and the school defaulted on dormitory construction loans, Central, under McConnell’s leadership, saw its fortunes rebound slightly in 1935 when the state legislature restored some of the previous budget cuts and helped resolve the loan issues.
Once ensconced at Central, McConnell began reshaping the school to increase the length of training for teaching to four years (from two). Additionally, he oversaw the construction of a new College Elementary School in 1938 (where teacher-candidates taught in an onsite laboratory school), which is now Hebeler Hall.
Additionally, it was during McConnell’s tenure that Central became a four-year degree-granting institution (with a BA in education), starting in 1934, and four years later the school’s name was changed to Central Washington College of Education.
Following World War II, when there was increased pressure for the school to offer undergraduate degrees in subjects in addition to education the college was granted legislative permission to offer other arts and sciences degrees. It wouldn’t be until 1961, that the name was again changed to Central Washington State College, and, in 1977, to the present CWU name.
McConnell also played a key role in developing a partnership between Central and the U.S. armed forces during the war. It was a result of his efforts that the campus hosted hundreds of Army Air Corps troops for training in 1943-44.
A boom in enrollment following the war, especially of male and married students under the so-called GI Bill, saw Central expand Munson Hall (in 1947) and the Student Union Building (SUB) in 1950 and build several new residence facilities including the original Kennedy Hall (1948), which is now the International Center, and North Hall (1951).
Another of McConnell’s achievements, which would later have a direct impact on his legacy, occurred in 1935 when Central received federal and state funding to erect an auditorium for assemblies, concerts, dramatic productions, and other public functions.
This 800-seat Classical Revival-style structure, originally called the College Auditorium, was more than two stories tall, with a brick exterior and distinctive stone columns. It was formally named McConnell Auditorium (and is now called McConnell Hall) during Commencement ceremonies in 1963.
McConnell Hall’s electrical systems and theatrical lighting were updated in 1974, 1977, and 1998. In 1979, the building was expanded with the addition of the Milo Smith Theatre on the north end. Additional modifications in more recent years include updating the restrooms in 1997 and, in 2003, the interior was remodeled and reinforced with steel trusses, and a sprinkler system was installed. In 2013, the building received a telecommunications upgrade.
After his retirement, the McConnells moved to San Francisco, where Robert McConnell became the Western Region Director for the Federal Office of Education while Alma McConnell, who had earned an MA in Art at Central, became a member of the faculty of the Art Department at San Francisco State University.
Upon retiring in 1969, the McConnells relocated to Rossmoor Leisure World in Walnut Creek, California, and continued to travel extensively.
Robert McConnell passed away in 1976 at the age of 79. Alma McConnell, who continued with her art, moved to Carmel, California, and remained active in various civic and art organizations for many years. She passed away in 2006 at the age of 101.