The president's office was created in 1906. Henry Hardin Cherry served as founder of WKU and its first president, a position he held until his death in 1937.
Henry Hardin Cherry was born November 16, 1864 in Warren County, Kentucky, the son of George Washington and Frances (Stahl) Cherry. He attended the Southern Normal School and Business College along with his brother Thomas Crittenden Cherry. After college the Cherry brothers taught in rural schools and Henry returned to teach at the Southern Normal. They purchased the school in 1892 with Henry filling the main administrative role. Cherry actively pursued the creation of a state funded teacher training school and in 1906 succeeded in converting the Southern Normal into the Western Kentucky State Normal School.
Upon Henry Cherry's death August 1, 1937 the Board of Regents created an executive committee consisting of chair Finley Grise, L.F. Jones, W.L. Matthews, B.J. Borrone and Mrs. W.P. Drake. Paul Garrett was elected WKU's second president at a special meeting of the Board of Regents September 1, 1937. He served as president until his death February 28, 1955.
Paul Loos Garrett was born in Waddy, Shelby County, Kentucky, on November 2, 1893. He earned an A.B. degree at Georgetown (KY) College in 1914 majoring in history and political science and an M.A. in 1935 in psychology and education. He did more graduate work at the University of Chicago and the University of Kentucky. He was awarded an honorary LL.D. from Georgetown College in 1938. After a brief stint in the army during World War I he went on to teach at several high schools throughout Kentucky, becoming superintendent of city schools at Versailles in 1924. In February 1937 Garrett took a leave of absence to serve in A.B. Chandler's administration as director of the Division of Personnel Efficiency. [Harrison, p. 110]
Assistant to the President Edwin Kelly Thompson became acting president during Paul Garrett's last illness. Upon Garrett's death February 28, 1955 the Board of Regents approved Thompson to continue as acting president until a replacement could be found. He was elected president on October 17, 1955 a position he held until his retirement in 1969.
Kelly Thompson was born in Lebanon, Kentucky on January 28, 1909. He came to Western in the fall of 1928 on a football scholarship and earned bachelor's and master's degrees. Thompson spent his early career at WKU as college representative and publicity director. During World War II he served in the Navy, after which he returned to campus to work as an assistant to E.A. Diddle and President Paul Garrett. [Harrison, pp. 139-143]
During his tenure as president, Thompson oversaw a steady increase in student population which resulted in the construction of new buildings and WKU gained university status in 1966. He stepped down in 1969 and later went on to serve as president of the College Heights Foundation. Thompson died August 14, 1993.
The search for the fourth president of WKU began with Kelly Thompson's resignation announcement May 21, 1969. Vice President for Administrative Affairs Dero Downing indicated that he would serve if asked. The Board of Regents elected him president on August 22, 1969. He served until his retirement in 1979.
Dero Downing was born September 10, 1921 at Fountain Run in Monroe County, Kentucky, and grew up at Horse Cave in Hart County. He enrolled at WKU in 1939 where he played basketball and earned both a bachelor's and master's degree. After serving in the Navy in World War II, he returned to Western as a mathematics teacher and coach at the College's Training School. He later became director of the Training School, college registrar, dean of admissions, dean of business affairs, and vice-president for administrative and business affairs. Upon his resignation as president in 1979 Downing became president of the College Heights Foundation, a position he held until his death on April 4, 2011.
As Dero Downing's resignation went into effect January 8, 1979 Vice President John Minton was appointed interim president. He held this position through July 31, 1979 when Donald Zacharias was elected president.
John Minton was born in Cadiz , Kentucky on July 29, 1921. He received his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Kentucky and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. Prior to coming to WKU, Minton served as principal of Trigg County High School from 1953 to 1958. He became Associate Dean of Graduate Instruction in 1962, then Graduate Dean, and Administrative Vice-President in 1970. Minton served as Vice President of Student Affairs from 1979 until his retirement in 1986.
Donald Zacharias became WKU president on August 1, 1979 and was installed April 26, 1980. He served as president until his resignation in 1985.
Donald Zacharias was born September 18, 1935 in Salem, Indiana. He received a BA degree from Georgetown (KY) College in 1957. After a year as a high school teacher, he enrolled in Indiana University and obtained his MA in 1959 and PhD in 1963. After graduation he joined the faculty of Indiana University. Zacharias moved to the University of Texas Austin in 1969 where he advanced to Assistant to the President by 1974. When selected as Western's president, he was executive assistant to the chancellor of the University of Texas system. [Harrison, p. 264]
From Zacharias's 1985 summer resignation to the end of the year Paul Cook served as interim president while the Regents searched for the next president. On December 14 Kern Alexander was elected president but because of contract with the University of Florida he would not officially begin his WKU tenure until May 15, 1986. He would serve a brief two years as WKU's president resigning April 11, 1988.
Samuel Kern Alexander was born in Marrowbone, Kentucky June 30, 1939. He attended Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, WKU and Indiana University. Part of a WKU legacy family his parents, sisters and brother all attended Western. During his early career he taught high school, worked for the Kentucky Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Education. In 1968 he joined the faculty of the University of Florida in the Education department.
The search for a new president began with Kern Alexander's resignation announcement on April 11, 1988. The Board of Regents elected Thomas Meredith as president August 5 and installed September 21, 1988. Under Meredith's leadership, the campus expanded with the purchase of the Bowling Green Center, creation the Institute of Economic Development and the implementation of the first strategic plan Western XXI. He also hired WKU's first female vice president, Barbara Burch. Meredith had served the university for a little over eight years when he announced his resignation February 5, 1997.
Thomas Carter Meredith was born in Owensboro December 7, 1941. He obtained his BS from Kentucky Wesleyan in 1963, his MS from WKU in 1966 and his PhD from the University of Mississippi in 1971. His early career was spent teaching high school in Owensboro, Kentucky and LaHarpe, Illinois. From there he moved into administrative positions in Jeffersonville, Indiana and the board of trustees of the State Institutions of Higher Learning in Mississippi. Meredith was vice chancellor for executive affairs at the University of Mississippi when he came to WKU in 1988.
Dr. Gary A. Ransdell was named the ninth president of Western Kentucky University on September 12, 1997. He served the university for twenty years retiring on June 30, 2017.
Dr. Ransdell received his Bachelor of Arts degree from WKU in 1973 in Mass Communications, a Master of Public Service degree in Public Administration in 1974, and a Doctor of Education degree from Indiana University in 1978. Dr. Ransdell re-joined WKU as President after serving four years as Vice President for Administration and Advancement and seven years as Vice President for Institutional Advancement at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina. His previous professional experiences at WKU also include service as a field representative in the Office of University School Relations from 1974 to 1976 and as Associate Director of Alumni Affairs from 1978 to 1981. Dr. Ransdell became Director of Alumni Relations at Southern Methodist University in 1981, a position he held until 1987 when he was named as a Vice President at Clemson.
Timothy C. Caboni, a 1994 Western Kentucky University graduate, returned to the Hill on July 1, 2017, as WKU’s 10th president. Shortly after assuming the president role, Caboni launched a comprehensive strategic planning process aimed at developing a roadmap for the University’s next decade of growth. Thus, WKU’s 2018-2028 strategic plan, Climbing to Greater Heights, was finalized in summer 2018, and its implementation is well underway.
President Caboni quickly generated a renewed institutional focus on student-centeredness, applied research, recruitment, retention and growing partnerships within WKU’s 27-county service region and beyond. Of particular importance to Caboni is WKU’s responsibility to advance the City of Bowling Green, the Commonwealth of Kentucky and the world by inspiring innovation, elevating communities and transforming lives.
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