Honoring Our Legacy

Founder’s Celebration 2024

February 6-8, 2024

One hundred and sixty-eight years ago, Butler University was founded on the principles of diversity, equality, and inclusion. Those characteristics were innovative in 1855, and are still vital today as we seek to recapture and reclaim the values of Ovid Butler. The purpose of Founder’s Celebration is to honor and celebrate the legacy of our founder and his vision to provide the highest quality education to all individuals regardless of race, gender or circumstance.

Ovid Butler was an Indianapolis lawyer, philanthropist, and founder of North Western Christian University (today’s Butler University). Born February 7, 1801, in Augusta, New York, Butler moved with his family to Indiana in 1817. After practicing law in Shelbyville from 1825 to 1836, Butler moved to Indianapolis where he practiced law until 1849. His law partner of eleven years, Calvin Fletcher, considered himself blessed to have such a partner, and called Butler “a man of strict integrity great diligence & integrity”(Diary of Calvin Fletcher, vol. 3, p. 198, Saturday, October 11, 1845). Although ill health led Butler to retire from his law practice in 1849, his involvement in a variety of civic causes continued.

Butler was an active supporter of the antislavery movement. In 1848 he was elected as vice president of Indiana’s Free Soil Party, and backed the Free Soil Banner, a campaign paper for the party. In addition to his efforts on behalf of the antislavery cause, Butler was a leader in education. His desire to found and maintain a university dedicated to non-sectarian Christianity was a driving force in the creation of North Western Christian University.

Following the Indiana General Assembly’s approval of the school’s charter on 15 January 1850, Butler was among those who worked to raise the $75,000 in stocks necessary for the opening of the school. Five years later North Western Christian University opened its doors, and in 1856 graduated its first class. Butler served as the president of the school’s board of directors until 1871, when he retired due to poor health and advanced age. In recognition of his service to the university, the board created the special office of chancellor for Butler, which he held until his death in 1881. In 1877 the school was renamed in his honor.

  1. Butler was chartered as North Western Christian University in 1850 by abolitionist Disciples of Christ members who wanted a university away from the “pernicious influences of slavery.”
  2. Founded on the values of diversity, inclusivity, and equality, NWCU opened in 1855 at 13th and College Avenue, admitting women and people of color on an equal basis with white males, a radical stance for the time.
  3. The first woman to graduate from the full four-year program was Demia Butler, daughter of founder Ovid Butler. She graduated in 1862.
  4. Ovid Butler founded the Demia Butler Chair of English Literature in 1869, the first endowed chair in the country for a female professor. Catharine Merrill was its first recipient, and the second full-time female professor in the country at any university.
  5. Butler’s first documented African American graduate was Gertrude Amelia Mahorney, who graduated in 1887 on the school’s second campus in Irvington. There may have been earlier graduates of color, but the school did not keep racial statistics for many years. Mahorney taught in the Indianapolis Public Schools, specializing in German.

*And a Bonus Fact:
Early Butler administrator Abram C. Shortridge, who served as superintendent of the Indianapolis public schools from 1863 to 1874, had a lasting effect on the school system by effectively using newly available tax revenues, extending the school year, and opening the schools to children of any race. His legacy is commemorated by the historic Shortridge High School, an International Baccalaureate school in Indianapolis that is now a Butler middle/secondary lab school. Abram Shortridge later served as the second president of Purdue University.

Historical Overview—Ovid and the Founding of Butler University

From the abstract: “Without Ovid Butler, there would be no Butler University today. The history of the man and the university are intimately and inextricably entwined; without Ovid Butler’s vision, leadership, and financial support, the university may not have come into being, or survived its early years.” – by Sally Childs-Helton, PhD