George F. Whitworth is the one who started it all. A glance at his life’s work reveals he did it all, too: He was a missionary, a pastor, a pioneer, a church planter, a law student, a school superintendent, a university president, a tradesman, a scholar, a Brit, and a college founder who wrote, “It should be a settled principle, that no child or youth, connected with the colony, shall ever be permitted to grow up without the benefit of a good English education, and a thorough religious training.”
Whitworth wrote those words in 1852. The road that led him to found a college began the following year, when he convinced 15 families to join his in a wagon train heading from St. Louis to the West. (Whitworth’s would be the only family to complete the brutal five-month journey and reach the Puget Sound area.)
Ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1848, Whitworth had initially set out on the Oregon Trail to follow his calling to serve as a missionary. He would go on to found at least 15 Presbyterian churches across the Pacific Northwest. He also served as president of the University of Washington and as superintendent of schools in Thurston and King counties. According to GFW lore, at age 72 he was spry enough to hold a burglar at bay.
On Dec. 12, 1883, Whitworth opened Sumner Academy with four Sumner and Tacoma colleagues. The first classes were held in the sanctuary of the local Presbyterian church; the academy moved into a dedicated three-story building in 1889. On Feb. 20, 1890, the school’s trustees signed resolutions to increase the curriculum and stature of the academy, which would henceforth be known as Whitworth College.
In the years that followed, the college flourished and moved to Tacoma. Although George Whitworth lived to age 91, he didn’t live quite long enough to see his namesake’s final move to Spokane, in 1914. He died on Oct. 6, 1907. But Whitworth’s legacy reaches far beyond the name of the institution he founded; his vision to provide an education of both mind and heart has sustained the school and set its course for 125 years.