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Michigan Legal Milestones
39. Governor G. Mennen Williams and the Great Ferris Fire

G. Mennen Williams

Bar Journal

MBJ 8, 2014

Michigan Bar Journal
August 2014
Governor G. Mennen Williams and the Great Ferris Fire





Complete Text on Milestone Marker

Governor G. Mennen Williams and the Great Ferris Fire

On May 17, 1949, Michigan’s 41st Governor, G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams, signed into law the Smith-VanderWerp bill. The law accepted Ferris Institute, a private college founded in 1884, as a gift to be continued as a state institution, so long as the school name and character was maintained. The school was named after co-founders Woodbridge Nathan Ferris, a former Governor of Michigan and a U.S. Senator, and his wife, Professor Helen Gillespie Ferris, and its open admissions policy helped pioneer diversity—beckoning the call, “to all men and women…to make the world better.” The transfer of Ferris Institute from a private to a state college was scheduled to occur officially on July 1, 1950.

On February 21, 1950, a devastating fire destroyed two-thirds of the Ferris campus, including the venerable “Old Main” building, a Ferris identity symbol and a Big Rapids landmark for 57 years. The “Great Ferris Fire” imperiled the college’s very existence and threatened to frustrate the law’s goal of transferring it to the state. Since the scheduled transfer was still four months away, the law was arguably unenforceable because its subject—the college—had been destroyed by fire.

In the wake of the fire, Governor Williams reassured the Ferris community that the intent of the law that he had signed would prevail. Ferris “will rise Phoenix-like out of the ashes,” he declared. Governor Williams’ leadership galvanized bipartisan support to marshal the resources to rebuild the college. He appointed a new Ferris Board of Control to convene in emergency session. The state legislature subsequently approved reconstruction funds.

Through the perseverance of Governor Williams, who would later serve as Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, the goal of the Smith-VanderWerp law was fulfilled, and the school was reborn as a public institution of higher learning—ultimately Ferris State University.

Placed by the State Bar of Michigan and the
Mecosta-Osceola Bar Association August 28, 2014