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Exploring McKinley's Beginnings At Allegheny College

Not many are aware that before he joined the Union Army, President William McKinley started his schooling at Allegheny College in Meadville, PA.

President William McKinley is perhaps best known for leading America to victory in the Spanish-American War, but lesser known are his ties to the Pittsburgh area. The future leader of the free world served one term at Allegheny College, where he was known as a skilled debater, a gentleman, and a model student. Essential Pittsburgh’s Paul Guggenheimer talked with Allegheny College historian Jonathan Helmreich about the legacy McKinley left during his short time at the university.

Originally studying at a seminary in Poland, Ohio, McKinley was convinced by his friends to attend Allegheny College in 1859. Well-regarded at the seminary, he was given upper class status upon admission to Allegheny.

McKinley was known for never missing a class, dressing in fancy clothes, and his remaining calm under pressure. According to Helmreich, McKinley lost his temper only once, when a Southern student suggested that the next president should be Jefferson Davis.

“McKinley replied, ‘If that’s the case, I will fight and so will my cousin Bill,” so apparently he lost his cool there,” Helmreich said.

Many of the legends and rumors about McKinley’s time at the College paint him as a prankster. According to urban legend, he was expelled from the school when he snuck a cow into the administration building’s belfry. Helmreich says there is no evidence McKinley actually did so, but there is a letter from his roommate that supposedly claims they snuck a goat into the building.

So why did the future president only attend one term at the college? Simply put, money and health. When McKinley returned to his home for summer break, he took ill and had run out of money to pay for his classes. By the time he had saved enough, the Civil War had broken out and McKinley enlisted in the Union Army.

Despite his short time at the College, the experience left an impact upon McKinley. He wrote to the president of the college saying he regretted never finishing his education there, according to Helmreich. He would return to the college only once, delivering the 1895 commencement address and receiving an honorary Doctor of Law degree.

Signs of McKinley’s attendance to the school still remain. A bust of the man sits in the administration building, the same place he supposedly snuck a cow into, and the food court in the student union building is named after him.

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.