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Hundreds gather in Springfield for college reunion

SPRINGFIELD -- The population of Springfield will swell this weekend when about 350 Springfield college alumni arrive in town for an all-college reunion.

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Thomas Stone, the college's last dean of instruction and the president of the Springfield College Museum board, will attend today's program. So will many former students and faculty of the college, which closed in 1984 and was converted to a prison.

Event organizer Connie Allen attended the college in the 1960s and went on to a career as a school administrator. She said the Springfield Veterans Memorial Committee, which was asked to supply food for the event, originally expected about 85 to 125 people.

"It really snowballed. Now we're expecting more than 350."

Registration will begin at 10 a.m. There will be a 12:30 p.m. lunch at the Community Center, followed by a brief program.

"The theme will simply be an appreciation of the faculty and students at the college," Allen said.

Tours of the College Museum, the Springfield City Museum and the college memorial in the city park will follow. Afterward, there will be informal gatherings at some of the old meeting places in town.

"The youngest of our alumni are now in their 50s, so our activity level won't be too frenetic," Allen said.

Springfield Normal School opened in 1881 with 23 students and a mission to prepare teachers for Dakota Territory. No tuition was charged. The first building on the campus was paid for by the citizens of Springfield. In 1883, the school received $7,000 in financial support from the state.

The Normal School became Southern State Normal School in 1925, Southern State Teacher's College in 1947, Southern State College in 1964, and in 1971, the University of South Dakota at Springfield.

Over the years, the school faced rising costs and flagging enrollment. Then-Gov. Bill Janklow closed the college in 1984, and the site became Mike Durfee State Prison.

Many opposed the closure and the conversion.

"They felt that education should remain our number one priority," Allen said. "A lot of the young people who went to school here would not have attended college had there not been a school here."

Dennis Skailand, 75, who taught physics at the college from 1967 until its closing in 1984, plans to attend the reunion.

"At the time no one was very pleased with the idea of closing the college," Skailand recalled. "They were quite apprehensive about future prospects for the location, but the changeover to a prison probably went better than most expected."

Skailand was hired to teach at the nearby Yankton College, but his tenure there was short-lived when that campus closed six months later and was transformed into a federal prison.

"I've always said I probably have something of a world record," Skailand said with a laugh. "I don't know of anyone who has closed two colleges in six months."