Joan Eades, a graduate student in the English Department at the University of North Dakota, was commissioned by the Alumni Office to write “Beacon Over Our Western Land: The First One Hundred Years of the University of North Dakota” to kick off the University’s Centennial in 1983. The play was presented at the Chester Fritz Auditorium on February 27 and 28, 1983. It was directed by Doug Fosse.
The play is a pastiche of the University’s first hundred years, beginning with a student, Ben Ingwaldson, registering for his classes. The secretary informs him that the president will be out in a moment to help him with his luggage and show him his room. This scene is juxtaposed with one that shows the same university a hundred years later. Instead of one student, now there are many trying to register for classes. These two scenes illustrate the phenomenal growth the university experienced in its first hundred years.
After the introductory tableau, the scenes follow a historical chronological order. The first presidents of the university are featured, beginning with William Maxwell Blackburn as he is congratulated in his new appointment. Homer Sprague and Webster Merrifield are the other presidents also featured in the beginning. Merrifield, however, is most prominently featured. His attitude and vision for the university is intimately explored in the scenes that involved him. An important scene laid out in the play involves Merrifield and Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the famous artic explorer. Stefansson was expelled for misbehavior on campus.
An excerpt from Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Maxwell Anderson is used that describes university life and what it meant for his life. Maxwell Anderson was a famous alumnus of the University.
At his point, the play shifts from a self-contained microcosmic world to one that shows it responding and being affected by the historical events that shaped the United States. The advent of World War I shows the faculty and students leaving campus, and a salary cut for many on the faculty almost threatens its existence. There is a transition here displaying the metamorphosis of the UND student from a rural bumpkin to a sophisticated, weary World War II veteran and later to a war protester in the early seventies during the Vietnam War. The play ends with President Thomas J. Clifford’s 1971 inaugural speech.
There are 3 appendices also attached to help the production of the play with extra material the director may decide to use for transitions of scenes, emphasis on narration, or authenticity of scenes. Appendix A is list of odd-facts and ones-liners, Appendix B lists songs between 1917-1967, and Appendix C is the Alma Mater.