“Colonel” Homer Baxter Sprague, the second president of the University of North Dakota, came to Dakota Territory with an interesting background. In 1852, he received his B.A. from Yale University and then practiced law and was Principal of the High School of Worcester. Sprague entered the Civil War in 1861 as a captain in the 13th Connecticut, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He was wounded at the Battle of Irish Bend in Louisiana in 1863. After the war, he became head of several high schools and colleges until 1887 when he accepted the presidency of UND. Professor Webster Merrifield, sent east by UND Regents to locate an appropriate candidate, found Sprague more than well qualified. He had a well-established academic background and was famous for his oratory and lectures on Milton and Shakespeare.
As UND President, Sprague capitalized on his oratorical skills and promoted and publicized the institution to the state and region. His popular speeches along with changing admissions requirements dramatically increased enrollment. Sprague’s educational philosophy supported free education and the university’s role in encouraging good citizenship, and although a humanist, he recognized the import of the sciences and hired respected science faculty. Military training commenced under Sprague’s presidency, as well as organized athletics. He also assumed state leadership and served as the first president of the North Dakota Education Association.
In March of 1891, President Sprague resigned because of personal political disappointments along with economic and political problems facing both North Dakota and the University. UND’s Board of Trustees summed up his achievements: “Resolved, that we accord to him [Prof. Sprague] a great measure of praise for the present high position which the University has attained, and are impressed with the belief that his connection with this institution will be a bright page in its history for all time to come.” Sprague applied some of the structures of eastern universities to UND, raising its quality of education, and prepared the University to begin its journey in developing as a modern institution of higher learning.
After leaving UND, Sprague went back east and wrote several books on Shakespeare. In 1916, he returned to the University to deliver the commencement address and receive UND’s third honorary degree.