George Williams College

George Williams College: History

YMCA Heritage

Sir George Williams, for whom George Williams College is named, described his younger self as a "careless, thoughtless, Godless, swearing young fellow" — a far cry from the man who would later go on to found the Young Men's Christian Association, better known as the YMCA.

 George Williams

Williams founded the YMCA in London, England, in 1844 in an effort to create a space for young men to put Christian principals into practice by developing a healthy body, mind, and spirit (represented by the three angles on the iconic YMCA triangle). By 1851, the YMCA movement had spread across Europe to the United States and Canada.

On the Shores of Lake Geneva

George Williams College was the vision of I. E. Brown, William Lewis, and Robert Weidensall, YMCA leaders commissioned to develop the movement in the western United States. Sitting before a campfire on the shores of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, the three men conceived of a permanent, professional YMCA training school.

 Lewis, Weidensall, Brown

Lake Geneva — rugged and pristine — was an ideal setting for the program's mission. Land was purchased in Williams Bay, and in 1886 the training camp, which would become George Williams College, was founded. The campus thrived as YMCA workers from across the country gathered for physical activity, spiritual reflection and service learning.

Service in the City

The training camp grew fast, and in 1890 it moved to the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago and became an institution of higher learning for students entering human service professions such as parks and recreation, education, and social work. The Lake Geneva campus served as a "college camp" used for retreats.

Then as now, George Williams was distinguished by its educational emphasis on social and humanitarian service. As the Class of 1913 motto states: "We are born not for ourselves, but for the whole world."

Sir George

You may wonder: What became of George Williams, uncivilized youth turned YMCA founder and GWC namesake? Well he lives on — in spirit.

In 1894 Williams was knighted by Queen Victoria, and after his death in 1905, he was commemorated with a stained-glass window in the nave of Westminster Abbey and buried in St. Paul's Cathedral.

Incidentally, the George Williams Memorial Room, located in the Beasley Campus Center, is inspired by the room where Williams originally organized the YMCA in London. (That room, at 72 St. Paul"s Churchyard, London, was preserved as an international YMCA shrine until it was destroyed by World War II bombings in 1944.) The George Williams Memorial Room goes so far as to duplicate the original room's unevenness of floor and ceiling, the sag in door and window, the varied paneling, the stencil design, and the pattern of the fireplace.

GWC Today

George Williams College continues to flourish today as a close-knit community of faculty and staff members, students, friends, and neighbors dedicated to the betterment of society through education, innovation, integrity, and hope.

Accordant with its history, the college specializes in service-related degrees and programs. It offers the following undergraduate majors: business management; environmental studies and sustainabilitynursingpsychology; and social work. Experiential learning, integrated coursework, and working in the field distinguish the undergraduate curriculum.

Our History with AU

Aurora University traces its origins to the 1893 founding of Mendota College in Illinois and the Western Secretarial Institute in Wisconsin, the two organizations that matured into Aurora College and George Williams College, respectively.

Mendota College was established initially as a seminary to prepare graduates for ministry, but it soon adopted a broader mission, moving in 1912 to a new campus in the nearby community of Aurora. With this change came a different name, Aurora College, and a growing enrollment. When World War II ended, the campus population swelled again as veterans enrolled in the college’s innovative evening degree program. The 1970s and 1980s saw an expansion of curricular offerings in a number of professional fields and the awarding of advanced degrees in selected disciplines. These changes culminated in the 1985 decision to rechristen the institution Aurora University.

The roots of George Williams College run deep in the YMCA movement of the 19th century. In 1884, leaders from America’s YMCAs gathered on the shores of Geneva Lake in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, to attend a summer training program. Two years later, the camp was incorporated, and the first parcel of the current Williams Bay campus was purchased. Since that time, “college camp” has been a source of inspiration, recreation, education, and renewal for thousands of guests and students.

In 1992, Aurora University and George Williams affiliated. A merger was completed eight years later. Today the institution operates in Aurora, Illinois, and Williams Bay, Wisconsin. The university also has expanded to offer classes at the Woodstock Center in northwest Woodstock, Illinois, at the Orchard Center in Aurora, and through AU Online.