The creation of the school that would become Northwest Nazarene University seems like an improbable undertaking.
A speck of a school started as an elementary and high school in 1913 with a handful of students it sprouted on the outskirts of a small agricultural town ringed by sagebrush in the middle of nowhere.
The inspiration for Idaho Holiness School, as it was called at the time, was an infant religious denomination, the Church of the Nazarene, that had split off from the Methodist faith and was not even two decades old. The school was housed in a Mennonite church.
From that small beginning came NNU, a college of 2,000 students with a slate of master's degrees, one doctorate and an eye on the future but still firmly connected to its religious upbringing.
Its education graduates are sought after by Idaho schools. "They come in very well prepared," said Linda Clark, Meridian School District superintendent. "They rate very high when they go out on interviews with principals."
Among NNU's graduates is Tom Dale, class of 1976, now in his third term as Nampa's mayor.
Dale started out as a pre-med major, then switched to psychology and ended up with a degree in music education.
"I believe in the great benefits of a liberal arts education," Dale said. "It teaches you how to learn. The foundation at NNU was crucial to everything I have done."
In a school where now fewer than half the students are Nazarene, the college stays close to the church.
"I was hired to maintain the fires of faith and the strength of connection between college and church," said David Alexander, NNU president. "I think that is my duty. It's as strong, if not a stronger duty, than my fiduciary duty."
While many religious colleges have loosened their ties to denominations, NNU's board members remain Nazarenes, Alexander said.
NNU requires its undergraduates to attend chapel offered three times a week and professors often start class with prayers. Undergraduate students must take four religion classes.
It was precisely that attention to religion that led people from across the Northwest, the Dakotas and Colorado to give up everything and board a train for Nampa on the promise of a school built around pursuing a more Christ-like life.
Muriel Caven, 75, is one of many whose roots at NNU go back multiple generations to a family looking for that kind of Christian education.
Her grandfather, W.D. Parson, moved his family from North Dakota to Filer, where they homesteaded shortly after the turn of the 20th century. When Parson heard a holiness school was opening in McMinnville, Ore., he moved his family. That school didn't materialize. So in 1914, he came to Nampa to be part of the holiness school that had started the year before.
A farmer and a carpenter, he was at the groundbreaking for the college's first building, on July 4, 1915. He stayed and helped construct the administration building and several others that defined the early campus.
What brought those families to the school, Caven said, "is the same as it is now for someone who wants their children or grandchildren to go to a Christian school. They get the Bible, they get teaching and they also get a good education."
That's been true for her father, her husband, some of her children, her grandson and herself.
The school was the brainchild of Eugene Emerson, a successful rancher and lumberman who visited Los Angeles and met Phineaus Bresee, a former Methodist minister who left the church to work more with the poor.
The name Nazarene was chosen for the denomination because it reflected Biblical times when Nazareth was considered a place from where nothing good would come, said Diane Leclerc, an NNU professor of historical theology. The name helped reinforce the idea that these Christians were to be more Christ-like, and reach out to help people outside of mainstream society.
Emerson returned to Nampa with the idea of starting a school. He teamed up with an educator named H. Orton Wiley, who became NNU's first president and set a course for the school.
"He made the decision that it wouldn't be a Bible college, as many schools were," Alexander said. "It would instead be an academy for K-12 but also a liberal arts-based institution."
By the 1950s, the grade school and high school were gone. Parts of them became Nampa Christian School.
CHANGING WITH TIMES
For much of its life, NNU has turned out teachers, ministers, nurses and social workers. But a changing workforce is altering the school. NNU started an engineering program four years ago. It has 70 students, and the first graduates will get a diploma this school year, Alexander said.
A school that once touted its liberal arts education now also reflects what Alexander calls a vocationally obsessed society where employers are looking for good workers. NNU is creating the Leah Peterson Learning Commons, a place where students can work collaboratively on projects and help meet employer demand for students who work in teams.
The school, whose enrollment has remained about 2,000 for the past several years, is redoubling efforts to grow. Alexander has set a goal of increasing enrollment by 5 percent. He acknowledges that's a high mark, especially when only about 8 percent of the country's traditional college-age students would be drawn to an unashamedly Christian.
Yet despite changes, the Christian feel of the place is still a draw for students. Muriel Caven's grandson, Mark, left Boise State University to attend NNU. He's a 21-year-old junior majoring in business.
"It's more Christ-like, everyone is loving, and the professors help you out a lot," he said.
Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts