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Builders of Bellevue University: Across the Years and Generations

Builders of Bellevue University: Across the Years and Generations

By Bill Wax

In celebration of Bellevue University’s 50th Anniversary, we take time to recognize the many individuals and organizations that have helped to build the University into Nebraska’s largest private college or university. R. Joe Dennis and his daughter, Susan, are prime examples of the vital role played by Builders of Bellevue University.

Joe and Susan Dennis Provided Early and Ongoing Support and Involvement

The late R. Joe Dennis and his daughter, Susan, a current member of the University Board, were not only business partners, but individuals who have been among Bellevue University’s most consistent and stalwart supporters and advocates from its beginnings.

Joe & Susan Bldg LC 360ppi

Joe Dennis

After returning from military service in World War II, Bellevue, Nebraska, native R. Joe Dennis partnered with his brother, Bill, to build homes in Sarpy and Douglas counties, and then with Bellevue realtor F. Hoyte Freeman, to launch Freeman Company. Dennis was company President.

Although he did not join Bellevue College’s Board of Directors until 1970, Mr. Dennis played a pivotal role in the college’s founding. He strongly supported the idea of building a local college, which was presented by businessman William V. “Bill” Brooks at a June 1965 meeting and took the lead in raising start-up funding. He was part of a core of key leaders, including the founding Board of Directors, who formed a Finance Committee that met at Johnson’s Pharmacy in downtown Bellevue later and built and divided up a list of likely local donors to ask for their help to raise the start-up money through a local bond issue. A 40-year history of the University compiled by longtime University Art Professor Dr. Joyce Wilson, includes this account. “According to Bill Brooks, Joe Dennis really took charge of the fundraising effort and took a large portion of the list for himself.”

The community ultimately raised $218,000, enough to purchase a vacant 14,000 square-foot building and 7 ½ acres of land formerly occupied by International Telephone and Telegraph (IT&T). Dennis was President of the Bellevue Industrial Corporation, which owned the property. Initially the building housed the entire college: nine classrooms, a library, student lounge, and administrative and faculty offices.  Thanks to Joe and other community leaders, the College now had a home and opened in September 1966 with about 400 students, three-fourths attending evening classes.

After it proved financially unfeasible to develop some college-owned land overlooking the Missouri River, which at one point was intended to be the eventual home of a brand-new campus, Dennis proposed developing the property as a residential area called College Heights and using the profits to pay off the College’s bond debt. “We were able to pay every note holder off down to the last one, including interest,” he recalled later. Some bond holders waived repayment and donated their notes back to the College.

When his first wife, Marialyce, died in the early 1980s, Mr. Dennis launched a memorial scholarship in her name, helping dozens of students to complete their education. R. Joe Dennis received an honorary Doctor of Commerce degree from the University in 1988. Dennis, who was known by many local residents as “Mr. Bellevue,” died in 2009. The University’s R. Joe Dennis Learning Center is named in his honor. A charter Board member of the college said of him, “Were it not for the efforts of Joe Dennis and several other earlier supporters, Bellevue College (University) probably would not exist today.”

Susan J. Dennis

Like her father, Susan J. Dennis grew up in Bellevue. She became acquainted with Bellevue College as a young person through her father’s involvement. Freeman Company, the family business where she sometimes helped out, is located right across Galvin Road from the University’s main campus.

Susan Dennis Honorary Degree“As a Bellevue native, I can tell you that Bellevue University is truly a great source of pride for this city, and for me personally,” Susan recalled recently. She became Freeman Company’s president after her father, Joe, retired. She joined her father, R. Joe Dennis, on the Bellevue College Board of Directors in 1992. “I joined the board because It was a working board,” she said. “They enabled the College to meet some daunting challenges and continue to be successful. They wanted college to be affordable and accessible for members of the community, including second-chance students.

“The reason I have remained involved and supported the University all these years is the students,” Susan said. “As a young adult, watching the college grow, I realized that I was fortunate. My parents paid for my college education. I took it for granted. But at Bellevue University, I saw people who were working hard just to pick up three credits anytime they could.”

Like her father, Susan has provided steady support and guidance and served as chair of the University and Foundation boards. She received an honorary Doctor of Commerce degree from the University in 2016.

IT&T Building 2 IT&T Building 1

A 14,000 square-foot former International Telephone and Telegraph building housed the entire college when Bellevue College opened in summer 1966.  The building included 9 classrooms, a library, break room, and faculty and staff offices.