How Westmont Got Its Name

Westmont’s Los Angeles campus, 1940

The celebration of Westmont’s 75th anniversary in 2012 offers a timely opportunity to consider the college’s history and the origin of its name. Who coined “Westmont” and why?

The vision for the institution began with Ruth Kerr, an unusual woman for her time. After her husband, Alexander, died, she assumed his position as president of Kerr Glass Manufacturing even though she had six children. A devout Christian, she believed the Los Angeles area needed a Bible institute that didn’t charge the usual $150 deposit. She later recalled, “In August of 1937, God awakened this Christian woman out of a sound sleep one night, and the still, small voice said, ‘Now is the time to open the school.’” The next morning, Rev. Leland Entrekin shared a similar burden with Mrs. Kerr, and they joined with three nationally known Bible teachers (Anna Dennis, Elbert McCreery and John Page) who left Biola to establish the Bible Missionary Institute in fall 1937. The 72 students and 16 faculty met at First Fundamental Church (later Westlake Calvary) in Los Angeles.

Kerrwood Hall, circa 1950

The school struggled financially as the Great Depression lingered. In January 1939, the founders added a junior college curriculum and changed the name to Western Bible College. Mrs. Kerr recalled that in May 1939 “We were led of the Lord to contact Dr. Wallace L. Emerson, dean of students of Wheaton College, to come to us as president of a proposed four-year, liberal arts college built on a sound Christian basis, God having given us the vision for this larger work.”

That summer, she purchased the Westlake School for Girls in Los Angeles and gave its six buildings on four acres to the school. Westmont College opened for classes in fall 1940.

One popular story about Westmont’s naming has persisted: it originated from the school’s Los Angeles location on Westmoreland and Vermont. As appealing as this explanation is, Professor Emeritus Paul Wilt has determined it’s apocryphal. Since he retired from teaching history, Paul has worked extensively in the archives, organizing material, doing research and writing prolifically about Westmont’s history.

First Fundamentalist Church, 1938

He studied the question of Westmont’s name and concluded, “The best information I have is that it is derived from a college in the west and in the mountains. The name was chosen when the college was in Los Angeles and not Montecito. Even though the mountains are not as close there, Los Angeles lies between the mountains and the sea. In addition, the immediate predecessor of Westmont was Western Bible College. In my interview with Wallace Emerson, Jan. 5, 1984, when he was 97, we talked about the name. He rejected Kerr College (Mrs. Kerr’s suggestion) and the trustees and students rejected his idea, Trinity College. He said, “Well, then what do we do? Well, it’s out west, and it’s in the mountains. I don’t know who came up with that. And finally Westmont became the name for no rhyme or reason except that it was a name that sounded all right and had a little significance as far as location was concerned.”

Genevieve Johnson Nelson, the Westmont cashier in 1940-41, attended the meeting when the name was chosen. She told Paul in 1990 it was a combination of the west and mountains. The late Lyle Hillegas, a former president and professor, wrote his dissertation about Westmont’s history, and he supported this explanation. At President John Snyder’s installation in 1969, Dean Frank Hieronymus prayed, “Help us to be as big as the West for whom the college was named;Help usto be as majestic as the mountains for whom the college was also named.”

In 2006, Westmont archivist Corey Glass Thomas ’97 discovered an article in the May 13, 1940, Western Horizon that settled the issue. In a story about the new name, the paper reported, “At last we have a name for our new school, and guess who wins the five dollars that Dr. Emerson spoke of! It was Dr. Emerson himself.  He suggested the name ‘Westmont’ since the college is in the West among the mountains.”

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