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NEW: Huron University bids adieu as auction begins
The message "BYE HU" is cut into the grass in front of Vorhees Hall at the former Huron University on Thursday. The 23-acre campus and contents of the school will be auctioned off on Friday. (AP Photo/Dirk Lammers)

HURON - As an auctioneer seeks bids on the last remaining parcels of the once-thriving Huron University, educators 4,200 miles across the globe will begin passing out diplomas from a school bearing the same name.

Huron University USA in London - established in 1989 as the South Dakota's school's branch campus - begins its graduation ceremonies at 3 p.m. Friday, London time.

At that same moment, 9 a.m. Central, buyers in Huron will begin competing for pieces of the South Dakota school's 123-year history.

"It's a shame that it's over," said R. John Reynolds, the college's president from 1984 to 1993. "It didn't have to be over, but it's just the circumstances and it came to that, I guess. There's not much you can do about it now."

The Huron campus last served students as the American Indian-owned Si Tanka University-Huron. The property fell into foreclosure in 2004 after Si Tanka's owner, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, defaulted on $6.6 million worth of loans and faced a $2 million federal tax lien.

All buildings on the 23-acre campus and their contents are now up for bids in an auction run by Maas Companies of Rochester, Minn.

Everything must go - from the school's historic Voorhees Hall to artificial skeletons, gymnasium bleachers and an 8-foot salad bar complete with sneeze-guard.

One memorabilia lot includes a history room with a 1906 diploma, copper engraved print blocks, an old Huron College Chapel Bible and a 1926-1937 Smith Extemporaneous Cup award.

Sports enthusiasts can bid on soccer uniforms, tackling dummies, basketball banners and a display case with trophies dating to 1958. People wanting to equip their garages can stock up on tractors, snow blowers, air compressors and table saws.

And then there's the real estate.

Huron lawyer and former state lawmaker Ron Volesky said he's still hoping a single buyer will emerge to keep the campus' nine buildings in tact.

Volesky and his brother, Gary Montana, of Osceola, Wis., formed National Native American Education Corp. in an effort to resurrect the campus as a national college that focuses on American Indian students.

Volesky said he still was hoping some last-minute funding would come through for the venture.

"It would sure be nice if either my group or some other group can come in and buy it as one and maintain it as a four-year institution of higher learning," he said.

There remains a chance the campus could be kept together, said Tom Gietzen, president of property owner Farmers and Merchant Bank.

Interested parties will bid separately on seven tracts of the property, but if a bidder steps forward and offers a higher price for the entire group, that person would be the winner. A 5-acre athletic field and 6 acres of developmental land are not part of the group package.

Gietzen, preparing for the auction Thursday in the school gymnasium, said Volesky's group and some others have expressed interest in the entire real estate package.

"There's been a couple of new ones surfacing in the last month or so," he said.

Huron University's roots can be traced back to 1883, when the Presbyterian Church established a university in Pierre. It moved and became Huron College in 1897, operating as a private school affiliated with the Presbyterian Church for the next 87 years.

In 1984, while Reynolds was heading Rapid City-based National College, Huron College was on the verge of closing.

National College's owner agreed to take over management of the financially strapped school if Huron voters would extend a penny sales tax to take over existing debt. The vote passed, and Midwest Educational Systems Inc. signed a three-year agreement with an option to buy Huron College for $1. The company exercised that option in 1987 and formed Higher Education Corp. of America to serve as its owner.

The first couple of years were tough, Reynolds said, but the Huron campus operated in the black for nine years and enrollment grew from 272 to more than 500.

In 1989, three brothers from London - Hugh, Peter and Paul Templeton - bought the school and changed its name to Huron University. The new owners also established a London branch campus, which to this day operates as Huron University USA but has no affiliation with its predecessor.

Reynolds said the Templetons brought vitality and enthusiasm to Huron, and those were some of the school's best days. Huron students and teachers got the chance to travel to London, and some students from England spent semesters in South Dakota.

"It just opened up a whole new market for Huron, more of a global market," Reynolds said.

In 1992, a corporation headed by a member of the Japanese House of Representatives purchased the school and set up a Tokyo branch campus.

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Tokyo businessman Chikara Higashi, who also became the school's chairman of the board of trustees, praised Huron at the time as a safe community with a low cost of living and rich history.

Reynolds left the school, saying the new owners employed a different management style and did not understand the American education system. He said the ownership change marked the beginning of the end for Huron University.

"It was a train pretty much heading for a wreck," said Reynolds, now president of Salem International University in West Virginia. "It was just a matter of how long it took."

Higashi sold the Huron and Sioux Falls campuses in 1996 to Colorado Technical Institute, which three years later sold the Huron campus to a group of local investors led by the school's chancellor.

Si Tanka College of Eagle Butte bought Huron University in 2001, and Si Tanka University-Huron became the first off-reservation university controlled by a U.S. tribe.

The tribe financed the deal with $6.6 million in loans and guarantees from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, used for operating capital and the restructuring of debt. But Si Tanka officials soon realized the school was in dire straits.

They hired Reynolds as a consultant to help the tribe restructure its finances, but he said the books were in worse shape than when he took over in 1984.

"They were overstaffed, underfunded, not enough kids," Reynolds said. "I don't think they had any direction in mind, really."

The school also faced problems getting money from the federal government. Its grant funding required at least 50 percent Indian enrollment, and Si Tanka couldn't meet that threshold with its primarily white Huron campus figured in.

By March 2005, teachers and staff suffered multiple missed paychecks and gave the administration a vote of no confidence. They walked off the job and classes ended.

The next month, Si Tanka filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The case was dismissed when a federal judge found there weren't enough remaining assets for unsecured creditors.

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