John “Rockey” Park served as the first president of the University of Deseret (later renamed the University of Utah). A beloved teacher, advocate for education, and forward-thinking leader, Park was instrumental in establishing the university as a prominent higher education institution in the region.
Park was born in Tiffin, Ohio, in 1833. He graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University and received a medical degree from New York University. After three years of medical practice, he found education was his true calling and taught at schools in Ohio before traveling west. Park settled in Utah in 1861 and found a position as principal of the Draper School, where he earned a reputation as a skilled administrator and teacher with a wealth of knowledge.
When the University of Deseret reopened in 1869 after years of closure, Park was unanimously selected by the Board of Regents as its first president. He was tasked with meeting the initial needs of the school as well as establishing a foundation for growth. He hired the first faculty and established programs in arts, science, education, and business. He began a university library and natural history museum and propelled scientific research efforts. After moving to increasingly larger facilities as the student body expanded, Park recognized the need to plan for the university’s long-term growth. Shortly before retiring, he became involved in negotiations to secure a large parcel of land on the east bench, where the U sits today.
After stepping down in 1892, Park went on to become Utah’s first state superintendent of public education, where he worked on initiatives to establish Utah’s school districts, increase teacher salaries, and improve school buildings. Park died in 1900, the year the U moved to its new location. He bequeathed his entire library and fortune—an estimated $45,000—to the university. In 1919, the “main” building on campus—the Administration Building, located at the top of President’s Circle—was renamed in Park’s honor. Built to house administrative offices, the library, and several departments, the Park Building today is used for the office of the president and other university leaders.