Jackrabbit Village: The influential SDSU alumni behind the hall names

The buildings in Jackrabbit Village are a constant reminder of great leaders who started their journeys at South Dakota State University. 

Velva Lu Spencer, Cleveland Abbott and Josef Thorne were influential alumni who, after graduating from SDSU, went on to make their mark on the world.

“The impact of these individuals on their fellow students was substantial, significant and enduring,” said Doug Wermedal, associate vice president for Student Affairs.

Jackrabbit Village will stand in remembrance of their impact on SDSU and those they encountered in their lifetime.

Velva Lu Spencer

“Velva Lu Spencer was an important figure in the Native American student community…(she) helped generations of native students achieve their dreams of receiving a diploma,”  Wermedal said.

A member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Tribe, Spencer was the first Native American adviser on campus from 1988 to 2003. 

An advocate for Native American students, Spencer strived to increase retention and graduation rates for Native American students during her time on campus.

Cleveland Abbot

Cleveland Abbott broke barriers of racial equality on and off campus by becoming a decorated athlete and veteran.

Abbott was the first African American varsity athlete at SDSU; earning 14 letters in track, football, basketball and baseball. In 1968 he received the Athletic Hall of Fame Honors. He was the only African American graduate in his class. 

Booker T. Washington noticed Abbott’s talent and leadership skills, and in 1913 Washington recruited Abbott for the Tuskegee Institute’s athletic director position, on the condition that Abbott attain his bachelor’s degree. 

After earning his bachelor’s degree, Abbott served in World War I as a First Lieutenant in the 366th Infantry Regiment. Abbott moved to Tuskegee, where he accepted the position of athletic director as well as a teaching and coaching position that he held for about 30 years.

While Abbott was at Tuskegee, the football team, as well as the track and field teams, overcame many challenges. When local white teams refused to compete with them, Abbott created a meet for black schools and the Tuskegee track and field program had great success.

“He had that dynamic personality and quality that made men respect him,” said Ross C. Owen, Abbott’s assistant football coach at Tuskegee. 

Abbott ended his coaching career at Tuskegee with a record of 203 wins to 96 losses.

Josef Thorne

Josef Thorne was a fullback on SDSU’s 1961 North Central Conference Champion football team and a 1963 civil engineering graduate. He earned All-American honors and the conference MVP award in 1961.

“Joe Thorne was an important campus leader and a standout football player…,” Wermedal said.

The Packers tried to draft Thorne in 1962, but instead he enlisted in the army as a helicopter pilot, where he climbed the ranks to become Second Lieutenant. Thorne’s helicopter came under fire and crashed on April 19, 1965. Thorne did not survive. 

“He was a fine student and a perfect gentleman in everything he did…” said Hilton M. Briggs, the president of SDSU at the time, in the Beresford paper, following Thorne’s memorial service.