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Nuestra Historia - Montezuma’s United World College

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Charles, Prince of Wales, and heir to the British throne, came to Montezuma on Oct. 28, 1982, to dedicate the Armand Hammer United World College of the American West.

He was accompanied by Dr. Armand Hammer and other international dignitaries, who participated in the inaugural ceremonies for the only United World College in the United States. (Through the years, some historical accounts have reported that the Prince’s great-great aunt, Princess Louise — Queen Victoria’s daughter — visited the luxury resort at Montezuma in the 1880s. If true, Prince Charles was the second British royal to visit Montezuma, a century later.)

World financier and philanthropist Armand Hammer long championed the concept of a global collegiate system dedicated to international understanding and cooperation. For this purpose he founded the Armand Hammer Foundation, overseen by an international board then chaired by Prince Charles, and in 1981 the Foundation acquired Montezuma as part of its worldwide collegiate system.

(Hammer was born in 1898 in Manhattan, N.Y., to Russian-born Jewish immigrants. He graduated from Columbia medical school in 1921 and entered the pharmaceutical manufacturing business established by his father. He later invested heavily in oil production, eventually taking control of Occidental Petroleum. In 1986, Forbes Magazine reported his net worth at $200 million. Hammer was 92 when he died in 1990.)

Immediately after acquiring the Montezuma property, the Foundation completely renovated and upgraded the entire site, including a full restoration of the 1885 Montezuma castle. When the College opened in the fall of 1982, it was named in honor of Hammer, its primary benefactor. Today it is one of 13 UWC schools in the world. The other 12 colleges are spread over five continents, in Swaziland, China, India, Singapore, Italy, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Norway, Canada, Costa Rica and Venezuela.

The magnificently restored Montezuma castle serves as a student center for the UWC, and provides student and faculty residences, classrooms and offices. Its iconic dining hall continues to serve that purpose, as it did in the luxury days of the Montezuma resort, and later for the Mexican seminarians who also used the hall as their dining facility. (The Montezuma castle is now known as the Davis International Center, named in honor of Shelby and Gale Davis, who made a $45 million endowment to the UWC in 1998, at the time the largest private donation made to international education.)

Montezuma’s original three-story stone hotel, built by the railroad in 1880, was fully renovated by the UWC, and houses its administrative offices, and some residential quarters. Another part of the original hotel serves as the residence for the College president, and includes a guest house, where such luminaries as Prince Charles and Malcolm Forbes have stayed.

Theodore D. Lockwood was the school’s first president, from 1982 to 1994. He was followed by Philip O. Geier, who served from 1994 to 2005, when he was succeeded by current president Lisa A. H. Darling. In 2000, the UWC dedicated the Lockwood Library in honor of its first president and his wife Lu. The library contains more than 20,000 volumes and 1,800 media files. (In 1997, Dr. Lockwood published Dreams & Promises: The Story of the Armand Hammer United World College.)

Every year about 200 students from more than 80 countries attend the UWC in Montezuma. They range in age from 16 to 19, and are enrolled in the international baccalaureate program offered by the UWC system.

In 2007, the Wall Street Journal named the Armand Hammer UWC as one of the world’s top 50 schools for its success in preparing students to enter prestigious American universities.

Since 1841, when Las Vegas alcalde Juan de Dios Maese conveyed the hot springs property to eager entrepreneurs Julian and Anthony Donaldson, Montezuma has always seemed to resist commercial exploitation.

The Donaldsons and at least a half dozen others after them, failed in their attempts to capitalize on the salubrious hot springs. Even the mighty AT&SF failed in its repeated and costly efforts to make Montezuma a commercial success.

Unknowingly, those early developers created a magnificent setting for higher education, which appears to be Montezuma’s intended place in history. Since 1922, when the Baptists opened their college at the former luxury resort, the halls of Montezuma have reverberated with learning and erudition. No less so than during the 35 years that Montezuma served as a Mexican seminary.

Today, the esteemed tradition of higher education continues near the hot springs, which the indigenous people of this area considered a sanctuary and place of peace. Perhaps that will always be the true mantra of the splendid and imposing site we know as Montezuma.

Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached    at 425-3730.