Henry Hardin Cherry was born to Warren County farmers, on November 16, 1864. He actually received little to no formal education until entering Bowling Green's Southern Normal School (what WKU was essentially known as then, established in 1875) in January 1886. Six years later, he and his brother, Thomas Crittenden Cherry bought the school, while he was faculty there, in an attempt to save it. By 1899, enrollment exploded, thanks to Henry, and he bought out his brother's share, developing it into the Southern Normal School and Bowling Green Business University.
The REAL turning point came seven years down the road, in 1906. Cherry played an integral role in state legislation to establish normal (teaching) schools in Eastern and Western parts of the state. Along with others, success came with two schools - one in Richmond and one in Bowling Green. This was noted throughout the state, as was his naming as president of Bowling Green's school in June of that year. The specifics of the site bids are laid out in these clippings from page 4 of the May 10, 1906 Hopkinsville Kentuckian:
There were apparently a few issues with providing deeds for the proposed land in Bowling Green. Nevertheless, Cherry fought for the school. Classes began in the private school in January 1907, and the name - "Southern Normal School" - changed to Western Kentucky State Normal School (Hartford Herald, 1 August 1906, p. 1). By 1911, it moved to its current location (on top of a hill, overlooking Bowling Green; hence the school sports team - "Hilltoppers"), bought from another college in 1909. It has absorbed assorted lands, and even another college throughout the years. These are all memorialized through buildings on, and colleges within the university (e.g. Potter, Ogden).
Cherry, himself, is remembered in WKU's landmark building - Cherry Hall, which has the campus belltower. The building was completed in 1937, and dedicated in November of that year, a few months after Cherry died - the only thing that ended his more than 30-year tenure as president. He had seen the college through its first bachelors and masters degrees (1924; 1931) numerous name changes (though it would not be known as WKU until 1966) and various social challenges, including women's suffrage (of which he proved himself a considerable ally) and the Great Depression.
Probably most importantly, Cherry championed the success of the students, encouraging them to become all that they could. He even endowed WKU with a motto it still uses and holds true to, to this day: "The Spirit Makes the Master."