Guest Written by SAM STRASNER
The success of Arkansas Tech University has been integral to the success of Russellville
Writer’s Note: Every word in this article is possible because of the research and expertise of two former members of the Arkansas Tech University history faculty: the late Dr. Kenneth R. Walker, author of “History of Arkansas Tech University: 1909-90,” and Dr. Thomas A. DeBlack, author of “A Century Forward: The Centennial History of Arkansas Tech University.” This article is no more than a re-telling of a small percentage of the treasure trove of Arkansas Tech history they mined and left for the education and enjoyment of those who love ATU.
There’s a dam good reason Arkansas Tech University is located in Russellville.
More than 110 years ago, virtually every municipality in the Arkansas River Valley threw its proverbial hat in the ring for the opportunity to host the school. Several towns met the minimum requirements for land and finances asked for by the Board of Trustees of what was then known as the Second District Agricultural School.
But Judge R.B. Wilson, who was leading the effort to bring the school to Russellville, had an ace in the hole.
He knew that a new dam north of town on the Illinois Bayou had become operational as of November 1909, and that it was going to enhance the availability and efficiency of delivering running water and electricity to Russellville. As result, the offer from Russellville to the Second District Agricultural School Board of Trustees included something no other offer did: free lights and water for three years.
On Feb. 10, 1910, the board met in Ozark and voted to award the school to Russellville.
The story of Arkansas Tech University — and three other universities in the state — is rooted in a successful lobbying effort by the Farmers’ Educational and Cooperative Union. Its calls for better rural education led the Arkansas legislature to pass Act 100 of the 37th Arkansas General Assembly. It was signed into law by Gov. George Donaghey on April 1, 1909.
The other schools created by Act 100 were located in Jonesboro, Magnolia and Monticello. Today, those schools are known as Arkansas State University, Southern Arkansas University and the University of Arkansas at Monticello.
Nine faculty members and 186 students reported to campus for the first day of class at the Second District Agricultural School on Oct. 26, 1910. Selecting a curriculum to pursue was not a difficult task. The boys were enrolled in agriculture classes, while the girls were provided academic opportunities in the domestic sciences (later known as home economics).
Stability was not the school’s companion at the outset. There were four presidents in the first eight years. World War I led to a drop in enrollment from 350 students in 1914-15 to 110 students in 1917-18. As the search for the fifth president in Second District Agricultural School history commenced, it was necessary to identify a transformational leader with a vision for what the school could become. In walked Hugh Critz.
Soon after taking office in August 1918, Critz went about the task of ingratiating himself with agricultural leaders and organizations in the Arkansas River valley and northwest Arkansas.
He worked with the Second District Agricultural School Board of Trustees to begin shifting the curriculum of the institution toward a four-year, college-level program in agriculture and home economics.
By 1922, enrollment had reached an all-time high of 430 students.
Critz recognized the public relations value of a successful football team and worked to frame winning as a point of pride for both the school and the community to which it was tied.
In 1919, an upcoming game against the agricultural school from Jonesboro brought the Second District Agricultural School and Russellville together like never before. An Arkansas Gazette article in advance of the contest included the following passage:
“If the Russellville Aggies lose to the Jonesboro Aggies here Friday afternoon, it will not result from lack of support…for the entire town of Russellville is backing the team to win. This fact was manifested last night at a rousing get-together meeting in the city hall under the auspices of the Russellville Chamber of Commerce.”
The article continued:
“Pep was the slogan, and business men and professional men made enthusiastic talks pledging their attendance and support to the home team.”
The Second District Agricultural School defeated the Jonesboro team 14-0 behind the exploits of a freshman quarterback named John Tucker.
The following season, Edgar O. Brown was hired away from Central College in Fayette, Mo., to coach the squad then known as the Russellville Aggies at the Second District school. With Tucker as the star player, the Second District school amassed a cumulative record of 31-3-5 from 1920-24. Its only three losses during that span were to the University of Tulsa (1922), Army (1923) and Texas A&M (1924).
One of the wins, a 13-0 triumph at what is now known as Henderson State University on Nov. 16, 1920, prompted the Arkansas Gazette to use the nickname Wonder Boys as a proper noun in describing the team for the first time. The nickname has stuck for a century.
For all the wins during the Critz era, there was one defeat that is the biggest “what if?” in the history of Arkansas Tech.
As a graduate of and former faculty member at Mississippi A&M (now known as Mississippi State University), Critz had an ambition to establish a similar institution in Arkansas. To that end, he worked with State Rep. Reese Caudle of Pope County to introduce a bill in the Arkansas General Assembly that sought to move the agriculture and mechanical departments at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville to Russellville and give them greater emphasis in accordance with Critz’s vision.
Legislators made on-campus visits to learn more about the possible benefits of the move, and the bill made it to the floor of the Arkansas House of Representatives in January 1923. It was there and then that Rep. W.L. Lee of Pope County suffered a fatal heart attack while speaking on behalf of the measure. Recess was called. Momentum was lost. The bill was defeated.
Critz’s vision, and perhaps a part of his spirit, was extinguished. He tendered his resignation as Second District school president on May 3, 1923, and after a one-year leave of absence, he cited poor health in making his exit from the school official and final. He later served as president at the institutions now known as the University of Arkansas-Monticello and his alma mater, Mississippi State. He died in 1939 at the age of 62.
Many of the initiatives Critz advocated for continued to move the school forward even after his departure from the Second District Agricultural School. The progression toward a college-level curriculum led to Act 45 of 1925, which was signed by Gov. Thomas J. Terral on Feb. 10, 1925, and changed the name of the institution to Arkansas Polytechnic College. It has commonly been known as Arkansas Tech ever since.
Arkansas Tech awarded Bachelor of Science degrees in agriculture and home economics in 1925. The high school curriculum was phased out and discontinued by 1930.
Persisting as a four-year college proved unsustainable at that time. By 1928, Arkansas Tech found middle ground as a junior college that continued to emphasize agriculture and home economics with some forays into fields such as engineering, teacher preparation and even a short-lived experiment in textile manufacturing education.
Arkansas Tech’s campus was placed in Russellville, but two of the most important figures in its development came to the university from neighboring Yell County.
Judge John Ed Chambers of Danville was appointed to the Arkansas Tech Board of Trustees for the first time in 1925. He served through 1937, from 1939-53 and again from 1955-63.
As 1931 unfolded and Arkansas Tech initiated a search for its eighth president, Chambers championed another Yell County resident — J.W. Hull — for the job.
Hull had earned acclaim as the instructor of the top-ranked Future Farmers of America chapter in the U.S., and he had personally achieved the rank of Master Teacher of Vocational Agriculture in Arkansas.
“My grandfather saw the vision that Dr. Hull had much beyond Danville,” said John Ed Chambers III, a three-term member of the ATU Board of Trustees, during a 2011 interview. “It was an unbelievable step for him to go from teaching agriculture in Danville to serving as president at Arkansas Tech. My grandfather had great belief in Dr. Hull and his abilities. Dr. Hull was a great man, a great promoter and I’m very proud to have known him.”
On Jan. 1, 1932, the Arkansas Tech Board of Trustees elected Hull as the college’s new leader.
Hull was another Mississippi A&M alumnus, but 1932 was not a time for the pursuit of grand plans as had been the case during the Critz administration. It was a time for institutional survival amid what came to be known as the Great Depression.
Arkansas Tech finished the 1931-32 academic year with a budget deficit and was borrowing money from local banks to meet payroll.
Throughout the depression and the global conflict that followed, Hull’s ingenuity allowed Arkansas Tech to remain afloat.
He took advantage of New Deal programs such as the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Civil Works Administration, the Public Works Administration and the National Youth Administration to gain revenue and improve college facilities.
During World War II, Arkansas Tech buildings and grounds were utilized to support Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, which offered training in clerical, administrative and stenographic duties. The on-campus airport was used to train U.S. Air Corps and U.S. Navy pilots.
Hull’s pragmatic approach during difficult times was summarized by a 1935 Arka Tech student newspaper article that stated the college president would not build a new sidewalk until after the students’ pedestrian patterns indicated where they should be installed.
Just as tough times reached the door of Arkansas Tech, good times followed as part of the post-war boon.
Bolstered by the G.I. Bill, enrollment rebounded from a wartime low of 133 students in fall 1943 to 1,159 students in fall 1948.
The Wonder Boys football team won five consecutive Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference titles (1945-49), including a 1945 season during which they dismantled their eight opponents by a cumulative score of 311-6 under the direction of their head coach, the original Wonder Boy, John Tucker.
Sam Hindsman was hired at Tech in 1947 and went about the task of building a basketball dynasty that spanned two decades and included 11 AIC titles.
Gene Witherspoon became Arkansas Tech director of bands in 1950 and established a national reputation for musical excellence that has persisted for seven decades.
Of all the good news at Arkansas Tech following World War II, none was more important to its future than the return to campus of Alfred J. Crabaugh.
Originally from Bentonville, Crabaugh was hired as head of the English department at Arkansas Tech in 1929. Within two years, he was elevated to vice president.
Crabaugh served in the U.S. Navy and was an instructor in the Naval V-12 program at University of California during World War II. After the war, he came home to Arkansas Tech with a new mission in mind.
Emboldened by the post-war enrollment increase, Crabaugh fulfilled Arkansas Tech’s deferred destiny to become a four-year college. By fall 1948, a junior year of course work was offered. Those students rolled over into a senior year of study the following fall and became the first Arkansas Tech students in a quarter-century to receive baccalaureate degrees in 1950.
Crabaugh’s pursuit was completed in 1951 when the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools granted Arkansas Tech accreditation as a four-year institution of higher learning. Arkansas Tech has maintained that accreditation ever since.
Following four decades of service to the institution, Crabaugh retired in 1969. He remains the only person in the history of the institution to hold the title academic dean. He is remembered as the father of the modern intellectual tradition at Arkansas Tech.
Hull retired from the presidency at Arkansas Tech on June 30, 1967. Over the span of his 35 years in office, Arkansas Tech’s campus grew from 17 major buildings to 46, and enrollment increased from 447 students to 2,466. He remains the longest-serving president among the 12 individuals who have held that title at Arkansas Tech.
Among the legacies of the Hull era is that it marked the beginning of a time when an Arkansas Tech education is available to all who wish to pursue it.
George T. Hudgens became the first African American graduate of Arkansas Tech in 1963. Hudgens completed the U.S. Army ROTC program at Arkansas Tech as a Distinguished Military Graduate and went on to a 29-year career in service to his country that saw him retire at the rank of Colonel.
When Hudgens was inducted into the Arkansas Tech Hall of Distinction in 2017, he received a standing ovation from those assembled at Tucker Coliseum for spring commencement.
Cheering crowds were a familiar sight and sound for the 1971 Wonder Boys football team. Head coach Don Dempsey led Arkansas Tech to a 12-1 overall record, an AIC title and a berth in the NAIA national championship game. The 12 wins remain a single-season school record.
Arkansas Tech began offering graduate courses in fall 1976. As had been the case 51 years earlier, the substantial change in curriculum was paired with a name change. The institution became known as Arkansas Tech University.
Enrollment grew steadily from approximately 2,000 students to more than 4,000 during the two-decade presidency of Dr. Kenneth Kersh.
The only alumnus to hold the office of president at Arkansas Tech, Kersh oversaw the construction and/or planning of Tucker Coliseum, Crabaugh Hall, Tech Field (now known as Carl Baswell Field), Corley Hall and the Energy Center as part of his administration from 1973-93.
The Kersh presidency was capped by perhaps the greatest athletic achievement in Arkansas Tech history. Head coach Joe Foley led the Golden Suns women’s basketball program to back-to-back NAIA national championships in 1992 and 1993.
Foley won a school-record 456 games in 16 years as the Golden Suns’ head coach from 1987-2003.
On May 15, 1993, a family in Joplin, Mo., was gathered in its basement when the phone rang.
ATU Board of Trustees Chairman Johnny Morgan was on the other end of the line with a job offer that would lead to one of the greatest success stories in the history of higher education in Arkansas.
Four days later, Dr. Robert C. Brown was formally introduced by the ATU Board of Trustees as the 11th president of Arkansas Tech.
“We were looking for a candidate who was not only academically qualified, but one who had experience in different aspects of university life,” said Morgan. “We were particularly looking for someone who could project the proper image for Arkansas Tech and help us grow the university. He’s extremely bright. He is very articulate. He has a way of presenting a vision or a goal such that you believe it is going to get accomplished. That, as much as anything, is the character of Bob Brown.”
Over his 21 years as president, Brown transformed Arkansas Tech from a small college into one of five universities in the state with more than 11,000 students, oversaw the addition of more than 50 new programs of study, was integral in bringing Arkansas Tech-Ozark Campus into the university, guided the institution through its transition to NCAA Division II status, was at the forefront of the creation of the Great American Conference and led an investment of $260 million in new facilities, renovated facilities and campus infrastructure.
Following Brown’s retirement, the ATU Board of Trustees bestowed upon him the titles president emeritus and distinguished professor of economics.
Brown’s final year as president saw Arkansas Tech re-connect with a part of its past.
W.O. Young oversaw the business affairs of Arkansas Tech as secretary and bursar from 1917-42 and acted as interim president of the college from 1923-25. During the 1930s, he owned a bulldog named Jerry who often accompanied him to campus. The original Jerry spent much of his time at the on-campus armory (later known as the Stroupe Building) with National Guard Battery F. The students and guardsmen there adopted Jerry as one of their own.
An article from the Feb. 26, 1936, issue of the Arka Tech student newspaper stated that Jerry was “always present at anything of importance at the armory,” which was a social center of campus at that time and the site of Arkansas Tech home basketball games.
When the original Jerry passed away in late 1937, the headline in the Arka Tech proclaimed “Campus Loses Mascot in Passing of Jerry.”
After those newspaper articles were unearthed in 2012, the ATU Student Government Association (SGA) conducted a review of them in consideration of restoring the tradition of Jerry the Bulldog. On Oct. 23, 2013, ATU SGA cast a unanimous vote to install Jerry as campus ambassador.
The first modern Jerry, whose full name is Jerry Charles Young I, was born on July 17, 2013. He is an English bulldog. He was introduced during a Homecoming Saturday ceremony in front of Williamson Hall on Oct. 26, 2013, which was the 103rd anniversary of the first day of classes at Arkansas Tech.
Dr. Robin E. Bowen was unanimously elected the 12th president of Arkansas Tech University by the Arkansas Tech Board of Trustees on April 22, 2014. She took office on July 1, 2014.
“When Doug and I visited campus, we fell in love with the area, we fell in love with the people and we fell in love with Arkansas Tech University,” said Bowen on the day she was announced as ATU’s next president. “It was a delight to meet all of you. We felt like this was the perfect place for us to be, and I couldn’t be happier that you feel that it is a good match as well. For my family and for myself, in so many ways this is like coming home. I’m so grateful for this opportunity to serve the career center, the Ozark campus and the Russellville campus. We know that everything we do, first and foremost, is for the students. We are here for the students.”
Bowen is the first female president of a public, four-year university in Arkansas. She is identified by the Arkansas Business Publishing Group as one of the Arkansas 250, an annual list of the state’s top influencers and newsmakers.
ATU has celebrated multiple record enrollments during the Bowen presidency, including an all-time high of 12,101 students during fall 2018. In addition, ATU has earned national acclaim from the CollegeNET Social Mobility Index as the top performing institution in Arkansas and among the top 5 percent of institutions in the U.S. when it comes to providing students with access to an enhanced economic position following graduation. The first doctoral degrees in ATU history were conferred in 2017.
The institution has developed and enacted a new strategic plan, new campus master plan, new mission statement and new vision statement during the Bowen administration.
When she was inaugurated in April 2015, Bowen reflected on the essential collaboration between Arkansas Tech and Russellville that Judge Wilson sparked with that offer of free lights and water more than a century earlier.
“The community first gave this institution life, and it is the community that will help Tech grow,” said Bowen. “I am impressed by the abundant goodwill toward Tech. I know that I am very fortunate to have landed in such a wonderful community. Life is good in the Arkansas River valley, but there is still much to do. Together, we must find ways to make our community even stronger.”