REX NELSON: The Arkansas Tech story

Posted: January 27, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

I was raised in a college town. Most of the houses in our neighborhood at Arkadelphia during my formative years in the 1960s and 1970s were occupied by faculty members at what are now Ouachita Baptist University and Henderson State University.

I didn't understand it as a child, but I was living in a special place. Our neighbors included a talented playwright, a famous basketball coach, a noted musician, a philosopher, a theologian, a writer and even the state's lieutenant governor. It was the kind of neighborhood that could only be found in a college town.

Living in a family that loved athletics, road trips consisted of visits to the campuses of the schools that made up the old Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference. In addition to Ouachita and Henderson, the AIC schools in those days were what are now the University of Central Arkansas and Hendrix College at Conway, the University of the Ozarks at Clarksville, Lyon College at Batesville, Arkansas Tech University at Russellville, Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia, Harding University at Searcy and the University of Arkansas at Monticello. While boys in other parts of the state followed the exploits of the University of Arkansas Razorbacks, the athletes and coaches with whom I was most familiar came from the AIC.

In a state where the Razorback brand is dominant, the Arkansas colleges and universities that aren't in Fayetteville aren't on the radar screen of many Arkansans. But these schools have played an important role in the development of the state and will continue to do so in the years ahead. That's why I jumped at the opportunity when Patrick Williams of the University of Arkansas' history department, who edits the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, asked me to review Tom DeBlack's A Century Forward: The Centennial History of Arkansas Tech University.

Each spring I attend the annual meeting of the Arkansas Historical Association and plan to do so again this April at Fort Smith. My wife refers to it as my "time away with fellow history nerds." At those meetings, DeBlack's presentations pack the room and are the most interesting of all sessions. Based on that background, I knew his book would be fun to read. DeBlack, a history professor at Tech, was asked several years ago by Robert Brown, the school's president at the time, to write a history of the institution's first 100 years.

"I agreed to do it, believing that the task would not be that difficult," DeBlack writes in the preface to the book. "There was, after all, a history of the school's early years written by G.R. Turrentine and John Tucker and an exhaustively researched history of the institution covering the period from 1909-1990 written by my former colleague, the late Kenneth Walker. That meant that I would only have to add an account of the ensuing 19 years to complete the project. Two to three years seemed like plenty of time to do the additional research and commit it to writing. Seldom have I been more wrong about anything. The project stretched to over 10 years and involved more than a reading of the Turrentine/Tucker and Walker books and a little extra research."

DeBlack immersed himself in decades of school newspapers, yearbooks and daily newspapers from Russellville, Fort Smith and Little Rock. The result is a highly readable narrative. In 1909, the Arkansas Legislature passed an act to establish agricultural schools in four districts across the state. Legislators had been lobbied for years by the Farmers Educational and Cooperative Union to create such schools in an attempt to reverse what the leaders of the organization viewed as the decline of rural life in Arkansas. Competition was particularly stiff for the Second District Agricultural School. Russellville was chosen following a spirited competition with Fort Smith, Morrilton and Ozark.

Cities interested in landing the school were required to pledge at least $40,000 and 200 acres. Russellville threw in free water and electricity for three years. The district school, which initially served high school-age students, opened in the fall of 1910 with 186 students. It grew to 350 students by the fall of 1913. In February 1925, the Legislature changed the name of the Second District Agricultural School to Arkansas Polytechnic College. The other three district agricultural schools went on to become Arkansas State University at Jonesboro, SAU at Magnolia, and UAM at Monticello.

Life hasn't always been easy at Tech. The Great Depression led to budget shortfalls and legislative discussions about closing the four district schools. More problems came at the onset of World War II when most males joined the armed services. Tech's enrollment dropped to 133 students in the fall of 1943. Empty dorm space was utilized by members of the Women's Army Corps and naval air personnel who trained there. In recent years, though, Tech has been among the fastest-growing colleges in the region with almost 12,000 students now enrolled on campuses at Russellville and Ozark.

"The task proved to be more daunting than I could have imagined, but it also proved to be immensely rewarding," DeBlack says of the book. "Not only did I discover a great many facts about the institution that I had never known, I also found that many things that were generally accepted as facts about the school's early years were dead wrong."

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 01/27/2018