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Ouachita at 125

I can count on one hand the number of Little Rock Touchdown Club meetings I’ve missed since the club was formed in 2004. I especially hated to miss Tuesday’s speaker, former Alabama head coach Gene Stallings, someone I’ve long admired.

But my alma mater called.

Ouachita Baptist University celebrated its 125th birthday Tuesday.

On Sept. 6, 1886, the school opened its doors.

In a wonderful new book titled “Ouachita Voices,” my old history professor, Dr. Ray Granade, writes this: “Ouachita trustees chose as president a minister with impressive educational credentials named John William Conger who, at age 29, had already presided over a Tennessee college, founded an Arkansas one and headed Prescott High School. His charisma rested on erect posture, handsomeness, unfailing courtesy, self-confidence and genuine interest in people. ‘Dr. Jack’ combined strong-minded optimism and determination with a deep interest in the poor’s welfare, concerns that shaped the school’s course.

“Elected three months before Ouachita opened, Conger operated under a renewable two-year contract that made him solely responsible for everything. He assembled a six-member faculty (including him and his wife), prepared building and grounds, and advertised a school created not ‘as a financial speculation, but solely upon an educational basis,’ and ‘not run as a money-making institution.’ Free tuition for all ministers ‘irrespective of denomination,’ and their children, and a variety of other discounts, encouraged attendance but inhibited income.”

At Ouachita’s Founders Day celebration Tuesday, a number of Conger’s descendants were in attendance, tying the past to the present. One of them even carried Conger’s walking cane.

1886: It was the year the Statue of Liberty was dedicated, Coca-Cola was invented and construction began on the Eiffel Tower.

The Arkansas Baptist State Convention appointed a self-perpetuating board of trustees for a new college, which then met in Little Rock on April 8, 1886, to hear proposals from eight Arkansas cities.

After 72 ballots, the telegram came the next day: “College located at Arkadelphia.”

Arkadelphia was the state’s eighth largest city by the 1880 census. Five institutions were started there within a decade, and the city became known as the Athens of Arkansas.

By late 19th-century Arkansas standards, Arkadelphia was a highly progressive place.

Granade notes that “Arkadelphia’s first telephone system and waterworks arrived in 1891, electricity soon thereafter; two banks served the town after 1888; baseball games took place after 1887 in a 500-seat ballpark; and Arkadelphia Bottling Co. provided portable versions of fountain drinks.”

Many educational institutions opened across the state between 1875 and the end of the century. Most of them didn’t survive. Ouachita did.

Of the 11 private colleges and universities I now represent, Ouachita is the only one south of Little Rock.

Ouachita survived thanks to a string of strong presidents and other administrators along with dedicated faculty members.

I think of the men and women who served on Ouachita’s faculty during my formative years — people such as Francis McBeth, Joe Nix, Jim Ranchino and Bill Vining, all of whom were nationally known in their fields and all of whom stayed in Arkadelphia at salaries far below what they could have commanded elsewhere.

My parents — Ouachita class of 1947 and class of 1948 — hailed from Benton and Des Arc. They met in college and jumped at the first opportunity following graduation to return to Arkadelphia and establish a business. Long after graduation, they remained in love with Ouachita.

I was raised just blocks from the Ouachita campus in a house my family still owns. Those who know me understand that Ouachita is far more than my college alma mater. It is an integral part of who I’ve been since birth and who I’ll be until my death.

My earliest childhood memories are centered on the fall afternoons spent hanging out at the Ouachita football practice field. There were the other sports events I attended (I would be nervous at school all day if there were a Ouachita-Henderson basketball game that night), the concerts, the plays (in the third grade, I had the chance to be in a Ouachita production of “Our Town”), the lectures.

As noted, both of my parents attended Ouachita. So did my older sister (class of 1972).

Most people took for granted that I would attend Ouachita. Being a strong-willed person at the age of 18 (now, as the father of a strong-willed 18-year-old boy, I understand), I had different ideas.

I decided I would go after the Grantland Rice Scholarship, a four-year scholarship to Vanderbilt University for prospective sportswriters that was sponsored by the Thoroughbred Racing Association. Members of the Arkansas Racing Commission and the management of Oaklawn Park were enlisted to write letters on my behalf.

Interestingly, the president of Ouachita at the time, Dr. Daniel R. Grant, had come back to Ouachita (where his father had been president) after a distinguished career as a political science professor at Vanderbilt. It was Dr. Grant, in fact, who had written what then was considered the best college textbook on state and local government.

To his credit, Dr. Grant also worked to help me earn that Vanderbilt scholarship.

I finished as first runner-up (which got me no money) and made the decision to stay home and attend Ouachita.

It turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.

Following a luncheon Tuesday, I asked Dr. Grant to sign my copy of “Ouachita Voices.”

Here’s what he wrote: “I hate to admit it, but I’m glad you didn’t get that Grantland Rice Scholarship to Vanderbilt University, and did come to Ouachita. Sometimes being No. 2 out of 500 applicants is best.”

That made my day. You see, Dr. Grant is among my heroes because he turned Ouachita around when the school was experiencing a rough patch.

He writes in “Ouachita Voices” that his opportunity to serve as president in 1970 “came during an unusual time when university presidents came and went in a hurry. It was a time of student demonstrations against the Vietnam War and a growing drug culture. ‘New college president’ stories were legion, and I think I heard all of them. Presidents’ average tenure during this era was said to be only 2.3 years.

“The search committee called me in early summer of 1969 and didn’t try to conceal Ouachita’s problems: a sharp enrollment drop; a $300,000 operating deficit and a similar deficit projected for 1970; very low faculty salaries on the national rating scale; strong criticism and weak support from Arkansas Baptist leadership; a deplorable condition of campus buildings; and faculty morale and public relations at a record low.”

Despite all of that, Dan Grant chose to “come home” to Arkadelphia.

He said a Vanderbilt colleague described the decision as being based on “God, father and alma mater.”

Dr. Grant’s father had been Ouachita’s president from 1934-49, steering the school through the depths of the Great Depression.

Dr. Grant writes of his father’s struggles to “keep Ouachita’s doors open, regain accreditation, pay of the burden of a mortgaged endowment and house a growing student body with renovated barrack structures.”

The first call Dan Grant made when he decided to become Ouachita’s president was to Dr. Ben Elrod, who at the time was president of Oakland City College in Indiana. Fortunately for Ouachita, one of the nation’s premier fund-raising experts answered the call to become Ouachita’s vice president for development.

Working together, Dan Grant and Ben Elrod rebuilt the campus during the next decade.

When Dr. Grant retired in 1988, Dr. Elrod left the job I now hold in order to serve as Ouachita’s president from 1988-98. He was replaced by my friend Dr. Andy Westmoreland, who served as president until accepting the presidency of Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., in 2006.

Since 2006, Dr. Rex Horne has led Ouachita. Enrollment this fall is at a 10-year high, and Dr. Horne’s dream of changing the student housing situation for the better has become a reality in just five years.

Now that I work for 11 college presidents, I more fully understand how demanding that job is — and how crucial an inspirational president is to the success of any institution of higher learning.

Grant, Elrod, Westmoreland and Horne — it has been a string of talented presidents who have led Ouachita these past four decades.

I can hear Gene Stallings speak another time.

Frankly, I wouldn’t have been anywhere but Ouachita on the occasion of her 125th birthday. Long may she flourish.

And go Tigers.

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