Yesterday ONCE MORE
The University and Searcy commemorate our 75th year as town and gown
By Jennifer L. Marcussen
Faculty, staff, alumni and friends of the University celebrated 75 years of Christian education in 1999. Even many of today’s freshmen know the institution was founded in 1924.
So why all the hype about 75 years now? Shouldn’t we be celebrating an 85th anniversary? Well, the answer depends on what you are recognizing.
If existence, then yes, 85 years would be correct. Some historians would even argue that Harding technically existed before 1924 as other junior colleges, namely Harper (Kan.) College and Arkansas Christian College in Morrilton.
But this anniversary is not a remembrance of establishment. It is the celebration of a relationship — a friendship that, like many, has endured challenges, and, in the end, emerged stronger for them.
In 2009, we celebrate 75 years of Harding University — in Searcy, Ark.
Before its move to the present-day campus, Harding College, as it was known until 1979, was located in Morrilton in the central part of the state. It was founded with the 1924 merger of two junior colleges, Harper, led by J.N. Armstrong, and Arkansas Christian, led by A.S. Croom.
In the early 1920s, the Harper campus was flourishing, but the town was too small to house and provide work for all the families who wanted to live there and send their children to the school. Jobs were scarce; buildings were outgrown and outdated. Arkansas Christian, on the other hand, had facilities but lacked faculty.
L.C. Sears, former dean of students, in his Armstrong biography, For Freedom, called uniting the two practical and smart: “Harper was accredited as a standard junior college, and Arkansas Christian, not yet accredited, was offering two years of college work. By combining all their resources, the new institution could open as a first-class senior college.”
The consolidated institution chose the name Harding College to honor preacher, teacher and Christian educator James A. Harding. Led by Armstrong, the College worked diligently to establish itself academically during the next decade. Student enthusiasm for learning under Christian teachers was great, but funds were scarce, and debt, heavy. Armstrong and his faculty made countless sacrifices to keep the school open, their diligence paying off when the College received accreditation from the Arkansas Board of Education in 1928.
The 1929 crash and drought of 1930 only worsened financial matters, but, with relentless action and belief in their mission, faculty and staff withstood the calamity that had befallen so many. By 1934, expansion was essential, leaving the question: “How?”
Meanwhile, thousands of hard-working Arkansans 70 miles east in the White County seat of Searcy mourned the loss of one college and yearned for the return of the energy, excitement and culture that the younger generation brought to the community. They would not wait long.
The right town at the right price
Lifelong Searcy resident and chairman emeritus of Yarnell’s Ice Cream Co. Albert Yarnell Sr. remembers when the College moved from Morrilton. He recalls in part because it was only two years after his father, Ray, took a company forced into bankruptcy and began what is today the town’s oldest surviving industry. Only the Daily Citizen has been around longer.
“We are two years older than Harding,” Yarnell says proudly.
Ice cream was a luxury in 1930s Arkansas, as was pretty much anything except clothing, housing and basic food.
“Father did not draw a salary,” he says of the company’s humble beginnings. “We lived by milk and cream from the plant.”
Townsfolk made a living growing cotton and strawberries, dairying, truck farming, or working at the ice plant. Times were hard. Most were poor. But the market crash didn’t affect the small town with the same impact as the big city.
“Don’t think Searcy was as bad in 1929 as 1932 (after the drought),” says Yarnell. “There wasn’t a lot of interest in stocks and bonds. Most invested in life insurance.”
Leon Van Patten, 90, who was born in nearby Pangburn and has lived in Searcy since 1932, doesn’t remember a big change either — life had never been easy.
“I realized later that people got along better in rural communities than city people because they raised their own food,” he says. “We had a lot of turnip greens, but we had something to eat.”
Because it had been home to Galloway Woman’s College, Searcy was already known as a college town, and its citizens welcomed the school, even sending trucks to help move all the equipment from the old campus. The boost students brought the community put a positive spin on hard times.
Daily Citizen editor J.J. Baugh perhaps expressed best the general consensus on Harding’s arrival in a June 1934 editorial: “The people of Searcy feel that the coming of this Christian institution into our midst is nothing short of a godsend. Without exception, every denomination in this territory opens its arms and receives it and its student body and faculty with wholehearted enthusiasm.”
Born on Center Street just six blocks from the College, Yarnell encountered students regularly. He remembers being asked to visit the dorm and helping paint Godden Hall. And, although he didn’t attend the College, he did play flute in the orchestra in 1939 alongside future president Clifton Ganus Jr. (’43). Neither Searcy Public Schools nor Harding could afford a director, so they shared one.
“Searcy was a happy place to live,” Yarnell states. “Everybody worked together. The college kids were what I called ‘ordinary folks.’ Everybody welcomed them here.”
However, Yarnell admits, former Galloway “girls,” including his mother, Hallie Rogers Yarnell, class of 1921, were saddened when the new school took over their much-beloved campus.
The Galloway campus had been built in the late 1880s, with classes beginning in September 1889. The Methodist school was considered a first-class institution for women and, at one point, claimed to be the largest female college in the South.
Most well-known families in Arkansas, including Searcy, sent their daughters there.
Despite talented faculty and outstanding students, it, too, fell victim to economic hardships. After ending classes in 1933, Galloway consolidated with Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., leaving a campus just the right size for another emerging institution.
Says Van Patten, “Many of the women graduates from Galloway married and lived here, keeping that connection.”
The Galloway plant was about double the size of the Morrilton campus. Valued at $500,000, the selling price was $75,000. Even in 1934, it was too good of a deal to pass up.
Making the move
After the purchase, Armstrong invited all faculty, staff and students to make the move across state. The Pryors and Colemans were among the many families who participated in the move that hot, dusty summer.
The late Joseph Pryor (’37) spent his freshman year on the Morrilton campus, where his father, L.E., was a history professor. Pryor witnessed firsthand the excitement generated when the College bought the Searcy property. He also saw the negative reaction, including the brief trial brought on by Morrilton residents who wanted to prevent the move.
“I remember vividly the court scene in Morrilton when the issue came to trial,” he said. “The judge was from Conway, I believe, and, by the time he began to give his decision, almost everyone opposing the move had left the courtroom because the verdict was obvious.”
As a sophomore, Pryor was impressed with the new facilities and glad that the College retained the identity, traditions and spirit of service that had prevailed at Morrilton.
“In the days that I was student, money was exceedingly rare,” he said. “Many students had no more than 10 cents a week for spending, but we did not know that we were underprivileged. We had wonderful associations, and we were ready to volunteer work to get our goals achieved. The men and women who taught us inspired us. … We could see Christ exemplified in their lives. This inspired us to continue the great work that they had begun.”
Fayetta Coleman (’46) Murray is proud to share her birth year with Harding. Like the College, she was 10 years old when the campus moved. She, too, has been in Searcy 75 years.
As a young child, she and her family left Montana and headed to Morrilton to be near Harding. Her parents, O.M. and Ermine, had met and married at Cordell (Okla.) Christian College during Armstrong’s presidency there. It was only natural to then go to Searcy, even though Ermine was eight months pregnant with her fifth child.
Murray remembers how everyone pitched in that summer to clean and renovate buildings before classes began in September. Everyone helped with the dirty work — from Armstrong down to the youngest children — and thus all were part of the success. But even backbreaking labor was, at times, fun.
“As a little ol’ kid, it was just a frolic,” she says. “Someone cleaned up the pool pretty early, and we had a great time.”
Both her parents worked for the College. Her mother taught speech under Mrs. Armstrong, and her father worked in maintenance. That fall, Murray and her three school-aged siblings entered first grade at the training school on campus. They were the first individuals to receive Harding educations from elementary through college.
To Murray, Searcy was a “city” compared to Morrilton, and Godden Hall, with its porches, parlor and spiral staircase, was enchanting.
“Searcy was much bigger,” says Murray. “We were so charmed by the square. [On campus] there was such a permanence and beauty from all the trees.”
But to her, far more beautiful was the spirit that permeated the campus, even through dark, difficult years.
“There was such a cohesion, such devotion to the cause. There were no complaints, resignation. It was a beautiful time for examples.”
Those examples made possible the Harding of today.
Each complements the other
“To guide a mind to think truly and wisely, to judge properly, reason correctly, is a masterful work.”
The above words of Armstrong set high the standard of excellence, both physically and spiritually, that the three succeeding presidents have matched and even surpassed during Harding’s 75 years in Searcy.
George Benson, a Harper graduate and missionary to China, served 29 years, directing the College out of great indebtedness and launching it to financial stability and accreditation.
Under Ganus’ leadership from 1965 to 1987, enrollment doubled from 1,472 to 2,767; the campus experienced unprecedented improvement and expansion, including 11 new facilities, six renovations, the addition of multiple majors and programs of study, and the school’s first overseas campus in Florence, Italy; and the transition from college to university status.
Searcy, a city of 20,000, has grown alongside the University. During the last eight decades, it has transitioned from a predominantly agricultural society to one of diverse industries, especially in the last 35 years. While other nearby towns founded in the mid-19th century fade into obscurity, Searcy is developing more rapidly than ever. Unlike other counties and towns hit hard in the current recession, Searcy and the University remain stable, finding both education and natural gas favorable to economic conditions.
In the same way that University alumni support their alma mater, Searcians are proud of their history and energized about its new initiatives. They are also some of Harding’s biggest champions — and have been since Benson made his first appeal to the community for funds in 1939. Late history professor and author Ray Muncy in Searcy: A Small Town Grows up in America recounts that in the first week of the campaign that would erase the College’s debt, local businessmen raised $3,000.
“Searcy and Harding work well together,” says Yarnell. “Harding certainly has promoted the growth of Searcy … and has made great strides in improving the [first impression] image of coming to Searcy in the last few years. Harding has also gotten a lot of support from Searcy in its building programs.”
In recent years, the University administration has reaffirmed its commitment to supporting the civic, economic, cultural, educational and spiritual endeavors of the community. Students have eagerly joined in these efforts, reaching out in various activities such as Bisons for Christ, a yearly event dedicated to serving and encouraging residents and businesses in Searcy.
Today, David B. Burks (’65) serves as the University’s fourth president and, under his motto of “Developing Christian Servants,” has helped the school rise to prominence among private, Christian institutions of higher learning.
Enrollment has grown from 461 in 1934 to more than 6,500 in 2009. Facilities have been expanded from 11 buildings on 29 acres to 46 buildings on more than 275 acres. The University boasts eight colleges, seven overseas programs and three satellite campuses. Endowment stands at $85 million.
These are the standards by which the world measures success and, in many ways, understandably so. But Armstrong, Burks, and those who came in between would agree that the true success of a Christian college instead considers the width and breadth of the spiritual influence that allows for integration of faith, learning and living.
Armstrong’s eloquent address to graduates more than 80 years ago resonates as deeply today as it did then, encouraging responsibility to God, commitment to one’s family and friends, and an influential relationship in one’s community:
“Are you kinder now, more considerate of others, more understanding? Do you feel responsibilities more keenly, or have you learned to shirk them? Do you have a deeper reverence for God and the great principles he has given to us? The greatest gift of a college education should not be knowledge and facts, but enriched character and higher ideals.”