KETR

Keck, McFarland Discuss Mayo's College and 100 Years As A State Institution

Nov 3, 2016

On Saturday, October 28th, 2016, at 9:30 in the morning, an audience of 85 or so attendees witnessed a ribbon-cutting and rededication ceremony at the campus grave site of William Leonidas Mayo, founder of the college that would one day become Texas A&M University-Commerce.

In his November radio address, A&M-Commerce interim president Dr. Ray Keck invited president emeritus Dr. Keith McFarland into the studio to share the atmosphere of Commerce, Texas in 1914-1917, and the decision from the Texas legislature that shaped the course of educational history in the state.

A transcript of the conversation follows.

Jerrod Knight:

Hello and welcome to the President’s Perspective, a monthly half-hour chat with the Interim President and CEO of Texas A&M University-Commerce, Dr. Ray Keck. I'm Jerrod Knight. Today we're talking about the university's past, present, and future and a decision by the Texas legislature in 1917 that would have a dramatic effect on the state of education here on northeast Texas for the next century. Dr. Keck, welcome to the studio.

Dr. Ray Keck:

Thank you Jerrod. Wonderful to be here.

Knight:

Why don't you talk about what it is that we're celebrating in March of this next year?

Keck:

Well, in 1917 our founder, William Leonidas Mayo finalized his plan to turn his college over to the state of Texas. He had founded it in 1889. 1917, a number of years, he was getting older, he knew that he couldn't go on forever and ever as his proprietary interest. He had 3 choices in his mind. He could've invited the Masonic lodge to take it over. He could've invited the Methodist church. Or he could've invited the state of Texas. I think we're pleased, and I think history shows it was a wise decision to invite the state. We're recognizing 100 years that this institution has been part of the state of Texas.

There are a number of activities on campus that are being planned to mark this event. The art department is generating a set of graphics unique to the moment, a logo. They're planning side walk art all over the campus. The music department has commissioned music to be written to honor this moment. Noah Nelson, our vice president for Media Relations and Community Engagement is chairing a committee to plan the festivities. The logo for the event will say "Our Century as Lions". Remember lion because Leonidas, that was his middle name. Not an accident where that came from. We're planning it on a Friday in March because we want to attract, we hope we can get the governor, we hope we can get legislators. Is during the session, but they typically shut down on Thursday night, so people probably will be available on Friday. We're looking at Friday, March 10th to mark this event.

Knight:

Our guest in studio today is president emeritus of Texas A&M University-Commerce Dr. Keith McFarland. Dr. McFarland, welcome to the studio.

Dr. Keith McFarland:

Glad to be here Jerrod.

Knight:

As we reach this milestone in the history of this institution you've done a lot of study and focus and concentration on just exactly what was going on early in the history of this school that belonged to William Mayo. Talk about what led him to a point where he needed to seek out help from the legislature in order to keep the school moving forward.

McFarland:

First of all, we have to remember that professor Mayo was very visionary in everything he did. I mean the fact that he stared this college at the age of 27 and he had in mind what the curriculum would be, a curriculum very different from the other area colleges, he incorporated culture and the arts and using his wife Etta Mayo. She provided music instructions.

This was very, very progressive for the time. He always had a vision of what he wanted his university to be. But starting in about 1913 this man who had worked so hard all his life began to realize that his health was not what it should be. He had to start thinking what am I going to do to preserve what I've worked so hard to bring about. That's when he began to consider the various options he had. There was a physician in town and leading civic leader by the name of Dr. Warren [inaudible 00:03:48] and he convinced him, professor Mayo, convinced professor Mayo that he really needed to turn to the state because he said, “They'll have the resources to support this,” whereas the other 2 or the long term, the Masons and the Methodist church may not be able to put the resources in there.

They came with that decision or he came with that decision in 1913, worked with senator Westbrook from a little city and they got it on the agenda for the 1917 session. It was passed very quickly by the senate because of the central Westbrook’s standing there and then the big problem became the house. The reason that was so difficult is places like Canyon, West Texas wanted to get a normal school. In Denton the normal college, which was later to become North Texas, wanted in. There were a number of them, but fortunately A&M Commerce was … Well, what's now A&M Commerce, what was Mayo’s college got put on the list of places to be considered. That was again some good politics there between our state senator and Mayo, and it passed as we've indicated.

The story about that is so phenomenal. It passed the senate quickly in February, but then on March whenever it came up in the house it passed and Central Westbrook sent a telegram to professor Mayo saying, “Your college has been approved by the senate. All we need now is the signature of the governor.” But professor Mayo had had a couple of, they call them seizures starting about noon that day. He passed away at 3:30 and the telegram from Westbrook arrived in Commerce at 3:52, 22 minutes later. Almost the sort of things that you would put in a movie. As we've indicated maybe in our script we would've put that he found that it was going to go into the state system. That's pretty much the history there. Again, Mayo as a man of vision becomes quite evident.

Knight:

Without ever realizing that what he had built would be as successful as it would be. It seems as though he was doing it for the sake of education here in northeast Texas. The school wasn't always here. It burned down twice. Mayo had every reason, if not for his own convictions, to walk away from the project. Yet he didn't.

We get to a point where the legislature believed in this institution and what it could become. You skip ahead a few years and the university becomes East Texas State College because we're offering more than just teaching degrees, because no longer just East Texas State Teachers College. It becomes East Texas State College. Then doctoral programs began to be offered at 1962 and so then it becomes East Texas State University and lives under that banner until 1996 when it links up with the Texas A&M University system and becomes Texas A&M University-Commerce.

In a nutshell that gets us to the present. But the fact is that an association with the state offered so many great benefits. We talked about in advance of this program that there were so many other schools in small towns all throughout the state that are not here now.

McFarland:

Yes, it's amazing. Campbell, we go through Campbell and we see it's just a spot on the road. There were 2 colleges there at the time that Mayo got his college in the state system, Greenville had 2, Sherman had 2, Sulphur Springs had 1, Bonham had 2, and none of those schools made it because they wanted to go it alone just as they had been going. It would've been quite hard for professor Mayo, all the blood, sweat, and tears that he put into creating this university and then to have to turn it over. I think that was the time he realized he had to act with his head rather than his heart. I think he did and fortunately for us that was a good choice because we wouldn't be here right now if he had not thought that way.

Keck:

Well and that head was pointed toward the future in practical terms as well as progressive education, because the notion of going it alone has in recent times been proven to be a bad one. We know now in education, everyone is interested, who are you collaborating with, who are your partners. You can't get much done without collaboration and partners. That Mayo figured that out in 1917 and these other schools that went out of business because they didn't, that's another example he's seen forward in the future and getting it right.

Knight:

I think, too, that when you consider how many times that the campus dealt with setbacks - crippling setbacks - and yet it survived, you're also looking at a supportive community that was unwilling to let the institution fail.

McFarland:

Yes, absolutely, yes. That was not true, I think, of the other area schools. They didn't see how important they could be to their community. But Mayo did. Let me just say a word more about Mayo and his progressive thinking. At that time practically all of those other schools in this area relied on the recitation method of education. You would spend your time memorizing things. Then you would be called upon by the teacher in class and you would basically repeat it back. His curriculum was based on primarily the idea of debates, debating, because he said, “In debating you have to have the facts, you have to have the knowledge, but then you have to be able to think quickly and be able to express yourself.”

Really, we come to this point in our history, 2016. That's a lot of what we're doing at colleges now, except we call it creative thinking or problem solving. So in that way he was very much ahead of his time. Sometimes we are accused of talking an awful lot about Mayo, but if there's ever a man that deserved to have his life examined and be an example of perseverance and good work ethic and all, he embodied it all.

Keck:

We talk a lot I think today of when we look back in the past about how unfair it is to judge figures in the past by our current notions of right and wrong and our current social issues. Of course that's absolutely true. People in the past looked at life as we do in part because of who they were and when they were born and what was happening around them of course. Historians remind us of that all the time and it's true.

Nonetheless, I am particularly struck every time I look back when you find a figure that, yes, he was very much a figure of his day and a creature of his world, but he also saw ahead and he got things right, that 100 years later we're so grateful he got right. One obvious example is Abraham Lincoln. He got right things that a lot of people around him didn't. We look back… but you don't have to make allowances for his time and place. He was right then and he's right now. The same thing can be said of Mayo.

Knight:

What sort of opportunities, skipping ahead to present day, have students enjoyed and do they currently enjoy as a result of this 1917 legislative decision to take over administration of this university?

Keck:

Well, I guess you're asking why is it good to be part of the state of Texas.

Knight:

For students.

Keck:

Yes, for students. Well, and I think let's start with the most obvious. Yes, of course Mayo's curriculum survives in all of the wonderful, and I think, creative ways that we teach at this institution, but beyond that, today there’s a tremendous amount of discussion and focus on the cost of education and the accessibility of education. Who can have it? Do you have to be wealthy to get it? Or state institutions. This is a very, very good deal for students. Our state has many private institutions that are very strong and wonderful and deeply embedded in our common life, but they're very expensive. Within the reach of working people is a spectacular education at this institution because it's part of the state of Texas.

Texas in the nation is quite low in terms of average cost and Commerce is quite low in Texas for 4 year institutions. The mission that to reach out one of Mayo's creeds was that everyone that can is going to walk through that door. We can do that today because we're part of the state. The state makes available a pathway to the American dream that is within the reach of any young man or woman who wants to set forward and ask for it.

Knight:

You talk about the affordability of an education provided by the state. I think that you can't have that conversation without recognizing that the state does have to make decisions about these things and sometimes they're tough ones. I wanted Dr. McFarland, if you would, talk about the role that this community played in 1986 when there was a question from the state about whether this institution, along with others, ought to continue its relationship with the state.

McFarland:

Yes, I'll do that and I'll put it in the context of this community support that goes back to Mayo's years. In 1907 and 1911 there were major fires that destroyed in both cases 2 of the 3 buildings on campus. Can you imagine the next day, here's a man, there's no insurance, there's no state to back him up. He just had to go out and rally support in the community of Commerce and say, “We need money to rebuild these buildings.” Commerce was not a large community at that time, was a couple thousand people. But the business gathered together behind him and gave him the money to rebuild. The idea of this community backing this educational venture has deep roots.

Now in 1986 the oil money was dropping out and the state of Texas said, “We've got to look and see where we can save some major money.” The governor appointed a committee to come up with ways that they could cut educational expenses. One of their preliminary solutions was that they would close down 3 or 4 state universities, and this was one of them. Sul Ross was another one. I forget the other 2 smaller schools.

When that happened, our alumni, the people in this community gathered together. We prepared a report. We began working on contacts we had in the legislature through our alumni, throughout the state, through local community leaders. When this was going to be considered by the committee we ran a large number of buses, filled them with people from not just Commerce but Sulphur Springs, Greenville, Paris, and we just sent it down on Austin. We had then senator Ted Lyons stand up and talk about the importance of this institution, and we had the head of our student body make an impatient plea to keep this on, and the committee ultimately reversed the decision and took us off that list.

There was a time there was pretty scary because people didn't know what was going to be able to happen. But again, it couldn't have been just a few students and a few administrators do this. It had to be broad spectrum of supporters for this institution. We had them. They came and wrote letters, wrote thousands of letters from all over the state saying, “This is an important school. This is essential to northeast Texas.”

Keck:

This story makes, I think, a very important point about the American way of life. In recent months there have been a lot of stresses in our society and a divided country and some pretty intractable positions. But underneath all of this I think we're undergirded by impulses that are uniquely American and very strong. The story of the city of Commerce coming forward and helping this man rebuild his institution. Why did they do that? Because they thought it was important for themselves and for the future.

In a conversation actually I was having yesterday with my wife Patricia, she made, I think, a very interesting point about this. We talk about the American dream. That's access for every young man and woman to the good life, to an education, a job, a decent living, a place in our society. She said I think, and Keith, your examples really bear it out, she said, “There's a second part of that, and that is that every person, on the way to that good job and good life, feels an obligation to the community, to help each other and to provide for the future. The notion of philanthropy, the notion of communal responsibility. It's not enough for me to provide for myself and my family. I need to think about you and your family, and together we need to think about the future families.” That is uniquely American. This institution really embodies it. It's in the bricks here. It's a wonderful thing to think about.

Knight:

Time and again this institution, throughout its history, is rising to the challenge of not only existence, but being able to thrive in this part of the world. You don't expect the state or any government to simply write a blank check year after year after year. But you do expect your elected officials to, from time to time, look over the expenditures and make sure that things are going the way they ought to go. The fact is that this institution has proven time and again, and it proves every single day, that it's worth its relationship to the state, and that that is valuable not only to the institution, but to its students and to its alumni and to all of the people whose lives have been touched by the institution. I think that there's a place in history that might not have been there. This is a fair question. Where is A&M-Commerce if not for Mayo's vision and for the legislators’ decision in 1917?

Keck:

I think we'd be where the 2 schools in Campbell and the 2 schools in Greenville and the 1 school in Sulphur Springs are. We wouldn't be here.

McFarland:

I agree. One thing you mentioned there that I think was important, Mayo got a start off in the right foot. There's always been a sense of family at this university. My wife and I moved here in 1969 and that was evident from the beginning, the way that my colleagues in the history department college across the university were supportive of us. You go back, that goes back to Mayo. I mean, people like Sam Rayburn had this unbelievable sense of belonging. That's why he always kept professor Mayo on the top of his list of people who had influenced his life. As we went through the crisis of ’86 we found so many alums that we really hadn't heard from for years. They wrote back and said, ‘professor so-and-so inspired me to do this or made me a better person or helped make me successful.’ I think that comes about from his feeling that maybe it's the fact that we're in a rural area and it's a small town, but there is that sense of belonging that is, I think, a hallmark of this institution.

Keck:

That sense of belonging is really, I think, probably that intangible that ultimately justifies the high cost of a wonderful education. There are ways to get into careers and there are ways to get into jobs that perhaps are quicker and cheaper than a 4-year college experience. But that sense of who you are and who you can lean back and rely upon throughout your life, a university can provide that to students and it can continue forever. It can also, as you just indicated, provide it for a young faculty member and his family, a sense of belonging and purpose and connection. That's an intangible benefit of a university, but certainly a crucial element in explaining to the world, when we have to, why it is that we're here, what it is we do, and why we need to continue to receive the support of the state and of the community.

Knight:

We will certainly post links and share information as we come upon our 100-year celebration with the state. I think that these are exciting times at A&M-Commerce and there will continue to be exciting times as we continue this fantastic and obviously very valuable relationship with the state of Texas. Dr. Keith McFarland, thank you so much for joining us this month.

McFarland:

Happy to be here.

Knight:

Dr. Keck, a pleasure as always.

McFarland:

Thank you Jerrod.

Knight:

The President's Perspective is recorded and produced at 88.9 KETR’s studio complex in historic Binnion Hall on the campus of Texas A&M University-Commerce. Support for this program is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and by listeners just like you. Make your contribution by visiting ketr.org on your desktop or smartphone and clicking donate. While you're there, check out archives of this and other program offerings from your station. 88.9 KETR is a free and universal broadcast service of Texas A&M University-Commerce. I'm Jerrod Knight. Thanks for listening.