Skip Rutherford, the dean of the University of Arkansas' Clinton School of Public Service, and I are seated in the stands at Hendrix College's cozy but comfortable football stadium in Conway on a sultry first Saturday in September. We're not alone.
The stands are packed. We are pleased to see a full house given the temperature, the humidity level and the fact that the Arkansas Razorbacks are playing at the same time on television. Rutherford, a Batesville native, serves on the Lyon Board of Trustees. I represented Lyon and Hendrix (along with nine other schools) during the five years I was president of Arkansas' Independent Colleges and Universities.
These are the two youngest college football programs in the state. Decades after abandoning the sport, Hendrix brought back football in 2013. Lyon did the same in 2015. There are several reasons that liberal arts schools across the country are adding football. It's easy for the percentage of female students to grow far larger than the percentage of male students at such schools. The addition of dozens of males at a small college solves that problem. Football also has been shown to increase alumni involvement while helping attract even male students who don't play the sport. We guys, it seems, don't consider it a "real college" without a football team.
The Hendrix Warriors, who play at the NCAA Division III level, will win 28-20 on this night over the Lyon Scots, who compete at the NAIA level. There are stands on only one side of the field at Young-Wise Memorial Stadium, and fans of both schools seem to enjoy visiting with each other. Everyone appears happy that it's a competitive game. Parking and admission are free, a welcome change from the price-gouging at NCAA Division I stadiums.
For a small, historically poor state, Arkansas has a surprising number of quality private colleges. Lyon and Hendrix are among that group.
Lyon was founded at Batesville in 1872 as Arkansas College by Presbyterian ministers.
"When Batesville lost to Fayetteville in the bid for the state university in November 1871, Rev. Isaac J. Long and other ministers in the Arkansas Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in the United States led the effort to establish a denominational college there," writes noted historian Brooks Blevins, a former Lyon faculty member. "Located on the eastern edge of town, Arkansas College opened its doors in September 1872 with Long as president and only one other college-level faculty member. Typical of 19th century denominational institutions, Arkansas College maintained a grammar school (which was phased out in the 1890s) and a secondary academy (discontinued in the 1920s), and featured a curriculum heavy on mathematics, the classical languages (Latin and Greek) and religious instruction."
The block where the school was located later became the home of the First Presbyterian Church. In the early 1950s, Arkansas College moved to the present campus, which was known as the Masonic Home for Orphans property.
Long was the school's president until his death in 1891. His son Eugene was president from 1891-95 and 1897-1913. The first graduating class in 1876 included three women, the first females to receive bachelor's degrees from an Arkansas college.
"The lack of access to secondary education in north-central Arkansas and the state's meager Presbyterian population kept Arkansas College small," Blevins writes. "Before World War I, college-level enrollments rarely exceeded 100, and there were no more than five full-time faculty, including the president. A postwar boom expanded enrollment to 200 students by the mid-1920s, however, and the college, whose tiny four-building campus had been surrounded by residences, looked to expand."
The name was changed to Lyon College in 1994 to honor Little Rock businessman Frank Lyon Sr. and members of his family.
At Altus in 1876, a Methodist minister named Isham Lafayette Burrow established Central Institute with 20 students. The name was changed to Central Collegiate Institute during the 1881-82 school year. Burrow asked Arkansas Methodists for financial help in 1884, and funds were raised to purchase the school. The name was changed to Hendrix College in 1889 to honor Bishop Eugene Russell Hendrix, who had been named presiding bishop of the Arkansas Conference. In March 1890, trustees voted to move the college to Conway. Classes were first held there in September 1890.
Katherine Stanick writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas: "Lacking significant support from the Methodist Church and finding few resources in the Southern states, Stonewall Anderson, the Hendrix president, sought and received financial assistance from the General Education Board of New York, a philanthropic organization funded by John D. Rockefeller. Receiving assistance from outside sources broadened the college's orientation and was a continuing source of revenue for many years, though it tended to move the college away from strict church-dominated roots."
Early presidents wouldn't recognize Hendrix these days.
"In May 2006, the administration announced plans to create a village on more than 100 acres of adjacent property owned by the college," Stanick writes. "The Village at Hendrix is in a pedestrian-friendly area containing all the facilities of a small city. ... Although vastly changed in size, practices, financing and opportunities from its origins, Hendrix has maintained the core principles of its liberal arts foundation."
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 09/18/2019