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OPINION | REX NELSON: Remembering its roots

by Rex Nelson | August 10, 2022 at 3:53 a.m.


I walk into Overstreet Hall, which holds so much of the history of what's now Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia. The three-story building was constructed from 1941-43 with assistance from the federal Works Progress Administration. SAU was founded by the Legislature in 1909 as one of four district agricultural schools and has never forsaken its roots.

"The Farmers Educational and Cooperative Union campaigned vigorously in Arkansas and other states for these vocational agricultural high schools, an educational reform of the Progressive Era," writes historian James Willis, the author of "Southern Arkansas University: The Mulerider School's Centennial History, 1909-2009." "The legacy of the union is evident today. SAU operates one of the state's largest collegiate farms, and the school's colors--blue and gold--are those of the union.

"The school's agricultural roots are also evident in its unique symbol--Muleriders--adopted in 1912 when football players rode mules, then ubiquitous and essential to Southern agriculture, to practice and games. The name Aggies competed with Muleriders, but the latter became the yearbook's title in 1922. The student newspaper was designated The Bray in 1923. Its masthead features a bucking mule."

Due to the critical need for rural teachers in the 1920s, the state elevated the four district schools to junior college status in 1925. The school became known as Magnolia A&M, though the official name was State Agricultural and Mechanical College, Third District. It was accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools in 1929.

"Its agricultural and home economics emphasis remained," Willis writes. "Animal industry instructor Ves Godley built a prize-winning dairy herd that included a 1937 national champion, Sultane's Magnolia Belle. The school increasingly stressed its two-year associate of arts degree for students planning to go on to a four-year college.

"Despite economic hardship in the 1930s, the school enrolled several hundred students each semester and provided work for many. Costs were kept low in a deliberate effort to become the state's least expensive college. Effective management created a rich extracurricular program for students. The U.S. government's New Deal funding expanded the school's physical plant, and graduating classes donated memorial constructions."

The contribution of the class of 1936 was a Greek amphitheater, largely built by students inspired by a teacher named Samuel Dickinson.

"His ancient history course ended dramatically in the new amphitheater with a student performance of the Greek tragedy 'Antigone,'" Willis writes. "The play became a central feature of graduation festivities that year. Also built in 1936 by the Public Works Administration were two dormitories later listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Cross and Nelson Hall Historic District."

Overstreet's completion was delayed by the difficulty in procuring materials during World War II. It was named for Charles Overstreet, who was president for 24 years until his retirement in June 1945.

The WPA provided $187,000 for a building the Arkansas Gazette noted would "house nine classrooms, three chemistry laboratories, a physics laboratory, a biology laboratory, and a dairy and agriculture laboratory. ... Wood columns will be of California redwood, and wood trim will be heart cypress."

The Wittenberg and Delony architectural firm of Little Rock chose the Colonial Revival style with Doric columns.

I'm here on this day to visit Trey Berry, SAU's dynamic president and the subject of last Saturday's column. Berry, who was raised at Arkadelphia, is a historian by training. He understands the importance of SAU to generations of families in south Arkansas and plots a course for the future with an appreciation of that heritage.

I view Berry as a southwest Arkansas renaissance man, much like the aforementioned Dickinson, a fifth-generation Prescott resident who died in November 2007 at age 95. Dickinson is listed by the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas as an "archaeologist, historian, journalist, linguist and college instructor. He was one of the early academically trained archaeologists to work and teach in Arkansas. He was a participant in the development of the field of archaeology when few who worked as archaeologists had college degrees."

Dickinson also was an editor for newspapers ranging from the Arkansas Gazette to Arkansas Democrat to Shreveport Journal. He collected antiques from Arkansas' territorial period along with religious art, books, paintings and fossils. His articles appeared in professional journals across the country.

Dickinson's father and Judge Harry Lemley of Hope paid for Dickinson to do excavations at Caddo mound sites in 1934-35. Dickinson had graduated from the University of Arizona in 1933 with a bachelor's degree in archaeology.

"In 1934, Dickinson accepted a position at Magnolia A&M, teaching Spanish and courses on ancient Greece and Rome," Kathleen Cande writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "Dickinson was also charged with establishing a museum at Magnolia A&M. Immensely popular with his students, Dickinson also enriched the social life at Magnolia A&M by sponsoring the first campus dance and establishing the Geoanthropology Club."

Because of the contributions of brilliant southwest Arkansas native sons ranging from Dickinson to Berry, SAU thrives at a time when many colleges and universities are struggling.


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.


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