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OPINION | REX NELSON: UALR’s next challenge

by Rex Nelson | June 11, 2022 at 3:00 a.m.

In 1947, Little Rock businessman Raymond Rebsamen donated 80 acres on the east side of Hayes Street for a new campus for Little Rock Junior College. The undeveloped land in far south Little Rock was covered in pine, hickory and oak trees.

"Temporary surplus buildings from World War II were used on the campus, but in 1948, the Permanent Home Campaign began to solicit funds for buildings," the late Stephen Recken wrote for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "After a successful community effort that brought corporations, alumni and private citizens together, the board built four buildings designed by Little Rock's Cromwell architectural firm.

"President John Larson, who had resigned his position as principal at Little Rock High School to devote his full energies to LRJC, died in 1949. The new library was named in his honor. Granville Davis, a member of the first LRJC graduating class, served as president from 1950-54. In 1949, the football team, coached by Jimmy Karam, won the Junior Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. Early in the 1950s, interest in making LRJC a four-year institution grew."

The idea was endorsed by the Little Rock School Board, but the influential Donaghey Foundation trustees opposed the effort and withheld funding from LRJC. The foundation was founded in 1929 by former Gov. George Donaghey and his wife Louvenia Wallace Donaghey to support the school.

"I was convinced that no greater field for educational development exists anywhere than can be found right here in Little Rock," the former governor wrote. He expressed hope that LRJC would become a four-year institution. Donaghey died in 1937.

"After a year of legal wrangling, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that the foundation couldn't arbitrarily withhold funds from the college," Recken wrote. "The two boards jointly appointed Little Rock business leader Gus Ottenheimer to chair a task force to study the potential for a four-year-school, including affiliation with the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. In May 1956, the committee delivered its report recommending creation of a four-year school regardless of UA support.

"Under the leadership of President Carey Stabler, LRJC became Little Rock University in the fall of 1957. Two years later, the Little Rock School Board withdrew administrative responsibility for the campus and transferred its role to a nine-member panel, as the Ottenheimer Committee had recommended in its report. Course offerings grew from about 80 in 1956 to 500 by 1967."

In 1969, Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller signed the bill making LRU part of the University of Arkansas System. The school became known as the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Hayes Street had become University Avenue by then.

UALR had 3,500 students, 28 undergraduate programs and 80 faculty members in 1969. A decade later, there were 9,600 students and 73 degree programs, including 14 graduate programs.

Now, with UALR having steadily lost enrollment in recent years, several current business leaders are pushing for part of the school to relocate downtown. Too often, the land donated by Rebsamen is out of sight and thus out of mind for Arkansas residents. These community leaders believe that a high-profile presence downtown--perhaps tying UALR's School of Business to downtown's Little Rock Technology Park--will help reverse the decline.

Income for the Donaghey Foundation initially came from the Donaghey Building, which the former governor donated to the foundation. The 1929 bequest was the largest in Arkansas history up until that time. Wouldn't it be something if the school found itself using the Donaghey Building, which now sits empty on Main Street?

What's clear is that there must be another "successful community effort" that brings "corporations, alumni and private citizens together," just as was the case with the 1948 Permanent Home Campaign. Meanwhile, UA trustees must recognize that the state's capital city needs a stronger research university.

Where's the next Raymond Rebsamen when the school needs such a benefactor?

Rebsamen was born in Lancaster, Texas, in 1898. His family moved to Fort Smith when he was young. Rebsamen attended public schools in Fort Smith. He then took classes at the UA but never finished his degree. His education was interrupted by World War I, during which Rebsamen served in the U.S. Army.

Rebsamen's first exposure to Little Rock came during training at Camp Pike (now Camp Robinson). He described Little Rock as "large and attractive" and settled there in 1923. Rebsamen worked in banking, accounting and as a field auditor for the federal government.

In a short biography of Rebsamen for the Arkansas State Archives, Andrew McClain wrote: "As an accountant for the Arkansas Gazette in 1927, he discovered that the company had been overpaying federal income taxes for several years and struck up an agreement wherein he would receive a third of the refunds he was able to obtain on behalf of the publisher, which added up to $32,000 for Rebsamen.

"In 1928, he opened Rebsamen & Brown, an insurance company, in the Home Insurance Building at Third and Center streets in downtown Little Rock. Two years later, it was renamed Rebsamen & East and eventually Rebsamen Insurance, which was acquired by Regions Financial Corp. in 2001 for $40 million."

The 80 acres Rebsamen donated in 1947 had been used as private hunting land. LRJC relocated from its 14th Street campus downtown. Almost 75 years later, there's movement to bring part of the school back downtown.


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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