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“There was something about this new school that led people to patronize it. It was their own. It belonged to the Panhandle and the Plains. It was built expressly to meet the needs of the people of West Texas and the Plains and hundreds, yes, thousands, have patronized it because they felt at home in their own school in their own country.”

Phoebe K. Warner, 1920

“Always WT”

Texas Panhandle’s stubborn sense of hard work and contagious optimism pulse through university 

By JON MARK BEILUE

Remember those maps of Texas where the Panhandle was cast aside like Gilligan’s Island? It was like mapmakers gave up, cut the state off from about Lubbock north, and threw the oh-by-the-way Panhandle and part of the South Plains on an adjoining page.

Forgotten, but not gone.

Russell Lowery-Hart remembers them. He couldn’t help but think about those maps 30 years ago when the West Texas State University student body president and about 30 students lined the walls of a meeting of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board in Austin in 1990.

The university was at a crossroads. Its future would be decided by the board. At stake was approval of WT into a merger into the Texas A&M University System.

“That was a real rallying point for us. Those maps were kind of symbolic that we were disregarded and unseen by the rest of the state,” said Lowery-Hart, now the president of Amarillo College. “That merger made us feel important, like someone cared for us too.”

For the previous 80 years, the people of the Panhandle had more or less willed the school into existence and then carried it forth decade by decade. Who else was going to do it other than a fiercely independent eternally optimistic and relentless stubborn segment of Texas isolated by miles and importance by the larger populations downstate?

When a bill passed the legislature in 1909 to establish a State Normal College in West Texas — and West Texas in those days was anything west of Fort Worth — 28 towns competed for the college. And Canyon, 26th in population at 1,400, won out.

According to WT history professor Dr. Marty Kuhlman’s seminal book, “Always WT,” written on the school’s centennial in 2010, the state’s locating committee selected Canyon because of “its varied scenery, its ample and pure water supply, the healthfulness of the location, its delightful climate, and the sturdy uprightness of the people.”

That sounded good and all, and it may have even been a factor. But none of that would have mattered had not 148 men and women in Canyon donated $100,100 — that’s $2.7 million in today’s dollars — and 40 acres of land as an enticement. They raised $100,100 since there was a rumor that big brother Amarillo was raising $100,000.

A Normal college was to educate teachers since few required formal training 110 years ago. The West Texas State Normal College was the only such institution within hundreds of miles for such a mission. 

It could have been short-lived. On March 24, 1914, a workman’s torch exploded, setting fire to the roof of Old Main, the heart of the college. It was a total loss. It seemed like a crippling blow. Maybe it should have been, but its flames never touched those who placed their faith in this little school on the prairie.

“If West Texas State is nothing more than brick and mortar, it ought to die,” school president R.B. Cousins famously said, “but the Normal has shown that its life was and is in the hearts of those present and in the heart of the people of Texas.”

In the Senior Yell in the 1914 Le Mirage, the college’s yearbook, were these words:

“Loyalty to the teachers,

Loyalty to the school,

Loyalty that fire can’t burn,

Nor blizzards cool.”

Old Main was rededicated on April 21, 1916.

That, in many ways, has been the enduring spirit that has surrounded WT into its second century. The name, the mission, the leadership may change, but this stubborn sense of hard work and contagious optimism that settled this area in the 1880s also pulsed through the only four-year university in the Panhandle.

Few schools have undergone more name changes, but a name change always meant growth. West Texas State Teachers College became the second name in 1923, and enrollment quadrupled to more than 2,000 by 1949.

By then, the school’s degrees and disciplines had expanded far beyond teacher education, and a name needed to reflect the broader education. Thus, it became West Texas State College for the next 14 years, a time when enrollment doubled to more than 4,000.

By 1963, WT administrators convinced the state legislature the school was deserving of university status to West Texas State University. That was conferred on April 4, 1963. Governor Preston Smith spoke at a luncheon, and a nine-hour celebration included two dances, a carnival and a picnic.

Then came the mid- to late-1980s and it was like the air hissing out of a balloon. It was the bleakest time in school history.

WT president Dr. Ed Roach, with his autocratic management style, had alienated faculty on his mission to downsize the university from seven colleges to four in a quest to do fewer things better. The colleges of agriculture and nursing were deemphasized. The faculty ultimately issued a vote of “no confidence” in Roach.

  1. Boone Pickens, chairman of the WT board of regents, was a target of criticism as well. Roach was seen as his hand-picked president to do his bidding. There were other issues too. Unrest drifted down to students. Alumni were unhappy.

Enrollment had fallen. Donations had fallen. Morale had fallen. If WT had a brand at that time, it was an arrow pointing straight down.

It was in that toxic atmosphere that WT sought strength in numbers. It was a period in higher education when the smaller independent university was at risk. The biggest risk was going it alone in seeking state funding, a small voice being overwhelmed by larger university systems and the schools under their umbrellas.

Students were active on campus pushing for the merger with A&M. They garnered nearly 3,000 petition signatures — almost half the student body. And the presence of 30 sincere and committed students at a decisive meeting of the Coordinating Board in Austin was enough to take the politics out and put people in.

The merger with Texas A&M, until the last few years, was mainly invisible to the public. It hasn’t hurt that WT president Dr. Walter Wendler graduated from A&M and is a former chancellor of planning and system integration for the A&M system. WT is in good stead in the Aggie system.

Now, A&M has set up a cooperative program at WT in veterinary science. A&M is building the Charles W. Graham Veterinary Diagnostic Lab and the Veterinary Education, Research and Outreach complex on the Canyon campus.

But the Buffs are doing fine on their own, too. There have been $200 million in capital improvements on campus in recent years. The WT 125 plan, unveiled in 2019, means to establish WT as a regional research university on issues affecting the Texas Panhandle foremost.

What’s in a name? The school has had five of them, but one part has never changed — West Texas. While there was broad support for the merger 30 years ago, alumni and students were adamant that A&M should not erase those two words.

East Texas State had become A&M-Commerce. Texas A&I had become A&M-Kingsville. To take away West Texas would be to take away that which had stitched the university together since 1910. It would remove not just the often-overlooked region, but a tradition of a pioneering spirit that landed the school in the first place.

It remained. West Texas A&M University.

Earlier this month, there was a record enrollment of 10,169 online and classroom students. It was a 1 percent increase from 2019 and the largest in history. Remarkably, this was in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic when universities were bracing for the worst.

The Buffalo spirit lives on.

Do you know of a student, faculty member, project, an alumnus or any other story idea for “WT: The Heart and Soul of the Texas Panhandle?” If so, email Jon Mark Beilue at jbeilue@wtamu.edu.