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Before the merge

Before the merge: Looking back on WT’s 110 years in the Texas Panhandle

By Chip Chandler
Senior Communication Specialist

 

There were only 152 students then, scattered about town in local churches, vacant buildings — even in the county courthouse.

But there was a spirit there, already burning — one that continues to burn 110 years and five name changes later.

From West Texas State Normal College in 1910 to West Texas A&M University today, what has remained consistent — what has been, as an unofficial school motto boasts, “Always WT” — is a dedication to student excellence and to making an impact on the Texas Panhandle.

WT opened Sept. 20, 1910, as West Texas State Normal College in what was then known as Canyon City, which was chosen after a fierce battle across the region to be the home of the state’s newest institution of higher education. A bid of $100,100 in cash and a 40-acre plot of land beat out all other bidders, though when classes began, no classrooms were actually ready — hence, students scattering around the small Panhandle town. 

Less than four years later, on March 24, 1914, disaster struck: The University’s main permanent structure, the Administration Building, burned to the ground when workmen accidentally sparked a fire in the attic. 

“Rescuers saved hundreds of library books by throwing them out of windows,” wrote Dr. Marty Kuhlman in his 2010 history book “Always WT.” “Seeing the books flying out the windows, Tennessee Malone, the librarian, instinctively cried out, ‘Please, please, boys. Don’t treat my books like that.’”

Again, classes had to be scattered around canyon, but President R.B. Cousins assured Canyon residents, students and faculty that the fire was a “temporary inconvenience.”

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

The school continued to grow, and in 1922, the Legislature made it the first Normal College authorized to issue bachelor’s degrees. Campus offerings continued to broaden, and in 1924, WT accepted an offer to join the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

In 1923, the Texas Legislature officially changed the school’s name to West Texas State Teachers College. Educating educators was still a primary mission, and in 1932, WT became the first teachers college in Texas to offer graduate degrees, though the financial crunch caused by the Great Depression led to that program being discontinued in 1931. The hard times reflected in the school’s enrollment figures, which dipped to a low of 505 in 1943-44. 

But explosive growth was on the way: Enrollment soared in the postwar period. The name changed again in 1949 to West Texas State College in recognition of the school’s broadening reach in education. New buildings were popping up around campus — among them a library, a fine arts building, two dormitories and a chapel.

The name changed again in 1963, switching “College” to “University,” but transformations weren’t limited to that. WT now housed a College of Arts and Sciences, a Graduate School, a School of Agriculture, a Department of Nursing and more, and enrollment had grown to nearly 8,000 by 1970. 

That growth might have come too quickly, though: The 1970s saw a drop in enrollment and university-wide steamlining of departments and administration. Following a few years of stability, the University’s woes continued in the late 1980s. A sharp downturn in the Texas economy and sagging enrollments led to a 22-year low in the student population in 1987, and financial woes and faculty concerns eventually led to major changes in leadership. 

But by this time, a major change was on the horizon — a partnership with one of the state’s premiere institutions of higher education.