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The Controversial Selection of Tarleton's First President

By Frank Chamberlain

Dr. William Herschel Bruce was chosen to serve as first president of John Tarleton College in 1898. He was appointed to the position by the board of directors specified in the founder’s will. However, his selection involved a great deal of dispute and finagling.

The chairman of the local board, Judge T.B. King, strongly advocated the hiring of Marshall McIlhaney. Dr. McIlhaney had previously presided over the short-lived Stephenville College earlier in the decade (and happened to be King’s close friend.) Interestingly, Dr. McIlhaney placed an article in a November 1896 edition of the Stephenville Empire newspaper listing himself as the president. Some historians view this article as an attempt to manipulate himself into the position or a bit of wishful thinking since the school did not officially open until 1899. Other researchers claim McIlhaney as the first president of the college, which opened in 1896. Whether or not there was a functional college for anyone to manage during these years, the board selected McIlhaney as president in 1898.

This initial selection did not sit well with several influential people. Empire publisher Eugene Moore voiced his opposition in his newspaper by arguing that such a position should be held by “an entirely new man.” After all, McIlhaney’s last attempt at managing had failed when the Stephenville College ceased operations earlier. Moore also hinted that Judge King might be attempting to gain a degree of control over the new university by installing his close friend into the position. Texas governor Charles Culberson and state superintendent of education James Carlisle also apposed the appointment and rejected McIlhaney as president. Therefore, a meeting of the board of directors was held in Austin to decide on a president for the college.

Due to the fact that Gov. Culberson and Supt. Carlisle already represented the 2/3 majority required to select a president, they conveniently neglected to inform King of the meeting. They decided to hire Dr. W. H. Bruce to the position. As might have been expected, King was very upset at this “interference” from the state. He declared the appointment illegal and launched a lawsuit attempting to give local authorities (such as himself) full control over university operations. Although the lawsuit was later dropped, it delayed the school’s opening until September 1899.