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The Early Presidents of Tarleton

By Frank Chamberlain

The early presidents of John Tarleton College faced formidable managerial tasks in the first two decades of the institution’s existence. These administrators had the responsibility of establishing their college as a viable educational entity, attracting potential students, procuring adequate facilities, and coping with serious financial difficulties. Throughout these formative years, the future of Tarleton was very uncertain and the job of president was a rather unenviable position. As a result, the university suffered an alarming turn over rate among its chief executives. Although seven of the first nine presidents lasted less than two years on the job, they were collectively able to set the groundwork for the future prosperity of the school.

Dr. William Hershcal Bruce was selected as the first official president of the upstart John Tarleton College in 1898. His selection was marred by internal disputes within the Board of Trustees that delayed the official opening of the school. After these differences were settled, Bruce suggested that the opening of the college be delayed until the following year when the school finances would become more manageable (Finley 11, Grissom 12, Guthrie 23-27, King 29-32).

Bruce had built a highly distinguished career prior to his tenure at Tarleton. He began his teaching profession at the age of 19 and earned his first undergraduate college degree in mathematics at Alabama A & M University. Bruce served as principal and teacher at Milltown, Alabama for four years before moving to Blanco, Texas in 1885. During his nine years at Blanco High School, Bruce earned the first Ph.D. awarded by Mercer University in Macon, Georgia and was given an honorary master of arts degree form Baylor University in Waco. He was named chairman of the County Board of Examiners whose purpose was organizing a new system of teacher institutions. Bruce also practiced law and surveyed land during his spare time (King 32-33).

Bruce later ran the public schools in Marble Falls (1893) and Athens (1896). He was a very highly regarded administrator, receiving recognition from the University of Texas. At Athens, Bruce was chosen to be the namesake of a newly constructed school in the town. However, he accepted the presidency of Tarleton before the “Bruce Academy” could be dedicated in his honor (King 32-33).

The first president of John Tarleton College faced an intimidating mission. Bruce was required to devise the curriculum for the new college, tend to all administrative chores, hire a competent faculty, and personally teach nine classes. These duties were made extraordinarily difficult by the inadequacies of the physical facilities. At the time of the opening, the classrooms were furnished with little except chairs, desks, and blackboards. The lack of science laboratories or library severely compromised the amount of education that students could receive. Such troubles were further compounded by the size limitations of the College Hall that housed the only campus classrooms at that time (Finley 14, Guthrie 28).

These problems were not easy to fix due to financial considerations. John Tarleton had left behind a generous bequest, but this gift was simply not large enough to correct the existing difficulties and still be able to maintain the day-to-day operations of the college. This dilemma would continue to plague the school for many years. These financial troubles would continue to accumulate over the next two decades, seriously threatening the survival of John Tarleton College (Grissom 15, Guthrie 28).

Attendance was another concern that faced the Bruce administration. When the doors opened in September of 1899, 122 students signed up for classes. The numbers grew during the spring semester, bringing the first year’s attendance to 175. However, at the end of this first session, only 92 of the students remained enrolled. Of the 48 “beneficiaries” whose tuition was paid by the John Tarleton estate, only 31 remained. Many students withdrew because they were needed to work on their families’ farms. It is very likely that a large number dropped out simply because they were not prepared to handle the college workload. The students who remained were offered a total of 20 different courses to choose from. The four members of the faculty taught all these classes. Needless to say, these instructors must have been extremely well rounded in various subjects. Students were required to wear gray uniforms to school as a way to foster a sense of school identity and to keep students’ costs down (Finley 21, Grissom 40-41,92, Guthrie 27, 29).

Bruce resigned his position following his first year in order to accept a teaching position at Teacher’s College in Denton (now known as the University of North Texas.) He taught mathematics here until 1911 at which time he assumed the role of University President. Upon his retirement in 1923, Bruce was named President Emeritus of that college. Bruce also became a rather prolific writer following his tenure at Tarleton, publishing or co-publishing five mathematics textbooks (Guthrie 28, King 40).

Dr. Edgar Elliot Bramlette succeeded W.H. Bruce to become the second president of John Tarleton College. Bramlette served in this capacity for the next six years (which is almost as long as the combined tenures of Tarleton’s next six presidents.) He presided over much of the initial improvements and additions to the campus (Guthrie 28, King 45).

Bramlette was one of the more educated people to assume the presidency of Tarleton. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Vanderbilt University and taught classical languages at the University of Texas. Later, he became the first person to receive his Master of Arts degree from UT. In addition, he served in the United States Consulate in Germany where he studied at Leipzig University. Bramlette was teaching languages at Texas A&M and serving as superintendent of Fort Worth schools at the time he began his tenure at Tarleton. He continued to teach German and mathematics while serving at Tarleton (King 44).

Upon his arrival, Bramlette faced the same problems as his predecessor. The college was in dire need of classroom space and improvement of most physical facilities. A wooden science building was added, becoming the second building on campus. The crowding in the main building was eased a bit in 1902 when four new rooms were built and in 1904 when a third floor was added. This new space provided room for the creation of a school library (Grissom 31, Guthrie 28).

Although the college now possessed the physical space for a library, it could not afford to actually purchase reading materials. Therefore, Bramlette organized a “literary reception” in which Stephenville citizens were asked to donate books to the library. The townspeople responded charitably and provided the initial stock of nearly 600 books through such banquets. Louisa Linn Bramlette, the president’s wife, played a key role in soliciting these donations through her activity in the Stephenville 20th Century Club (Finley 13-14, Grissom 105-107, Guthrie 29, King 45).

Bramlette also presided over the construction of the Marston Science Hall in 1907. This badly needed facility was the first brick building to be added to the campus. Edgar L. Marston donated the bricks that composed the structure. Mr. Marston owned the T & P Coal Company and the Thurber Brick Company. The new science building was stocked with chemicals and equipped with modern scientific paraphernalia (Grissom 30, Guthrie 29, King 54, Traditions 47).

The college’s first printing press was acquired during the Bramlette administration. In 1901, the John Tarleton Literary Society for men and the Winnie Davis Literary Society for women cooperated to produce the first literary journal on campus. This publication was entitled The John Tarleton and initially appeared on a monthly basis. The name was changed to the Tarletonite in 1904 and it began to be published weekly. By this time, the pamphlet had assumed the form of a campus newspaper. The final incarnation was established in 1919, when the current title, The JTAC, was adopted. (Finley 18, Grissom 126-127, Guthrie 29-30).

Tarleton also became involved in athletics during this time with the establishment of an Athletic Association. Prior to 1904, there were no officially sanctioned athletic events. Intramural games such as baseball, running, jumping, and wrestling were held during the students’ spare time. These activities were played on an adjacent empty lot because an athletic field had yet to be constructed. Several factors conspired to prevent the growth of collegiate athletics during the first five years of John Tarleton College. First of all, the overwrought university possessed neither the money to provide equipment nor sufficient faculty to coach any teams. Secondly, the general attitude of the teachers was that sports distracted students from their academic responsibilities (Grissom 114-116, Guthrie 30).

However, by 1904, the administration began to recognize the need for organized athletics and a part time athletic director. Football was introduced on campus, and various track and field activities composed the new physical education curriculum. The first athletic field was established when the college purchased two acres of adjoining land. A year later, Tarleton joined the West Texas College League and began to compete in regularly scheduled competitions with other schools. The athletic program remained rather primitive during these early years. The school was still unable to allot any funding to support athletics. Therefore, local businessmen provided uniforms, equipment, and operating expenses for the program. Furthermore, there was no formal criterion to determine eligibility of a potential athlete. The perspective player simply had to show up and be able to perform well at their sport. Women’s athletics did not formally exist at this time. However, the school did provide their female population with exercises in basketball, tennis, and dumbbell training. A female athletic director was hired in 1906, but the first women’s intercollegiate basketball game was not held until 1921 (Grissom 115-116, Guthrie 30).

Bramlette resigned his position in 1906, becoming a teacher at Texarkana and Huntsville schools. He later became very involved with programs for the visually impaired. In 1911, he became the superintendent of the Texas School for the Blind. Twelve years later, he was hired as superintendent of the American Publishing Company for the Blind in Louisville, Kentucky. Bramlette served in this capacity until his death in 1929 (King 56).

Frank M. Martin, the third chief executive of Tarleton, was the youngest man to be appointed president. He assumed the role in 1906 at the age of 27 and held the position for a year and a half. The college experienced very little change during this time period. The financial and attendance concerns that had been growing throughout the previous administrations had reached near crisis proportions during Martin’s tenure (Guthrie 31).

Martin received his undergraduate degree from Washington and Lee University. His postgraduate work was done at the University of Tennessee and the University of Chicago. Prior to coming to Tarleton, Martin served as superintendent of schools in Lovelady, Texas; Warren, Arkansas; and Huntsville, Texas. He also served as president of the State Association of Superintendents and Principals (King 57).

Student enrollment hit a record low during these years, as only 141 students signed up for classes in the 1907-08 semester. This low number could be partly attributed to the restrictive stipulations of John Tarleton’s will. According to these provisos, only Erath county residents between the ages of six and eighteen were eligible to receive financial aid. Therefore, potential students who lived outside the county or happened to be above the age of eighteen were probably discouraged from attending classes here. In addition, there were three more colleges within the county who competed for the young minds of Erath. McIlhaney Academy of Stephenville (closed in 1916), Huckabay Academy (closed in 1910), and Lingleville Academy (closed in 1910) undoubtedly attracted a number of potential students during their years of operation (Guthrie 31-32).

Students were further discouraged from attending Tarleton during this first decade by the relatively high tuition cost. Administrators were forced to raise student rates in order to cope with the increasingly dire financial outlook for the university. Merely performing such duties as paying faculty salaries required dipping into the principal of Tarleton’s endowment. Needless to say, the quality of the physical facilities and equipment suffered a great deal. The entire future of the John Tarleton College as an institute of higher learning was beginning to be seriously jeopardized (Guthrie 32).

Despite the financial limitations, Martin hoped to oversee the construction of a new college building and dormitories. He campaigned actively, but was not successful in arousing support for his campus vision. Martin blamed the “lethargy of the people” for the failure and claimed in effect that Tarleton would never reach its potential until the town started to support the school. In making such pointed statements, Martin must have ignored the fact that private donations were keeping the college athletics afloat and that the library was established via contributions from the town. Furthermore, the Marston Science Hall was made possible by a private donation to the college (King 60).

Nonetheless, Martin was apparently so disgusted by the town (or so overwhelmed by the problems facing the school) that he withdrew from the presidency in January of the 1907-08 semesters. A committee of faculty members carried on the day-to-day administrative duties for the rest of the term (King 60).

After leaving Tarleton, Martin served as chief clerk in the state superintendent’s office. Later, he became the superintendent of the El Paso school district. Martin finished out his educational career by assuming the superintendence of two schools in Virginia (King 62).

Beginning with the Frank M. Martin administration, the John Tarleton College entered perhaps its darkest years. From 1908 until 1913, five men would come and go as president of the college. In addition to this dangerous lack of stability in leadership, the dire financial situation facing the school continued to snowball. The state of affairs at Tarleton was truly dreadful and the future seemed bleaker with each passing year.

Jefferson Davis Sandefer replaced Martin as president of the college. He had been a member of the Tarleton faculty since 1901, teaching history and Latin classes as well as serving as assistant to the president. In his college career, Sandefer was one of only three students to earn a degree from the Parker Institute in Parker County. He continued his graduate studies at the University of Chicago and the University of Colorado, where he earned his doctorate degree. Martin served as principal of Santo school and as superintendent of Granbury schools. He also was the president of Strawn College prior to being hired to teach at John Tarleton College (Guthrie 31, King 63-64).

Upon assuming the role of president, Sandefer immediately took steps to remedy the increasingly gloomy outlook facing the college. The most dramatic measure that he enacted was the downsizing of the university from a four-year college to the status of junior college. The enrollment had been steadily slipping for years, thus decreasing the revenue generated by the school. Because junior and senior level classes were the least attended, administrators decided to focus their remaining resources on the underclassmen where enrollment was highest. In the process, the bachelor’s degree was likewise eliminated. These were extremely unpopular decisions in the community, but the shift in focus allowed the college to reduce the cost of operation in a time of serious financial difficulty. Tarleton would remain a junior college until 1959 (Finley 28, Grissom 15, 45, Guthrie 32-33).

President Sandefer also made financial aid available to all students. Up until this point, only Erath County students had been eligible for benefits. This decision violated John Tarleton’s original will, but it did increase the enrollment from 141 to 287 students in the first year. Attendance would remain stabilized for the next decade, and the college was given a bit of breathing room in which to operate (Guthrie 33).

The most visible physical example of campus improvement during the Sandefer administration was the construction of a women’s dormitory. Five months after the previous president Frank Martin had left town alleging that Stephenville would not support the college, a citizen answered his call. A wealthy widow named Mary Corn Wilkerson donated 370 acres of land to Tarleton. She specified that the real estate was to be sold and the profits used to construct a new dormitory that would bear her name. Had Martin served out the remainder of his term, he would have realized his goal of overseeing additional housing (Grissom 332, Guthrie 34, King 61-65.)

After only one year at the helm of Tarleton, Sandefer moved to Abilene and assumed the presidency of Hardin-Simmons University. He recommended that faculty member Elzy D. Jennings be named as his replacement. He would serve as president for the next two years (King 75,77).

Jennings advanced to the presidency rather early in his career. He had comparatively little administrative experience at the time of his appointment; he joined the Tarleton faculty shortly after earning his undergraduate degree. His prior experience had been limited to being the co-principal at the Huckabay Academy for four years (1909-10 Catalog).

There was very little change or campus development during Jennings’s tenure. However, one extremely fortuitous event occurred which would later result in a major addition to the school. In 1910, a wealthy widow named Mollie J. Crow died and bequeathed a substantial amount of money to the university. The exact dollar amount is not clear, but estimates range from $75,000 to $100,000. Mrs. Crow suggested in her will that her donation be used to build a new college hall and a dormitory for men. The new administration building would not be built until 1915 (Guthrie 34, King 84, 85).

Jennings left Tarleton after two years in order to further his education. He went on to earn his advanced degrees from the University of Texas. Later, he became the dean and vice president of Texas Women’s College. After that, Jennings moved to Southern Methodist University where he served as the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and later as vice president of the university. Upon his death in 1938, Jennings was returned to Stephenville where he was buried near the campus at the West End Cemetery (Guthrie 34, King 87).

George J. Nunn, the next president, was a distinguished scholar and world traveler. He had earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Vanderbilt University and studied overseas at Leipzig in Germany. His previous experience in administration was from presiding over the Alexander Institute in Jacksonville and Polytechnic Institute in Ft. Worth. In addition to this, Nunn had traveled at length throughout Europe and the Holy Land. Very little was accomplished during his tenure, but Nunn was undoubtedly one of the worldliest of Tarleton’s presidents (King 88, 89).

However, Nunn left Tarleton after his first year in office. In his resignation, Nunn claimed that his business interests back home in Amarillo were suffering due to his absence. The college was once again forced to replace its fourth president in five years. The difficulty of maintaining any constancy in administration was compounded by the tremendous financial woes facing the school. Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come (Guthrie 35, King 92).

The selection of the next president, Roswell W. Rogers, would result in one of the more regrettable incidents in Tarleton history. The events surrounding the Rogers presidency could not have occurred at a worse time and could have easily become the final nail in the school’s coffin.

Rogers appeared to be a worthy choice as president. He had been educated at the University of Texas and the University of Chicago. At the time he was hired at Tarleton, he was serving as the superintendent of Hillsboro high school. As president of Tarleton, Rogers actively promoted the college by traveling to local communities and issuing promotional statements to the press (Guthrie 35, King 92, 99).

However, Rogers’ romantic involvement with a female student named Lizzie Borders obliterated most of the prestige he had attempted to build for the college. The married president and his young lover apparently flaunted their relationship openly. Their brazen immorality was very upsetting to the student body. Students picketed the college and boycotted classes until their amorous president was removed from office. The school closed in mid-semester, and Rogers was fired (Guthrie 35, King 99).

Rogers still remained in hot water even after losing his job. He was also put on trial for adultery. Despite being acquitted of these charges, Rogers had little choice but to leave town. He and his family moved east, where Rogers became a professor of education at the University of Mississippi. During World War I, Rogers served as state publicity chairman for Mississippi war savings bond drives. Apparently, his past transgressions did not hinder his future prospects for employment (Guthrie 35, King 100-101).

James Duncan Hughlett, a math professor at Tarleton, was named interim president in the wake of this scandal. In addition to the disgrace brought on by the Rogers affair, the college next had to endure a lengthy lawsuit over the control and composition of the board of trustees. The issue was eventually settled, but further weakened the already decomposing institution (Guthrie 35-36, King 103, 106-107.)

The new president James F. Cox would later claim “no college president ever faced a more discouraging set-up than was mine at Stephenville in 1913.” This was an accurate assessment because the John Tarleton College was truly staring death right in the face. However, the Cox administration ushered in a period of revival for the institution. He was able to resuscitate the college through careful management of the remaining endowment and procurement of generous donations from citizens. Most importantly, Cox oversaw the process of transforming the formerly private school into a branch of the Texas A&M system. Had a lesser administrator assumed the office during this bleak period of time, it seems very doubtful that the college would have survived (Guthrie 36).

Cox received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Texas. He went on to serve as president of Lingleville Christian College and as principal of Midway public schools. Cox applied for the Tarleton presidency a year earlier, in 1912, but was rejected. However, the next year, he was given the job without even applying for the position. According to Cox, “This was probably due to the fact that no one else wanted it” (King 109-110).

When Cox arrived at Tarleton, he found a very dilapidated scene. Most of the buildings were in poor condition, and the campus was grown up in weeds. The laboratories and furniture in the classes were also severely dated. Worst of all, there were only two faculty members remaining at Tarleton. The financial situation had become so dreadful that the school could not afford to pay the instructors for long periods of time. The college also owed many ex-faculty members back salaries (Guthrie 36).

Cox immediately set out to remedy the situation, hiring as many teachers as possible with the small amount of money at his disposal. He would later give much credit to this faculty for allowing the university to stay open (Guthrie 36).

Several new buildings were added to the campus during these years. These additions were made possible by well-timed private donations. In 1915, the Mollie J. Crow Administration Building was completed. This was made possible by the bequest of the wealthy widow upon her death five years earlier. It would later be called the Home Economics Building and would remain a part of the campus until 1981. The old Campus Hall, which was the first building on campus, was rendered obsolete by this new and modern structure. (Actually, it had been outdated for years.) The opening of the Crow Building allowed the old wooden building to be demolished (Grissom 33, Guthrie 34, 36).

The addition of the Crow Building allowed further reorganization of the campus. The science program was moved here, and the old Marston Science Hall was leveled. The bricks from the old science building were used to construct the new Marston Conservatory that now housed the fine arts department. This building would be used for a variety of purposes until its demolition in 1950 (Guthrie 34, King 116).

President Cox was honored for his hard work and improvement of the campus by having the 1916 inaugural edition of the yearbook dedicated in his honor. The Grassburr and remains a campus tradition. It is a yearly collection of pictures and articles that chronicle the events of the previous year (King 116).

Despite these improvements, Tarleton could not have existed much longer as a self-supporting institution. Cox began discussions to convert John Tarleton College into a branch of either the University of Texas or Texas A&M University. This transition from a private school to state supported status would provide much more economic and administrative stability. The overall quality of instruction and statewide prestige would be greatly improved as well (Grissom 17, Guthrie 37).

Texas A&M turned out to be the better option because of its emphasis on agricultural sciences which fit well with the backgrounds of many Tarleton students at the time. Cox worked out a deal with A&M President W.B. Bizzell which called for the Stephenville citizens to raise from $15,000-$80,000 in order to restore John Tarleton’s original endowment fund to its original size. There is a great deal of dispute concerning this dollar amount among researchers, and existing historical records are obscure at best. The second part of the plan called for the purchase of 500 acres of land outside of town to be used as a school farm. Finally, this new land would be added to the existing property and facilities of the John Tarleton College and donated to the A&M system in exchange for admittance (Finley 37, Grissom 17-18, Guthrie 37-38, King 120).

Raising enough money to purchase the 500 acres and restore Tarleton’s original endowment fund proved to be a Herculean task, regardless of the actual dollar amount. The citizens of Stephenville worked diligently to fulfill this obligation as numerous civic groups held fundraisers and made donations to the cause. Once again, the amount of money that was actually raised during this time is unclear. However, it is obvious that this monetary figure was far less than the deal required (Guthrie 38-39, King 122).

The whole transaction (and thus, the future of Tarleton) could have been ruined by this shortfall. Luckily, a wealthy citizen named Pearl Wiley Cage heard of the dilemma and intervened on Tarleton’s behalf. She used her friendship with Edgar Marston, owner of T&P Coal Company in Thurber, to secure the needed funding. Cage arranged a meeting with Marston and many of his business associates in New York City in which she convinced them to donate the missing amount of money needed to fulfill Tarleton’s obligation. Her timely involvement allowed Cox to finalize the deal and bring John Tarleton College under the Texas A&M sphere of influence. The deal was finalized in the spring of 1917, and the new John Tarleton Agricultural College opened the following September (Grissom 18, Guthrie 39-40).

The stability and financial assistance provided by the newly acquired state assistance allowed the faculty and curriculum to be greatly expanded. Student enrollment steadily increased after 1917. Likewise, the size of the faculty was enlarged in order to meet the needs of this growing population of students. The quality of instruction was augmented as well, as the percentage of teachers with graduate degrees increased each year. The number and variety of available courses offered by the college was steadily improved at the same time. James Cox remained in charge of the institution, operating under the title of “dean.” Bizzell was technically the president of the school, although he rarely visited or made any day-to-day executive decisions regarding the Stephenville branch (Grissom 20, Guthrie 40-47).

The United States became involved in World War I during Cox’ tenure. The Students’ Army Training Corps was brought to the campus during this time. The SATC’s purpose was to provide military training while allowing the students to continue their educations. During this period, the SATC began to dominate all other school organizations and disrupted daily school activities. This organization was not subject to college regulations, and a power struggle soon emerged with Cox trying to maintain in control of the university. Fortunately, the war ended in 1919, and the SATC ceased operations at Tarleton (Guthrie 47).

Cox announced that he was resigning from his position later that year in order to seek a less demanding job. Later, however, he would go on to teach in the education department of Abilene Christian University. He would later serve as both dean and president of this institution until his retirement in 1940. Even while serving at another school, Cox followed the goings on at his old school that he had done so much to preserve. His administration had rescued Tarleton from the brink of disaster and ushered in a new era in the school’s history (Guthrie 48, King 124).

Finley, J. Rice. “The History of John Tarleton College”. Unpublished M.Ed. thesis. The University of Texas at Austin, 1933.

Grissom, Preston B. “The Development of John Tarleton College”. Unpublished M.A. thesis. West Texas State Teacher’s College, 1933.

Guthrie, Christopher. John Tarleton and his Legacy: The History of Tarleton State University, 1899-1999. Acton, MA: Tapestry Press, 1999.

King, C. Richard. The John Tarleton College Story: Golden Days of Purple and White. Austin, TX: Eakin Press, 1998.

Tarleton Traditions: Centennial Edition 1 ( 1 October, 1999): 1-48.