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The Presidency of E.J. Howell

By Frank Chamberlain

Eugene Jody Howell was selected to become the new dean of the John Tarleton Agricultural College following the retirement of J. Thomas Davis in 1945. Howell had been associated with the Texas A&M system most of his life. He earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and his master’s degree in economics from that university. In 1923, Howell was hired to teach chemistry at Tarleton a year after he graduated from college. After only one year on the job, Howell was promoted to the position of registrar and Commandant (whose duties included directing the military program.) His initial employment at Tarleton lasted until 1930 when he went to work for Texas A&M in College Station. He was hired as the assistant registrar, but became the head registrar after two years (Guthrie 107, King 224-225).

Howell also possessed a strong military background. He was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves and served in World War II. Howell was not sent into combat, but still managed to serve his country by commanding many officer training schools across the country. During this time, Howell developed an exam for recruits who had not completed their high school education. Today’s G.E.D. test is modeled after his innovation (Guthrie 107, King 225).

When the war ended and J. Thomas Davis vacated his position as Tarleton dean, Howell was offered the position upon his return to Texas. Howell’s official title was changed to “president” three years later. The change was the result of administrative restructuring within the A&M system that gave each “branch school” more autonomy. Therefore, the chief executive of these schools hereby go by the title of “President” rather than “Dean.” Howell’s newly acquired status was celebrated at a large ceremony in the Tarleton auditorium that included an assortment of distinguished speakers (Guthrie 124).

A pressing concern facing the new dean during his early tenure was finding room for the droves of incoming students. With the threat to national security vanquished, students were able to return to classes. The numbers were further increased by the introduction of the G.I. Bill that allowed veterans to attend college. Tarleton was ill equipped to house all these incoming students and overcrowding became a serious problem. It was claimed that the school was even forced to turn back many potential enrollees due to the housing shortage. Many students were forced to rent rooms from Stephenville families or had to reside in very uncomfortable makeshift dwellings (Guthrie 108, King 228).

These housing deficiencies were not easy to rectify because of a state ban on campus construction. This prohibition was enacted during the postwar years due to the scarcity of materials brought on by the war. Howell was able to circumvent this regulation and alleviated some of the crowding problems. State funds WERE readily available for most other campus needs such as maintenance and repairs. Therefore, Howell decided to “repair” several older buildings on campus. Hence, the old ASTP barracks, the Marston Conservatory, and the top floor of Chamberlin Hall became extra dormitories (Guthrie 108-109). The U.S. Navy aided Howell by donating two wooden barracks to the school in 1946. These surplus halls were once used as officers’ quarters at Eagle Mountain Lake Naval Air Base in Ft. Worth. The new dorms were renamed Frey Hall and Yearwood Hall. Henry Frey was an ex-student and Albert Yearwood was an agronomy professor at Tarleton. Both were killed in the war. The buildings served as men’s dormitories for a few years. Frey Hall burned down in 1951, and Yearwood Hall was demolished two years later after the completion of Bender Hall (Guthrie 109-110, King 228).

The Federal Housing Authority helped Howell attain extra housing during the construction moratorium by giving the college fifty-two trailer houses. This stopgap measure helped alleviate the overcrowding during this emergency. These houses were reserved for married veterans attending Tarleton. A trailer community was established in Hunewell Park on the southeast corner of campus. This neighborhood existed as a district within the campus proper. In one episode, the community formed its own government, complete with a mayor and councilmen, in order to petition the school for improvements to the park. By 1949, the number of enrolling veterans had decreased to the point where this trailer park was no longer necessary. The majority of the houses were sold to a West Texas oil town that was in need of housing. The others served various purposes around campus (Guthrie 109-110, King 228).

A “College Building Amendment” was passed by the legislature in 1947, allocating sixty million dollars over thirty years to fund construction projects in Texas colleges. Howell took advantage of this new law and engaged Tarleton on a period of prolific growth and renovation (Guthrie 121).

The overcrowding was eased dramatically by the construction of Bender Hall in 1953. This men’s dorm was named in honor of Col.. James Bender, the former ROTC director that was killed during World War II. It stands at the eastern intersection of Lillian and Washington Streets (right across from McDonalds.) (Guthrie 116, Traditions 39).

Ferguson Hall was another men’s dorm built during the Howell administration. This dormitory was finished in 1959 and stands between Davis and Bender Halls with the parking lot being adjacent to Lillian Street. The namesake of this new building was longtime registrar and assistant dean George O. Ferguson who had worked at Tarleton from 1913 until 1950 (Guthrie 116-117, Traditions 39).

Several women’s dormitories were also added during this building boom. A lounge was placed between the Lewis and Gough Halls in 1952. This proved to be a popular decision as both girls and boys flocked here to fraternize and watch the first television set ever installed on campus. TVs were not a quintessential part of American life in 1952, and this occasion probably marked the first time that many students had been exposed to such a wondrous invention (Guthrie 116).

To make room for the new women’s housing, the recently condemned Mary Corn Wilkerson Hall was demolished in 1955. After an eight-year delay, the new Hunewell Hall was erected on the same site in 1963. This dorm was named after the beloved band instructor, Dennis Hunewell. This building stands on the south side of Military Drive. An annex was added to the southeast corner of the dorm, which increased its capacity. The new segment is shaped like a backwards “L” and runs parallel to McIlhaney Street (Guthrie 117, 154, Traditions 48).

The Science Building was finally completed in 1950 after nearly twenty years of piecemeal construction. The southwest wing of the building was the last of the four segments to be added. The school library was moved into its permanent home in 1956, opening up the first floor to a variety of academic departments. This building now housed the Social Science Department, Art Department, turkey testing lab, Public Information Office, J-TAC, and the Grassburr. The science programs occupied the second and third floors. A heavily utilized lecture hall was added to the structure in 1960, making the Science Building one of the most multipurpose buildings on campus (Guthrie 112-113, Traditions 43).

The Agriculture Building was an extremely important addition made during the Howell years. Despite the predominantly agricultural character of the college (and entire A&M system) Tarleton’s Ag Department was housed in a rather rickety wooden building for twenty-five years. The new building was three-stories high and composed of red brick. It underwent major renovations in the late 1970s and was christened as “Joe W. Autry Agriculture Building” in 1998. Mr. Autry is a former department head and vice-president of the college. This building remains one of the most utilized on campus. The front entrance is a prominent rendezvous point where hordes of students gather to socialize in between classes (Guthrie 113, Traditions 38).

Tarleton’s female population received its own gymnasium and physical education facilities in 1951. The men and women students had shared the original gym since 1924. The finished building was endowed with a basketball court, four badminton courts, two tennis courts, and a volleyball court. It also contained dressing rooms, an equipment room, a classroom, and an office. A swimming pool was installed on the west side of the building. The Girls Physical Education Gymnasium remained in active use until 1977. At that time, the department was moved into the new Wisdom Gym. The pool was filled in four years later, and a concrete basketball court now covers this space. Today, this building is home to the Intramural Sports offices and various physical education classes are held inside. It stands in between the dining hall and the Administration Building on the southeastern end of campus (Guthrie 113-114).

The Tarleton Library was finally given a permanent home in 1956 courtesy of Howell’s construction programs. The library had been perhaps the most nomadic department on campus since the earliest days of the college. It had been relocated eight times and was frequently kept in whatever building possessed adequate space. The library was built directly south of the Agriculture Building and west of the Dean’s house and represented the cutting-edge of modern technology. Shortly after Howell left office, classrooms were added to the western end of the library. This annex is now known as the Mathematics Building. In 1974, it was renamed the “Dick Smith Library” in honor of the longtime government professor. The library received its current dimensions in 1985 when overcrowding problems necessitated a major renovation (Guthrie 115, 254).

One of the defining projects of the Howell building boom was the construction of a Student Center that opened in 1964. This was a multipurpose facility that contained a wide range of activities and services for Tarleton students. Perhaps the most popular feature of the Center was “The Cave” which was located in the basement. This section of the building was a favorite location for dances and other social get-togethers. This subterranean room was also furnished with tables for ping-pong, card games, and billiards. The upper two floors contained a snack bar, lounge, ballroom, and several conference rooms. The campus bookstore and post office was also housed in this building. This building remained a vortex of student activity until the 1994 opening of the new Student Development Center. Today it serves as an office building for numerous campus departments (Guthrie 117-118, Traditions 44).

The most visible addition to Tarleton’s landscape during this era was the new Memorial Stadium. This football complex was built in honor of the Tarleton students and faculty killed during World War II. Unlike the other additions made during the Howell years, the stadium was financed through primarily private means. Stephenville citizens, Tarleton Alumni, and current students created a “Stadium Fund” in 1946 in order to built the stadium. They raised enough money to begin construction the following year, although the drive had fell short of its $100,000 goal. The stadium was therefore built in increments until it was ready for opening in 1951. This original stadium did not resemble the larger facility that stands on that location today. It has undergone several renovations including a massive remodeling throughout the early 1970s (Guthrie 110-111, King 229, Traditions 42).

The tremendous increase in number and quality of the physical facilities at Tarleton was not the only modifications made during the Howell years. Despite the accomplishments of his predecessor, Howell still faced a formidable task as head of Tarleton. He had the job of restoring the college to normalcy following the disruption caused by the war. Howell had to change the curriculum back to the pre-war standards. During the last four years, most classes had been modified to serve the country’s defense needs. During Howell’s tenure, Tarleton introduced a new Department of Education and Psychology. In recent years, this teacher education program has become one of the most acclaimed and successful in the state (Guthrie 132).

Howell also made a conscious effort to hire highly qualified faculty members. The teaching ranks had thinned a bit in recent years due to the war and retirements. Howell hoped to hire as many instructors as possible that possessed doctorate degrees. Many of the faculty members that Howell hired earned PhDs while teaching at Tarleton (Guthrie 132).

One of Howell’s earliest decisions as president was to change the name of the college. He claimed the name “John Tarleton Agricultural College” was awkward to articulate and that the word “John” was particularly superfluous. He found the word “Agricultural” to be deceptive because many students did not major in that field of study. That part of the name might have even deterred female students from attending. Finally, Howell felt that the name ought to mention the fact that the school was state supported. The A&M Board of Directors and the Texas Legislature approved the change. In 1949, the institution became known as “Tarleton State College” (Guthrie 125, King 239).

The most notable achievement of the Howell administration was the conversion into a four-year school. The college had offered upper level classes during the very early years of its existence, but was forced to limit its scope in 1908 due to dire financial problems. In 1954, the Booster Committee (a group of community and school leaders dedicated to helping the college) began to take concrete steps toward returning Tarleton to four-year status. The boosters had to play the key role in these negotiations because it was illegal for school administrators to initiate such a request. It seems likely that Howell was planning for such an eventuality when he helped create that organization. They campaigned to have the measure introduced to the Texas legislature. This bill failed to garner enough support in the 1955 and 1957 sessions despite rigorous lobbying by local supporters and students themselves. By 1959, enough key legislators had been convinced, and the “Tarleton Bill” was ratified. Howell traveled to Austin on April 27 to take part in the official signing of the document. A huge banquet was held in October to commemorate the occasion and to show appreciation to the contributors. The bill did not take affect until 1961. By the next year, Tarleton had become completely transformed back into a four-year institution (Guthrie 125-131).

E.J. Howell retired in 1966 after reaching the age of sixty-five. He continued to reside in Stephenville until his death eleven years later. His legacy was cemented in 1997 when the former Administration/Education building was renamed in his honor (Guthrie 132).

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.