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The Presidency of W.H. Bruce

By Frank Chamberlain

Dr. William Herschal Bruce was selected as the first official president of the upstart John Tarleton College in 1898. Although his appointment was not without controversy, Bruce presided over the institution during its first year of existence. Dr. Bruce was a popular and highly qualified administrator, yet the task of managing such a young and developing school would prove a daunting task.

Bruce had built a highly distinguished career prior to his tenure at Tarleton. He began his teaching career 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 Texas in 1885.

Bruce next served as principal of Blanco High School. He held this position for the next nine years. During this time, he earned the first Ph.D. awarded by Mercer University in Macon, Georgia and was given an honorary master of arts degree from Baylor University in Waco. In his spare time, Bruce practiced law and worked as a land surveyor. In addition, he was named chairman of the County Board of Examiners whose purpose was to organize a system of teacher institutions.

Following his years at Blanco, Bruce moved to Marble Falls (1893) and Athens (1896) where he ran the public schools in those towns. He was a very highly regarded administrator, receiving the approval of the University of Texas. In Athens, a newly constructed school was slated to named in his honor until he accepted the presidency of Tarleton prior to the opening of this institution in 1898.

Bruce faced an intimidating mission as Tarleton’s initial president. He was required to devise the curriculum for the new college, tend to all administrative chores, and personally teach nine classes. These duties were made extraordinarily difficult due to the inadequacies of the educational facilities. At the time of the opening, the classrooms contained little equipment besides chairs, desks, and blackboards. The lack of science laboratories or library severely compromised the amount of education that students could receive. Such problems were compounded by the size limitations of the College Hall, which housed the only campus classrooms at that time. 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 problems and still be able to maintain the day-to-day operations of the college.

Attendance was another concern that faced the Bruce administration. At the end of the first year, only 92 out of the original 175 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 in the area. The fact that only 31 of the 48 “beneficiaries” whose tuition was paid by the John Tarleton estate finished the first year suggests that some students were not prepared to handle the college workload.

The students who remained were offered a total of 19 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. Men who were interested could join the John Tarleton Literary Society. Female students were invited to join the Winnie Davis Literary Society. Both organizations engaged in debate contests and various forms of oratory events. Students were required to wear gray uniforms as a way to foster a sense of school identity and to keep students’ cost down.

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 1922 at which time he assumed the role of University President. Dr. Bruce held this position until his retirement in 1923. Upon retiring, Dr. Bruce was named president emeritus of the college. In these years following his Tarleton tenure, he published or co-published five mathematics textbooks. In May of 1928, Dr. Bruce returned to Stephenville to participate in the John Tarleton memorial ceremonies held that year.