By Roger McKinney
NEOSHO, Mo. —
James Tatum on Wednesday walked past a plaque and bust dedicated to him, stopping at the bell tower that bears his name in the center of the Crowder College campus.
Tatum has been part of Crowder College’s history as a member of the Board of Trustees for all of its 50 years, and several years before that. He was president of the board for 45 of those years. He has seen a lot of changes and progress at the school since he and the school superintendents in Newton and McDonald counties began meeting to discuss the possibility of forming a junior college.
Crowder College will conduct its 50th anniversary celebration beginning at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, April 2, on the campus. Tatum will be a featured speaker. The event will include historical photos, campus tours, sales of a commemorative anniversary book and a picnic lunch. It will conclude with softball and baseball games at 2 p.m.
It was 1958 when the Neosho School District superintendent circulated the idea of a local college.
“The idea for this was conceived in the mind of Robert Anderson,” Tatum said, speaking in a classroom in the $7.5 million Arnold Farber Building, which Tatum helped dedicate in 2008. “Bob Anderson was the superintendent of schools here in Neosho. He kind of had a dream of having a junior college, as they were called then.”
Tatum said Anderson knew he couldn’t do it with the Neosho district alone, as the Joplin School District had done with what was then Joplin Junior College. Tatum said Fort Crowder had closed, and the idea was floated that the property and buildings could be used for the college.
Tatum was named to a committee, which he said also included Jack Wood, the Newton County superintendent of schools, and Alton Carnell, the McDonald County schools superintendent. Their first obstacle was that there was no mechanism for the state to recognize a college formed by more than one school district. They wrote a proposed bill for the Legislature to consider.
But others also were working to solve the same problem. Elmer Ellis, the president of the University of Missouri, told Tatum that St. Louis city and county were trying to form a junior college.
Gov. James Blair formed a subcommittee on junior colleges. Its members included Tatum and Roi Wood, superintendent of the Joplin School District.
The Legislature in 1961 approved the bill, modeled on ones prepared in Newton and McDonald counties and in St. Louis city and county.
Tatum said community colleges were becoming a popular education trend.
“In the early ’60s, they were being established almost one a week in the U.S.,” he said. “Here this national movement was evolving.”
The legislation didn’t solve all the problems. Tatum said he had to negotiate with what was then the War Department and other federal and state agencies for the property and the two buildings.
“The only things out here were the two buildings, Newton and McDonald halls,” Tatum said. “They had barely been used. We couldn’t have done it without those buildings and this land.”
After ballot petitions were filed, a ballot measure forming the community college district of Newton and McDonald counties was on the April 2, 1963, ballot. It included a 40-cent property tax. On the same ballot was a slate of 17 candidates for the Board of Trustees, with the top six vote-getters to be elected if the college district was approved.
“Almost 80 percent voted for this,” Tatum said. “Even though there was a big tax levy, they voted for it. People wanted something for their kids and their grandkids that they never had.”
The 37-year-old Tatum was the top vote-getter.
The board was busy early on, trying to hire a president and teachers.
“We were meeting two and three times a week to try to get off the ground,” Tatum said.
The first president, Henry Campbell, from New Mexico, experienced a personal tragedy early in his tenure. His wife, who was in New Mexico, died in childbirth, and so did the baby. He resigned after a short time as president.
The board hired Donald Shook as the second Crowder president.
Alan Marble is the current college president, its fifth. He was named interim president in 2006 and was formally named to the post in 2007. He has been with the college since 1986, 27 years. He also is an alumnus.
Marble said the biggest changes over the past 50 years have been construction and improvements to buildings, and the number of high quality programs the college offers.
“We now have nine locations in addition to our Neosho campus,” Marble said. “We will open our McDonald County center in the spring of 2014. Geography matters, especially when gas prices are high.”
Besides Neosho, Crowder has campuses in Cassville, Nevada and Webb City, and it also offers classes in Carthage, Monett, Greenfield, Lamar and Mount Vernon.
Marble said college officials always have remained focused on students.
“Crowder was built on a foundation of putting students first and student success,” he said.
Marble and Tatum also mentioned the programs in truck driver training, water and wastewater technology, veterinary technology, and nursing.
Tatum said he got to know clerks at a convenience store in Anderson where he buys his coffee in the mornings. At the time, they were working minimum-wage jobs. They had enrolled in Crowder’s nursing program and now make good wages as nurses, he said.
The alternative energy program has become a large part of Crowder’s identity, starting with Art Boyt more than 30 years ago and evolving into the Missouri Alternative and Renewable Energy Technology Center today.
Crowder established its two-year degree program in alternative energy under Boyt. His students designed and built the first solar-powered car to cross the United States, in 1984. Solar cars built by students competed in many races over the subsequent decades, including in Australia in 1987 and 1999.
A solar-powered house built by Crowder students was entered into the 2002 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon competition in Washington, D.C. The Crowder house was voted “people’s choice” by visitors touring the houses.
Crowder’s was often the only entry from a two-year college in the competitions.
The MARET Center, a $7 million, 27,000-square-foot building, is a technology demonstration laboratory with classrooms and offices. The building produces more energy than it uses, from 290 solar panels on its roof and a large wind turbine. It uses geothermal heating and cooling.
Russ Hopper, executive director of the MARET Center, said the number of firsts recorded at Crowder in alternative energy is impressive.
“That’s testament to the program itself, and the folks who started it and pushed it,” Hopper said. “I stand on the shoulders of Art Boyt and others who had a vision of the future.”
Hopper said the MARET Center from a branding perspective gives Crowder a certain cachet.
“It’s a showcase program, no doubt about it,” Marble said of the alternative energy program. “It’s given us national and international recognition. It’s really pushed our science and technology and engineering programs.”
Herb Schade, professor emeritus of physics and physical science, has been on Crowder’s faculty for 43 years. He said he has noted the continual change of students, and learning about their success in their education and careers in subsequent years. There also have been many staff changes over those decades.
“The change in buildings and the appearance of campus is just mind-boggling,” Schade said.
He said that when he arrived in 1970, there were just the two original buildings. Work was finishing up on the vocational-technical building and the gym. The parking lots were gravel.
“The campus was rather barren at that time,” he said.
He said with new buildings, building remodeling and landscaping, it looks much more like a college campus now.
Schade said he was involved in the planning for Davidson Hall, which houses programs for sciences and health occupations. The building, which includes a Federal Emergency Management Agency safe room, opened in 2011.
He said the college is well-served by the focus on serving students.
“This has just been an amazingly great place to work,” Schade said. “Almost every day it’s really been fun to work. I tell my students, ‘I hope you can find a career as meaningful as the one that I have.’”
In the past few weeks, Crowder College has announced an agreement with Carthage High School that will allow motivated students to receive a two-year associate degree from Crowder at the same time they graduate from high school. The price also is reduced.
The agreement has caught the attention of several school districts, whose officials have contacted Crowder, Marble said. He said agreements with other schools are being pursued.
Tatum had a gleam in his eye when talking about the agreement and the interest it has sparked.
“That’s how things mushroom,” Tatum said. “I think what we’re doing is picking up on early signals of where we ought to be.”
Marble said he lacks a crystal ball for the future, but he said Crowder is thriving, though there have been some difficult years for finances in the past 50. He said the key is to remain focused on students.
“The first 50 years provides a base and a foundation that’s solid,” Marble said. “We’re standing on the shoulders of giants.”
In that category, he included James Tatum.
WHEN CROWDER COLLEGE OPENED to students in September 1964, 360 students were enrolled. The fall 2012 enrollment set a record, with 5,590 students.