By Wally Kennedy
Bracing themselves against strong winds and threatening skies, about 750 people gathered on the campus of Missouri Southern State College on Oct. 29, 1967, to hear Missouri Gov. Warren E. Hearnes talk about the school as a catalyst for progress.
Many in the audience had watched the college go from a dream on paper to brick-and-mortar reality in three years.
Hearnes, a steadfast advocate for higher education in Missouri, said the college was needed because of the increasing complexity of the world, and the uncertainty of what the future might hold.
“What we dedicate today can, with continued support, grow to meet the unknown needs of tomorrow,” said Hearnes.
Southern’s first academic buildings — Hearnes Hall, Spiva Library, Reynolds Hall and the fine arts complex — were dedicated by Gene Taylor, then the vice president of the college’s Board of Trustees. He would later become the U.S. representative for Southwest Missouri.
That dedication 45 years ago marked a new beginning for Southern, which had existed for 27 years as Joplin Junior College and three years as Jasper County Junior College. When it began in 1937, Joplin Junior College had 114 students and nine faculty members.
Now, 75 years later, Southern has grown into a university with an enrollment of approximately 5,600 students, 35 buildings and 200 full-time professors and 140 part-time instructors.
In its early years, Joplin Junior College was a branch of the Joplin School District. It formed after a meeting of 150 to 200 men and women was held in June 1937 in the Joplin High School auditorium. The group gave unanimous support to the founding of a junior college and chose William C. Markwardt, a Joplin baker and civic leader, as chairman of the movement.
The new junior college opened shop in temporary quarters in what then was Joplin Senior High School at Eighth Street and Wall Avenue. In the spring of 1938, voters in the Joplin school district approved a bond issue to renovate a building at the southeast corner of Fourth Street and Byers Avenue as the junior college’s first permanent home.
The new home for the junior college was completed in time for the fall semester and diplomas were presented to 24 graduates on May 17, 1939. The junior college existed there until the completion of the new Joplin High School at 20th Street and Indiana Avenue. At that time, the junior college moved to the former campus of Joplin High School at Eighth Street and Wall Avenue.
That changed in 1964 when Roi S. Wood, superintendent of Joplin’s schools, gave the junior college an ultimatum.
Faced with a growing need for space to house high school students, Wood, in a 1987 interview with the Globe, said, “I told them: ‘You’ve got three years to find a new home.’ We needed that building at Eighth and Wall for a second high school. There was no time to waste.’’
In April 1964, local and area voters overwhelmingly endorsed a proposal to form a junior college district and raise money to build a campus.
In June 1964, Leon C. Billingsly was named president. Five months later, an organization known as “Friends of the College’’ had raised $300,000 in private contributions to buy the 320-acre Mission Hills farm, site of the current campus.
The property might have become a subdivision had it not been for Rolla Stephens, George Spiva and Morgan Hillhouse. Stephens was attempting to develop a subdivision. When he learned that community leaders were looking for a site for the college, he approached them with the property. Spiva provided a $100,000 gift to help buy the property, and Hillhouse, leading a group of influential Joplin residents, raised the remaining $205,000 to close the deal.
In the summer of 1967, the campus, with four new buildings and the renovated mansion house, was opened to 2,399 students and 95 faculty members.
The late Fred Hughes, a founding force behind the college, and a former president and chairman of The Joplin Globe, in a 1987 interview, said: “There was a lot of enthusiasm. It was an upbeat thing for the whole area. Now that I think back about it, so many things about the college seemed to be ordained.”
“There was the site for the campus, Dr. Billingsly as our president, and the way we found our architect, Frank McArthur. It was a miracle that it fell together like it did.’’
McArthur developed a master plan for the college. He arranged and spaced the first buildings along a ridge, also called “the spine,’’ that overlooked Turkey Creek.
Said Hughes: “Our new name, Missouri Southern, had a lot to do with the appearance of the buildings. McArthur based our overall style on Southern colonial architecture with the use of columns, red brick and the expansive green lawn that now forms the oval.’’
Bill Livingston, now 71, began his 41-year career as a mathematics teacher at Southern. He was a 1961 graduate of Joplin Junior College.
“I came to Southern in 1968, the year after the campus had opened. What I remember is how confusing it was. It wasn’t settled,’’ he said. “We had a two-and-two school that year. It was two years of junior college and two years of state-supported college.
“There was not enough office space. There were three of us to an office. I was with Paul Jensen and Jack Jolly,’’ he said. “It was a strange time to be there. The Vietnam War was on; 1968 was one of those great years of turmoil. There are a lot of people who would just as soon forget about it.
“When someone says the college is going through difficult economic times, well, it has always gone through difficult economic times. That’s nothing new,’’ he said.
There have been other difficulties, as well.
But Livingston said there has been one constant.
“There was a strong emphasis on teaching. It’s still there with the faculty. It is the underlying strength of the college.”
In 1977, the school was renamed Missouri Southern State College and officially became a state-assisted four-year college and part of Missouri’s higher education system. Over the years, the college also had strong allies in Jefferson City, including former state Sen. Richard Webster, a Carthage Republican.
Title to and control of all Missouri Southern property was soon transferred to the state. The campus and property were worth approximately $17.8 million. Gov. Joseph Teasdale would appoint a new six-member Board of Regents.
After Billingsly’s death of cardiac arrest in 1978, Donald Darnton became the second president.
Darnton, who served three years as college president, submitted his resignation on June 5, 1982, the day after it was rumored the board had fired him.
In a secret meeting later that month, the regents would name Julio Leon, a member of the Missouri Southern faculty since 1969 and dean of the School of Business, as interim president of the college.
“He (Leon) enjoyed the support of the faculty. He faced difficult challenges and he handled them well. He was the interim for six months before they named him president,’’ said Livingston.
Leon’s appointment to be the interim president was championed by Anthony Kassab, a Joplin businessman, who enlisted Fred Hughes to help him convince other members of the Board of Regents that Leon was the best candidate.
Said Kassab: “He presented himself well. He was clearly intelligent, and he possessed the knowledge of what the faculty was unhappy about because he was one of them. There was a tacit assumption that someone from California or Pennsylvania would be superior to someone from here, but I was absolutely convinced that we needed someone on the scene.’’
Kassab, now 86, said, “Of all the civic things I have done in my life, I got more satisfaction out of serving the college than anything else, and what I am most proud of is that Julio Leon turned out to do an even better job than I had hoped for.’’
At a faculty meeting on Dec. 16, 1982, Glenn Wilson, president of the board, announced that Leon, a three-time winner of the national track title in Chile and an Olympic contender, would be the new president. He received a standing ovation from the faculty.
“For the faculty, he was one of their own. But Julio was a leader. There is no administration and faculty anywhere that uniformly gets along. There were times when we disagreed about things. But we took him to be our leader,’’ said Livingston.
“He let it be known in words and deeds he was a strong supporter of the faculty. He could have been swamped, too. But you must remember, he did not do it alone. Billingsly, with his long-term plans, was the visionary. Without him, there would have not been any school there at all,’’ said Livingston.
Leon, who would begin a 25-year career at the helm of the college, faced controversies in his tenure, too.
One involved a 5-cent property tax that the Jasper County Junior College District was planning to impose in 1983 on patrons in Jasper County, and in parts of Lawrence, Barton and Newton counties. State Auditor Jim Antonio, acting on a local taxpayer’s complaint, questioned the tax, presenting documents that showed the district to have nearly $1.6 million but debts of only $1 million. Antonio questioned whether the tax was justified.
Fearful of damaging the college’s credibility with the voters, the Board of Trustees withdrew the tax.
In the following years, the college campus would expand and a new mission statement would be adopted. In June 1990, the Board of Regents approved a recommendation to pursue an international emphasis for undergraduate education.
The 1990s witnessed many changes at the college, in both appearance and direction.
In August 1992, the $7.5 million Richard M. Webster Communications and Social Science Building opened.
Three years later, in May 1995, Gov. Mel Carnahan signed legislation that authorized the college to establish international education as a distinctive theme of its mission. The goal has been to send Southern students overseas, and each year the campus emphasizes a different nation, bringing in guest speakers, showing foreign films and more.
Later that summer, construction of a student life center was completed.
In September 1996, a major expansion of the Mills Anderson Justice Center began.
As a result of generous contributions of more than $800,000 from the community, Southern replaced the artificial football playing surface and the running track at Fred G. Hughes Stadium in April 2003.
Later that year, Gov. Bob Holden would sign a bill on Southern’s campus that elevated the status of Southern from a college to a university. The legislation, sponsored by former state Sen. Gary Nodler, of Joplin, and former state Rep. Bryan Stevenson, of Webb City, elevated the institution.
After serving 25 years as only the third president of Missouri Southern State University, Leon announced his retirement on Aug. 17, 2007. Terri Agee was then named acting president.
Six months later, Southern’s Board of Governors announced that Bruce W. Speck had been selected as the fourth president of the university, taking over during a time of state funding cuts.
In August 2009, the 71,000-square-foot George S. Beimdiek Recreation Center and Willcoxon Student Health Center officially opened. The recreation center is connected to Billingsly Student Center, which also underwent extensive renovation.
Sixteen months later, the 85,000-square-foot Health Sciences Building opened, providing state-of-the-art training for health care professionals.
And in September 2010, the oldest building on the MSSU campus, the Mission Hills mansion, opened after being renovated as the Ralph L. Gray Alumni Center.
‘Can we get there?’
Brad Belk, who is writing a book about the 75-year history of the college, said the decision in 1964 to “break free from the downtown, to find a place to expand and create a four-year curriculum that would become a college that led to a university would be the monumental, if not defining step, in the history of the college.’’
Based on his research, Belk, director of the Joplin Museum Complex, said it was not clear to those involved that they would be that successful.
“They were asking themselves: ‘Can we get there? Have we pushed this thing as far as we can? Can we make it happen?’ Those were questions they did not know the answers to when they started,’’ said Belk.
Belk said leaders such as Hearnes, Webster, Hughes and Billingsly succeeded because of the community’s involvement and support.
“It was amazing how the citizen’s continually backed it and supported it. Once they rallied around it, there was no stopping it. The community is now the benefactor of that.
“Since 1937, the idea has been simple: Give local folks — those 18-year-old boys and girls — an opportunity for an education who would not have the ability to go to a four-year college.
“When that little seed started in 1937, there was no way anyone could envision the status of the institution today, providing a quality education for those 18-year-olds. It’s an incredible story with an incredible economic impact on our community. It is impossible to define how important it is to our community.
“It is something to behold when you think of where it started in 1937.’’