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.