Freed-Hardeman University traces its history to 1869 when the Tennessee legislature incorporated Henderson Male and Female Institute, authorizing it to offer high school and college courses and to confer degrees. Eleven prominent Henderson citizens were named trustees, including Henderson’s founder, Dr. John P. Smith. The school operated for 15 years in a two-story frame building on the northwest corner of Main and White on land donated by John West. It was designed to accommodate 250-300 students.
Classes began in 1871 under the direction of George Martin Savage who ran the school for most of the next 13 years. The local Masonic Lodge supported the school financially. In 1877, the state approved changing the name to Henderson Masonic Male and Female Institute. The school attracted both local and out-of-state students who stayed in the town’s boarding houses.
In 1877, the nation’s growing temperance movement impacted the school when the state legislature prohibited the sale of alcohol within four miles of a chartered rural school. The institute then assured parents of potential students regarding the physical and moral health of Henderson, noting the town had “three elegant church-houses” but “not a drinking saloon in the place.”
While the institute educated both young men and young women, they did not receive the same education. Boys were to be to be offered a “practical education” including “penmanship for correspondence and mathematics for accounting—in other words, preparation for the world of commerce.” Girls, on the other hand, were to be educated “for that responsible position for which they were created—helps for men.”
Information and quoted material are drawn from Dr. Greg Massey’s forthcoming book, “By the Grace of God: The Story of Freed-Hardeman University,” which will be published and available for purchase from the university in Spring 2020.
When George M. Savage, leader of Henderson Masonic Male and Female Institute for approximately 13 years, left in 1885, the school’s governing board was unable to continue operation. However, I. J. Galbraith, an Institute trustee and a local leader of the Christian Church, as well as other church members, purchased the property and a new board of trustees asked the Tennessee General Assembly to change the school’s name to West Tennessee Christian College.
The name marked a significant change. For the first time, the school was specifically identified as religious. John Bunyan Inman, former Institute teacher, now led the school. He sought to recruit faculty, build enrollment and increase public support for a Christian school. In the Gospel Advocate, Inman urged parents to consider where they educated their sons and daughters. “Shall I give my money and influence to build up institutions whose course I do not fully endorse, and where the Bible is not the only standard of faith and practice?” he asked. While not compulsory, the Bible was taught daily at the school.
Inman also stressed the college’s commitment to academic excellence and an equal education for men and women. “There will be no sham work in this college,” he said. “Young ladies will be taught that their education should be as perfect, and their lives as independent as their young gentlemen friends.”
Inman and his faculty valued moral and intellectual excellence more than a large enrollment. “We do not want any immoral students, for we shall send them away,” he said. “We prefer a smaller school of good students to a large one made up of disagreeable ones, and whose influence would be detrimental to others.”
In 1890, a young man arrived in Henderson to attend West Tennessee Christian College. He would remain here for most of the next sixty years, impacting the history of higher education, the community and churches of Christ. Nicholas Brodie Hardeman came to Henderson from Milledgville. His father, John B. Hardeman, was well known as a doctor, farmer and businessman.
In Henderson, N.B. Hardeman boarded with an aunt and uncle while attending WTCC. That fall, he heard a sermon at the Henderson Christian Church and was baptized by R.P. Meeks who thought young men should leave the school “with a goodly list of well-prepared and carefully criticized sermons.” Hardeman, however, was not particularly interested in preaching. Instead, he took courses that prepared him to be a teacher.
West Tennessee Christian College, which in 1892-93 had announced its intention to build a new building, found itself financially insecure and the building was not begun. Two leaders of the school left, further complicating the situation, and a financial panic in 1893 led to an economic depression in the United States that continued for five years.
Meanwhile, roughly 30 miles from Henderson, a school was flourishing. In 1898, a 25-year-old Indiana educator responded to an ad in the Gospel Advocate seeking someone to establish a school in Essary Springs. Arvy Glenn Freed moved to Tennessee and became the president and principal teacher of Southern Tennessee Normal College. His optimistic nature, faith and hard work led to rapid growth of the school.
Freed taught and presided over his school during the week and preached on weekends, including at the Christian Church in Henderson. This gave the trustees of West Tennessee Christian College, now looking for a new administrator for WTCC, opportunity to hear him preach. In 1895, Freed accepted a 10-year contract as president of WTCC and he and his wife Belle moved to Henderson.
Although conflict will rear its ugly head, the principal characters have now arrived on the scene. Two men who will one day construct a new building and establish a college that today bears their names have come to Henderson.
Declining enrollment and disagreement over the use of instrumental music in worship eventually led to the dissolution of Georgie Robertson Christian College in 1907. As early as December 1906, talk of a new school in Henderson had begun among members of the Henderson church of Christ. Local businessmen who feared Henderson would soon be without a college were also interested. The two groups joined forces and met with N.B. Hardeman, who contacted A.G. Freed then living in Texas.
Five men, nominated by Hardeman, became trustees of the new school and Freed agreed to return to Henderson. Hardeman drafted a charter for National Teachers Normal and Business College. The board authorized him and Freed to buy land for a building. The simplest thing would have been to buy the GRCC building, but that was not to be. The Tennessee Christian Missionary Society, hoping to re-open the school, refused to sell it. The GRCC building remained vacant until 1913 when the town of Henderson purchased it for the county high school which occupied it for about 40 years.
Freed and Hardeman looked across the street to a lot on the corner of Main and Cason. Purchasing it for $3,775, they hired architect Hubert T. McGee to design a building. Despite a financial panic in the country, supporters continued trying to raise money. At a Nov. 7 ground-breaking ceremony, Hardeman broke ground and Spencer Rice, who would work as the school’s janitor for many years, shoveled the second spade of dirt.
Later in the month, the cornerstone reading, “Laid By Citizens Of Henderson Nov. 30, 1907. A. G. Freed And N. B. Hardeman Founders” was set in place.
Construction began with local labor using local materials. Brick, brought from Mill Street in wheelbarrows were used to construct “exceptionally thick walls.” When pledges failed and costs rose, Freed and Hardeman pledged their own money and credit to complete construction and guarantee the mortgage. “The enterprise is falling heavily on Brother Hardeman and me,” Freed announced. “Brother Hardeman and I are making this the work of our lives. Our great object is to plant a permanent institution where the youth of our country may secure a thorough education under the influence of primitive Christianity. The Lord has blessed our labors. With him we shall succeed.”
Information and quoted material are drawn from Dr. Greg Massey’s forthcoming book, “By the Grace of God: The Story of Freed-Hardeman University,” which will be published and available for purchase from the university in Spring 2020. A Grand Re-opening of Old Main is scheduled for 2:00pm Friday, Nov. 8. The public is invited to attend.
Information and quoted material are drawn from Dr. Greg Massey’s forthcoming book, “By the Grace of God: The Story of Freed-Hardeman University,” which will be published and available for purchase from the university in Spring 2020.
National Teachers Normal and Business College, under the direction of President A.G. Freed and Vice President N.B. Hardeman, opened in September 1908 for its first term. Other than the notable absence of furniture for the classrooms, the opening had few glitches.
With classes for kindergartners through college, all offered in the same building, enrollment for the first year peaked at 450 students. Encouraged by the good opening, Freed order 25,000 copies of the next year’s catalog and made plans to hire additional faculty.
By the second year, 1909-1910, 80 percent of the students came from out of town. Typically, they came on one of the four daily trains servicing Henderson. In September, some trains were full of students. New terms brought more new students.
Since NTNBC had no dormitories, students boarded with local families and, as advocates had said, bolstered the town’s economy. Families received daily grocery deliveries from local stores via horse-drawn hackneys navigating Henderson’s dirt, or mud, depending upon the season, streets. They delivered enough food to keep three local stores profitable. The boarding houses were not equipped with electric lights or central heat and air. However, many of them did have pianos and some of the female students took piano lessons at the college.
The experiences of Clifford Paul (C.P.) Roland, who enrolled at NTNBC in 1910, were likely that of many students. Roland came to Henderson from Essary Springs. He had boarded a morning train in Pocahontas, Tennessee, gone “to Corinth, Mississippi, switched to a northbound train on the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad and arrived in Henderson that afternoon at 4:30pm” For comparative purposes, Henderson is approximately 36 miles from Pocahontas. Today’s traveler could drive the distance in less than an hour.
When Roland arrived at the Henderson train station, he got off the train and walked to a boarding house on Main Street adjacent to the railroad overpass. At the boarding house, Roland began each day by “shaking the coal grate, putting in kindling and starting a fire to warm the room he shared with two other male students.”
Sometime in 1917, N. B. Hardeman, vice president, approached A.G. Freed, president, with an idea. “Why not launch a campaign to sell the school to the brethren?” he asked. For his part, Freed said he was agreeable to that, if it were “the will of all,” and supporters of the school were invited to a meeting to consider the idea.
At least one consensus was reached: the school needed money if it were to expand. Hardeman spent much of the 1917-18 school year attempting to raise the necessary funds. He asserted the money would assure Freed’s legacy as a school builder in West Tennessee. “He (Freed) has been a pioneer and pathfinder in the matter of Christian education in this territory. He has gone before, blazed the way and fought the battles, and now he wants to see the fruits of his labor preserved for future generations,” Hardeman said.
A series of meetings on campus convened to consider the idea. Ultimately, the attendees, who came from seven states, agreed on changes to ensure the school’s viability beyond the lives of Freed and Hardeman. They wanted to buy the school for $30,000 and entrust it to a board of trustees. Furthermore, they thought the school needed a new charter and name. They also initiated a campaign to raise $100,000 for expansion, beginning with a dormitory for female students.
At a follow-up meeting May 21, the new charter and deed of transfer were approved, and Freed and Hardeman signed five-year contracts to continue their work at the school. NTNBC would now have a new name and be under new ownership. It officially became Freed-Hardeman College and governing authority transferred to its board of trustees. The new charter announced that the school was to be “owned and controlled by members of the Church of Christ.”
Other changes also resulted. Friends of the school at that spring meeting had been concerned about the institution’s independent stance, believing it had held the school back. The new board of trustees instructed Freed and Hardeman to transition to a junior college and adopt a systematic curriculum and schedule. They were also to seek accreditation, which would allow FHC graduates to transfer their credits to other institutions. Freed’s normal school was no more.
Despite the benefits of the normal school method: allowing students to work at their own pace and tailoring the curriculum to their needs, the educational climate of the time had made the changes necessary. Schools began to professionalize and standardize. Normal schools became teachers’ colleges, focusing less on a classical liberal arts education and more on preparing students for careers. A standardized model of education became the norm. Freed’s system was not outmoded, nor were the new trends necessarily better. It had become a matter of survival - if Freed-Hardeman wanted to survive, it had to conform.
The 1920s brought more change to Freed-Hardeman College. The 1921 session began with a significant advance; the college moved from a boarding school toward a college with dormitories. Freed and Hardeman had promised a building designed to accommodate 100 girls, supervised by a Christian family. It was to have the “modern conveniences” of steam heat, electricity and running water. The four-story Oakland Hall (now called Hall-Roland Hall) for female students opened that fall. Like the administration building, it was constructed of locally made bricks and complemented the style of the earlier structure.
“So soon as the Ladies’ Home is ready, the ‘Home for Boys’ will be rushed to completion,” Freed and Hardeman wrote in the 1919-20 College Bulletin. “The boys will have the same kind of a home and accommodations as the girls. In the meantime we have the best Christian homes in Henderson to care for the boys.” The dormitory for boys came near the end of the decade. Paul Gray Hall, named for a Detroit businessman who contributed funds for the project, was built in 1928. Like the girls dorm, it had four floors and was constructed of matching brick and followed the style of the other two buildings.
Although the curriculum and student housing changed, the administration’s attitude toward extracurricular activities did not. “Freed-Hardeman College is not a society school,” the school’s administrators announced. “We are not spending our lives in the schoolroom to teach young people how to dance, play forty-four, nor serve frappé.” The school continued its disdain of intercollegiate athletics, believing competitive athletics led to rowdy behavior and gambling.
The school might be seeking accreditation and conforming to prescribed academic standards, but Freed and Hardeman insisted that their school remain distinctive. Its distinctiveness was its reason for being. Since they believed spiritual and moral development were most important, “We teach the Bible—the only textbook in morals the world has—just the pure, unadulterated Bible; not what men say about it, but the book itself,” they wrote.
The academic and social life of National Teachers Normal and Business College was conducted almost exclusively in the building A.G. Freed and N.B. Hardeman had constructed in 1908. It housed a primary department (kindergarten through third grade) and an intermediate department (fourth through eighth grade) as well as the college program. College students met in six large classrooms while the younger students met in smaller rooms.
Classes met Tuesday-Saturday. Sundays and Mondays were days off. Unusual as that sounds today, practical reasons actually existed for the schedule. Many young men preached on Sundays. The schedule allowed them to travel to and from their appointments, return to Henderson on Mondays and get ready for Tuesday classes.
Furthermore, Saturday was the day farmers from outlying areas came to town to take care of their business, shop and visit. Mondays in Henderson were quieter, making it easier for college students to attend to their personal business and do their laundry. By Monday afternoon, preachers had returned and other students had finished whatever they needed to do in town.
Therefore, Monday afternoons were devoted to meetings of the literary societies: Eupathian, Philomathean and Sigma Rho, forerunners of today’s social clubs. Unlike today’s clubs, which compete in sports and host a variety of events for their members and sometimes the wider community, these clubs were more like debating societies. Two speakers took an affirmative position on an issue while two others assumed the negative position. Among the topics, which may sound strangely current, were the place of women in politics and the appeal of socialism. The debates in Chapel Hall attracted local residents as well as students. “We had no athletics,” Clifford Paul Roland remembered, but “we had great contests among leading speakers in societies on opposite side of the various questions.”
The college, including its classes and literary societies, were coeducational. However, fraternization between the genders ended there. The school catalog proclaimed, “There will be no associations of ladies and gentlemen outside of the class room.” There were times, however, when “the rules were off.” When the school hosted a guest speaker or musical performance, young men were permitted to meet escort young ladies to Chapel Hall for the event. Then, “the rules were on” again, and men were not allowed to visit women. Violators could be suspended from school.
Some couples were willing to take the risk, but their success was usually short-lived. If they managed to escape the notice of Freed and Hardeman, they were unlikely to evade Spencer Rice, the janitor. Apparently gifted at impersonating Freed, who spoke with a lisp, Rice surprised couples by calling to them in Freed’s voice, effectively ending the romantic encounter.
National Teachers’ Normal and Business flourished in its early years. In fact, during the first half of the 1910s, NTNBC was the largest of the schools administered by members of the churches of Christ. Students came from as many as 15 states and attendance averaged more than 600. By contrast, Nashville Bible College, which became David Lipscomb University, enrolled 215 students in 1914-15. Abilene Christian College enrolled 207 students in 1912.
The influence of NTNBC over churches of Christ was also significant. Bible courses were offered but not required, and Bible was a relatively small part of the curriculum. However, drawn by the reputations of Freed and Hardeman as preachers and debaters, many young men who wanted to be preachers chose to come to Henderson. Hardeman taught Bible survey courses and Freed, as his schedule permitted, taught homiletics. During the 1930’s and 40’s, Gospel Advocate out of Nashville and Firm Foundation, published in Texas, ran articles featuring up-and-coming preachers. A substantial number of those highlighted had attended NTNBC during those years.
The school’s influence was not restricted to the pulpit. True to its name, it also prepared teachers and businessmen for successful careers. The normal school, Freed had observed two decades earlier, prepared students for useful lives. In fact, NTNBC founders said, “NTNBC had more students in life ‘making good’ than any other school of the brotherhood.”
But, the times are changing. Public schools are being opened and will become a threat to NTNBC’s primary, intermediate and high school departments. The nation’s economy is on shaky ground, and a world war is in the offing. Freed and Hardeman disagree over the nature of the school. Freed is a product of and an advocate for normal schools; Hardeman sees the future in a standardized curriculum and accreditation. Can the school survive? Will the partnership remain intact?
Other changes also resulted. Friends of the school at that spring meeting had been concerned about the institution’s independent stance, believing it had held the school back. The new board of trustees instructed Freed and Hardeman to transition to a junior college and adopt a systematic curriculum and schedule. They were also to seek accreditation, which would allow FHC graduates to transfer their credits to other institutions. It was the death knell for Freed’s normal school.
Despite the benefits of the normal school method: allowing students to work at their own pace and tailoring the curriculum to their needs, the educational climate of the time necessitated change. Schools began to professionalize and standardize. Normal schools became teachers’ colleges, focusing on preparing students for careers. Freed’s system was not out-of-date, nor were the new trends necessarily better. For FHC, it had become a matter of survival—if Freed-Hardeman wanted to survive, it had to conform.
In 1921, N.B. Hardeman accepted the greatest preaching opportunity of his life. More than 40 congregations of churches of Christ in Middle Tennessee planned a cooperative gospel meeting in Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. They chose Hardeman as the speaker. Despite his increasing reputation as a preacher, he had never before spoken in Nashville.
Beginning March 28, 1922, Hardeman preached 39 sermons over a three-week period, speaking at afternoon and evening sessions. Large crowds flocked to the services. According to reports, 7,000 people packed the auditorium on opening night; another 2,000 were “turned away for lack of room.” Both Nashville newspapers, The Tennessean and The Banner, covered the event and reprinted the sermons. Hardeman employed literary allusions, historical examples and much quoting of scripture, all without the benefit of notes.
Known as the “Tabernacle Meeting,” these sermons established Hardeman’s reputation as the leading preacher among churches of Christ. Two of the meeting’s organizers, J. E. Acuff and Wayne Burton, reflected on the meeting’s success, noting some 160,000 people had attended and more than 200 people were baptized or restored to the church. The organizers had paid all of the expenses without collecting funds from the audience. Acuff and Burton concluded that it was “perhaps, taking it all in all, the greatest meeting conducted by the churches of Christ since New Testament times.”
Prominent Middle Tennessee preacher F. W. Smith described Hardeman’s powers of oratory: “He has all the elements of an orator, and, if he had been so disposed, could have gone to the top in the political world, but chose rather to consecrate his God-given powers to a better cause. . . . This man of God is, beyond any question, a master of assemblies, and sways his audiences with an ease and grace of voice and manners that attracts and holds almost the breathless attention of his auditors.”
For Hardeman, it must have been quite the experience. He shared his impressions in letters to his wife. “Hilary Ewing Howse (a prominent Nashville political leader) said, ‘I was the greatest speaker he ever heard,’” Hardeman wrote. In addition, “Lots of big men of the city hear me every time,” he noted. Also, “prominent preachers were amazed that he preached fluidly without reference to a Bible,” according to Hardeman. Tennessee churches and communities eagerly scheduled him to preach gospel meetings.
The Tabernacle Meeting had forever altered his life, and he knew it. Preaching engagements would take him away from Henderson and Freed-Hardeman College. “With reference to school,” he wrote, “I fear ‘them days are gone forever.’”
Over the next twenty years, Hardeman delivered four more series of Tabernacle Sermons. The printed volumes, particularly the first series, became the model for a generation of young preachers. Hardeman’s increased reputation brought greater visibility to the school that wears his and A. G. Freed’s names.
In the early 1920s, tensions between A.G. Freed, president, and N.B. Hardeman, vice president, continued to flare. College trustees had decided that the school curriculum should be standardized and accreditation sought, both positions Freed opposed. To further complicate matters, Arkansas Christian College in Morrillton, a predecessor of today’s Harding University, was courting Hardeman and had attempted to hire him as president.
Hardeman seriously considered the proposal and, in fact, asked to be released from his FHC contract. Two influential faculty members, L.L. Brigance and W.H. Owen, let it be known that if Hardeman left, they would also resign. Placed in a difficult position, trustees asked Hardeman to stay and agreed to his conditions for continuing. Trustees then proposed to Freed that he “take a much-needed vacation.” Instead of teaching, they wanted him to go on the road to secure funds. Freed agreed. He became a fund-raiser and when in Henderson, a consultant. For his part, Hardeman became the acting president.
Hardeman hired former student Clifford Roland, who had been a public school administrator, to teach mathematics and science and establish the school’s first science laboratories, allowing students to go beyond lectures. In addition, Bible courses became a more prominent feature in the school’s curriculum. A majority of the students voluntarily took Bible courses. As the school transitioned from Freed’s leadership to Hardeman’s acting presidency, the administrators announced, “The school is seeking to be guided in all things by ‘Reason and Revelation.’” In a Gospel Advocate article, they described their Bible teaching as “sound and free of theological fads.” “You never heard of a hobby or speculative theory originating in Henderson. . . . We are perfectly content to walk in the ‘old paths,’” they wrote.
Nevertheless, enrollment remained stagnant, never rising above 250 students. Factors beyond their control affected the school’s stability. With the nation facing an economic depression in 1920-21, parents were unable to send their children to FHC.
Freed had returned to the classroom at FHC for a five-week period to replace Hardeman while he was in Nashville preaching at the Ryman. In 1922-23, he resumed his duties as president with the school facing a debt of $43,000 and a decreased enrollment. Hardeman pledged $10,000 of his own funds to help pay the debt, but rescinded the offer when trustees re-elected Freed president. Unwilling to cause the school to lose the $10,000, Freed offered his resignation.
Freed pledged to work “to liquidate the debt.” Furthermore, he said, “The school shall have my loyal support and friendship when the Institution shall be relieved of all financial embarrassment, and you and I [Hardeman] are entirely disconnected with it.”
After more than 25 years, the partnership ended with both men cancelling their contracts with the board. They agreed not to be employed as teachers in FHC for the next two years and pledged themselves “to be its friends, lend it our moral support, and work for its interest.”
When FHC’s Board of Trustees found itself unable to keep neither A.G. Freed nor N.B. Hardeman in Henderson, they created a new team, choosing W. Claude Hall as president and C.P. Roland as dean. Hall had been a high school principal for more than a decade and had chaired the education department at David Lipscomb College for three years. Roland, an alumnus, was already a member of the FHC faculty.
Following commencement week in 1922, Freed and Hardeman went their separate ways. Freed accepted a position at David Lipscomb College as vice-president of the college and as principal of the high school. Hardeman took the opportunity to fulfill a long-time desire. As a teacher of Bible geography, he had wished to visit the Palestine and Egypt. So, he set sail for a three-month journey to the Holy Land.
Hall and Roland acknowledged that they were not Freed and Hardeman but, they assured those concerned, they would seek their counsel. Despite the changes, the school’s values remained the same. “A discipline in keeping with the past will be our aim,” they wrote. Like their predecessors, they encouraged intramural athletics but not intercollegiate athletics. They looked to the Bible for “standards of right and wrong.”
Hall and Roland expected a decline in attendance, which had been low for years. However, the 1923 fall enrollment was stable and the number living in the girls’ dormitory increased somewhat. To enhance student life, the administration built tennis courts and allowed students to form and operate a newspaper, with Mary Nelle Hardeman, daughter of N. B. and Joanna Hardeman, serving as the first editor. Any student could write and submit articles for publication. Hall announced a contest to name the paper and offered a prize to the student who submitted the best name. The first edition of The Sky-Rocket appeared Oct. 15, 1923. The name appeared on the masthead for the next 48 years.
The Sky Rocket gives evidence of increased activities for students. For example, the paper reported a volleyball game between six members of the faculty, including Hall and Roland, and a team of students. A sizeable crowd of spectators attended. “Although ‘Our Boys’ brought ‘Our Faculty’ to the earth to the tune of three games out of four, ‘Our Faculty proved to be the highest type of sportsmen,” the paper reported. “After the game they left the court smiling, beaten but praised, lost but loved.”
Intercollegiate competition did appear in 1924, not in athletics but in debate. A team from FHC went to Martin to debate a team from Hall-Moody Institute, a forerunner of the University of Tennessee at Martin. The judges decreed the FHC team the winner in a rout. The Sky-Rocket writers described how the FHC team had “mopped up” their opponents.
Information and quoted material are drawn from Dr. Greg Massey’s forthcoming book, “By the Grace of God: The Story of Freed-Hardeman University,” which will be published and available for purchase from the university this spring.
Although W. Claude Hall’s tenure as Freed-Hardeman College president was relatively short, it included significant steps forward. He and C.P. Roland, academic dean, had been charged with gaining membership in the Tennessee Association of Colleges by the board of trustees. Membership in the association would make FHC an “approved teaching institution,” allowing it to compete for students with state teaching colleges, which had increased their enrollments at the expense of FHC.
To qualify for membership, Hall and Roland needed to hire enough teachers to staff at least five academic departments. Each teacher had to possess a bachelor’s degree in his or her academic area. The two administrators decided to hire faculty for eight departments: English, education, mathematics, classical languages, modern languages, history, science and home economics. Unfortunately, this left the school nearly $4,000 in debt. Using student promissory notes as collateral, Hall and Roland secured a loan from a local bank. To help with expenses, Hall and his wife, Lelia, lived as house parents in the dormitory.
Hall and Roland’s work came to fruition just as Hall’s time as president was about to end. The Tennessee Association of Colleges accepted FHC “as a full-fledged junior college.” This meant FHC graduates could transfer academic credit to other institutions without sitting for examinations. In addition, FHC could train its students to be teachers and they would “receive lifetime teacher’s certificates without examination.”
The two-year hiatus from FHU, agreed upon by A.G. Freed and N.B. Hardeman, led to Hall’s abbreviated presidency. Freed had gone to David Lipscomb College. Hardeman had gone to the Bible Lands; however, his presence was still very much felt on campus. Hall and Roland consulted him about affairs of the school. He maintained his residence in Henderson and his children attended FHC. Furthermore, the student newspaper carried accounts of his preaching activities, keeping his name alive on campus. Hardeman’s return to the school that bore his name seems to have been inevitable.
On New Year’s Day, 1925, the board met with Ephraim Smith presiding. He endorsed the work of Hall and Roland but said it was time “to plan for bigger and better things for the school and to take advantage of some great opportunities that were before it.” Members of the board and other supporters of the school, according to Smith, wanted Hardeman back at FHC.
After years of disdain for inter-scholastic athletic competition, Freed-Hardeman University president N.B. Hardeman changed his mind. A special athletic edition of The Sky-Rocket made the announcement Feb. 15, 1926.
“Inter-scholastic athletics for Freed-Hardeman College is no longer a thing to be desired because of its absence or wished for but not obtained, for it is now an actual, established fact. Though hard to believe it is none the less true, and delight is registered on every hand as the inevitable result of its adoption,” the paper reported.
A student-faculty meeting held in the latter part of December 1925 brought to public discussion the topic long discussed in private by students. The student newspaper estimated that 95 percent of male students attended the meeting held in the library and chaired by Hardeman. Joe Rainey, president of the Athletic Association, presented the case for inter-scholastic competition. According to Rainey, it would benefit enrollment and “bring the school in closer contact with the outside world.” Other students followed Rainey, giving their support to the proposal.
When Hardeman arose to speak, he revealed that since he had anticipated the topic of the night’s discussion, just the night before the faculty had met to consider the matter. Furthermore, he said, it had met the approval of every faculty member present.
“Athletics, as is the case of everything else, can be engaged in a manner that may bring harmful or beneficial results,” Hardeman said. He announced that he was willing to give the matter a trial. “Should this trial meet with success, well and good. But, if it fails to measure up with the proper standards, then it shall of necessity be discontinued.”
A boys’ basketball team began inter-scholastic play in January, seemingly against high school teams. The Sky-Rocket reports games against Savannah High School and Jackson High School. According to the paper, in the first four games played, the team, captained by Rainey, had scored 152 points or a “point-a-minute.”
By the late 1920’s FHC had constructed a two-story building consisting of a dining hall on the first floor and a gymnasium on the second. The upper floor contained a basketball court, dressing rooms, showers and balconies that could seat up to 400 spectators. The facility benefited both students and the town. A traveling basketball team called Olson’s Terrible Swedes visited the campus in 1930 and played the Henderson Independents. “The gymnasium is fast becoming the sports rendezvous of the community,” The Sky-Rocket reported. The college responded by expanding balcony seating so that the facility could accommodate 600 spectators.
The dining hall/ gymnasium combination currently serves as the home of FHU’s Department of Music. The first floor houses classrooms, offices, piano practice rooms and space for digital recording. The former gymnasium has been converted into a rehearsal hall for the University Chorale. It is also used as the site for recitals and other musical performances. Although the ceiling has been lowered, some of the brick has been exposed and the original basketball court remains as the floor.
Information has been taken from the Feb. 15, 1926 student newspaper, The Sky-Rocket, and Dr. Greg Massey’s recently published “By the Grace of God: The Story of Freed-Hardeman University.”
Beginning in the late 1920s, Freed-Hardeman fielded intercollegiate teams in baseball and in men’s and women’s basketball. Their original green and white uniforms were eventually replaced by maroon and white. The men’s team was called “Lions,” and women’s teams were “Lionesses” in the 1930s.
Late in the decade, James White, a Lakota Indian, enrolled at FHC. President N.B. Hardeman, who was holding a gospel meeting in Detroit, had met him and learned that White desired to do mission work among his fellow Native Americans. Hardeman encouraged him to come to Henderson in preparation for this work. White, his wife and four children moved and he attended classes at no charge. The Gospel Advocate heard about him and ran an article encouraging Christians to support him.
Perhaps to repay the college for the tuition, White, who had been a minor league player in the Western League, agreed to coach the baseball team. He coached and played catcher in a short, four-game season in 1929 and in the inaugural season in the Mississippi Valley Conference in 1930. Competing primarily against two other West Tennessee teams, Bethel and Lambuth, FHC won two more games than it lost. Their coach was known on campus as “Chief” White.
Arguably the best FHC athlete of the decade was Kerby Farrell, who played baseball and basketball and coached the women’s basketball team in 1933. He was team captain and starting guard on the basketball team which lost only one game that year.
Farrell went on to a long career in professional baseball. He played two years in the major leagues in the 1940s and managed the Cleveland Indians in 1957. He was also an award-winning manager in the minor leagues. Throughout his career, Farrell visited campus and appeared in chapel, promising FHC students free tickets if they were ever in cities where he managed.
In 1931, FHC began a brief foray into intercollegiate football. Laurent Johnson, a graduate of Lambuth and a star athlete, came to FHC as the athletic supervisor. He coached the basketball teams and began a football team. Home field occupied what is now known as Bader Green. Twenty-seven students tried out for the first football team; three-fourths of them had never before played football. The team was not only inexperienced; they were also under-sized.
Nevertheless, approximately 2,000 people showed up in Jackson to see FHC play Lambuth in FHC’s first-ever football game. Surprisingly, the game ended in a scoreless tie. The student newspaper reported, “The Freed-Hardeman Lions plucked the plumage from the vaunted Lambuth Eagles and won a great moral victory by holding the experienced Jackson gridders to a scoreless tie throughout a hard fought game.”
Information and quotations come from Dr. Greg Massey’s recently published “By the Grace of God: The Story of Freed-Hardeman University.”
Just as the country was plunging into the Great Depression, Freed-Hardeman College began a period of relative prosperity and calm. FHU President N.B. Hardeman continued to preach extensively while leading the school. He traveled widely and made connections for the college as he went.
In Detroit, where he preached eight gospel meetings, he met Paul Gray, a multi-millionaire because of his father’s investment in Ford Motor Company. Gray, a member of the church of Christ, attended one of these gospel meetings as a result of a friend’s invitation. Gray also brought his secretary, Abbie Hill, to hear Hardeman; both were impressed. Hill essentially served as the gatekeeper to Gray, shielding him from requests for money. In addition to liking Hardeman’s sermons, she liked what he said about his work with the college.
Therefore, when Hardeman asked for a meeting with Gray, Hill arranged it. “Now you’re one of many,” she said. “A big proportion of people I have to reject and turn away because Brother Gray doesn’t have time to hear all of them. I heard your cause and I think it’s worthy, so you’re getting a special reception.”
When Gray asked specifically what Hardeman needed, he stressed the need for a dormitory for boys. Gray committed to giving $50,000, the largest gift the college had ever received. It essentially financed the project. Furthermore, Alex Lindsey, the friend who had invited Gray to hear Hardeman preach, agreed to give $10,000 to the college’s endowment.
Suddenly, FHC became a school courted by other locations. Members of churches in Memphis, Tennessee; Corinth, Mississippi; and Florence, Alabama, tried to lure the college from Henderson. The group in Florence was the best organized and the most proactive. They contacted FHC’s trustees and asked what it would take to persuade them to move the college. They were told they needed to raise at least $200,000 and locate 25 acres for a campus by September 19 when the fall term was scheduled to begin.
For the next four months, FHC’s future was uncertain, but not because of low enrollment or dire financial straits. Now the question was where would Freed-Hardeman be located? Trustees delayed their plan to build the boys’ dormitory until the decision was made. When the deadline came, the Florence group had secured the land but was $40,000 short of the required funds. They asked for more time to raise the remainder.
Meanwhile, the citizens of Henderson had been active. The town had boasted of having a college for nearly 60 years and was unwilling to lose it without having their say. Mayor-elect D.E. Mitchell, an alumnus, was told the conditions for the college staying in Henderson were property on which to build the new dormitory as well as space for expansion of athletic facilities for students. Mitchell personally guaranteed the funds needed for the property. Trustees feared further uncertainty about where the college would be located would hurt enrollment. They voted to remain in Henderson.
Henderson business and civic leaders were relieved. The Chester County Independent and the Jackson Sun applauded the decision, noting the importance of FHC to West Tennessee and Henderson. The Independent wrote: “The removal of this college would have taken from this city some of its most useful and influential citizens and further deprived the town of the revenues that the college brings through its large student body.”
Information and quotations are taken from Dr. Greg Massey’s recently published “By the Grace of God: The Story of Freed-Hardeman University.” It is available for purchase at the university.
Attending chapel Monday-Friday has been a fixture of college life at Freed-Hardeman at least since the days of Georgie Robertson Christian College. Then, as now, it brought the entire college community together for a period of worship and a variety of programs.
As president, N.B. Hardeman frequently presided over chapel. One of his favorite verses to quote was I Corinthians 14:40: “Let all things be done decently and in order.” (Later students might remember this verse was also quoted frequently by President E. Claude Gardner.) Hardeman’s affinity for order pervaded all aspects of campus life, especially chapel. Even entrance into Chapel Hall was regimented. Before chapel began at 9:30am, students formed two lines separated by gender. As Miss Joe played “Country Gardens,” students filed into the auditorium and stood at their seats. From the podium, Hardeman watched. When he nodded his head, students in unison sat down.
Students, faculty and guests spoke at various times for the chapel programs. In addition, the literary societies and other campus organizations presented programs. Occasionally, Hardeman impressed students with his formidable memory, asking students to call out Bible references, which he would then quote. Other days, he switched it around and had students read random passages, which he then identified by book, chapter and verse. Thursdays were reserved for fun when the programs consisted of skits or musical programs.
Sometimes chapel was memorable because of a particular speaker, sometimes because of the subject matter. For example, when Marshall Keeble came to Henderson to hold a gospel meeting at the African-American congregation, he spoke to the all-white FHC student body. In 1939, when war erupted in Europe, the Advanced Speech class presented a program on propaganda that reflected the pacifist attitude still prevalent on campus. A student, John Sam Cary, used a loudspeaker to imitate a Winston Churchill radio address as he asked the United States for economic aid. A group of students that included Wayne Poucher and Earl West acted as a “Committee on Foreign Relations” to critique the propaganda of the speech.
Poucher went on to a 40-year career in radio and television as an announcer and producer. He spoke on a daily radio program called “Life Line” which was supported by oil magnate H. L. Hunt. At one time the program could be heard over 500 radio stations. Earl West became a historian of the Restoration Movement, known for his multivolume “Search for the Ancient Order.” He also served for many years as professor of church history at Harding Graduate School of Religion.
Most information and quotations are taken from Dr. Greg Massey’s recently published “By the Grace of God: The Story of Freed-Hardeman University.” It is available for purchase for $30 plus tax in the FHU Office of Academics, which is located in Loyd 107. Exact cash or checks are accepted. No credit or debit cards. For more information, one may contact Heidi Sprouse (email@example.com, (731) 989-6004).
The Great Depression is usually given two beginning dates--October 24, 1929, when the stock market crashed, and October 29, 1929, commonly known as Black Tuesday. The crash of the stock market did not particularly impact the Freed-Hardeman community. Like 97 percent of Americans, faculty and administration owned no stock. The Great Depression which centered on bank failures, however, did.
Freed-Hardeman had never been rich; it had very little money saved for the hard times ahead. Like the school, the faculty had little money on hand. Both the school and its employees deposited their savings, such as they were, in the local People Savings Bank. It, like many other banks across the country, experienced a panic. Bank panics happened when a small-town bank failed, word spread and depositors tried to withdraw their funds. The bank, typically operating independent of other banks, was unable to meet the demand and forced to close.
Bank closings also affected FHU’s students and their parents. During the early years of the Depression cash “was practically non-existent.” The college adapted in order to survive. C.P. Roland devised ways for students to pay their bills, varying the means depending upon the student’s circumstances. Some parents signed notes pledging to pay a certain amount at a specified time. Others bartered, bringing food from their farms to the dining hall and even to faculty members. Teachers were paid in goods and food, and they managed to care for their families. Surprisingly, enrollment at FHC remained steady and even increased.
By 1935, the science program had been revived and the school was in need of a science building. John Endsley, a science teacher who joined the faculty during the Depression, supervised the construction of a two-story brick building. Young men provided the labor, working to cover part of the cost of their education.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president of the United States in 1932, New Deal programs began to affect both Henderson and Freed-Hardeman. In town, the Federal Housing Administration provided loans for new houses to families who earlier had been unable to afford the payment for a new house. At the college, the National Youth Administration (NYA) provided loans to students, providing they worked part-time serving the college and the community. Students worked to enhance the cultural life of the community, presenting an 18th century play and creating a museum open to both college students and local citizens. Others planted a rose garden and built a tennis court.
In one instance, a national emergency utilized the work of students. In 1937, the Ohio and Mississippi rivers flooded and more than 300 persons came to Henderson to escape the flooding. NYA students registered the refugees when they arrived at the cotton compress near the Mobile and Ohio Railroad which served as their temporary housing.
Somehow, the college managed to scrape together funds to make payments on its debt. Despite the hardship, enrollment grew and Freed-Hardeman survived the trying times.
Information and quotations are taken from Dr. Greg Massey’s recently published “By the Grace of God: The Story of Freed-Hardeman University.” It is available for purchase for $30 plus tax in the FHU Office of Academics, which is located in Loyd 107.
In the 1940s, Freed-Hardeman College continued to produce more preachers for churches of Christ than any other college associated with the fellowship. Its influence also grew as a result of the special sessions held in January for preachers who couldn’t attend school full-time.
It was also a time of celebration and of mourning. Celebration came as a result of Ulyss Brock’s college basketball scoring record. In a game against Bethel College on the FHC campus with the opponent triple-teaming him, Brock scored 83 points. Like Jim Murdaugh before him, Brock received national attention including in “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” In 1938, Murdaugh had set the record with a 78-point performance, also against Bethel.
The death of Miss Joe Hardeman in 1940 brought a season of mourning to the campus. The “First Lady of FHC” had been an important presence during most of the years since 1908. Miss Joe had taught piano and directed the school orchestra. Her loss was felt not only by her family, but also by the college community.
By 1940, Freed-Hardeman, along with the rest of the world, had turned its attention to a global war. The pacifist views common on campus earlier were changing. Self-defense became a national priority. War became a reality with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941.
The Freed-Hardeman family: alumni, students, faculty members and sons and daughters of the faculty joined the fight. Charles P. Roland, oldest son of C.P. Roland, entered the Army as a private, completed officer training school, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and won a Bronze Star. Geneva Hall, daughter of W.C. Hall, was an officer in the Women’s Army Auxiliary. Dorsey Hardeman, son of N.B. Hardeman and an attorney, left his practice and his office as a Texas state representative to enlist in the Army Air Force. Professor of mathematics S.C. Hastings left his position to serve as a senior draftsman developing construction projects.
Students also received draft notices. Identical twin brothers Wayne and Wendell Bloomingburg attended FHC one year before they were drafted. Entering the army as conscientious objectors, they performed noncombatant service as army medics. “Noncombatant service,” they discovered, was a “very misleading misnomer.” As medics treating the wounded on the front lines, they were “very much in combat.” Both received a Silver Star for bravery under fire. When the war ended, they returned to FHC to finish junior college. Young women were also a part of the fight. For example, Natalie Powers, joined the Cadet Nurses Corps in 1943.
Like the rest of America, life continued at FHC, but it was not life as usual. Army and Navy officers appeared in chapel to recruit students for the reserves. Enrollment declined as students received draft notices or they did not return because they expected to be drafted. Students from distant states found “it inconvenient, inadvisable, or even impossible to get home and back” for the Christmas break. They spent the holiday on campus and celebrated around Christmas trees in the dorms. “Wartime austerity and travel difficulties” resulted in a suspension of men’s basketball. When a report circulated that fuel supplies for the winter would be reduced by 25 percent, the Homemakers Club mounted a campaign “to practice energy efficiency in the dorms.”
Following a government mandate, students were required to participate in 30 minutes of calisthenics daily. “From the appearance of some of the students after the first day of these exercises,” the student newspaper reported, “it would seem that there is a great deal of good to be accomplished.”
It would be years before life at FHC returned to “life as usual.”
The special courses for preachers conducted annually in January at Freed-Hardeman College continued to draw numbers of preachers. In the final meeting of the 1938 courses, FHC president N.B. Hardeman spoke in Chapel Hall, discussing his hopes for the college. These hopes included expanding the dining hall into a cafeteria and securing “a fund of $5,000 a year to help young preachers who can’t go to school without it.”
In the audience was J.W. Akin, a wealthy Longview, Texas oilman, whom Hardeman had met and invited to visit Henderson for the special courses. Akin agreed to fund the cafeteria and give $5,000 each year for scholarships for preacher students. In 1938, a total of 40 preacher students received scholarships. Akin’s gift spurred additional smaller gifts. For a number of years, Akin continued providing scholarship money, enough that an average of 70 preacher students a year benefitted from his generosity.
Later, during the war years, R.W. Comer became the principal benefactor of FHC. The Nashville-based Comer had long been a friend and supporter of Hardeman. He had, in fact, helped fund all five of Hardeman’s Tabernacle Meetings. At one time, his Washington Manufacturing Company, known for its manufacture of DeeCee clothing, employed more than 20,000 workers in factories across the South.
In 1943, Comer gave FHC 56 acres of farmland near Henderson. The tract, named Comerfarm, allowed the school to move its dairy farm off campus. FHC administrators expected the farm to provide milk, beef and chicken, along with fruits and vegetables during this time of scarce resources. A year later, Comer died, leaving a $200,000 endowment for FHC. That gift was particularly significant a decade later when the college again sought accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Within the last year, the Comer name of has again made the news. Approximately 75 years after his death, his estate is again benefitting churches of Christ. In 1936, Comer and his sons established a trust fund with three types of beneficiaries; the first two included family members, and the third category included churches of Christ in Tennessee and Kentucky and various ministries of churches of Christ. When the last family beneficiary died last year, the remainder of the funds, approximately $37 million, was to be distributed to the third classification of beneficiaries. That process is ongoing.
Most information and quotations are taken from Dr. Greg Massey’s recently published “By the Grace of God: The Story of Freed-Hardeman University.” It is available for purchase for $30 plus tax in the FHU Office of Academics, which is located in Loyd 107.
Surprisingly, World War II brought Freed-Hardeman College and Henderson closer together. In February 1945, the two came together for an impressive patriotic program to honor the 24 Chester County men who had given their lives in the war.
“Win-the-War,” as the program was called, featured several members of the FHC faculty and staff. Mary Nelle Powers, daughter of N.B. Hardeman, read the names of the fallen soldiers while her daughter Joanne played “Abide with Me” on the piano. Bible professor Jim Cope gave the invocation and C.P. Roland led the memorial prayer. In addition, a quartet comprised of FHC students sang “My Buddy.” The highlight of the program was the posthumous presentation of the Silver Star to Roy Smith, a Henderson teenager killed the previous June in Italy.
In April 1945, the town and FHC student body again came together for a parade and celebration. This time they were honoring Sgt. Cecil Kent, who had come home following 33 months in a prisoner of war camp in the Philippines.
As the war was winding down, Freed-Hardeman was making plans for the future. President N.B. Hardeman announced new construction projects including additions to the administration building and Paul Gray Hall. He also wanted to construct “cottages” for married students. Additional space for female students was found by closing the grammar school, which had been housed in the basement of Oakland Hall, the girls’ dorm.
The college would need the additional space. Freed-Hardeman, like many other schools, experienced a post-war increase in students. The GI Bill of Rights passed by Congress in June 1944 made it possible for many veterans to attend college. In Fall 1946, students occupied all of the college’s housing as well as all of the town’s available boarding houses.
The lack of housing almost forced the cancellation of the annual January special courses. In fact, G.K. Wallace announced in “The Gospel Advocate” that the courses were “literally crowded out.” However, when churches of Christ in Jackson offered to house up to 100 individuals, the FHC administration decided the remainder could be housed in Henderson and the special courses were back on—with a notable change. The courses would last only one week instead of two, a format that endured.
As was his custom, FHC President N.B. Hardeman read chapel announcements April 1, 1948. One announcement concerned a student seeking her lost spelling book. Ollie Dodd said she needed her book for W. Claude Hall’s spelling class. As Hardeman read, he noticed and called out several misspelled words. Obviously, the student needed her spelling book.
After chapel, Hardeman decided to check out Ollie Dodd. His investigation led him to conclude that Ollie did not exist. He then decided to go along with the joke. The next day in chapel, he made a follow-up announcement, telling students that Ollie was “a very bad apple.” She “refused to study, attend classes regularly, take responsibility or put forth any effort at all to obey the rules of the school.” Then he loudly announced, “Ollie Dodd has been expelled and is probably on her way to Arkansas!” The student newspaper reported, “The tension was broken by roaring laughter…The one bad apple had been sent from our midst, but not from our memory.”
The student report was more accurate than he likely knew. Ollie appeared again and the legend grew as embellishments were added to the story. This time, Ollie enrolled as a male student in a Bible class. Other students took turns filling out his attendance cards. According to the legend, two students took mid-term and final exams in Ollie’s name—and he finished with a higher grade than the students who took the tests.
Ollie’s name vanished from the rolls of Freed-Hardeman. One version of the story says he transferred to David Lipscomb College. Who knows? However, FHC was a junior college at the time, and many students did transfer to DLC, so perhaps…
Nevertheless, Ollie gained “official” Freed-Hardeman University status when Loden-Daniel Library was built. Donors were asked to purchase a brick for the walk leading to the building. They could have their own names inscribed on the bricks or they could honor someone else. One such brick honors the immortal Ollie Dodd.
Later, when the library was renovated and the current Hope Barber Shull Academic Resource Center was constructed, the brick were moved to the gates closing University Avenue to traffic. Among the bricks honoring faculty, staff, administrators and benefactors at the east gate, a tribute to Ollie Dodd can be read today: “Ollie Dodd Gone, but not forgotten Class of ’48.”
In 1950, Freed-Hardeman faced and survived arguably the most difficult challenge in its 150-year history. The year began with 17 inches of rain in January, followed by another six inches during the first two weeks of February. As for President N. B. Hardeman, he suffered shingles beginning in December and continuing into January.
Shingles kept Hardeman from attending the funeral of Ike Roland, who had studied and taught at A.G. Freed’s Essary Springs school, and then directed it following Freed’s departure. Roland came to Henderson to teach in the high school department of Freed-Hardeman in the 1920s. He died January 4. W. Claude Hall preached Roland’s funeral and L.L. Brigance led the prayer. It rained on the day of the funeral, so much so that water had to be dipped from the grave before the casket could be lowered.
Shortly after Roland’s funeral, Brigance, friend and supporter of Hardeman, contracted the flu. Four weeks later, Brigance died. Hardeman was in Florida preaching in a gospel meeting. Long-time friends and colleagues of Brigance, W.C. Hall and C.P. Roland, conducted his funeral.
As if disease and death were not bad enough, more trouble was brewing. What began as a seemingly small matter soon mushroomed into a full-blown crisis. President Hardeman had always been a strict disciplinarian and he sometimes addressed disciplinary matters during chapel.
The times and the make-up of the student body had changed. Male students tended to be older, some of them veterans of World War II. Students were outraged by the president’s handling of student discipline, and eventually the conflict reached a boiling point.
Students organized and chose leaders to represent them. They wrote letters to members of the Board of Trustees urging them to come to campus. And, they skipped classes. On one Tuesday, more than 250 students, out of an enrollment of approximately 385, refused to go to class. The “strikers” intended to stay out of class until the board came to campus and addressed the matter. A majority of the students now wanted a change in the college’s leadership.
The board came to campus. As their meeting continued into the night, a student rang the bell atop the building (now known as Old Main), calling students to assemble. Approximately 300 students answered the call by coming to Chapel Hall where they “staged an all-night ‘sit-it-out.’” The board ended their meeting at 5:00am, went to Chapel Hall and spoke to the students who then left at 7:00am.
Conflict continued to simmer beneath the surface and boiled over again in April. Ultimately, President Hardeman decided to leave at the end of the school year. He taught his classes for the remainder of the term, spoke briefly at graduation in Chapel Hall and left the building. The Hardeman era at FHC was over, but his legacy lives on in the school he built.
Information and quotations are taken from Dr. Greg Massey’s recently published “By the Grace of God: The Story of Freed-Hardeman University.” It is available for purchase for $30 plus tax in the FHU Office of Academics, which is located in Loyd 107.
With the impending departure of President N.B. Hardeman, Freed-Hardeman University’s Board of Trustees began to search for a new school leader. Their search focused on respected gospel preachers. A hundred miles away, they found what they were looking for.
Trustees unanimously chose H.A. Dixon, minister of the Poplar Street congregation in Florence, Alabama, in May 1950. Earlier in his career, he had preached at the Highland Avenue church in Jackson, Tennessee, and taught sight-singing at FHU. He also had spoken during the January special courses and taught as a substitute in Hardeman’s Bible classes when he was away from campus. Dixon was well known by the trustees and respected by members of the church, but he had never been a school administrator.
Dixon planned to teach Bible courses himself, but he also sought a replacement for L.L. Brigance. “We are determined that the Bible department will again be the outstanding feature of our work,” he said. FHC would continue to train gospel preachers and prepare its students for senior college work. “The academic part of our work will not be incidental in our plans,” he said. He intended to instill an atmosphere of Christian discipline in a school that would be characterized by “peace, order and tranquility.”
Three members of the staff who had resigned: W.A. Bradfield, E. Claude Gardner and M.K. Moody, changed their minds and agreed to remain on the faculty. For his part, Bradfield launched a public relations campaign urging supporters to aid the school and help recruit students. “The ideals and objectives of Freed-Hardeman College must be preserved,” he said. “This school cannot, must not and shall not die.”
Alumni and students pledged their support and expressed their belief that the school would not only survive, but also thrive. From the announcement of Dixon’s presidency in the spring until the ensuing fall, Bradfield devoted himself to recruiting students. He spoke to alumni groups, urged students from the previous year to return and recruited new students. He also released frequent positive press releases, keeping the name of the school in brotherhood journals.
To enhance the strength of the Bible department, Dixon hired an up and coming alumnus and gospel preacher, Frank Van Dyke. By the end of the summer, Bradfield was predicting a large enrollment for the fall. The semester opened with 325 students enrolled, admittedly a decrease from the previous fall but definitely an encouraging number given the large number of students who had withdrawn from the school the previous spring. And, over the course of the year, enrollment grew, averaging 400 students over four quarters.
With a tight budget still in place, Gardner suggested faculty “double up” and take on staff responsibilities as well as teach their classes. He, himself, became the registrar and Moody managed the business office in addition to teaching business classes.
It was a year of change. Bradfield had announced that intercollegiate basketball would return on a limited basis. The January special courses became the Freed-Hardeman College Lectureship and two years later the Bible Lectureship. Restrictions on dating were decreased. A Student Council was formed as the administration tried to set a new tone on campus. Dixon maintained strict discipline, but with a different approach, “keeping order without disturbing the peace.”
Under the tenure of President H.A. Dixon, Freed-Hardeman College again competed in intercollegiate sports. Coach Dick Stewart returned to campus in 1954 to assist with the men’s basketball team. He became the head coach the next year. Since FHC’s gym had few seats and a slippery floor, games were played at Chester County High School. Soon the Lions were competing again in the Mississippi Valley Conference against old foes Bethel and Lambuth.
The 1950s also saw the introduction of other sports, including men’s and women’s tennis coached by Robert Witt. Baseball returned only to leave again in 1959 and then return again two years later with Stewart as the coach. The team got a home field thanks to the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Thurman Chitwood.
Activities in addition to sports also increased. Kelley B. Doyle joined the faculty to teach music and direct the college chorus. Recruiting up to 50 students, he “literally put the Chorus on the road.” Concentrating on Christian high schools, Doyle took his group on tour, using buses rented from the Chester County school system. Logistics were complicated so FHC launched a campaign to raise funds for its own bus. A competition between clubs raised approximately $4,000 for the cause. Decades later, students would again raise funds to help purchase a new bus for traveling groups.
Another group of student ambassadors was also on the road for FHC. The Griffins, organized and led by faculty member Ben Zickefoose, were popular at high school days and at area schools. The group gave “a circus presentation” of “tumbling and vaulting” to appreciative audiences.
Wondering why the college had no organization promoting the spiritual growth of its female students, one young lady approached Miss Lora Laycook, supervisor of Oakland Hall. The Girls Religious Training Class, sponsored by Laycook, was organized and soon became the largest club on campus.
FHC’s students tended to come from the small towns and rural areas of Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky. Many were first generation college students of modest means. W. Claude Hall, former president and now Bible teacher, identified with the poorer students. They, in turn were attracted by his “dry humor and tall tales.” He sometimes alleviated their hardships caused by a lack of cash. When summer school students were short of money to buy food, he invited them to his garden to pick vegetables. “We ate a lot of tomatoes that summer,” alumna Jean Smith Tilghman remembered.
Despite the emotional scars, enrollment at FHC stabilized during the decade, averaging 400 students annually.
H.A. Dixon’s presidency of Freed-Hardeman College brought increased attention to the business of recruiting students. First, the administration continued the emphasis on recruiting young men who wanted to preach. By 1956, they constituted 32 percent of total enrollment, fewer than 1951’s 41 percent, but still a significant factor in sustaining the school. FHC’s sound reputation for producing polished speakers with knowledge of Scripture was definitely a factor in the success of the Bible program. However, that success was also spurred by preacher scholarships that helped defray the cost of tuition.
In addition, the school more systematically recruited students who sought other career goals. Advertisements pointed out that National Teachers Normal and Business College, forerunner of FHC, had, by its very name, stressed the importance of producing teachers and businessmen. The school, which had been offering scholarships to valedictorians, extended those scholarships to honors students. To expand FHC’s geographic reach, FHC offered students from states not represented in the student body a year’s free tuition.
All of this attention to recruitment was a part of a renewed effort to obtain Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) accreditation. In the early 1950s Tennessee announced new standards for licensing teachers, including increasing library holdings and endowment. These matters were also important factors in obtaining SACS accreditation, so the college began an all-out effort to obtain regional accreditation.
The matter of a library was handled by purchasing the former home and doctor’s clinic of Dr. and Mrs. Jim Stevens. Thanks to a gift from Jack and Nena Lawhorn, Texas friends of Thomas and LaVonne Scott, the house was renovated. It opened in 1956 as Lawhorn-Stevens Library. Within the next four years, the Lawhorns made a second donation, doubling the library’s size.
Next, the endowment had to be addressed. Fortunately, the college had the $200,000 bequest from R.W. Comer on which to build. The college launched a fundraising campaign to double that amount. Dixon brought on additional help. Thomas Scott used his Christmas break and summers to raise funds, I.A. Douthitt, a field representative from the 1920s, was enlisted, and G.K. Wallace, influential preacher and long-time supporter of the school, became executive assistant to the president.
Registrar Gardner became Dean-Registrar Gardner and the leader in the accreditation drive. Wearing multiple hats, he directed a review of the school’s general education requirements and its teacher education program, while also preparing the SACS application. “It is an invigorating experience to have a part in working toward accreditation,” he said.
Such applications usually include a statement about a college’s purpose. During this time period, FHC also began using a motto that aptly stated the school’s reason to be. Bible teacher Frank Van Dyke used the phrase, “Teaching how to live and how to make a living” in a chapel speech. It began appearing on the school’s catalogs in 1955.
Efforts toward accreditation were rewarded in 1955-56. In November 1955, the State Board of Education approved FHC’s teacher education program. The next year in December, Dixon and Gardner went to Dallas for the annual SACS meeting. On Dec. 6, 1956, Dixon called C.P.Roland to say, “We have been approved and we are thrilled.”
Celebration in Henderson began immediately. The bell tolled, calling the FHC and Henderson communities to Chapel Hall. When the crowd had gathered, Roland announced, “We’re in!” The announcement was followed by loud applause, victory yells and a parade of 84 decorated cars down Main Street.
The best was yet to come, however. That night, FHC was playing the University of Tennessee at Martin in the Chester County High School gym. Mid-way through the fourth quarter, Dixon and Gardner, “wearing 10-gallon Texas hats,” entered the gym to be greeted by excited fans. Topping off the evening, FHC won the game, 75-71, and Dixon got the loudest applause of all when he announced the next day, a Friday, would be a holiday.
Freed-Hardeman was now “a fully accredited junior college.”
Freed-Hardeman University President H.A. Dixon spoke to students in chapel Nov. 6, 1969, telling students, “You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world.” Two days later he died, having suffered a fatal heart attack. His body lay in state in the college’s administration building, where he had served FHC as president for 19 years. He had pulled it back from the brink of extinction and led it in steady growth.
Dixon’s logical successor was Dean-Registrar E. Claude Gardner. The Board of Trustees wasted no time in making its decision. On Dec. 5, 1969, Gardner was named the new president. He issued a statement saying, “Mrs. Gardner and I wish to pledge that we will serve to our very utmost. We will do our very best for Freed-Hardeman College.” He emphasized that his administration would continue the work and philosophy of his predecessor.
The transition was seamless. The school Gardner inherited was in a construction phase, but he had a bigger vision. He believed it was time for FHC to become a senior college. He had, in fact, advocated for that in the late 1950s. During his inaugural address, he announced the board had approved a long-range planning committee to study the pros and cons of a transition to senior college.
Expansion projects begun under Dixon’s presidency were completed. By the fall of 1971, two dormitories and the science building had been finished. On Sept. 16, 1971, after only one year as president, Gardner announced in chapel that the board had unanimously approved FHC’s becoming a senior college. The first baccalaureate degrees would be conferred in the spring of 1976. “This class will have, then, the ‘Spirit of ’76,” he said, neatly tying it to the country’s bicentennial celebration.
The first baccalaureate degrees were awarded May 15, 1976, when Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees were conferred on 193 students (in addition to127 associate degrees). The youngest graduate of the four-year program was 19 years old; the oldest was a 54-year-old who had first enrolled in 1938. Accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools came in December 1976. Official notification came 20 years and nine days after accreditation as a junior college.
Over the two decades Gardner served as president, the college experienced remarkable growth in enrollment, gained full academic accreditation, added graduate programs, became a university, and added more than a dozen buildings to the campus. As teacher, registrar, dean, vice president, president and chancellor, he abided by his “doctrine of continuous improvement.”
When Freed-Hardeman University President E. Claude Gardner decided to retire, the board began its search for a new man to lead the school. They went to a place not too far away and to a familiar face. They chose Dr. Milton Sewell, president of Mars Hill Bible School in Florence, Alabama, and a former FHU vice president of institutional advancement.
Sewell inherited a university that faced familiar problems, sluggish enrollment and a low endowment. When he officially became president June 1,1990, he pledged to focus on those two areas. In addition, FHU carried a heavy load of debt. Sewell set about increasing enrollment and endowment. During his 18-year tenure, he raised endowment from $6 million to $40 million, setting new standards in fundraising; enrollment, however, continued to lag behind.
In an attempt to change that, the university began offering each fall a program for high school students called RUSH (Reaching Unlimited Spiritual Heights). Combining elements of a youth rally and a campus visit, the program attracted up to 2,000 students to campus for the weekend. By 1995, with the addition of 250 graduate students, the school reached Sewell’s five-year enrollment goal.
Early in his presidency, Sewell met with Scott Whaley, editor of the Chester County Independent. When asked what his priorities should be, Whaley advised, “Build a stronger relationship between the university and the community.” Sewell took his advice and began to open the school up to the town. Chester County High School began to hold its graduation ceremonies in Loyd Auditorium. They also began to attend events and use other facilities on campus. As a result of a favorable tuition policy for Chester County graduates, more of them began to enroll at FHU. Changes were sufficient for Whaley to write, “The university and the majority of the community have developed a closer relationship.”
When the sports center was at long last completed in 1996, it had an immediate impact on the community. The walking track on the upper level attracted many community residents seeking a climate-controlled area in which to exercise. Henderson and Chester County sometimes outnumbered faculty and staff utilizing the track. It also served as a means of social interaction and sharing information. Social work professor Lisa Beene, said, “It’s our answer to the internet. I learn about sales in town, new recipes, babysitters, gardening tips—just about everything.”
Other building projects followed, notably Brown-Kopel Business Center, thanks to a $5 million gift from alumni John Brown, CEO of Stryker Corporation, and his wife Rosemary Kopel Brown. The largest building on campus at 66,000 square feet, it opened in 2003. Unfortunately, the former home of the business department, Milan-Sitka (originally Georgie Robertson Christian College) had deteriorated to the point it could not be repaired and had to be dismantled.
Other building projects followed, including Bulliner-Clayton Visual Arts Center, funded in large part by Jim Clayton, a Finger native and founder of Clayton Homes, and named in honor of him and local banker Jack Bulliner. Clayton also funded a $1 million stock portfolio to be managed and invested by FHU business students, giving them a rare opportunity to learn with real money and the business department to reap a share of the profits.
Additional buildings, including new residence halls, were also constructed. Additional space for student activities was added with the assistance of board member Terry Crews and other trustees with the Black Box Theatre and Crews-Colbert Center.
In 2007, just short of his 65th birthday, Sewell announced his intention to retire when a successor could be found.
When Freed-Hardeman University’s Board of Trustees went searching for a new president following the retirement of Milton Sewell, they departed from the practice of former boards. Until this time, they had selected men they knew well and who already had a connection with the school. This time, they decided, the president did not have to be an alumnus of Freed-Hardeman, although he should appreciate the school’s Christian character. They selected Joe Wiley, president of Rogers State University in Claremore, Oklahoma, a man with extensive experience in university teaching and administration, but no personal experience with Christian education.
When he applied, Wiley told his wife Glenda, “This would be a great way to end my career with a better taste in my mouth, to get out of an environment not conducive to Christian leadership.” At age 57 when he began his work at FHU, Wiley did not expect to stay on the job for as long as his predecessors.
“If you spend any time with me at all, you will find that I am an academic at heart,” Wiley said, as he pledged to build the school’s academic reputation. “My vision for Freed-Hardeman is to offer high quality academic programs with sufficient rigor for our students to be the most competitive in any market they attempt to enter, while also being armed spiritually to be Christian leaders,” he said.
On the second day of his presidency, Wiley decided the university would partner with Apple, Inc. in a program that would be known as iKnow. FHU students would receive a MacBook and either an iPhone or iPad, which they would pay for over the four years of their enrollment. The program began Fall 2008. Although the program did not endure, there was no turning back the technological revolution.
When Milton Sewell retired as president, he moved to the position of chancellor, which allowed him to continue raising funds for the university. His success enabled Wiley to concentrate on the reorganization and implementation of FHU’s annual budget. It was a daunting challenge.
Faced with millions of dollars in short-term debt, Wiley, in consultation with the board, faced some tough decisions. The school’s budget had to be slashed to more closely match expected revenues. Employee benefits were cut, tuition was increased, but still more was required. Some faculty and staff had to be laid off. The leaner, revenue-based budget improved the school’s financial position.
Wiley turned his attention to other matters. Under the leadership of vice president C.J. Vires, the school began a program emphasizing experiential learning. The Engaged Learning Initiative (ELI) encouraged departments across campus to build experiential learning into their curriculums. Travel and study abroad programs were increased and University Scholars Day encouraged students to present their research and scholarship.
On the financial side, in 2013 the school received its largest cash gift ever, the $6.5 million estate of Bill Bucy. The board put the bulk of the gift in unrestricted endowment and used some of the remainder to implement a master plan for campus beautification. The project included renovating the Main Street entrance to campus, creating more open space and eventually building the clock tower, which was named in Bucy’s memory. The tower, incidentally, included some of the brick, the cornerstone and the bell from the Georgie Robertson Christian College building.
Near the same time, FHU was offered another substantial gift by the Jackson Foundation, the Renaissance Center in Dickson, Tennessee. The foundation wanted a college in Dickson and FHU was searching for a way to add classes in Middle Tennessee, much like the center in Memphis.
In 2016, Freed-Hardeman opened the Hope Barber Shull Academic Resource Center, the ARC, named in memory of FHU’s beloved librarian. Built in the center of campus, it was funded in large part by alumni John and Rosemary Brown. Shull had worked on the design of the building in her last days and it fulfilled her dreams of a new library.
Despite the impressive changes on campus and the increased focus on academics, the school still had work to do to change the public’s perception of Freed-Hardeman and to increase enrollment. “We need FHU to be the first choice, not the safe choice,” Wiley said. After nine years at the helm, he announced his retirement, effective at the end of the 2016-17 academic year. Changing the perception would be left to the next president.
Freed-Hardeman University’s 16th president did not go looking for the job. The job came looking for him. When approached by FHU Board Chairman John Law, a doubtful David Shannon’s first reaction was, “I don’t think this is a good idea.” He went on to explain, “I mean this because I love Freed-Hardeman. I have no background in higher education. I don’t want to disrespect the faculty at a place I love.”
An alumnus of FHU, Shannon had built a successful career in ministry, the previous 18 years at Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. In addition, he was in demand for gospel meetings and youth rallies. Law, however, convinced him to interview for the job. In the ensuing months, he and his wife Tracie prayed for guidance. “We prayed over and over about this,” he said, “and never once did we pray for it.” Eventually, they began to believe God was providing an opportunity for a different kind of ministry.
The board’s rationale also became clearer. During former president Joe Wiley’s tenure, academic programs had been strengthened, campus appearance had been improved and the school’s financial position had been made stronger. Now, they thought, it was time for a president who could tell FHU’s story and reconnect with alumni and churches.
In Law’s announcement of Shannon’s appointment, he said, “The keys to success in a very challenging Christian higher education environment revolve more around relationship-building, fund raising, recruiting of new students and church relationships. All of those demands are higher than ever and David Shannon is the person the board believes can fulfill that role.”
In Shannon’s inauguration speech Oct. 19, 2017, he recounted struggles of the past, struggles the school had faced and survived, sometimes in what appeared to be against all odds. “It seems like God wants Freed-Hardeman to be here,” he said. Shannon wanted the students to be involved in his inauguration. So, the day also included a picnic on Bader Green, pumpkin carving and hayrides.
Shannon’s natural skills allowed him to connect with current students and re-connect with alumni. He also appeared to have boundless energy. He attended student events, he posed for selfies, he appeared in chapel, and he went on the road. He logged thousands of miles on the Presidential Trek, speaking at churches and serving bacon on a stick, Moon Pies and Coca-Cola in glass bottles from the MIC (Mobile Information Center), a converted mini-camper emblazoned with FHU branding. MIC also included a photo booth and folks who had their pictures made, soon received a postcard of themselves posing at the event.
Shannon’s first year as president also featured amazing athletic success for FHU teams. The softball team advanced to the NAIA World Series for the first time, the baseball team came within one game of winning their World Series, and the Lady Lion basketball team, after two decades of playing in the basketball tournament, brought home the national tournament championship trophy.
The third year of Shannon’s presidency was marked by the nation’s COVID-19 pandemic, an event that ended spring sports, cancelled Makin’ Music, forced a transition to online courses and delayed graduation.
Throughout its history, Freed-Hardeman has persevered and prevailed because its DNA is imprinted with the persistence and faith of A.G. Freed who often quoted, “To him who believeth all things are possible,” according to Greg Massey, author of the recently published history of the university.
Speaking about COVID-19 and the abrupt ending of campus life this spring from Chapel Hall in Old Main, current president Shannon pledged FHU’s unity in the face of adversity. “FHU will not go dark nor silent. We will use this challenge to God’s glory,” he said. Quoting the prophet Jeremiah, he said, “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end…”
“So, here we are in Spring 2020 and we have the coronavirus,” Shannon said, “but God’s love is still steadfast—and Old Main is still standing.”
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