A State University at Athens?
By Anne Adams
Did Athens ever miss being the home of a major state university? And how was an early Athens educator possibly involved?
The subject arose when the Athens Review a while back published a letter to the editor where the writer discussed changes that have come to Athens in the last few years. She wrote: “I have heard that Athens’ leaders even said ‘no’ to a college for women being established here…” and then suggested that it was worth researching.
The answer actually comes when a former Athens Review editor reminisced in a 1964 article that concerned early Athens educator W.H. Bruce, who of course was the one who donated the property where was built the football field named for him.
When Dr. Bruce came to Athens in 1896 to assume leadership of the newly established Bruce Academy he held several advanced degrees and was a respected educator. Then in 1900, he moved to Denton to teach at what was then North Texas State Normal College (a normal school/college was a teacher training institute) which became the University of North Texas. There he started as an assistant to the school’s president and he later assumed the presidency himself and the school expanded.
More details came out about the football field and the possible university when R.T. Craig in his column titled “From My Scrapbook” published on December 31, 1964, reminisced about Dr. Bruce and the Academy. It appeared under the headline “How Athens Missed Getting a Great University” (with a sub-head “He Didn’t Want to Bother with It”). Mr. Craig began his account with an explanation of how Bruce Field came about in the 1930s.
Mr. Craig was finishing his term on the Athens school board when he and others realized that the football field used at that time had its issues. At that time Dr. W.H. Bruce, “who formerly conducted Bruce’s Academy here, a private school, donated the land.”
Mr. Craig in his column continued to reminisce about the Academy and its building, then went on to give some more details. After leaving Athens, Dr. Bruce “became connected with a private Normal School which had been established in 1892.” When Dr. Bruce eventually became president of the Normal School he made the school into a four-year program. “In the meantime, the State had taken over the school and Dr. Bruce was appointed president in 1906. He was so successful with the school that alumni sometimes called it “Dr. Bruce’s Normal.”
So how did Athens apparently miss out? Mr. Craig then wrote, “When the state took over the institution, the legislature gave the board of regents the privilege of moving the institution to another location if they thought it would better serve the State’s educational cause.”
“Many years afterward while I was serving on the board of regents [wrote Mr. Craig] Dr. Bruce told me that at that time the board wanted to move the school to Athens. However, ‘the Judge [A.B.Watkins of Athens – chairman of the board] said he didn’t want to be bothered with it.’”
Mr. Craig continued. “Dr. Bruce related this story to me while I was on the board. I surmised that he was father of the idea and has sold the trustees on it but the judge wanted no part of it.”
Mr. Craig continued: “Had the school moved here Athens today would have a University with approximately twelve thousand students and no telling how many faculty members.” If that had happened then Athens would certainly have become larger than even Tyler or any other city in East Texas. Of course, now the Denton facility has over 35,000 students enrolled in many courses of study and on several campuses.
Mr. Craig related: “Infirmities of age finally claimed this great educator, but as long as athletics remain a part of our school his name will be enshrined at Bruce field. I only wish I had been serving on the board at the time Athens had an opportunity to secure the school.”