Saturday, August 25, 2012

Death by Football

This headline in today's Tyler paper confirmed what everyone knew was coming.  Little Lon Morris College in Jacksonville, Texas--the second-oldest college in Texas (1873)--is no more.  Already in bankruptcy, the federal funding is gone and the fall semester cancelled. 

I taught a history class there last fall and spring.  A good friend from church got me on there.  In fact, we had something of an Orthodox presence on campus.  All together, there were five of us.  Back in the fall, the checks--if you could call them that for adjuncts--started coming slower and slower.  By mid March, they stopped altogether.  Before graduation, control had been turned over to a consulting group, who terminated all teachers shortly after classes ended.

It didn't have to be that way.  Lon Morris College, heavily and lovingly endowed by Texas Methodists, was a going concern for many decades.  It did one thing really well, and that was drama:  Sandy Duncan, Tommy Tune, Margo Martindale--all Lon Morris alums.    For years, the Tyler Civic Theater has produced fluffy English drawing-room comedies.  Tyler audiences lap-up that sort of thing.  But if you wanted to see a musical, or a real play, you went to Jacksonville.  In our early marriage, my wife and I made a regular habit of it. 

Now mind you, Jacksonville--a quirky place in a county noted for being backward, even by East Texas standards--is no-one's idea of a typical college town.  The community has some rough edges to it, and the East Texas you encounter south of the city is noticeably different in culture from the more enlightened (or so we claim) environs to the north, where residents instead look to Tyler.  An old saying here north of the county line is that "if you want to look good, then go to Jacksonville."  Once my wife and I drove to a down-country funeral.  On the way back, she needed to stop at the Walmart or Dollar store.  In her black dress and pearl necklace, at the Jacksonville Walmart, I told her that she looked like Princess Margaret.  Other than Lon Morris, Jacksonville boasts an expansive plastics-plant manufacturing district, an annual Tomato Fest, and the Tops-in-Texas Rodeo.  The locals, however, accepted the artsy-types hanging around town, every one immediately identifiable as a Lon Morris drama major. 

Several years ago, a new regime came aboard, determined to shake things up with a new vision for Lon Morris.  Drama went by the wayside.    A new administrative center took shape, complete with grand lobby and spiral staircase, curved wood walls and expansive meetings rooms and office suites, with a fountain plaza out front.  By the time I came on board, the fountain was dry as a bone.

Of course, if Lon Morris was going to be really jazzed-up, it would need a football program.  And so, with the Board of Regents in tow, the president inaugurated the football age at Lon Morris College.  In short order, the campus gained a field house, practice fields and coaches.  For a couple years, enrollment soared to 1,000.  This was far more students than the college could house, so new dormitories were constructed.  In the interim, the overflow students were housed in an old motel on the edge of town.  Of course, the place was trashed, the neighborhood vandalized, and lawsuits popped-up against the college.  Academic standards and expectations plummeted.  By the time I arrived, enrollment was back down to about 450 or so.  The growth had not been natural.  The football, basketball, soccer and track jocks who couldn't get a real scholarship to a real sports program elsewhere found their way to Jacksonville.  I do not understand exactly how it all worked, but the college was going deeply in the hole for each and every student in the athletic program.  Once in class, I tried to muster a modicum of interest in their game that weekend, and asked who they were playing.  The best I could tell, it was a prep-school in Houston. 

In short, the football program never really caught fire, and instead of filling the college's coffers, sucked it into debt too severe to overcome--10 million, 14 million, 16 million, and finally 18 million.  The president and Board of Regents pushed on, confident that God had a miracle in store for the college.  The loyalists spoke in terms of it being their mission to educate the underprivileged.  Those discontents who questioned the direction of things were accused of not having enough faith.  It was do-good Methodism at its best.  My friend tried to organize some of the instructors to push for a change in direction, back toward academic excellence.  Most, however, were content to ride it on down.  Luckily, my friend bailed out and nabbed a position at Baylor. 

Some institution may buy the facility for a satellite campus.  Who knows.  There are a lot of lessons that can be learned from the death of little Lon Morris College.  I enjoyed my time there.  In my two classes of about 26 students each, I only had one student who knew a damn thing about American history--and he was from the Congo.  I doubt if I made any lasting impact on the others, but I had a helluva good time trying.

1 comment:

Steve Robinson said...

Lubbock Christian had a short football era. Fortunately it was short.