O’Neal recalls Panola College
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Bill O’Neal, retired history instructor at Panola College, author and current Texas State Historian, spoke at the 65th Anniversary Celebration for the College on January 7, 2013. A summary of his remarks follows:
When World War II ended, over 15 million young Americans returned to civilian life. They were in a hurry to get their lives back on track, and the GI Bill of Rights, enacted in 1944, would help them do just that! The GI Bill featured a subsidy for higher education, which triggered an explosion of college growth across the nation. During the first couple of years after the war, the number of junior colleges in Texas increased by one third.
The one I attended, Navarro County Junior College, originated the year after the war at a deserted Air Force Training Base outside Corsicana. Old military buildings were used as classrooms and dorms, and an airplane hanger became the gym.
The next year, 1947, Panola County Junior College was created. The driving force behind PCJC was Q.M. Martin, an innovative and resourceful educator who had been superintendent of Carthage schools since the 1920s. In his early 20s, he taught English for one year at CHS, then he became the youngest superintendent in Texas the next year. When he returned to CISD from World War II, Martin soon decided to create a junior college, and he intended to become president. He embraced the challenge — he met with superintendents of other schools in Panola County, then contacted other influential citizens. He visited junior colleges in the area to collect the necessary facts and figures, then took them to the State Board of Education in Austin. He arranged and promoted, a county-wide election, which passed overwhelmingly.
Meanwhile, the Carthage Board of Education realized what was going on, and persuaded Martin to remain as superintendent. But he continued to lend invaluable support to the college project, and two decades later, Martin, retired from CISD, served for six years as Panola College President — the last job in a distinguished career in education.
The new PCJC Board appointed an experienced college administrator, B.W. Musgraves, to head the new institution. Martin gave Musgraves office space at Baker Elementary School, and he began work on September 1, 1947. There was not yet any funding, so B.F. Payne, the community-minded president of First State Bank, provided a $57,000 loan, generously covered overdrafts, and hoped that the bank examiners would not show up anytime soon.
A 35-acre tract of land was purchased on the western edge of Carthage. Faculty members were hired, and old military buildings were bought from Camp Fannin in Tyler and Camp Majors in Greenville for $100 each. Moving them to Carthage cost more than that. They pieced together an H-shaped building with classrooms and offices.
The first registration was held in a snowstorm on Monday, Jan. 19, 1948. At the end of the day, 25 students were enrolled. Bill Applegate was the first student to enroll and he was always proud of that fact. Soon enrollment rose to 55 students, and 46 finished the semester. There were seven teachers, so Panola College had an excellent student-teacher ratio. Faculty meetings were held every Saturday morning.
Day classes met at 9-5 during the week, and Martin allowed college students to ride public school buses to CHS then walk to the colleges. Students had to bring their own sack lunches, and the old buildings didn’t have any insulation — just exterior siding and open studs. During the winter, students wore their coats in the classroom. The school newspaper, The Pony Express, stated that “college is no place for the faint-hearted.” There wasn’t much equipment, but the library collected and catalogued 1,200 books. There also wasn’t much in the way of a social life, especially considering that there were only nine coeds enrolled.
The largest room on campus was a 40’x40′ lecture hall, and the students held an All College Dance there with green and white decorations. The college had no piano or juke box, but somebody brought an “electric Victrola” so they could play records.
To boost enrollment, the board created an athletics program, including football, and 185 students registered for the first fall semester in September 1948. Faculty doubled and more old army buildings were purchased to expand campus, including a dorm and cafeteria. The football players also helped to form basketball, baseball and track teams. There was not a gym, so Beckville Superintendent R.C. Beauchamp, who was on the Panola College Board, allowed the Ponies to practice and play in the Beckville High School gymnasium. The first basketball opponent was Pineywoods Business College of Lufkin. The football team, the Ponies, had a real pony for a mascot, Panaljo, who sported a green harness and blanket. Carson Joines, Carthage mayor, was on that team.
After the first year, in 1948, a $400,000 bond issue was passed for a classroom building and a gymnasium, which was known as the Pony Palace. The scoreboard was a chalkboard, but in 1952, the team scored 101 points against Lon Morris, and the College realized it had to purchase a real scoreboard to save the scorekeeper. The school newspaper, The Pony Express, was published every two weeks with announcements about club meetings, assembly programs, social gossip and athletic teams.
By the spring of 1949, Panola College had 13 graduates, and the next year, 26. But by 1950, the College was $40,000 in debt, and the highly successful athletic program was canceled. Hoping to keep some sort of sporting activity, math instructor Arthur Johnson was asked to coach a low-budget basketball team. The budget was $360, which paid for a few half-scholarships, leftover uniforms and equipment. A few years later, a player drove in to shoot a layup, heard a big rip in his uniform shorts, and kept running out of the gym.
By this time, the cafeteria was the scene of Christmas dinners, graduation dances and Valentine’s dances. Merle Glass, dean of women and English instructor, was quite a matchmaker. If she knew one of the coeds didn’t have a date for a dance, she would contact one of the young men on campus and arrange the date.
Now, all of this sounds kind of quaint. When I arrived on campus, Panola was just 23 years old. Because of my interest, I talked to many Panola Pioneers: early day students, teachers and administrators. And it was quaint, and sort of sweet. There was a close camaraderie among the Panola Pioneers. They loved this place! And after 42 years here, I feel the same way!