Editor’s note: When two of Harding’s oldest alumni died at the age of 102 last year, Ruby Davis Anderson Williams, who helped with preparations in Searcy upon the move from Morrilton, was one of them. Upon her death, the magazine came upon her remembrances of the beginning of Harding in Searcy in 1934. • While hard to imagine, Harding’s 100th anniversary will be here in 2024, only five years from now. If you have stories or memorabilia from Harding’s history you would be willing to share for the celebration, we would love to hear from you. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or send to Centennial, Office of University Communications & Marketing, Box 12234, 915 E. Market, Searcy, AR 72149-5615.
By Ruby D. Williams
At a very early age I dreamed of becoming a teacher — it became a passion with me. My teachers were my heroes. As a young girl, every time I passed Galloway College in Searcy my dreams of going to college and becoming a teacher became stronger. Those buildings, especially Godden Hall, seemed to hold within their walls the answer to all of my dreams.
I was a member of the first graduating class in April 1934 from Plainview High School north of Judsonia, Arkansas. It was one of the first, if not the first, of the rural consolidated high schools in White County. This was at the height of the Great Depression. The prospects of going to college were absolutely out of the question. There was just no hope of that ever happening. Where would I get the money, and where would I go? If my father had bountiful crops, prices were so low he just barely managed to pay bills and provide us with life’s necessities. This was true of every family in the area. My parents had always encouraged and supported me in my quest to attend college and become a teacher. Even though in those days in Arkansas one could attend Arkansas State Teacher’s College in Conway for six weeks in the summer, pass a test, and secure a license to teach through the eighth grade, I couldn’t even afford to go to college there.
One afternoon toward the end of May, two men, Brother [S.A.] Bell and Brother [R.N.] Gardner, were in the area recruiting students for a college that was moving from Morrilton, Arkansas, to the Galloway plant in Searcy. The more they talked, the greater my desire became to attend college. My father explained to them that he absolutely could not afford to send me to college. I had two younger sisters and a younger brother. There just wasn’t money for college. When they heard that, these two gentlemen told of the need for workers to get the Galloway buildings and equipment ready for occupancy by September. Also, workers would be needed during the school year. The pay would be 50 cents an hour. That was a lot of money to me! My closest friend also wanted to attend college, but her family was in the same situation as mine. Nevertheless, arrangements were finally worked out for my friend and me to live in a room in the Pattie Cobb building and prepare our meals in the kitchen.
There were a number of other workers involved in the cleaning of the Galloway buildings and the move of equipment from Morrilton. Travel between Searcy and Morrilton required three to four hours with loaded trucks, which had to be unloaded to make the drive back to Morrilton the next day for another load. This was a long, hard day’s work for the young men that were doing the job.
Ruby Lowery, who later became Ruby Stapleton, was our supervisor. Those of us from the farm brought in produce — eggs, butter, milk and vegetables. Miss Lowery, with a little of our help, prepared our meals in the kitchen. But first it had to be cleaned since it was so very dirty and required a lot of work.
The summer was terribly hot and there were no fans. Air conditioning? What was that? Mosquitoes were plentiful, and no screens were on the windows. Getting to sleep early in the evening just wasn’t possible. About the time one drifted off to sleep, the train from Doniphan and Kensett came chugging and clanging down the DK&S tracks just across the street from our room. At this time Doniphan was a thriving mill town, north of Kensett and east of Searcy. A large number of families lived there and worked in the mills. The DK&S railroad track was the connection for Searcy to the mail rail line of the Missouri Pacific Railroad in Kensett and Doniphan.
After the evening meal we would often gather around the piano and listen to Miss Lowery play our favorite tunes and hymns. Often we would all join in and sing along. There were several softball teams in Searcy, and one or two nights each week we would go to the games. On Wednesday nights we would all walk to the Downtown Church of Christ for services. At that time the church building was located northeast of the old Armory Building, which is now where Walgreens is located.
By the end of August we had scraped and scrubbed the science building, the training school building and all furnishings. They were spic and span, as they had to pass inspection by Mrs. [Pattie] Sears, Mrs. [Woodson] Armstrong or Miss Lowery.
The summer work did not cover all of my tuition so it was necessary during the school year to spend two hours Tuesday through Saturday and four hours on Monday working. Classes were on Saturday but not on Monday for the benefit of those who went some distance away to preach on Sunday mornings and Sunday nights.
May 1 was celebrated by a tradition known as “winding the Maypole.” The young ladies were selected from the social clubs for this event. They practiced for many hours before the big event, and classes were dismissed for this special occasion, which was indeed a spectacular sight. I’m not sure if this was a tradition with Harding at Morrilton, but it was with the young women of Galloway.
When Dr. [George S.] Benson arrived in 1936, he hit the ground running. It would be impossible to describe his impact on Harding and Searcy. On Thanksgiving Day 1939, the mortgage on Harding had been paid off, and the paper was burned in a ceremony.
During 1930-32 the Great Depression was taking its toll on the American people. Thousands were out of work. Factories and businesses were closing down, and farmers could not sell their produce. There began to be a movement by many people toward socialism. Huey P. Long of Louisiana was advocating “share the wealth” and many people across the country began to echo his plea.
While a missionary in China, Dr. Benson was able to see something of the evils of communism. With a strong belief in the American free enterprise economic system he began speaking to industrial and business leaders across the country. Often through these contacts he was able to secure financial support for Harding.
During the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, White County was the greatest strawberry producing area in the United States. Often it was difficult to get enough help to pick the berries, and they would ruin in the fields. In May of 1942 Dr. Benson made arrangements with a large producer in the area for Harding students to help pick his berries because they were spoiling in the fields. Harding kept half of the berries as payment. The students picked a lot of berries that day, even though many of them had never seen a strawberry patch or picked them before. There were a lot of aching backs and legs at day’s end. The next day when students were not in class, they spent much of the day removing the green caps, or “capping the berries.” Ma Chandler, the school dietitian, froze some of them and made jam from the remainder.
Dr. Benson was a leader who would not let a person give up and quit. He inspired one to “keep on keeping on” and give all you had and then at least an ounce more. When Dr. Benson retired and Dr. [Clifton L.] Ganus Jr. became president of the college, the fundamental promotion of American democracy and free enterprise continued. He continued to build upon the foundation laid by those before him. His belief in democracy and constitutional government, along with a strong faith in God, prepared him to become an outstanding president of the school. Through his efforts and the American Studies Institute, outstanding speakers from the United States and around the world have been brought to speak at Harding. At every event, Benson Auditorium was filled with people from all across the state and many from outside the state. Dr. [David B.] Burks, a student of Dr. Benson and Dr. Ganus, continued to build on the foundation laid by those faithful men and women of Harding’s past. New buildings and new fields of study were added. Enrollment greatly increased with students from every state in the union and around the world.
As a teacher of American history and economics in the Searcy Junior High School, I relied heavily upon films and materials from Dr. Don Diffine and the Belden Center for Private Enterprise Education at Harding. My task would have been very difficult without them.
If I were asked the secret to Harding’s success my answer would be “faith and sacrifice.” Those professors, supervisors and mechanical workers made great sacrifices. They were on a mission. Their income was meager, so many of them supplemented their income by preaching in churches around the area.
When I reflect on those early years of Harding in Searcy, I see the faces of dedicated people; Dr. [W.H.] Summitt, Dr. Ray Stapleton, Brothers L.E. Pryor, Bell, Gardner, [B.F.] Rhodes, Brother and Sister Armstrong, Mrs. [Florence] Cathcart, Dean and Mrs. [L.C.] Sears, Ruby Lowery, Mrs. [Ermine] Coleman, and so many more. They were all people of faith with a strong belief in what they were doing.
Being a part of that first year in 1934 and seeing Harding grow and expand each year with new programs and buildings has been both amazing and a joy for me. When I am asked where I attended college, I answer with pride. From that little acorn planted in Searcy in 1934 by a few faithful, dedicated men and women, a mighty oak, Harding University, has grown, and its influence is felt around the world.