Mississippi Teacher Association President Joseph Anderson Cook had much to celebrate on March 30, 1910 when Gov. Edmund Noel signed into law legislation creating Mississippi Normal College.
It was the culmination of the association’s years-long campaign to create the college, designed to provide more advanced training for school teachers than what was offered at the time. Cook was appointed to serve as its first president.
On Tuesday, Cook’s eighth successor, Dr. Martha Saunders, hailed his and the efforts of that small group of educators to establish what would 100 years later become a premier research institution for the Gulf South – The University of Southern Mississippi.
“The spirit of Southern Miss resonates deep within my soul, and I will continue to strive to the best of my ability to bring honor to all that our founders contributed to the heritage of this university. I wish a sincere happy birthday to The University of Southern Mississippi,” Saunders said at the Centennial Convocation in Bennett Auditorium on the Hattiesburg campus.
Saunders, a Southern Miss alumna, was joined by several dignitaries on the stage bringing greetings for the occasion of the university’s founding, including Gov. Haley Barbour; Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant; State Commissioner of Higher Education Dr. Hank Bounds; and Hattiesburg Mayor Dr. Johnny DuPree. Southern Miss President Emeritus Dr. Aubrey Lucas gave the invocation.
Southern Miss faculty and staff with multiple years of service to the university were also recognized at the convocation, along with the charter members of the university’s new Centennial Legacy Circle which honors current and former members of the Southern Miss faculty and staff who have given 40 or more years of service to the university.
Barbour praised the university for not only fulfilling its purpose in educating students, but also for being a key economic force in Mississippi and the region. He said he expects Southern Miss in the next 100 years to be “part of the propulsion that gets us to where we’re supposed to be” as a major contributor to research and development in science and technology.
“The university has become anything but normal,” Barbour said, referring to the university’s original name. “It’s exceptional.”
Bryant read a joint resolution from the State House and Senate recognizing the university’s centennial and its contributions as a leader in higher education in Mississippi. He recounted his first day as a freshman at the university in the 1970s, when he pulled up to Bond Hall in his Chevy Vega to move into his dormitory room and begin his college career at Southern Miss.
“It has made all the difference (being a Southern Miss graduate) in the world to me and my career,” he said. “From that moment, my life had changed.”
When the legislation was signed into law creating Mississippi Normal College, it included no appropriation of state funding for construction. That came from Hattiesburg and Forrest County, which provided land and approximately $250,000 for construction of the university’s first five buildings.
Also a Southern Miss alumnus, DuPree noted the extensive economic, social and cultural impact the university has had on the life of the city of Hattiesburg and surrounding communities since it first opened its doors for classes in 1912. “We (Hattiesburg) would still exist (without the university),” he said. ‘But that is probably all.”
Lucas was given a standing ovation when introduced at the convocation. He first came to the university as a freshman in 1952, and led Southern Miss from 1975-1995 and again as interim president from 2001-2002. He also serves as honorary chairman of the Centennial Celebration Steering Committee.
“This is really a milestone, when you consider the university was given such a modest purpose in the beginning. We weren’t even authorized to grant degrees,” said Lucas, reflecting on the significance of the centennial leading up to the day’s events. “So for those of us like me who have been around a while, we have great pride in the university today and a sense of fulfillment in seeing it move ahead.
“Really, we can be all we can be and want to be. Our future is as exciting as our past.”
A Golden Future Built on the Foundation of a Treasured Past
University Historian Dr. Chester “Bo” Morgan, who gave the convocation’s keynote address, discussed the university’s transformation from its humble beginnings. Morgan, who penned the history of the university in his book “Dearly Bought, Deeply Treasured” on the occasion of Southern Miss’ 75th anniversary, recently expanded on that edition in his soon to be released book “Treasured Past, Golden Future” which examines Southern Miss’ first century.
In his book, Morgan cites the early challenges to transform the vision for the school into a reality. The Mississippi Teacher’s Association (MTA) campaign to create the college to train teachers met with resistance in the State Legislature, with some lawmakers doubting the MTA truly spoke for all of the state’s educators, believing instead that it was little more than a special interest initiative. Twice, in 1906 and 1908, bills that would have approved the creation of the school died in legislative committee.
Realizing they were in for a fight, Cook, along with Brookhaven City Schools Superintendent and future Mississippi Normal College Vice President T.P. Scott, led a fierce effort across the state to drum up support for the normal college. Morgan writes in his book, “Thus began a campaign of organized publicity and personal contact that would overwhelm the opposition in what the Jackson Daily News called ‘one of the great legislative fights of the decade.’”
The MTA communicated with teachers, school leaders and newspapers in support of the normal college with a relentless letter-writing effort, among other tactics. With an outpouring of support from across the state, the third time proved the charm as state representative Marshall McCullough introduced another bill in 1910 that received a message of support from Gov. Noel, and was approved by the State Senate on March 30, 1910.
Mississippi Normal was a godsend for the state’s poor rural families who previously could only dream of sending their children to college, but even then the cost to attend proved to be a great sacrifice for many. But the Southern Miss story includes sacrifice, endurance – and triumph - in the face of adversity, including financial hardships that included the Great Depression and multiple recessions, wars that took away students, natural disasters like hurricanes Camille and Katrina, political interference and even attempts to close the school or merge it.
“Ours is not the heritage of storied ritual or Ivy League legend,” Morgan said in his convocation address. “Yet it is every bit as noble, marked by the modest but admirable virtues of hard work, sacrifice, and dedication to making life richer for the people of Mississippi. It is the story of people, people with all the frailty and majesty of mankind, not so much extraordinary people as ordinary people who have achieved extraordinary things.”
A Great Day to Be a Golden Eagle
Centennial Celebration Day included a full slate of events, beginning just after 8 a.m. with the delivery of commemorative Coca-Cola bottles in an antique 1919 Coca-Cola truck to the Aubrey K. Lucas Administration Building, where Dr. Saunders and Hattiesburg Coca-Cola President Brad Brian toasted the university’s 100th anniversary.
Later in the morning at the Founder’s Day Ceremony, a variety of awards and honors were bestowed upon students, and new officers for the Student Government Association were installed. Immediately following was the dedication of the new Centennial Gateway and Time Capsule at the main entrance of campus.
Southern Miss Gulf Coast Associate Provost Pat Joachim, an alumna of the university, participated in the convocation and said the day brought great pride to the whole Southern Miss community. “This is a university that is moving forward, and the best is yet to come,” she said.
Following the Centennial Convocation, a community picnic was held at the center of campus, where hamburgers, hot dogs, cupcakes and birthday cake were served. Visitors and guests then joined the Pride of Mississippi Marching Band at M.M. Roberts Stadium to form a human “100” for photos to conclude the day’s activities.
Joseph Anderson Cook’s granddaughters Libby Bickerstaff Payne and her sister, Emilyann Bickerstaff Raspilair, joined hundreds of faculty, staff, alumni and friends of the university attending the celebration. Known affectionately as “Daddy Cook” to many Mississippi Normal College students, President Cook later served the city of Columbus in the State Legislature after leaving Mississippi Normal in 1928.
“He loved this university,” Payne said. “He could never have imagined it would be what it is today, but he would have been delighted.”
To learn more about the Southern Miss Centennial Celebration and its schedule of events throughout 2010, online visit www.usm.edu/centennial. To get information about purchasing a copy of Dr. Morgan’s book, “A Treasured Past, a Golden Future,” contact the Southern Miss Alumni Association Office at 601.266.5013 or the Office of the Centennial Celebration at 601.266.4095.
Southern Miss students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends of the university, along with the Pride of Mississippi Marching Band, form the number “100” at the university’s M.M. Roberts Stadium to conclude Centennial Celebration Day activities on Tuesday. (University Communications photo by Steve Rouse)
About The University of Southern Mississippi
The University of Southern Mississippi, founded in 1910, is a comprehensive doctoral and research-extensive university fulfilling its mission of being a leading university in engaging and empowering individuals to transform lives and communities. In a tradition of leadership for student development, Southern Miss is educating a 21st century work force providing intellectual capital, cultural enrichment and innovation to Mississippi and the world. Southern Miss is located in Hattiesburg, Miss., with an additional campus and teaching and research sites on the Mississippi Gulf Coast; further information is found at www.usm.edu.