The Presidency of J. Thomas Davis
By Frank Chamberlain
J. Thomas Davis became the dean of John Tarleton Agricultural College in 1919. He served in this capacity for 26 years, guiding the school through a period of unprecedented growth, prosperity, and prestige. These developments would serve as the foundation for Tarleton’s future prominence (Guthrie 48).
James Thomas Davis, who was born in Georgia, and raised in Alabama, moved to Texas at the age of fourteen. He received his undergraduate degree from North Texas Normal College (now known as the University of North Texas). Davis taught classes at several local schools during his college years. After graduating in 1904, he began teaching history and Latin at Honey Grove School. Davis moved on to become principal of Navasota School a year later. In 1907, he assumed the role of superintendent for the Grimes County schools. Finally, he returned to Navasota in order to serve as superintendent in 1910. Davis held this position for nine years until being hired as dean of Tarleton. He earned a B.S. degree from Texas A&M in 1919, and received his M.A. from the University of Texas in 1921 (Guthrie 48, King 132-133).
Davis made an important acquaintance during his employment at Navasota. Superintendent W.B. Bizzell, who would later become president of the Texas A&M College, hired Davis to serve as principal. When Bizzell resigned from Navasota, he suggested that Davis replace him as superintendent. Bizzell was the president of A&M at the time that James Cox left Tarleton in 1919. The president immediately hired Davis as dean even though he had yet to earn his bachelor’s or master’s degrees. Furthermore, Davis did not have any collegiate experience as either teacher or administrator. It is apparent that Bizzell thought very highly of Davis in order to have appointed him to such a demanding position. This decision to employ a relative beginner would prove extremely fortuitous in the future (Guthrie 49, King 133).
The new dean began to improve the campus as soon as he arrived in Stephenville. Davis claimed that the school grounds were overrun with grassburrs. The problem was apparently so bad that he had to borrow a hoe in order to cut a trail to allow his family to move into their house. Later, Davis enlisted the aid of the faculty to help him destroy the remaining sticker patches and make necessary repairs to the classrooms and facilities. Davis personally spent the last Sunday of the summer working in the boiler room of the women’s dorm. With these various chores completed, the J. Thomas Davis era of Tarleton history began when classes opened in September 1919 (Guthrie 49, King 133-134).
Dean Davis repeatedly exhibited a genuine and inexhaustible concern for the students at his college. He shared a father-like relationship with many of his students. Davis could often be found drinking coffee with students at a nearby establishment or organizing croquet games on the lawn of his house. It was also common for Davis to invite students to eat dinner with his family. He was known for being a very assessable administrator who always found time to talk to students and offer personal or vocational advice. Whenever a student withdrew or was expelled from school, Davis made a point to personally drive them to the train station. Such a close relationship with students may seem unusual and possibly inappropriate in today’s society. However, Davis’ sincere concern for Tarleton students made him a very popular figure on campus (Guthrie 65-66, King 135).
Another manifestation of Davis’ concern for his students was his attention to their financial situations. Finances were a concern for many students in the area, especially during the Great Depression. Therefore, Davis worked diligently to ease this burden as much as possible. There are reports that he often allowed students to defer payments or made other arrangements that allowed them to attend class until money became available (Guthrie 68).
Davis attempted to employ as many student workers on campus as possible. Male students performed most janitorial and groundskeeping duties on campus. Boys also worked on the school farm and poultry plant. Female students worked in the dining hall, dormitories, and offices. Several students were also employed during the construction of the new Dean’s house in 1924. Davis also tried to convince local boarding houses to allow students to work off a portion of their rent. He even went as far as refusing to purchase machine-driven lawnmowers for the campus on the grounds that “they would take away jobs that the boys are now doing” (Guthrie 68-69).
Davis also set strict guidelines concerning student behavior. His policies were spelled out in the somewhat infamous “Purple Book” which governed most aspects of student life. These few examples of “Purple Book” regulations appear to be quite draconian by today’s standards. However, it must be remembered that many colleges of that era held similarly paternalistic views. Some examples of these campus guidelines include:
- Gambling, consumption of alcoholic beverages, smoking, profanity, “sex immorality”, and dancing on or off campus were prohibited.
- Loitering and loafing were prohibited in college buildings and in town. When students were not in class, they were expected to attending study hall.
- Girls under 18 years of age could not go out with young men without a chaperone.
- Women also had to have written permission to ride in a car with a man.
- Female students could not talk on the telephone with a boy without a chaperone being present.
- Students could not possess a car on or near campus and could not make frequent use of any vehicle regardless of the owner.
- Students living on or off campus had curfews. Females were expected to be in their rooms at 7:00 p.m. Male students had the luxury of staying out till 7:30 p.m. Weekend curfew for both sexes was 10:15 p.m. Those who lived at home were exempt, but had to be accompanied by a parent after these hours.
- If anyone wanted to go into town, a written itinerary had to be submitted to the dean of men or women.
Davis held himself and his faculty to similar standards. He believed that they “must never do anything at all that they ask the students not to do.” It is unknown whether these regulations caused resentment around the campus or not. However, it is reasonable to assume that many of these rules were difficult to enforce and that a determined student could probably circumvent the rulebook if they were so inclined. Still, the adoption of such a strict moral code represented Davis’ sincere attempt to look out for the best interests of his students (Guthrie 71-73, King 161-162).
Dean Davis recognized the importance of public relations. He put a great deal of effort into promoting a sense of community and cooperation between the town and the gown. The most successful of these ventures was the annual Tarleton International Egg-laying Contest that began in 1926. In this event, chicken owners from “throughout the world” were invited to send thirteen of their hens (which constituted a “pen”) to the newly completed poultry farm. Students and faculty of the Ag Department tended to the contestants and kept monthly egg production records throughout the 357-day contests. In the end, awards were given to the top five highest producing pens and the ten most prolific individual hens. The most productive pen and individual from each breed were similarly honored. These events generated large numbers of entrants until their discontinuation in the 1950s. The Tarleton contest was so popular that it became the only official contest location in the Southwest (Guthrie 51-53).
The college and the participants both benefited from this arrangement. The poultry owners used the contest as a means to document the egg laying capacity of their chickens for use in advertising. Tarleton benefited from the publicity generated by these events. The school also earned $20 for each pen and kept the proceeds from the sale of eggs produced during the contest. In 1947, a similar series of events were organized for Texas turkey breeders. Tarleton’s prestige was greatly enhanced by the success of these contests (Guthrie 51-53).
Davis also provided ways for the college to assist local farmers. One example of this cooperation involved a new policy inviting livestock owners from the community to utilize the services of Tarleton’s veterinarian. This arrangement provided the citizens with convenient veterinary assistance and gave Tarleton Ag students valuable first-hand observation experience (Guthrie 51).
Davis took advantage of every opportunity to promote Tarleton in non-agricultural areas as well. These public relations triumphs included a “Tarleton Day” at the 1922 State Fair of Texas. The event featured exhibits from the Mechanical Arts, Home Economic, Agriculture, and Music Departments. The entire student body rode a train to the event and performed a number of “college yells” for the audience (Guthrie 53, King 141-142).
Another noteworthy promotional venture took place in 1924. The Tarleton band and girls’ glee club performed live on Ft. Worth’s WBAP radio. The broadcast was heard by millions of listeners across America. Davis arranged for three more programs to be broadcast during his administration. Tarleton gained an enormous amount of publicity from these exhibitions (Guthrie 53-54, King 142).
The 1928 memorial celebration honoring John Tarleton was perhaps Davis’ most important public relations accomplishment. The two-day program paid tribute to the school’s founder and also recognized many prominent people who were once associated with the early history of the college. Most of the previous Tarleton presidents returned to Stephenville to offer their greetings. The program featured many speakers including past and present A&M Presidents W.B. Bizzell and T.O Walton as well as John Tarleton’s lawyer J.C. George. In addition to speeches by various alumni and benefactors, the school held memorial services at the local churches. This event brought the past and the present together, helping to promote school spirit among current students and alumni (Guthrie 54, King 162-163).
Davis eventually published transcripts of the speeches given during the festivities in a 1933 book called John Tarleton: A Memorial to the Founder of Tarleton College. This publication includes the first biography of John Tarleton, which was written by alumni Lillian Edwards (Guthrie 54-55, King 163).
The campus underwent tremendous growth during Davis’ 26 years in office as numerous facilities and buildings were added. Student enrollment had steadily increased since 1917, necessitating these new additions. Since Tarleton was now supported by the state, Davis could attain adequate funding for these projects.
The first Administration Building was completed in 1919, during Davis’ first year at Tarleton. It was built in order to house the Agriculture Department. However, it soon became the home of most of the other departments including Business, English, History, Math, Languages, Biology, and Economics. Throughout its history this structure was called both the “Agriculture” and the “Education” building. Today, it is known as the E.J. Howell Building, and it houses the Education Department. This is the oldest academic building still standing on campus (Finley 41-42, Grissom 34, Guthrie 60, Traditions 41).
Another key addition during Davis’ tenure was the Auditorium that was begun in 1928. The music program had been expanded to the point that the old Marston Conservatory could barely accommodate the growing numbers. There was also no space that would hold the entire student body during an assembly. The 1600 seat auditorium opened in 1929 and possessed the capabilities to present musicals, theater productions, guest lectures, and motion pictures. It also contained offices, classrooms, and practice studios. The Auditorium housed the music, speech, and theater departments until its demolition in 1982 (Grissom 36, Guthrie 60, Traditions 46).
A permanent science building was also built during the Davis administration. Such facilities had been sorely needed on campus since the opening of the college. In earlier years, the science facilities had housed in the short-lived Marston Science Hall and the Mollie Crow Building. By the early 1920s, the increasing student enrollment necessitated the construction of a building dedicated solely to the science department.
However, Davis was not able to acquire adequate state funding until 1930. The construction of the Science Building was completed in four stages. The first unit opened in 1931 and became known as the “North Wing.” Additional sections were added in 1935, 1938, and 1950. This “U” shaped building was closed upon the completion of the new science facility in 2001. At the time of this writing, the old abandoned building remains standing between the Education and Agriculture Buildings (Guthrie 58-59, King 178, Traditions 43).
Davis personally helped design and supervise the construction of a new Dean’s House in 1923. Students were hired to perform much of the labor on this new residence. The president/dean of Tarleton lived in this campus house until 1982 when president Barry Thompson decided to make his residence in a more private location off campus. Today, it is known as the Trogden House and accommodates various administrative offices. It is the oldest building remaining at Tarleton (Guthrie 60, King 150-151).
Davis also attempted to expand Tarleton’s student housing capacity. The Mary Corn Wilkerson dormitory for women received several annexes during these years. Chamberlin, Lewis, Moody, and Gough Halls were added in 1925, 1935, 1936, and 1938, respectively (Guthrie 61).
Men were given their first on-campus dormitory in 1920 when the SATC barracks from the WWI years were refurbished. This structure became known as “Fort John” and originally stood on the location of the present day dining hall. It was renovated and moved several times whenever conditions warranted. A large brick dormitory was added in 1936. This building was named Davis Hall and it provided housing for male students until 1975. Today it is used as an office building. Davis Hall remains a prominent structure as it stands a few feet from Lillian Street in the center of campus (Guthrie 61, King 177, Traditions 39).
Coach W.J. Wisdom designed the new gymnasium that was built in 1924. This building was home to the Tarleton basketball program until 1970. It was located directly north of the old Science Building in the area now covered by the senior honors parking lot. Tarleton won four consecutive state championships in this gym from 1926 to 1929. This gym was also home to one of the most amazing feats in collegiate history as Wisdom’s basketball teams won 86 straight games from 1934 until 1938. The old gym was demolished in the early 1972 following the construction of the new Wisdom Gym (Finley 43, Guthrie 60-61, 294-300, King 150, 207-209, Traditions 45,47).
There were still more additions to the school made during the Davis years. A central heating plant was installed on campus in 1920. The smokestack was added three years later and is among the oldest structures still standing at Tarleton. The aforementioned poultry farm was established in 1926. These pens and chicken coops were located along the southwestern corner of the campus on the territory now covered by Davis, Ferguson, and Bender Halls. The Dining Hall was also completed in 1926. This cafeteria still serves hundreds of hungry students daily (Guthrie 60-61, King 151, 153, Traditions 39).
The Tarleton athletic teams received their first formal nickname during the Davis era. Coach Wisdom coined the term “Plowboys” in 1925. He had intended to conduct a contest and award five dollars to the person who thought of the best moniker for the teams. However, Wisdom apparently was most impressed by his own idea of “Plowboys” and the name was used until 1961 (Guthrie 293-294, King 159).
Tarleton’s first official involvement with the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) probably occurred during Davis’ tenure. The exact year that the school adopted the program is unclear. Military training was established in 1917, the year that Tarleton joined the A&M system. Male students were required to join the “Cadet Corps”, commanded by a civilian faculty member. The Student Army Training Corps (SATC) spent a brief and acrimonious semester at Tarleton in 1918. However, the first description of official military science curriculum appears in the 1921 catalog. Therefore, 1921 seems to be the most logical year for the establishment of a permanent ROTC at Tarleton (1921 Catalog, Grassburr 1923 112, Grissom 118, Guthrie 81-82).
The outbreak of World War II affected Tarleton in dramatic ways. Davis made many adjustments to enable his college to contribute to the war effort. He helped arrange for the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to allow Tarleton to add pilot training to the curriculum in 1939. These students trained at the “Tarleton Airport”, a piece of land east of town. The United States was not at war at the time and the course was technically intended to train civilian pilots. However, given the state of affairs elsewhere in the world, the establishment of such a program represented a bit of planning for the future (Guthrie 83, King 219).
As the United States became actively involved in the war, student enrollment dropped dramatically. The numbers dropped from 1,266 students in 1940 to a low of 332 in 1943. Many potential students were either drafted or volunteered for the armed services. A large number also chose to seek employment in defense factories or in businesses whose employee rosters were depleted by the war (Guthrie 84).
The Department of War designated Tarleton as a training location for the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) in 1943. Five hundred trainees from across the country were sent to the campus for an intense thirty-six weeks of study and officer training. These newcomers bolstered the local economy and gave new life to the almost empty campus during their nine months in town. The Tarleton branch of the ASTC closed in 1944 when the Stephenville unit was called into active duty. Academy Award winning actor George Kennedy attended these ASTP classes while in the armed services. Although he only attended Tarleton during this time period, he is probably the school’s most famous alumnus (Guthrie 88-91, King 220).
Most of the academic departments modified their curriculum to better serve the country. Dean Davis officially expanded the summer schedule into a full sixteen-week semester similar to the spring and fall terms. This was done in an effort to increase the rate of graduation so that Tarleton students could join the war effort more quickly (Guthrie 83, King 219).
Many classes were altered in response to the times. A course was offered that taught secretarial skills for possible use in governmental offices. Women were given instruction in manual arts to enable them to find employment in various types of wartime industries. The Physical Education Department suspended intercollegiate athletics from 1942 until the end of the war. Coach Wisdom began a first aid class that included many enrollees from the community. Even the departments most tangentially involved with the nation’s defense contributed by dedicating many lectures and assignments to patriotic issues (Guthrie 85-86, King 220-221).
Other departments began to create materials that proved extremely valuable. Woodworking classes created the wooden rifles used in ROTC training. (The soldiers in combat were now using the real guns.) Industrial Arts students also built large models of Axis airplanes that were used throughout the country. Home Economics classes sowed pajamas for use in military hospitals and clothing for British children (Guthrie 85-86, King 220-221).
Dean Davis withdrew as chief executive after the war ended in 1945 at the age of 65. His 26-year administration is the longest tenure of any Tarleton chief executive. He was given Dean Emeritus status and remained active at Tarleton by teaching a current events class until his final retirement in 1950. Davis died shortly thereafter on May 12, 1950 and was honored at a funeral service in the Auditorium (Guthrie 96-97, King 222-223).
The J. Thomas Davis years have been described as the “golden age” of Tarleton history. He truly loved the school and always displayed a father-like concern for his students. Davis’ numerous contributions to Tarleton make him one of the most important figures in the school’s history.
Finley, J. Rice. “The History of John Tarleton College”. Unpublished M.Ed. thesis. The University of Texas at Austin, 1933.
Grissom, Preston B. “The Development of John Tarleton College”. Unpublished M.A. thesis. West Texas State Teacher’s College, 1933.
Guthrie, Christopher. John Tarleton and his Legacy: The History of Tarleton State University, 1899-1999. Acton, MA: Tapestry Press, 1999.
King, C. Richard. The John Tarleton College Story: Golden Days of Purple and White. Austin, TX: Eakin Press, 1998.
Tarleton Traditions: Centennial Edition 1 (1 October, 1999): 1-48.