From Staff Reports
By: Tom Lucas (PRESS RELEASE)
This is the third in a series of articles written in anticipation of Navarro College’s 75th anniversary. There is a full slate of special events and activities beginning on September 16, 2021, with the Bulldogs Unite Ceremony and culminating with The 75th Anniversary Gala on May 21, 2022. This year of celebration has been given the tagline “Looking Back, Moving Forward”.
Navarro Junior College’s first president, Ray Waller, died suddenly in February 1956. This was the end of an era for a new school that had opened its doors to its first class of students just sixty-three days after the election that had created the new college district. The Board of Trustees offered the presidency of the College to Gaston T. Gooch, the Dean at the time. Mr. Gooch declined the position on a permanent basis to remain as Dean. He did, however, serve as the interim president until a successor to President Waller could be found.
Mr. Waller’s replacement came in the person of Ben W. Jones. Jones held a bachelor’s degree from Georgia Southern, a master’s degree from George Peabody College and a doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin. When recruited for the Presidency of NJC, Jones had been the President of Northeast Mississippi Junior College in Booneville since 1952. When Dr. Jones arrived at NJC, the student population of slightly more than 500 was “traditional” in that most were eighteen- and nineteen-year-old students enrolled in a two-year transfer program.
As anticipated by the founders of the college, most of the students were from the Corsicana area though there were some students who were from Dallas, Waco, and points even farther away. During this time, Navarro’s first international student arrived from Greece. Related to a local restaurateur, the young man was the first of many foreign students who have passed through Navarro’s doors and continue to do so today. Many of the foreign students were “adopted” by local families who periodically took the students into their homes, teaching American customs, culture and helping them to overcome homesickness.
Seven years after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that the idea of “separate but equal” had no place in public education and that public schools must end racial segregation “with all deliberate speed”. The task of implementing this process was left to each school individually. According to President Jones, Navarro had no policy with respect to integration. The administration decided that qualified students would be enrolled regardless of color. In 1961 five young women of color were enrolled at Navarro. Nine years later, in 1970, Michael Heiskell and Miss Shirley Wright (Black) were the first students of color chosen as Mr. and Miss NJC.
With the increase in the student population and its diversity came the need to expand student life and extracurricular activity. While the clubs and organizations that had been present from NJC’s earliest days were important, athletics remained the favored focus of campus life. Lee Smith became head football coach for the Bulldogs in 1951 and remained in that capacity until 1966. During those fifteen seasons, the Bulldogs won or shared six conference championships and Smith recorded ninety career victories. After Smith’s resignation as head football coach in 1966, he remained at NJC teaching physical education courses until his retirement in 1974.
Football wasn’t the only successful sports program at NJC. The basketball team won the conference championship in 1960 and the baseball team was a force to be reckoned with in the Texas junior college arena. The 1958 team advanced to the national junior college tournament finishing third nationally. The 1959 team repeated as state champions, but the administration declined an invitation to the national tournament citing that the dates conflicted with final exams. Tennis became a sport which dominated in in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Coached by Herschel Stephens who arrived at NJC in 1963 to teach English and journalism. Stephens’ tennis teams had a record of 354-33-5 which included 11 consecutive conference championships. He was named Texas Junior College Coach of the Year in 1974.The men’s and women’s teams were consistently ranked in the top squads nationally during Stephens’ tenure at NJC.
The mid-fifties through the early seventies saw much growth at NJC- not only in student population, but also in the size of the campus, the number of buildings and the activities available for the students. Through all the changes and the pain that sometime accompanies change, NJC was fortunate to have had great leadership from its beginning. Dr. Ben Jones resigned as president of NJC with a letter to Leighton B. Dawson, Chairman of the Board of Trustees on November 20, 1973.
Acknowledgement and special thanks is given to Dr. Tommy Stringer whose book, WE ARE NAVARRO! A history of Navarro College was used in the preparation of this article.
If you are or if you know the whereabouts of a former Mr. or Miss NJC or other homecoming royalty OR if you have NJC memorabilia you are willing to lend to the college for display, please contact the college at firstname.lastname@example.org or you may call Michelle Smith at 903-875-7337.
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