A Labor of Love

By Allan Ford and Jackie Inouye

Henderson State University was formed in 1890 to provide educational opportunities to the state’s residents. The university and the city of Arkadelphia have grown together, each supporting the other through 125 years.

In 2015, Henderson will mark its 125th anniversary with a year of events, special publications and celebrations. In fact, almost every Reddie event throughout the academic year will have a tie to the school’s quasquicentennial.

Director of Development and Alumni Carrie Roberson, who is spearheading the celebrations, said planners’ work respects the university’s rich history while looking forward to its bright future.

“We are so blessed to be working at Henderson State University, a place where the collective Reddie Spirit saturates every part of our campus,” Roberson said. “Henderson’s traditions have informed our planning, and we’re excited to unveil those events through a brand new website and advertising campaign.”

The year-long celebration will feature events, exhibits and publications designed to engage the entire campus community, Roberson said. All are open to the public, and all mark Henderson State’s rich history and bright future.

The book

One of the most exciting parts of the 125th anniversary celebration is the home-grown production of a special history book focused on Henderson State’s past, present and future.

“Not only is it a book that looks at the history of Henderson,” author David Sesser said. “But it also looks at where we’re moving. We [Sesser, along with Henderson’s Vice President of Advancement and Executive Director of the Henderson Foundation, Jennifer Boyett] try to use big historical events to shape the outline of the book. We mention the 1914 fire, we delve into the lining of the holly trees, and we make special mention of the military aspect of campus.

“It’s not a history book so it is not cut-and-dried. There are going to be tons of photographs, both past and present. It will be very visually appealing.”

Although he was born and raised in the small town of Natchez, Miss., the indirect third generation Reddie has made some of his fondest memories at Henderson and wanted a portion of his affection to come out in the book.

“As a Reddie, there are things I wanted to mention in the book. Things that impacted me, but I also want to make it appealing to everyone. I want it to be enjoyable for anyone who is interested in learning more about the university or our history, or where we are going. I want it to touch everyone. There are so many things that I know I left out. The book isn’t designed to be the end-all book about Henderson. It is designed to celebrate our first 125 years and look forward to our next 125.”

Although the task of composing a history of Henderson State – informed by prior writings but not dictated by them – was a daunting one, Sesser said he enjoyed the challenge. He recalled some of the more interesting facts he came across while combing the archives in search of more information about his alma mater for the project.

“I learned that if it wasn’t for the city of Arkadelphia, we would not exist,” Sesser said. He recalls how records show that townspeople joined students to save everything they could out of Henderson’s Main Building during the fire of 1914.

Other examples of Arkadelphia’s enduring bond with the university are evident throughout history. As the main campus was being constructed 1890, it became clear that the east wing which housed the classroom space would not be completed by the start of the fall semester. The Public School directors in the city arranged for the university to rent the Public School, and even delayed the school’s opening by two weeks until construction on the east wing could be completed. Later, when lack of funds threatened to stall the completion of the building, prominent local citizens donated the needed money.

In her book, Henderson State University: Education Since 1890, Bennie Gene Bledsoe writes that the “Citizens of Arkadelphia were justly proud of this large, impressive structure.”

“Then in 1929 when the Methodist Church was looking at closing the three Methodist institutions in the state and moving one big school to Little Rock, the citizens of Arkadelphia got together and agreed that they did not want to lose their institution,” Sesser said. “They personally got the entire legislature to come here, even though (the legislature) was in session at the time, and visit campus. They agreed to allow the university to stay. Arkadelphia and Henderson are so intertwined. It is really incredible.”

The city’s enduring commitment to Henderson continues today, evidenced by numerous partnerships between the university and Arkadelphia, student discounts at many local businesses, and the work of the Economic Development Corporation of Clark County. In many ways, Henderson is a source of pride for Arkadelphia.

Not only did Sesser’s research rekindle his appreciation for the city of Arkadelphia, but it also taught him about some of the trails that Henderson blazed as an Arkansas institution.

“We were also one of the first public institutions in the state (University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff was first) to allow African-American students to attend classes,” Sesser said. “It was 1943, before Brown v. The Board of Education, and our enrollment was way down because of World War II. Henderson allowed two African-American women to attend class here.”

Although he’s working with a host of others who share his same desires about the project, Sesser sees the book as his baby. But he isn’t the selfish type. Everyone involved has invested quite a bit of time in making it one for the ages.

“We really want the memories to come flooding back. Our alums will be able to say, ‘I was there, I lived in that building, I had classes there,’ but at the same time, have a deeper understanding and a greater respect for what we’ve built here,” Sesser said. “I say 'we' because I’m a Reddie, and I’m back and it’s not really work. It’s a labor of love. We’ve done some great things here over the years and we will continue to do so.”

This commemorative book will be released in September, just in time to help kick off the year’s celebrations. A limited number of the books will be available for purchase in the Reddie Bookstore.

The exhibits

Throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, Henderson State will serve as the host for a variety of exhibits focused on the university’s history. These exhibits will allow modern viewers the opportunity to experience Henderson through the eyes of past campus community members.

A special exhibit of artwork from Henderson State’s distinguished graduates will be held in the Russell Fine Arts Gallery, and the Arkadelphia Arts Center will feature an exhibit with a special opening event for the community.

Henderson’s Huie Library will follow the school year through a series of displays focused on milestones for the university’s students. The first exhibit, for instance, will focus on residence life throughout the years. Other scheduled exhibits include:

  • A focus on the rich architectural history on campus.
  • The Battle of the Ravine – college football’s longest-running and most interesting rivalry
  • How the campus community celebrates holidays
  • The university’s long-standing ties to the military and its Reserve Officer Training Corps
  • The 1914 campus fire and how the Arkadelphia community rallied to support the university
  • The history of the university’s academic programs

In May, the Library will focus on commencement through the years. This exhibit will complement a revitalization of the commencement ceremonies at Henderson.

In addition to the Huie Library exhibits, Henderson’s Department of Family and Consumer Sciences will host an exhibit of hats from throughout history.

The productions and traditions

To mark the university’s 125th birthday, faculty members in the Department of Communication and Theatre Arts decided to stage the same performance that was produced at Henderson’s first graduation ceremony – My Turn Next. The play, a period farce set in 1866 London, is set to feature Henderson students and be performed in conjunction with an original musical piece titled “Measures of the Heart.” These performances will open during the university’s homecoming week, Oct. 19-24.

Other productions, such as the President’s Concert, that are held every year, will feature a special focus on the 125th anniversary as well. The university will also feature a special Town and Gown event to mark its special roots in the United Methodist Church. Traditions such as the Battle of the Ravine, the Arkadelphia Chamber of Commerce banquet, Henderson’s Common Book program, Reddie sporting events, and even commencement, will also center on celebrating the university’s rich history – all while looking toward a bright Reddie future.