More than a century ago, Tennessee’s state Board of Education received a gift – 48
acres of land on the site of a shuttered plantation six miles from downtown Memphis
and two miles past the end of the Buntyn streetcar line. Where Nathaniel Trezevant
had once raised cotton, a teachers school would grow, later to expand into a major
urban research university.
By Greg Russell
The University of Memphis has come a long way in its 100 years. Preeminent research
accomplishments, the state’s largest honors program and award-winning instruction
mark the growth of what began as a training school for teachers in 1912.
But did you know that part of a major motion picture was shot on campus? That two
movie stars including Tony Curtis chose beauty queens for the school? Or that a ghost
still roams the halls of the original dormitory on campus?
Why not pull up a chair, sit back and read the highlights of our great university,
from its top historical moments to some not-so-well-known and sometimes quirky events
that give us our character. Our older as well as younger alumni provide insight, too,
through their memories and experiences. For the sake of clarity, we’ll divide these
events by year. We hope you enjoy.
Parking not a problem. Not too many years removed from the Civil War, Nathaniel Trezevant, an 1847 graduate
of Yale University who served briefly for the Confederacy, had great plans for the
cotton fields that made up his plantation on the edge of Memphis. He began subdividing
and naming streets in the area, including Southern Avenue for the southern edge of
his property and Central Avenue for the central point of his land. Those borders for
the U of M remain 140 years later. It is a sure bet he never envisioned a major university
would take hold — or parking would ever be a problem.
Good morning, Memphis. Memphians woke up to the banner headline “Memphis Gets the Normal” after the city
and Shelby County successfully landed one of three state “normal” schools under the
General Education Bill of 1909. (Normal schools provided the final two years of high
school and two years of college in those days.) The city of Memphis and Shelby County
donated at least $350,000 to the effort while local women’s groups raised money through
a popular subscription fund. The Creath Land Company donated 48 acres of land that
had been Trezevant’s plantation while another 32 acres was purchased with funds from
citizens for the 80-acre campus. (Trezevant sold his land in 1880 and moved to San
Francisco; he returned to Memphis in 1900 and is buried in Elmwood Cemetery.)
A bell-ringer. West Tennessee State Normal School, with 200 students and 17 faculty members, opened
its doors for the first regular term on Sept. 10, a Tuesday, amid great fanfare and
a ceremony attended by the governor. By school year’s end, enrollment had increased
to 909. The Administration Building, Mynders Hall (a women’s dorm) and the President’s
House, plus a landmark water tower fed by an artesian well, made up campus, though
a barn here and there could be spotted. The Administration Building proved to be a
busy place: classes, offices, labs and even a temporary horse stable were located
in the building. “All buildings strictly fire-proof, heated by steam and lighted by
electricity,” read a special notice for the school.
Call that a bargain. Tuition was — get this — free for in-state students and $12 for those from out-of-state
the first few years the school was in existence. The only cost was a $2 registration
fee. Students also had to be white males or females not under the age of 16 who had
finished at least the elementary school course prescribed by the public school system.
It was mandatory for enrollees to submit a letter deeming them of “good moral character”
from a responsible person and they had to possess sufficient scholastic requirements
from high school or a previous college.
They came by train, horseback … Students began arriving to campus prior to the start of the school year by horseback,
buggy, train and streetcar. The Southern Railway built the Normal Depot adjacent to
campus, which served both trains and the trolley system. (It cost 5 cents for the
45-minute streetcar ride from downtown.) Male students proved that collegians even
back then were enterprising by lugging female students’ bags from the depot to rooms
in the Mynders Hall dormitory, under, of course, the watchful eye of a chaperone.
Males, except for athletes who lived in the Administration Building, had residences
off campus in what was becoming a booming community — citizens considered it trendy
to have homes near the new school. A drugstore, barbershop and post office soon sprang
up on the corner of Patterson and Walker, near where the present-day English building
An early graduation. It didn’t take “Ole Normal” long to produce its first alumni. The school rolled out
its version of pomp and circumstance for the first time ever as 19 students graduated
on May 16, 1913. Twenty-five high school pupils also received degrees during the ceremony.
Eleanor McCormack, who was president of the Nineteenth Century Club, gave the commencement
address. During that first year of study, there were nine departments from which to
chose courses: education, English, history, math, science, languages (Latin, French
and German), manual training, agriculture and the Training School, which later became
Messick High School.
No they didn’t, did they? Female students living on campus were required to sign out of the dorm and had to
explain to the “house mother” where they were going and exactly what time they would
return. They couldn’t travel to town alone and weren’t allowed in automobiles on campus.
But they did have their wild side. “The most risqué thing the female students would
do on campus was to climb the water tower,” says historian Jane Hooker (MEd ’78).
“That was considered daring and unladylike in those days.” And, as Hooker noted, cumbersome
considering that females had to wear dresses that reached their ankles and covered
most of their skin during that era.
A ghost of a host. The Mynders family certainly had a major impact on the University in its early days.
Professor Seymour Allen Mynders was largely responsible for passage of the state bill
that created the school and he later became its first president. But grave misfortune
soon followed. His daughter Elizabeth passed away shortly after she was married in
early 1912. And just two days into the second school year in 1913, Mynders died from
a heart attack. The school president, though, before his death had managed to have
the women’s dorm built in the shape of an “E” to honor his daughter. Not to be outdone,
Elizabeth to this day works to ensure her own legacy: throughout the history of the
100-year-old dorm, residents have reported close encounters with “E.” (For more information
on Elizabeth, see page 4.)
School spirit dampened by war. The editors of the first edition of the school yearbook, The DeSoto, wanted to make
a spirited debut, so they ordered blue dye for a school-themed blue and gray cover.
But, because of World War I, or the European War as the editors called it, “blue dye,
an article manufactured in Germany, could not be procured.” The staff instead went
with gray and gold. School editors also voiced support for England in the war, but
recommended strict neutrality for the United States for a war so far from its shores.
Over here, over there. “Ole Normal’s” male student population was quickly decimated after the U.S. declared
war on Germany. Ninety-five of the 115 males left for the war effort (four were unfortunately
killed in combat). The campus soon became home to a Students’ Army Training Corps.
Many of the 238 cadets who were enrolled lived in converted office space in the Administration
Building. Reveille at 5:30 a.m. would echo across campus, not only waking the cadets,
but those in Mynders Hall and, to their dismay, nearby neighbors.
Beefing up appearances. The school’s third president, Andrew Kincannon, didn’t stray too far from his Mississippi
State University roots where he was a professor and cowbells were common. Kincannon
purchased a herd of Holstein dairy cows and a “new-fangled milking machine.” Swine
and rabbits were also brought in by Kincannon to beef up the agriculture department.
The school turned a profit by selling the farm animals while the milk and eggs were
used in the school’s cafeteria.
Nothing “Normal” about this place anymore. The school had the first of its four name changes as it became known as West Tennessee
State Teachers College. A full, four-year college course substituted for the two years
of high school training. Physical education, biology, chemistry, arts and penmanship
and geology were added to the original departments on campus. Tuition was $4 per course
and for each 12-week quarter, students paid $84, which included room and board, laundry
and all school fees. Enrollment had jumped to almost 1,000.
Students get hot under the collar. The extreme heat wave that ushered in the Dust Bowl in the summer of 1930 was reason
for one of the first student-led protests on campus. With no air-conditioning and
a strict dress code during the school day, male students “revolted,” according to
Thomas D. Clark, a professor at the time. “Nellie (Angel Smith), the school’s strict
disciplinarian, was requiring them to wear coats and ties, even in the extreme heat,”
he says. “But they laid their coats on the ground and refused to wear them. Nellie
won out by threatening to dismiss them. She never lost a fight.” Smith also required
a professor to stay in the library at night to make sure “no hanky-panky was going
on.” Smith, the women’s dean of students, did have many supporters: a dormitory that
is still in use was named in her honor. Clark, a close friend of writer William Faulkner,
would go on to become Historian Laureate of the Commonwealth of Kentucky in 1991.
One last chance? The Great Depression was beginning to take its toll on state run schools and a senator
from east Tennessee even proposed closing State Teachers College. The Class of 1933
referred to itself as “The Last Chance Class.”
The proposal and a similar one in 1935 were turned down.
Famous “detective” visits campus; “Some Like it Hot.” With enrollment now topping 1,000, the days of the Depression were long gone and
the school ushered in its second name change, Memphis State College. Freshmen were
required to wear beanies. Actor Dick Powell, who became famous for portraying the
detective Philip Marlowe, visited campus to choose six “Vanity Fair Queens.” (Years
later, in the late 1950s, actor Tony Curtis of Some Like it Hot fame also chose a beauty queen for the University.)
A Getwell gesture. Soldiers wounded in the war were often sent to the new Kennedy Army General Hospital
near present-day Park Avenue and Getwell Road. (Getwell was once named Shotwell, but
was changed during the war years to a more fitting name.) Former U of M women’s athletic
director Elma Neal Roane (BS ’40) recalls seeing injured soldiers being transported
in ambulances from the train depot down Goodlett past her home to the hospital. “Seeing
the wounded soldiers go by was sad,” says Roane, who had been in the neighborhood
since 1918. “Some were crying. It was a sad time for everybody.” Several female students
volunteered at the hospital during the war; many of its buildings still stand on what
is now the U of M’s Park Avenue Campus (formerly South Campus).
A beauty pageant fairy tale. The first of two Miss Americas who attended the school was crowned: Barbara Jo Walker
Hummel (BS ’48) was the last Miss America to win while wearing a swimsuit. In a fairy
tale-type twist, Hummel’s physician husband, Dr. John V. Hummel, would deliver Kellye
Cash, another University student who was crowned Miss America in 1987. “You just don’t
go out and win Miss America,” Cash said at the time. “I owe so much to the University,
to the Student Activities Council, to the Pikes.” Another student, Claire Ford, was
named Miss Black America in 1977.
What Elvis wants, Elvis usually gets. As enrollment “swelled” to 2,000, a proposal to make the school a full-fledged branch
of the University of Tennessee was shot down. (In the 1920s when the school was known
as State Teachers College, its athletic teams — often referred to as the Teachers
or Tutors — did wear a “T.”) Gov. Frank Clement then endorsed a bill that gave the
school university status and its third name change: Memphis State University. During
the previous year, Elvis Presley was one of thousands who signed “We want University
status for Memphis State” cards that were sent to the governor.
Eight who changed history. It was a tense time for eight students who changed the face of the University. “We
had no idea what would happen, and we knew that there were some real possibilities
that some very dangerous things could occur,” says Ralph Prater, a member of the Memphis
State Eight, the first African-American students to attend campus. “But we were anxious
to get an education, and to get that education at a reasonable cost. Therefore we
were willing to take the chances that we did.” Plainclothes police escorted them to
class and they were told they could not go to the school’s cafeteria or student center.
Prater went on to a distinguished career as an attorney for Chevron. The University
welcomed back the Memphis State Eight in 2006 with a reception and dinner to celebrate
Judge this. The Memphis State School of Law was founded and later named in honor of the school’s
president at the time, Cecil C. Humphreys. (The law school made national headlines
when it recently moved to the stately U.S. Postal Service Customs House in downtown
Memphis.) Just two years later in 1964, the University added another major school,
the Herff College of Engineering.
Beginning to add up. Enrollment numbers continued to skyrocket under President Humphreys: about 13,500
students were on campus along with 96 new professors compared to 4,973 students just
five years earlier. In less than 10 years, the number would jump to more than 20,000.
Bedside manor. Nursing was added to the U of M curriculum; the school became the Loewenberg School
of Nursing in 1988 after a gift from the Loewenberg family. Its student nurses travel
the world over, including to the Dominican Republic, to provide free health care to
the less fortunate.
One fine addition. The College of Communication and Fine Arts was established with founding dean Richard
Most excellent. Five Centers of Excellence and seven Chairs of Excellence are now in place. The number
of chairs would grow to 26 by the next decade. Centers of Excellence receive special
funding from the state for research and attract the top scholars.
“Strange” looking objects on campus. It is hard to imagine them ever looking out-of-place, but computers began showing
up on campus desktops, giving the University a space-age look. President Thomas Carpenter
was presented a TRS-80 Model II microcomputer by Radio Shack, which began offering
University personnel a faculty discount program for the purchase of microcomputers.
Snail-mail was still the norm since campus email was more than a decade away.
Was that Harvard? No, it was the U of M. The University was struck by movie mania when Paramount Pictures
sent a crew to campus to film opening sequences of John Grisham’s The Firm, which starred Tom Cruise, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Gene Hackman. Cruise’s character,
who was about to graduate from Harvard Law School, was filmed playing a game of pick-up
basketball in the Elma Roane Fieldhouse while the University Center and law school
auditorium were also used. “Several University staff and alumni had small roles in
the movie,” says Jann Mayes (BA ’85), U of M video coordinator at the time and current
director of Extended Programs at the school’s Carrier Center. “Many of our students,
faculty and staff watched and waited from a short distance to see Tom. The diehard
fans were able to get a glimpse of him, while others lucked up and got Tom’s autograph.”
New name, new digs. The school not only got a new name, the University of Memphis, it also opened the
Ned McWherter Library, the largest facility on campus. The library has the capacity
to store more than 1 million books.
Politically correct. University alumnus Fred Thompson (BS ’64) became the first from the school to be
elected to the U.S. Senate. Thompson, much like former President Ronald Reagan, got
his start, too, in the movies, starring in The Hunt for Red October and Die Hard 2 before his career in politics. Former Vice President Al Gore also took classes at
the school before he landed in the White House.
Another first. Dr. Shirley C. Raines became the U of M’s first female president. She championed
the school’s honors program, which became known as the Helen Hardin Honors Program
after the philanthropist donated $2 million to strengthen it several years later.
Growth not seen at the U of M since President Humphreys’ tenure begins under Raines.
Alumni answer the call. After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 sent shock waves across the nation, several
alumni volunteered to assist victims. Former Tiger basketball star Lorenzen Wright
(’96) raised money by signing autographs and auctioning basketballs for the 911 Relief
Fund. Paul Nickl (’91) and Michael Lambert (BSEd ’99) joined the Tennessee Task Force,
search ing for victims at the Pentagon, which had been struck by one of the hijacked
jets. “What I remember is the sheer amount of destruction,” said Nickl at the time.
“None of us, even firefighters who have been with the fire department for years, had
ever seen anything like that.”
The house that Kemmons built. A man who had appeared on the cover of Time magazine but who was also a high school dropout established a school in hotel and
hospitality management at the U of M with a $15 million gift. Holiday Inn founder
Kemmons Wilson, who “adopted” the University as his own, built an award-winning Holiday
Inn on campus that would serve as a training ground for students in the industry.
Perfect FIT. The University demonstrated its commitment to education and research in the field
of technology with the opening of the $23 million, 93,000-square-foot FedEx Institute
of Technology. FedEx Corp. heightened its campus presence with a $5 million gift to
A very wise choice. With much fanfare, the University was chosen to host a Confucius Institute, beating
out several top schools in the southeastern United States in becoming one of just
150 sites in the world. The professor largely responsible for helping the U of M land
the institute, Hsiang-te Kung, is a direct descendant of Confucius.
Continued expansion. The U of M added Lambuth University as an external site. “Lambuth University has
given its students and alumni a great legacy, and the U of M will continue and build
upon Lambuth’s fine educational reputation,” President Raines said. The school was
founded in 1843 in Jackson, Tenn., by the Methodist Church.
Round the world in 68 days. Fogelman College of Business and Economics graduate Wei Chen became the first Chinese
citizen to circle the Earth in a single-engine plane. “I am not a hero,” Chen said
after the flight, which took 68 days. “I’m just a regular Memphian who has been blessed
with community support to give me an opportunity to fulfill my dream.”