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Heroes, customs and liberal arts tradition reviewed in new APSU history book

3/18/2002
March 18, 2002

Once a Confederate hospital stood where Austin Peay's Claxton Building is today.

It was during the Civil War, and Robert C. McMullan, president of Stewart College, which occupied part of what is now APSU's campus, died from smallpox contracted while working as a nurse in the hospital.

"He's the only president to die in the line of duty," quips Dr. Howard Winn, professor of history.

McMullan's story is among hundreds of others Winn and his colleague, Dr. Richard Gildrie, professor of history, recount in their book, titled "A History of Austin Peay State University and Its Predecessors, 1906-2002," slated to debut in April.

The two agreed to write a new history book about APSU as part of the 75th Anniversary Celebration. They declined payment but accepted partial released time to conduct extensive research, compile reams of notes, gather photos and write the text.

Initially they intended to pick up where Professor Emeritus Charles Waters left off in his book, "The First 50 Years of Austin Peay State University." However, they soon decided they must begin with the schools that preceded APSU on the same site.

"Waters did a good job, and we used his book," Winn says. "But the perspective 25 years later is different."

Instead of a catalog of events, the Winn/Gildrie history shaped itself into a story with two prominent themes. One is that, regardless of the school's changing faces, there always was "an underlying liberal arts assumption," Gildrie says.

A second theme also came through strongly: The community wanted a school on the site before any facility was built. There has been a long and abiding relationship between town and gown.

Rather than starting with the creation of Austin Peay Normal School in 1927, the historians became convinced Austin Peay Normal and its predecessors are inseparable "historical siblings."

They organized the 200-plus pages of copy and photographs into five chapters, each marking a watershed for the school:
" The Predecessors: From Academy to Private University, 1806-1925
Normal School, 1927-1939
Austin Peay State College, 1942-1963
A Regional University, 1963-1984
A Liberal Arts University, 1984-2002
Both Gildrie and Winn are amused by the continuing debate over APSU's liberal arts mission. They contend the mission was inherited from the Academy and Southwestern University and articulated clearly in the early 1960s during a self-study preceding the college's first evaluation for accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).

A "Committee on Purpose" was appointed to revisit the mission of Austin Peay Normal School. The committee ultimately drafted a one-page document titled "A Common Conception of Purpose," which declared that "one of the immediate fruits of the self-study has been the forcing of an issue too long delayed.

"The faculty have been led to formulate a common educational philosophy to which they have committed themselves."

The description outlined in the purpose statement echoes the definition of a liberal arts education.

In going through boxes of old documents, Gildrie and Winn made a second interesting discovery: the original agreement designating APSU as Tennessee's liberal arts university.

They disagree with the view that the general public cannot understand or appreciate the value of a liberal arts education.

"It's offensive to assume the society around us is filled with people who only want a job, who think Plato is irrelevant," says Gildrie.

Agreeing with him, Winn adds, "DuBois said, 'The task is not to make men into carpenters, but carpenters into men.'"

Dress codes and curfews go away, the campus expands

Gildrie and Winn found humor in past customs and rules. As an example, Austin Peay Normal School was charged with teaching "general culture," as well as "subjects suitable for rural white school teachers."

In like manner, Southwestern was completely male until 1907, when officials decided to allow women to take courses. However, the women were banned from the commons area until 1916 because they "disrupt young men's studies."

Unable to thwart women's desire not only to take a few classes but to attend college, Austin Peay Normal's administration yielded and built Harned Hall as a women's dormitory. Why the separate facility? It was improper for young female students to "go about looking for apartments."

That idea, along with restrictive dress codes, went out the window during the 1960s, driven by the civil rights movement and the strong sentiments surrounding the Vietnam War. As social consciousness was raised, so were student voices. Women students dared to wear slacks to class, and Vietnam veterans, just home from war and back in college on the GI Bill, said "no way" to dormitory curfews.

Paralleling the changes in student demographics, the physical campus also has undergone radical changes. The first educational institution stood on 25 acres-the area bordered by the McCord and Claxton buildings at the front of campus and Harned Hall at the back. Immediately behind Harned was public housing, and the county fairgrounds occupied what is now APSU's baseball field.

Still considered compact compared to other public universities, the Clarksville campus today encompasses 160 acres with 65 buildings. Others are on the drawing board.

Was there ever a time when state funding was plentiful at Austin Peay? "There was one strong burst of state support," Winn says, "when Austin Peay was going from a state college to a regional university."

"But they've been busily not doing that since then," Gildrie adds.

The birth of regional universities in the late 1950s was part of a national movement that evolved out of sweeping social reform. But, according to Winn, the regional university movement began to die in the 1970s. He said, "Since 1975 we've known regional universities are expendable. What survives is another question."

Lasting legacies

When asked, the two can chant a long litany of "heroes" who emerged during their research as strong personalities who affected the history of Austin Peay. Among them was Mary Kaye Tanner who, as they say, "was the department of languages and literature" during her time (1927-53) at Austin Peay. She taught the classics-Latin, French and Spanish. Gildrie credits her influence on the larger community with Clarksville's still-strong support of such groups as the Junior Classical League.

The two historians say Dr. P.P. Claxton, president of Austin Peay Normal, pushed for Austin Peay to become the training college for teachers in rural schools. Claxton, they say, had tunnel vision when it came to establishing demonstration schools throughout the area, a focus that proved to be detrimental to other fields of study.

Regardless of Claxton's wishes, Tanner was not about to forego Latin in her classes. When she was told to teach about farm life, she did so-but in her own way. Resolutely, she and her students studied Virgil's "Aeneid," classical poetry about agrarian life. Gildrie and Winn chuckle, obviously admiring the spunk of the woman they call "the spirit of the liberal arts."

They agree the one constant in the evolution of the University is personal interaction between students and faculty. Although there are exceptions, the historians say all evidence indicates there remains a "majority tone" that, according to Winn, creates an environment where "if students come to talk to you, you pay attention. You are there for them."

Gildrie concurs. "Education occurs both inside and outside the classroom," he says. "You don't stop being a teacher when you leave class."

Neither Gildrie nor Winn feels any burden for painting the picture of Austin Peay as seen through the lens of their own eyes. To the contrary, they say, what they have done is to endeavor to provoke other people to investigate Austin Peay's history for themselves.

"In about 25 years, someone else will be asked to take our warped view and do it all again," Winn says with a grin.

And Gildrie chimes in: "That's why we call it 'A History,' not 'The History.'"