fHarding University did not start in 1924. When people look at a dateline, and especially when that date starts at 1924, the assumption is that the organization has been at that site since that specific date. In the case of Harding University, this is not the case.
What must first be understood is that Harding College was the name given to the merger of two colleges in 1924, Arkansas Christian College in Morrilton, Arkansas and Harpers College, in Harpers, Arkansas as they joined together for financial stability. Both of them were Christian schools, with the Arkansas Christian College being founded by notable Christian teachers such as James A. Harding. The name chosen on paper was Harding College, after James A. Harding, who was seen to have probably done more for the cause of Christian education than any other man of the century according to his contemporaries.
In the present day, Harding’s Alma Mater is based off of the original Alma Mater made for the Morrilton campus, written by Mrs. Orie Cathcart and set to music by Mr. L. O. Sanderson. It does in fact allude to where Morrilton was in Arkansas.
In the foothills of the Ozarks,
Near to Petit Jean,
Stands our glorious alma mater;
Harding is her name.
The present day Petit Jean yearbooks gets its name from the mountain Petit Jean which was close to the Morrilton campus. It was not until 1934, when Harding College moved to the site in Searcy, Arkansas, that the Alma Mater changed to reflect the school’s new location.
Near the foothills of the Ozarks,
Midst of hill and plain…
The change in location to Searcy, Arkansas for Harding College was a result of financial stress during the Great Depression era. Before the move, sometimes desperate measures were necessary to keep the school open to all. An article in The Morrilton Democrat for September 20, 1928, reported the success of a campaign, largely among the citizens of Morrilton, to raise $10,000 to pay the school’s most pressing debts. Had the money not been raised, apparently the school would have been forced to curtail the 1928-29 session, or perhaps to shut down completely. Other consequences of Harding’s financial crisis was that teachers had an irregular salary, and wouldn’t have a consistent salary until the mortgage for the Searcy campus was completely paid off in 1939.
Somehow the school survived, but the student body at Morrilton was increasing slowly but steadily, until the facilities there became overcrowded. Thus the financial problems of the school were further complicated by the need for additional buildings. Tenaciously the faculty and administration held on, almost on a day-to-day basis; and the struggle continued as days became months and then years.
An opportunity arose when the Methodist Colleges of Arkansas consolidated during the Great Depression, resulting in the closing of Galloway College at Searcy, Arkansas (the modern day location for Harding University).
The Harding administration was immediately attracted to the potentials of the Searcy campus. With triple the facilities of the Morrilton School, the Galloway campus offered immediate room for expansion. Furthermore, the new campus – valued at more than $500,000 – could be obtained for only $75,000 at very favorable terms, with the major portion of the obligation deferred for ten years. The complete transfer of Harding College from Morrilton to Searcy took place in the summer of 1934.
When secured by Harding College in 1934, the Searcy facilities consisted of eleven buildings on a 29-acre campus. The administration building was a three-story brick structure completed in 1926. The girl’s dormitory was a large, three-story structure called Pattie Cobb Hall in honor of Mrs. James A. Harding. The men’s dormitory called Godden Hall was an enormous three-story brick building, for more than 250 residents. That same building also contained reception rooms, classrooms, a library, a post office, and an auditorium. In addition, the campus had a brick gymnasium, an enclosed swimming pool, a power plant and laundry, a machine shop, a three story frame residence hall called Grey Gables, and several smaller buildings.
The next period of growth for Harding would not happen until President George S. Benson achieved financial stability for Harding and national recognition before and during World War II. In 1944, Dr. Benson proposed in chapel that clubs and classes start a project to build a student center.
During this time period, when Dr. Benson was pushing for more construction of buildings, a group of businessmen from Memphis, Tennessee came down and made attractive overtures to move the college from Searcy to Memphis. Their desire was to finance the school that was to gain the prestige, cultural impact, and physical assets of Harding College for the rapidly growing city of Memphis. The negotiations that then took place stalled the large-scale building project proposed by Dr. Benson. Immediately after the negotiations stopped (the businessmen wouldn’t accept all the provisions for the move) major construction began.
When World War II ended, the return of veterans doubled the student population. The 1945-1946 school year saw 312 students, but by 1946-1947, the students were numbered at 618. For the next decade, Harding would experience a growth in both student population and building construction.
It is said that in the 47-48 school year, men were housed in huts from army surplus while the buildings were being constructed. Because of that, it was with great enthusiasm on Thanksgiving Day of that school year it was announced that the school was raising $1,500,000 for constructing a library, an auditorium, a gymnasium, a student center, and two dormitories (one for men and women).
The first of these buildings to be finished was Rhodes Memorial Fieldhouse, followed by the men’s dormitory Armstrong Hall (which was started first, but wasn’t completed until after the Rhodes). After the completion of Armstrong Hall, the army surplus huts were finally abandoned.
The following years in 1950 and 1951 saw the completion of new buildings with increasing regularity, Beaumant Memorial Library, Ganus Student Center, and Cathcart Hall. On May 26, 1951 it was announced that the $500,000 Administration Auditorium building was to start construction. Other buildings were also started in 1951, such as a Fine Arts building that used the bricks and slate roof from old Godden Hall in its construction. In late 1952, an apartment building named Sewell Hall for faculty and staff members was finished. During this decade of rapid expansion, two major buildings were dismantled by volunteer student workers in order to save precious dollars that could be used for new construction.
In 1953, the Bison predicted that the next building under construction would be the first all air-conditioned classroom building of its kind in all of Arkansas. That building would become the Harding College School of American Studies.
As the American Studies building was taking shape, other construction – some major, some minor – kept pace. One relatively small structure drew marked attention, especially from students of former years. Since the razing of Godden Hall, the old Godden Bell had been silent, its clear note acutely missed by students and faculty alike. But to house the old faithful bell, and to preserve the cornerstones which had once designated Galloway college buildings, a compact bell tower was being erected near the center of the campus. Appropriately, the small tower was built with bricks from Godden Hall. On February 27, 1953, at 9:55 p.m. the old bell rang out for the first time from its new home.
By the 1955-56 school session, the Harding school population had risen to 862 people. A new boys dormitory, having just been built, was filled to capacity as soon as it was finished. In 1957, it was decided that the college needed a new Bible building, and construction was begun but then delayed repeatedly after modifications to the design. It would not be until the mid-1960s that the new Bible Department was finished. In the present day, that building is called the Ezell building. In 1960, the student population was 1065; and by that time an average $400,000 dollars had been spent per year since Dr. Benson started his building initiative in 1944.
1963-64 marked another era of growth for Harding, as plans were being formulated for a new recording studio and a $1,000,000 science building in addition to the new American Heritage Center under construction. Student population from this time was 1234. When Dr. Benson retired in 1965, he marked the end of a period of both physical and spiritual growth for Harding College.
When Dr. Clifton L. Ganus, Jr., the new American Heritage Center had just been completed, sporting a comfortable hotel for 150 guests, a 500-capacity cafeteria and dining room, and a 500-seat auditorium as well as quarters for the Harding College Alumni Association. It was completed just in time for the 1965-66 session. It was under an eight year span that Harding experienced and unprecedented period of growth in regards to it student population, wich jumped from 1,472 to 2,319 within those eight years.
Construction and enrollment continued to advance under Dr. Ganus, with a start of the next decade on construction starting with a 300-person girl’s dormitory later named Sears Hall after Dr. L. C. Sears.
By 1979, with the change from Harding College to Harding University, the effort to continue construction on buildings was putting enormous pressure on the administration as student population continued to grow.
At the beginning of the eighties, with the construction of more athletic facilities already in place, the $2.6 million and 3,400 seat George S. Benson Auditorium was completed and the $1.9 million J. E. and L. E. Mabee Business Building was also completed. Dr. Ganus had cited that the problem or raising money in the 84-85 school year was his main headache. He had estimated that Harding raised about $3.4 million that last year, with the figures varying from year to year and depending on what buildings were in progress. He would also mention that a building had been either under construction or was undergoing renovation every year he had since become president, with the exclusion of one year. Harding University by that time covered more than 200 acres with 47 major buildings, 42 of which had been constructed since 1950.
One of the interesting local legends at Harding University is the existence of a whether or not a series of tunnels rest underneath Benson Auditorium. Allegedly, these tunnels date back to the 1950s in case of a nuclear attack and could fit up to 500 people. Searcy was surrounded by U.S. nuclear missile silos, and so it was clearly perceived as a target. The truth to whether or not these tunnels exist is a question for debate. Some believe they were sealed off or demolished in the construction of Benson Auditorium. It is in fact because of this military presence that Harding acquired the Rhodes Field House, which was a World War II hanger. For a while, there was an old U.S. Army barracks near Armstrong Hall that Harding owned that was nicknamed “Hole 42” by its residents, due to the fact that it had wooden floorboards.
Many of the renovations during this time took out some of the more interesting (in the opinion of students) features of the campus. For example, there had once been a bowling alley where the present-day Taco Bell is in the Student Center.
It was also in 1984 that the first of Harding’s study abroad programs started, with the purchase of a villa outside of Florence, Italy. The villa, which is over 400 years old, is technically part of Harding’s campus even though it is obviously not in Searcy, Arkansas.
The Villa outside of Florence, Italy
It would not be until the 1990s under President David B. Burks that more construction would be completed, including the new Bible Building, and the new Communication Department across the street from behind the present day Administration Auditorium. Under Dr. Burks, and expansion into sports and recreation took place, including construction on the Ganus Athletic Center being finished under his tenure as president. Under his time, enrollment also expanded and spiritual faithfulness remained constant in the Harding atmosphere and in its message to its students.
Into the new millennium, more buildings were built for both the men and women’s dormitories, and an increase in the amount of village houses for married housing. During the transition period between Dr. Burks and Dr. Bruce L. McLarty in 2013, a new nursing building was finished.
An official photo by Harding of the idealized Suzanne and Rodney Waller recreation center added onto the Ganus Athletic Center.
So far under Dr. McLarty, renovations have been made to the Rhodes field house, an expansion of the Ganus Athletic Center to include the Suzanne and Rodney Waller recreation center, and the new Lady’s Garden featuring the first Ladies of Harding’s presidents, as well as other memorials to the women who have come to Harding during its almost century of existence. Other renovations included the development of a Panda Express in the student center and an expansion of the Chick-Fil-A.
Many things during the history of Harding has come and gone, and yet many things have remained the same. While each president at Harding has left their own individual mark, the way that have strives to save Harding from financial ruin and then strengthen it as it grows is remarkable not only for its own administration, whatever the time period is, but also the students and faculty who pitched in a hand in all that to put meaning into the bricks and mortar that make up Harding University.