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As MSU-West Plains Celebrates Its 50th Anniversary, a Look Back on its Challenges, Milestones

An old impage of Kellett Hall, which was a donation from the Howard Kellett family in the early '70s; it was the first real

Before 1963, anyone living in West Plains and the surrounding small towns had to travel over 100 miles to step foot inside a college classroom. But one institution changed all that.  As KSMU’s Jennifer Davidson reports, Missouri State University-West Plains is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Reporter standup:  “Right now, I’m standing in Kellett Hall on the MSU-West Plains campus. A religious studies class just broke up for the day, and other students are on their way into one of the school’s core honors classes, where today’s lesson plan calls for a study of propaganda ranging from WWII to MTV.

Some of the students live here in West Plains, but many commute from the surrounding small towns and rural counties. This all began with a man who had no college education—a farmer-slash-service-station owner from ‘the sticks’ who decided to run for the state legislature.”

“He came home one evening, and I remember him coming in the door and telling my mother that he thought he knew what his main goal for his tour in the legislature was going to be,” said Karyn Vaughan, whose father, Granvil Vaughan, had just been sworn in as a lawmaker in early 1963. The little known representative had been placed on two powerful committees:  Appropriations and Education. Granvil Vaughan toured a tiny satellite learning center in Warrensburg, and immediately decided he wanted to bring a college to rural southern Missouri. Not everyone was on board.

“In the early ‘60s, unless you’re my age or better, you cannot remember, really:  colleges were not welcome entities in small-town areas that were very conservative—that did not want the rebel-rousing, and the drinking, and the young people influx into the city, possibly drugs. The drug scene was beginning.  The Vietnam War had begun to infiltrate into college campuses in the form [of] protests,” Vaughan said.

So, Vaughan says, her father took to the black phone hanging on the family’s yellow kitchen wall.

“He’d have his elbows up on the table, resting his head in his hands, with that phone nestled in his right hand, and that black phone up there on the wall against his shoulder, talking. He just talked, and then he’d ring another number and he’d talk again,” Vaughan said.

Representative Vaughan had the nickname of “Preacher,” and he took that “sermon” to the town square, inside the coffee shops and restaurants, and along the country roads in his blue Plymouth.

“And I think people trusted him as much as anything—not the concept. But [they] trusted the idea that if Granvil was in charge, it would be okay,” Vaughan said.

Vaughan’s proposal won the support of the West Plains R-7 School District, which lent its high school building for night classes. And Frank Martin, Jr., the editor of the West Plains Daily Quill, wrote editorials to convince readers that a college would be a groundbreaking change for the region. West Plains was warming up to the idea—getting excited, even.

But if it was a tough sell in West Plains, the campus was to be an even a tougher one in Jefferson City.

Representative Vaughan wanted the campus to be a branch of Southwest Missouri State College, or SMS, in Springfield.  But his House bill that would have made that happen failed. Vaughan turned to the SMS Board of Regents. The board, Karyn Vaughan says, was also leery of her dad’s plan, since it had no long-range guarantee of being viable. Finally, stubborn, persuasive Granvil Vaughan resorted to some political maneuvering.

“That appropriations [and] education combination—he told the [SMS] Board of Regents, ‘I’m on the Appropriations Committee. I will lobby to cut your funds if that Residence Center is not established,’” Vaughan said.

SMS’s Board of Regents agreed to give the West Plains residence center a trial period—if Vaughan could find 100 students.  Only 87 showed up to take the entrance exam. So, Vaughan hit the phones again—he called fellow WWII veterans who had sacrificed their educations for the war; he called teachers, preachers, and anyone in between.

And on September 16, 1963, the SMS College Residence Center held its first classes, with 111 students and about five teachers. 

One of the Residence Center’s first deans, or “directors” as they were first referred to, was Marvin Green. He began here in 1966.

“I was a small part of a very big team. The key was teamwork. I’m still amazed when I think about the involvement of the community,” Green said.

The fledging West Plains campus was still not accredited, meaning it would be years before it would be guaranteed state funding.  In the meantime, Green wore a lot of hats as director.

Green: “I was involved in recruiting, admissions, financial aid, public relations, et cetera, et cetera.  We had no people assigned to those specific responsibilities.”

Davidson: “I’m guessing you worked some pretty late hours in those days.”

Green:  “Yes, I was very committed. I was working for a cause about which I felt very strongly.”

As director, Green even did some custodial work. Although the tiny satellite was lacking in state funding, the community poured its heart into it. The Garnett family paid to renovate a former high school band room into the college library. Vivian Drago donated property for the bookstore. The cafeteria, the student center, and the home for the chancellor were all borne of gifts.

Marvin Green was still overseeing this support when he received a phone call from a community leader asking if he wanted to go for a drive.

“Well, he took me over to Mrs. Howard Kellett’s home. And as we drove up, he said, ‘How would you like to have that for the university?’ That was indeed a highlight for my career,” Green said.

The Kellett family donated their stately, red brick home, then the West Plains community raised the $35,000 to turn it into college classrooms and offices. Today, that’s Kellett Hall.

The day it became an official, accredited university campus on its own, Green said, it was a true team victory.

“I might suffice to say that this is a program for which there is tremendous demand. And I am most grateful for the team effort which made it possible,” Green said.

Today, MSU-West Plains has around 2,000 students enrolled, and offers Associate’s Degrees in about 20 different tracks, and through interactive video classrooms, also offers some Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programs, including an RN degree and MBA.

And Karyn Vaughan says the campus has changed the entire culture in southern Missouri; this region was traditionally very “insular,” and had a distrust of higher education. Although there are still "pockets" of that way of thinking, she says, most parents realize that a college education is best for their children.  Also, she says local hospitals, schools, and businesses have risen to a higher level.  

And tonight, at a cocktail reception and concert, the community will raise a glass to Marvin Green, the late Granvil Vaughan, and every other person who has seen this college through its first 50 years.

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Davidson in West Plains.