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The Banners of our Legacy.

A Brief History of Texas A&M University-Commerce

It began with an ending.

On March 14, 1917, a telegram arrived on the campus of East Texas Normal College. The communiqué from Texas State Senator Richard E. Westbrook celebrated the approval of President Mayo’s urgent request of the state legislature. The private teachers’ college he founded and personally led through several difficult times would be invited to join the Texas public education system. Unfortunately, Mayo died minutes before the telegram arrived,confirming that the college would endure. Today, we are the beneficiaries of his foresight and commitment to making the dream of a college education an accessible and affordable reality. Westbrook closed his historic telegram with the line, “There is glory enough in this history for us all.” Whether we consider ourselves East Texas State or A&M-Commerce alumni, we are all immensely grateful and passionate about the university we call home.

We are lions, and it is time to tell the story of our historic century.

We invite you to join us on the Texas A&M University-Commerce campus walking mall to experience the beautiful new banners that tell the story of our Century as Lions.  Please use this site as a companion reference to dig deeper into our rich history.


As 1917 began, the country was on the eve of U.S. involvement in the First World War, officially entering when Congress declared war that spring. By March, Texas Governor James Ferguson was under investigation for impeachable offenses by the Texas State Legislature, and he was out of office by September.

In the midst of such political disorder, in March 1917, Professor Mayo’s college at Commerce was purchased by the Texas State Legislature. Mayo expected that state acquisition of the university would keep the institution open. Public funding was becoming the new model for higher education, and as such, Mayo’s college was one of several Texas institutions purchased by the state at that time.

Professor Mayo passed away just prior to the state’s acquisition of the college. Shortly after his death, state legislators renegotiated portions of the sale. First Lady Etta Mayo, with citizens of the City of Commerce, contributed tens of thousands of dollars to renovate buildings across campus prior to the final transfer to the state.


When it was constructed in 1929, the library’s reading room was the largest among state-supported colleges in Texas. It was 168 feet long, 48 feet wide, two-stories in height and could house 125,000 books. The old library, now the Hall of Languages, symbolized the university’s expanding academic opportunities, a sharp contrast with the economic privations of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.

East Texas State Teacher’s College benefitted from New Deal programs, particularly the Public Works Administration (PWA) and National Youth Administration (NYA). PWA  permitted the construction of campus facilities, Mayo Hall, completed in 1935, and East Dormitory, now known as Henderson Hall, in 1938.

Additionally, President Samuel H. Whitley expanded the college’s academics, introducing its first graduate programs in English, history and education. In the summer of 1936, 238 students enrolled in these new programs.


The founding of the NCAA in 1906 sparked a national trend among higher education institutions to provide for competitive athletic sports on campuses. During Mayo’s years, an athletic program was introduced a few years before the college was acquired by the state. In 1931, East Texas State Teachers College was among the founders of the Lone Star Conference. Throughout the 1930s, college athletic teams consistently dominated, earning three consecutive and a total of five football championships, three basketball titles, as well as one championship each for tennis and track and field.


Despite President Roosevelt’s advice that Americans had “nothing to fear but fear itself,” rural Texans were deeply affected by the Great Depression. East Texas State Teachers College historically afforded its students opportunities for a better life and a brighter future. The Great Depression and the world’s apparent march towards war fueled lingering fears about the uncertainty and unpredictability. By the 1940s, Axis aggression threatened world peace, as members of the university community along with individuals nationwide began speculating about U.S. involvement in the war.

Although the country’s entrance into the Second World War ended the Great Depression, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 further shocked a disoriented campus community. President Whitley urged students: “Keep your head with calmness and deliberation.” Many students volunteered for military service or were drafted.

The college’s curricula shifted to prepare students to cope with wartime circumstances. Students learned to maximize food production, first aid procedures, and to use Morse Code. The college also hosted and helped train students for the services. From 1943, the college housed a group of 600 members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) and enrolled male students in the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP).

When the war ended in mid-1945, the city and college communities honored their members lost in the war and celebrated the Allied victory with meetings and parades.


Over time, old campus traditions evolved or were replaced by new activities. Western Week originated in 1947. It was initially a male-only event in which participants dressed as cowboys competed in contests that included nail-driving, tobacco-spitting, potato-peeling and corn-husking. Campus women wore cowgirl costumes. The event soon incorporated fundraising elements, with funds used to purchase presents for “Orphan’s Christmas,” another annual event in which students became “big brothers” or “big sisters” to residents from three regional orphan’s homes; the gifts were distributed by a faculty member dressed as Santa.

National fraternities and sororities arrived by the end of the 1950s and joined the college’s well-established student organizations. Together, these groups engaged in a variety of social activities and collaborated with college administrators to bring to campus distinguished visitors such as Senator Lyndon Johnson, Pearl Buck, and to host concerts by the Dallas Symphony.


World War II blended into the Cold War, with the two superpowers threatening to destroy each other with their growing arsenals of nuclear weapons. In November 1947, President James Gee was inaugurated. Demobilized veterans returned from the war and seized the opportunity presented by the G.I. Bill to enroll in colleges throughout the country. East Texas State Teachers College experienced approximately a 100 percent increase in enrollment in the autumn of 1945, and the student population grew nearly 500 percent by the beginning of the 1950s.

Enrollment growth stimulated building construction on campus, especially housing facilities. In the decades following World War II, Binnion Hall, Education North Building, the Field House, and Memorial Stadium, as well as a new library, the Student Union Building and student housing were among the buildings constructed to accommodate continued enrollment growth. By 1965, enrollment equaled approximately 6,800 students.

The college’s physical expansion was accompanied by the introduction of new academic programs. In 1962, the Texas Commission on Higher Education authorized the college to offer doctoral degrees in English in the newly-created School of Education. This development also meant upgrading the quality of instruction by increasing the number of faculty members holding doctoral degrees.


On June 5, 1964, at the start of the second summer term, East Texas State College quietly integrated. Velma Waters and Charles Garvin were the first African American students to enroll. In the years to follow, the number of African American students would steadily increase. 

Racial tensions on campus reached a peak in the spring of 1968 following the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. On the night of the assassination as the world grieved, black students established the Afro-American Student Society of East Texas (ASSET), an activist group that helped usher unprecedented change across the campus and community. ASSET delivered a “Declaration of Rights” to President D. Whitney Halladay that included demands for increased African American faculty and administrators, fair and equal housing, access to campus employment, additional courses in African American Studies, and access to African American literature in the campus library. President Halladay promised to address their complaints.

Dr. David Arlington Talbot, a professor of guidance and counseling, became ET’s first African American faculty member in 1968. In addition to his role as a faculty member, Dr. Talbot became ET’s first affirmative action officer, and in effect, Dr. Halladay’s ombudsman with African American students. He was joined by Dr. J. Mason Brewer, the first visiting African American professor. Dr. Brewer was a renowned African American folklorist and developed new courses in black literature and folklore within the Department of Literature. In the early 1970s, Dr. Talbot and Dr. Brewer were joined by the first African American administrator on campus, Ivory Moore. Mr. Moore was hired by President McDowell to oversee the Minority Affairs office. He would later oversee Upward Bound, MACH III, and the Multi-Cultural Center.


The anti-war protests that swept college communities throughout the country influenced events at the university, but with diluted effects. ETSU witnessed its share of hippies, miniskirts and other countercultural expressions. However, the majority of university students devoted their energy to their studies, to traditional forms of entertainment and to athletics.

From 1964 and through the 1970s, Lions football won eight conference championships. The year 1972 was significant for Lions Athletics with both the football and tennis teams making university history by winning NAIA Championships. That year’s team, arguably one of the best in university history, showcased defensive end Harvey Martin, who later played a brilliant career for the Dallas Cowboys.

By the end of the 1960s, African American athletes could now join sports teams, but this first generation experienced discrimination from their coaches and from other players. John Carlos, celebrated for raising his fist as a black power salute at the 1968 Olympic Games, was one such athlete. Carlos was a member of the ETSU track team for just one year because he accused his coach of unequal treatment. Such allegations inevitably were part of the broader campaign by which African Americans began to force the acceptance of equal treatment.


The first student lion mascot was Tommie Dodd, a freshman from Klondike. Dodd made his first appearance as the lion at the 1971 Homecoming game, wearing a suit crafted by his mother and grandmother. Dodd served as the lion mascot for the next three years at his own expense and without official sanction from the university. After Dodd’s graduation, and by popular vote of the student body, the school began electing two students each year to serve as a lion and lioness mascot. Due to funding shortages, ET dropped the lioness mascot in the mid-1980s and retained the lion mascot, called “Lucky the Lion.”


Student enrollment reached an all-time high in the 1970s, peaking at just short of 10,000 students in 1975. Derby Days, sponsored by Sigma Chi fraternity, was one of the most popular student events during this period. National Pan-Hellenic and College Panhellenic Council sorority members competed against each other in a series of competitions throughout the day. Another signature feature of Derby Days was the traditional Derby Chase, in which sorority members attempted to capture derby hats from members of Sigma Chi. Play Days, an event sponsored by Alpha Delta Pi sorority, complemented Derby Days. During Play Days, fraternity members competed in obstacle courses and other challenges to collect the most points which meant winning the Play Day Trophy.

Other popular events of the 1970s included the Grand Prix Races, Family Day, Black Awareness Week, and intramural sports competitions, as well as jam sessions and other musical events held at the Memorial Student Center.

Perhaps the most outstanding single event established during the 1970s was the Sam Rayburn Speaker Series, which began in 1975. This series brought such notable individuals to campus as Lady Bird Johnson, Speaker John McCormick, Speaker Jim Wright, Congressman Ray Roberts, Liz Carpenter, Mark Russell and Patrick Buchanan, to name a few. The Sam Rayburn Symposium was recently revived by President Ray Keck in 2016.


Women’s athletics existed informally throughout the 1960s. Teams were allowed to compete with other colleges within the Texas Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, but the university did not fund these squads. Colleges and universities were required to provide funding for women’s intercollegiate athletics teams following the passage of Title IX legislation of 1972. Margo Harbison was named the first Director of Women’s Athletics at East Texas and was given a budget of $10,300, which did not equal the cost of uniforms. Under Dr. Harbison’s leadership, funding for women’s athletics increased tenfold, with more than 60 percent of the budget earmarked for scholarships by 1980. The university’s investment in women’s athletics proved beneficial, with the volleyball team finishing second in the NAIA national championship that same year.


Between 1975 and 1985, university enrollment declined by 36 percent. The state legislature mandated that students were required to take at least one-third of their courses on campus, a ruling that negatively affected rural universities. The same decision also forced ETSU to devote fewer resources to undergraduate recruitment. Undergraduate enrollment dropped dramatically. In 1986, ETSU appeared on a list of state universities proposed for closure.

President Charles Austin began an organized campaign to counteract this proposal. Tens of thousands of letters were sent to alumni encouraging them to participate in a letter writing campaign to protest closure. On July 10, the day when closure decisions were scheduled to be made, 450 alumni and supporters crowded into the Texas State Senate chamber to show their support. Such measures appeared to work and the crisis ended with a straightforward announcement: “The staff of the Select Committee concludes that East Texas State University should not be closed.”


Throughout the early 1980s, a growing number of international students enrolled at East Texas State University. Unprecedented numbers of students arrived at the campus from China, Iran, Nigeria, Taiwan, Thailand, India, and Micronesia. This increase in international students is most evident by viewing the new student organizations formed during this period, such as the Micronesian Student Organization and the Chinese Student Association.

In 1994, the university hosted its first Multicultural Festival, an event which provided international students an opportunity to share their unique cultures and histories. Continuing into the present, the Multicultural Festival is one of the highlights of the year. The event features a parade of international flags, cultural displays, arts and crafts from all over the globe, samplings of traditional foods, and a talent show.


After the sharp decline in enrollment during the late 1970s and 1980s, enrollment numbers stabilized around 8,000 students throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s. President Dan Jones, appointed in 2008, presided over student enrollment initiatives that generated a 40 percent growth rate over an eight-year period. Enrollment reached 10,000 students for the first time in 2010, climbed to 11,000 students in 2012, and continued past 12,000 students in 2015. At the same time, ethnic enrollment doubled and by 2016 international student enrollment increased nearly 64 percent with more than 1,000 students representing more than 50 countries. In 2009, the university began working toward becoming a Hispanic Serving Institution. In five short years, the first step toward reaching that goal was achieved when A&M-Commerce was designated an Emerging Hispanic Serving Institution.


The administration of President Keith McFarland initiated significant changes to the university’s footprint. Under McFarland’s guidance, the university implemented its first master plan in nearly 40 years. Dr. McFarland oversaw the construction of two new residential living and learning communities, the Morris Recreation Center, Cain Sports Complex, Agricultural Sciences Complex, and what is now known as the McFarland Science Building, named in his honor. The campus also experienced a significant beautification effort, the first such concentrated initiative to occur in many decades. In addition to the construction of new buildings, Dr. McFarland also was responsible for the demolition of more than 40 buildings as well as repurposing and remodeling existing buildings to support current university programs. These efforts continued under the direction of President Dan Jones. The Sam Rayburn Student Center, the Alumni Center, the Equine Center and the Music Building were completed during his administration as were two new dormitories, Pride Rock and Phase II. Dr. Jones also converted the university’s former print shop into the One Stop Shop to house the Registrar’s Office, Financial Services and other units within the Student Access and Success division. Memorial Stadium also underwent renovations, the most notable of which was the addition of new turf featuring a giant 50-yard Lion logo. Other athletic updates during the Jones administration included the addition of the John Cain Family Softball Complex for the university’s newly created softball team.


We humans think of time, our greatest mystery, as somehow ordered, controlled, and rational. “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven,” the Bible assures us. We chart for ourselves rising and falling rhythms that shape our lives and frame our thoughts. And we linger to reflect at the century. One hundred springs, one hundred birthdays, one hundred Christmases. We expect reflection to lead us, after the century, to heightened understanding, clearer vision, wiser choices.

Texas A&M University-Commerce, on March 14, 2017, completes its first century as part of the State of Texas. In marking this anniversary, the university finds itself gloriously endowed: a past which made dreams come true and a present which spirals forward, unexpectedly, challenging our best efforts. Winston Churchill observed that “the farther backward you can look the farther forward you are likely to see.” For A&M-Commerce, the memory of who we are is luminous. Perhaps for that reason we are a university now restless, with a great appetite for the new and unfamiliar. Thank you, Professor Mayo!