JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) - The Class of 1967 marks a moment in time no other graduating class can claim at Arkansas State University. Even though the beginnings of Arkansas State date back to 1910, it did not become a university until June 1, 1967.
"There really was no credit to us," said Roy Ockert, retired editor of The Jonesboro Sun. "After all, none of us attended a single class at Arkansas State University."
But, the wheels of progress had been struggling to turn in an attempt for Arkansas State College to obtain university status. A previous attempt by the A-State administration to secure the advancement to be recognized as a university failed in 1959 when the bill was opposed by a powerful lobbying effort on behalf of the University of Arkansas.
"From 1959, when the first attempt was made, to 1967, A-State administrators and supporters had a lot of work to do," explained Ockert, who served as the editor of The Indian yearbook and co-editor, alongside his future wife, Pat, at The Herald. "What took the most time was upgrading the campus to something that looked more like a university. A lot of new construction took place in those years—a new administration building, the Reng Center, two new dorms, the Journalism and Printing building, and the Dean B. Ellis Library."
Still, Arkansas State would be faced with an uphill battle, as a university status bill was twice defeated in the Arkansas House of Representatives.
"Carl Reng, Eugene Smith, Ray Hall Sr. and Ralph Waddell did a lot of traveling to convince other legislators that A-State was ready," Ockert explained. "By 1966, they had enough votes. The question was whether the new governor would sign it. But, Winthrop Rockefeller and Jim Johnson, the two candidates to replace (Orval) Faubus were put on record during campaign appearances here that they thought A-State was ready."
The bill was introduced in Little Rock, and Arkansas State waited to find out its fate.
"When the bill came up, the support was overwhelming. U of A folks didn't have a chance. Even The Arkansas Traveler, the U of A newspaper, endorsed the idea," Ockert remembered. "Bill Ebbert Jr. had copies of that newspaper flown to Little Rock for the floor debate. That's what a picture of John Miller of Melbourne shows."
The effort still faced opposition from the University of Arkansas, The Arkansas Gazette and the Commission for Coordination of Higher Education. But, this time Arkansas State had the support it needed.
The "ASU Bill" did not take effect until June 1, 1967. The 1967 graduating class had their commencement on May 31, 1967. But, to their surprise, Dr. Reng had found a way to begin the new era with that graduating class. Commencement programs still had "Arkansas State College" on them. But, the diplomas dated June 1 clearly stated "Arkansas State University" and had the university seal.
Ockert is not sure whether the students received the actual printed diplomas that night or a few days later.
He would return to his alma mater to teach journalism and advise the staff of The Herald in 1970.
"What I'm most happy about is that ASU has become a true university in so many ways that are not readily visible—graduate programs, ground-breaking research, availability of new degrees, especially in health and science, success of the athletic program and a much more diverse and intelligent study body," Ockert said.
However, he is dismayed by changes in the journalism program he once was a part of at A-State.
"Once the best in Arkansas, which has almost been reorganized out of existence. We've ceded state leadership to the U of A in journalism," Ockert said.
However, the A-State alum feels that the university is moving in the right direction.
"The university has toughened admission standards, which was a good thing; but it has held enrollment back a bit," Ockert said. "That will pay dividends in the long term, especially with a chancellor now who recognizes the need to focus on student retention."
The Class of 1967 will find a vastly different campus when they meet at the Cooper Alumni Center for a reunion on Friday, October 13 from 9 a.m. - Noon. But, for a class that saw so much change during their collegiate careers, it may be easier for them to envision more change on the horizon.
"If the Jonesboro campus doesn't reach an enrollment of 20,000 in my lifetime, I'll be disappointed," Ockert said.
According to numbers released by Arkansas State University this fall, a record enrollment of combined campuses put the total student number at 14,125.
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