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History of the University of Southern Mississippi

Yvonne Arnold
Archives Specialist
University Archives

Founded by Legislative Act on March 30, 1910, and opened for classes on September 18, 1912, The University of Southern Mississippi (originally known as Mississippi Normal College) has a colorful story to tell. True, there have been obstacles along the way, but the school has always managed to rise to the occasion.

The first president, Joseph Anderson Cook, oversaw construction of the original buildings and guided the school during its formative years. He watched it progress from a two-year college to a four-year degree-granting institution, and saw enrollment increase from 220 to 1600. In 1922 the school was authorized to confer the baccalaureate degree, the first of which was awarded to Kathryn Swetman in May 1922. In 1924, the school underwent the first of a series of name changes. On March 7, 1924, Mississippi Normal College became State Teachers College. Many improvements were instituted following the name change, as STC pursued accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools (SACS). Sadly, on September 28, 1928, at the behest of Gov. Theodore G. Bilbo, President Cook was summarily dismissed by the STC Board of Trustees. The reason given was Cook's age (he was sixty-five). But onlookers saw it as a political ploy, because Cook had not supported Bilbo in the recent gubernatorial election.

Joe Cook anecdote: Mr. Cook advised parents not to send their children off to college with pockets full of money. According to him, "six bits" was sufficient cash for a married man to carry on his person, and "two bits" was plenty for a single person.

The Board of Trustees selected Supervisor of Rural Schools, Claude Bennett, to succeed Cook as president. Many of the faculty and staff remained loyal to the former president, and viewed Bennett with suspicion. Nevertheless, it was during the Bennett administration that the school was approved for membership in SACS, in 1929. Moreover, enrollment continued to increase; extension courses were offered in twenty-five Mississippi counties; and a strong music program was set in motion. Unfortunately, Gov. Bilbo continued to meddle in the internal affairs of STC, and in 1930, SACS revoked the school's accreditation. In 1932, due to the Great Depression, the state was unable to pay faculty salaries. Fortunately, Hattiesburg banks arranged signature loans for hard pressed faculty members, and grocery stores extended credit to those with good payment records. Mr. Bennett oversaw construction of the administration building (now Lucas Administration Building), the main auditorium (now Bennett Auditorium), a new dining hall (now The Hub), and a home sciences building (now Fritzsche-Gibbs Hall). The school's first athletic field (Faulkner Field) was also constructed during the Bennett years. In 1932, a single board of trustees was created to oversee all of Mississippi's institutions of higher learning. This body replaced the separate boards of trustees under which the institutions had previously operated. Uppermost on the new Board's agenda was removing political appointees of Gov. Bilbo, so in 1933 President Bennett was fired.

Claude Bennett anecdote: During the Depression, President Bennett extended credit to students who would otherwise have been forced to withdraw from school.

Dr. Jennings Burton (J. B.) George, an STC alumnus, became the school's third president on July 1, 1933. Dr. George was the first president to hold a doctorate. The new chief executive inherited a huge deficit, which he corrected by setting strict financial guidelines, cutting employees' salaries, and freezing departmental budgets. His efforts not only resulted in a balanced budget, but each year of his administration ended with a small surplus in the treasury. During his term of office, he implemented a student guidance system and a quality point system for grading, and the school's eighteen instructional units were reorganized into seven groups. The first social fraternity, Kappa Alpha Tau, appeared on campus in 1935, followed in 1936, by the first social sorority, Sigma Theta Kappa. By 1940, the faculty boasted five Ph.D.'s and three Ed.D.'s, and no faculty member had less than a master's degree. On February 13, 1940, the school's name was changed for the second time. Its new name was Mississippi Southern College, reflecting the fact that it was no longer exclusively a teachers college. With the name change, the nickname of the athletic teams was changed from "Yellow Jackets" to "Southerners." During World War II, the male population at MSC was decimated, as students and faculty members joined, or were drafted, into military service. The first MSC alumnus killed in the war was Air Force Lt. Andrew Webb, who died at Pearl Harbor. Both head football coach Reed Green and his assistant Thad "Pie" Vann served in the armed forces. Looking ahead to the end of the war, Dr. George established a $35,000 trust fund to provide scholarships for returning veterans. He also proposed graduate work in education, home economics, and music. But in January 1945, before any of his plans were implemented, the Board of Trustees declined to rehire George, giving no definitive reason for its action. The school is deeply indebted to President George, for it was his sound fiscal policies and managerial genius that steered it safely through both the Great Depression and World War II.

J. B. George anecdote: During his freshman year at Mississippi Normal College (1915), J. B. George helped dig stumps on campus for six cents per hour. During his sophomore year, he worked as a janitor for $1.00 per week.

Dr. Robert Cecil Cook (no relation to Joe Cook) became the institution's fourth president following his discharge from the Army on July 6, 1945. Academic development was at the top of Cook's agenda, and he made several key appointments toward that end. Among them were Dr. Richard Aubrey McLemore as Dean of the College, Dr. Carl McQuagge as principal of the Demonstration School, and Dr. Porter L. Fortune as Dean of the Basic College. To these, he added Mr. C. O. Smalling as Financial Secretary and Mrs. Ivah O. Wilber as Dean of Women. During his tenure, the Graduate Studies Division was created, and the Reading Clinic, the Latin American Institute, and the Speech and Hearing Clinic were established. Greek presence on campus was increased, the band program was expanded, the "Dixie Darlings" precision dance team was formed, and enrollment soared to more than 2,000. The athletic program was strengthened, as Reed Green and Pie Vann returned from military service, and resumed their former positions. In 1949, President Cook promoted Green to Athletic Director and Vann to head coach. Over the next two decades, the combined efforts of these two outstanding coaches brought national recognition to the Southern Miss football program. McClesky Hall, McMillin Hall, Weathersby Hall, Hickman Hall, Bolton Hall, Marsh Hall, the Sports Arena, the Women's Physical Education Building, the original Panhellenic Building, and McLemore Hall were added during the Cook regime. In December 1954, Dr. Cook resigned the presidency to accept a position as vice president and general manager of the Jackson State Times, a new daily newspaper. He was the first president to leave the office voluntarily.

R. C. Cook anecdote: At the time of Cook's presidency, there was another Dr. Cook in Hattiesburg, who was a physician. One day, the maid at the president's home answered the telephone and discovered that the caller was a frantic mother in search of medical assistance for her sick child. Unable to convince the woman that she had the wrong number, the maid blurted out, "Lady, this here Dr. Cook can't do nobody no good!"

Dr. Richard Aubrey McLemore was named acting president, effective January 1, 1955, and served in that capacity until August 17, 1955. He had been a faculty member at MSC since 1938, and had served as professor of history, head of the Social Studies Division, and Dean of the College.

Selection of the school's fifth president was interesting, to say the least. Many on campus wanted Dr. McLemore for the new chief. But, after six months, Dr. R. C. Cook resigned from the State Times and announced that he wanted his old job back. This created a division among Cook supporters and McLemore supporters, so the Board of Trustees went off-campus in search of a new president. They settled on Dr. William David McCain, the State Archivist. Dr. McCain assumed the presidency on August 18, 1955, promising to keep the campus "dusty or muddy with construction." Over the next five years, Jones Hall, Scott Hall, Pinehaven Apartments, the athletic field house, Walker Science Building, and the new Cook Library were built. Other buildings erected during the McCain administration were the Mannoni Performing Arts Center, Johnson Science Tower, Wilbur Stout Hall, Owings-McQuagge Hall, Harkins Hall, Reed Green Coliseum, Joseph Greene Hall, Wilber Panhellenic House, Vann Hall, Johnson Natatorium, Roberts Hall, and the Beedie Smith Clinic. Dr. McCain's driving ambition, however, was to achieve university status for MSC. To that end, he completely reorganized the academic programs into colleges and schools. Finally, everything was in place, and on February 27, 1962, Governor Ross Barnett signed the bill that made Mississippi Southern College a university -- The University of Southern Mississippi. The other watershed event that occurred during the McCain administration occurred in September 1965, when, for the first time in the school's history, African American students were admitted. The first students were Raylawni Young Branch and Gwendolyn Elaine Armstrong. Other noteworthy events of the McCain Era include formation of the Oral History Program in 1971, and establishment of the USM Gulf Park Campus in 1972. Also in 1972, the nickname of the athletic teams was changed from "Southerners" to "Golden Eagles." During McCain's twenty-year presidency, enrollment grew to 11,000. Dr. McCain retired from the presidency on June 30, 1975.

W. D. McCain anecdote: Dr. McCain is said to have nicknamed a room in the president's home "Mobile." When he desired privacy, he would go into that room, and callers were told that the president was "in Mobile."

On July 1, 1975, Dr. Aubrey Keith Lucas became the sixth president of USM. Dr. Lucas had a long history at USM, having served as instructor, Director of Admissions, Registrar, and Dean of the Graduate School. He was also an alumnus. Numerous accomplishments punctuated the Lucas years. Among them were institution of a system of vice presidents; establishment of the School of Library Science; institution of the Honors College; formation of the Teaching and Learning Resource Center; creation of the Faculty Senate; establishment of the Center for International Education; replacement of the quarter system with the semester system; creation of the Polymer Science Institute; reorganization of the University's ten schools into six Colleges; formation of the Institute for Learning in Retirement; and affiliation with Conference USA. Notable additions to the Physical Plant were The R. C. Cook University Union, The Speech and Hearing Building, M. M. Roberts Stadium expansion, the C. W. Woods Art Gallery, the Chain Technology Center, the Polymer Science Building, the Payne Fitness Center, and a five-story addition to Cook Library. In 1995, a donation to the University of $150,000 produced spectacular results. The money was donated by Hattiesburg laundress, Miss Oseola McCarty, and represented the majority of her life's savings. No one could have predicted the local, national, and international response to her selfless act. Miss McCarty received countless awards, including the Presidential Citizen's Medal, and her name became a household word. By association, USM also became a household word. Dr. Lucas stepped down from the presidency on December 31, 1996. As President Emeritus, he maintains an office in the William D. McCain Library and Archives.

Aubrey Lucas anecdote: The following observations regarding Dr. Lucas are credited to Dr. Clyde Ginn. "I have never known that man to tell a lie, even when it would probably benefit him." "He doesn't believe gossip", Ginn added. "If you can't verify it, don't bother to tell him."

Dr. Horace Weldon Fleming, Jr. assumed his duties as USM's seventh president on January 3, 1997, and accomplishments during his three years at the helm are impressive. The School of Nursing has become the College of Nursing; the Office of Technology Resources has been created; a master's program in hydrographic science has been added in the Department of Marine Science; a master's program in workforce training and development has been added in the School of Engineering Technology; and online classes have been instituted. In addition, USM has unveiled its "Strategic Plan for the Future." The plan was designed to plot the University's course over the next three to five years, and envisions USM as "a national university for the Gulf Coast." In December 1999, Federal District Judge Neal Biggers approved the addition of freshman and sophomore classes at the USM Gulf Coast Campus. Barring further obstacles, freshmen and sophomores will be admitted in June 2000. Much of 1998 and 1999 was spent making the University Y2K compliant. As a result, Chief Technology Officer, John McGowan, feels comfortable going into the year 2000, and doesn't anticipate any computer failures. 1999 was a banner year in athletics. First of all, women's fast pitch softball was reinstated, and under the guidance of Coach Lu Harris, the Lady Eagles recorded a phenomenal 48-6 record in the regular season. They won the Conference USA and South Regional Championships, and played in the NCAA Division I Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City. The 1999 Golden Eagles football team finished the season 8-3 overall, and 6-0 in conference play, which earned them a berth in the Liberty Bowl on December 31, against Colorado State.

Horace Fleming anecdote: Dr. Fleming endeared himself to all and sundry in July 1997. When the College Board voted a ten percent raise for the presidents of all eight state-supported universities, Dr. Fleming responded by making a personal donation of $10, 000 per year to the USM Foundation, to be used for scholarships and other needs of faculty and students.

Speaking of prognostications for the year 2000, your scribe does not have access to a crystal ball, but offers the following predictions, nonetheless:

The USM Gulf Coast Campus will blossom with the addition of freshmen and sophomores, and will draw hordes of students from surrounding states.

The Office of Technology Resources will immediately begin preparations for Y3K.

The Polymer Science Program will become internationally renowned for developing a material for automobile tires that has all of the desirable qualities of rubber, but is indestructible. Imagine, no more flat tires or blowouts!

The new book, My Adventure With Seymour at The University of Southern Mississippi, starring Southern Miss mascot, "Seymour", will skyrocket to the top of the bestseller list.

The College of Science & Technology will achieve international acclaim for creating a homing device to prevent interplanetary vehicles from becoming "lost in space."

The Golden Eagles football team will be undefeated, and will have its choice of post season bowl games.

The history of USM will be made into a blockbuster movie, directed by Steven Spielberg. President Fleming will be portrayed by former special prosecutor, Ken Starr, and the role of his wife, Steve, will go to Blythe Danner. Coach Jeff Bower will play himself.

All kidding aside, Southern Miss is on the upward trail, and if past history is any indicator, the new year should be a heckuva climb.

March 30, 1910 Mississippi Normal College founded by legislative act
Sept. 18, 1912 Mississippi Normal College opened for classes
1914 First yearbook, Neka Camon published
Dec. 21, 1918 First school newspaper, Normal College News, published
Feb. 27, 1922 MNC authorized to confer baccalaureate degree
May 1922 First baccalaureate degree awarded to Katherine Swetman
March 7, 1924 Name changed to State Teachers College
January 1927 Name of school newspaper changed to Student Printz
Sept. 28, 1928 President Joe Cook fired
Oct. 10, 1928 Claude Bennett assumed presidency
1929 State Teachers College approved for membership in SACS
Oct. 29, 1932 First athletic field (Faulkner Field) dedicated
July 1, 1933 Dr. Jennings Burton George became president
May 1937 STC celebrated its Silver Jubilee
Feb. 13, 1940 Name changed to Mississippi Southern College
Dec. 1941 MSC posts first undefeated football season
July 1, 1945 Dr. Robert Cecil Cook assumed presidency
1952 MSC joined NCAA
Dec. 31, 1954 President R. C. Cook resigned. First to leave the position voluntarily
Jan. 1, 1955 Dr. Richard Aubrey McLemore named Acting President
Aug. 18, 1955 Dr. William David McCain assumed presidency
1958 First perfect football season
Feb. 27, 1962 Name changed to The University of Southern Mississippi
Aug. 14, 1962 First Ph.D. awarded to Eugene Keebler
Sept. 1965 First African American students admitted
1966 School of Nursing organized
Oct. 17, 1970 Defeated Ole Miss in football for the first time
1972 "Golden Eagles" adopted as nickname for athletic teams
1972 Gulf Park Campus established at Long Beach
1973 Ray Guy became USM's first top round draft choice
June 30, 1975 President William D. McCain retired
July 1, 1975 Dr. Aubrey K. Lucas assumed presidency
1982 Polymer Science Institute created
1987 Men's basketball team won NIT in Madison Square Garden
1987 USM celebrated 75th anniversary
Feb. 16, 1993 "Celebration of Diversity" -- Kennard-Washington Hall named
June 11, 1993 First "Employee Appreciation Day"
April 1995 Became charter member of Conference USA
July 1995 Miss Oseola McCarty donated $150, 000
Aug. 1995 President Lucas announced resignation, effective Dec. 31, 1996
Jan. 3, 1997 Dr. Horace Weldon Fleming, Jr. became 7th president
May 15, 1998 Miss Oseola McCarty awarded USM's first honorary degree
September 26, 1999 Miss Oseola McCarty died


Created by: Yvonne Arnold

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Revised: August 28, 2003