Few would have predicted that what was started in 1887 as a two-room normal school intent on providing educational and religious guidance to a region torn by conflict would, over the next century, become a nationally recognized, thriving regional public university with over 64,000 alumni.
The school’s growth and contributions to the commonwealth are recounted in Far Above the Rolling Campus: A History of Morehead State University. The State Run Media Productions documentary was produced and narrated by Steven O. Middleton.
According to Middleton, Morehead State did not reach its current status as a leading regional public university easily. The story of Morehead State University is one of perseverance.
In 1880, Rowan County was, like much of the rest of the commonwealth, isolated. A railroad passing through the county in 1881 opened access to Lexington and other areas. But soon after that, a conflict erupted between the Tolliver and Martin families that gave Rowan County a notorious reputation for vengeance and lawlessness.
The Rowan County War began in 1884 and lasted until 1887 when several members of the Tolliver family were killed by a citizens’ militia. Its bloody conclusion kept Rowan County in existence, as the state General Assembly had threatened to dissolve the county unless the conflict was stopped.
Early Years: From Normal School to a State-Funded College
In 1887, the Rev. Frank Button and his mother Phoebe arrived in Morehead on the train. They came from the Kentucky Female Orphan Academy in Midway, with a desire to heal a war-torn region.
“The Missions arm of the Christian Church decided that Morehead would be an ideal place to establish a school that would bring Christian education to the Morehead area,” said J.D. Reeder, playwright of Bloody Rowan.
The Morehead Normal School opened on Oct. 3, 1887, in a rented cabin on the grounds where Doran University Center stands today. Its first student was an orphan by the name of Annie Page.
By the 1890s, enrollment had grown to over 200 students. Frank Button resigned as president in 1892 to care for his ill mother, who passed away that year. He returned to lead the normal school in 1896.
In 1900, the Kentucky Missionary Society transferred ownership of the Morehead Normal School to the Kentucky Christian Women’s Board of Missions. A governing board was formed to guide the growing institution, and on that board were two people who would prove to be pivotal in the decades to come: Cora Wilson Stewart and Judge Allie Young.
Stewart, an advocate for improving literacy in the region, worked with Button to shape the normal school’s mission of service to the region. The educational climate improved in Rowan County when the first public school opened in 1910-11; however, this resulted in lower enrollment in the Morehead Normal School, and the outbreak of World War I further eroded the school’s profile.
By the early 1920s, the Christian Women’s Board decided to close the normal school, as rumors swirled that the state was considering Morehead as the site for a new public higher education institution. In 1923, the Morehead Normal School was opened, along with Murray State Normal School in far western Kentucky. Judge Allie Young of Morehead, a “kingmaker” in Kentucky politics, secured Morehead as the site for a state-supported school through his influence in Frankfort.
In 1926, the school’s name was changed to Morehead State Normal School and Teachers College, and its mission was focused more firmly on training educators to serve eastern Kentucky. A construction boom commenced on the burgeoning campus, but the school still lacked accreditation, and a committee led by University of Kentucky President Frank McVey was commissioned to examine Morehead State’s educational resources. The resulting report was critical of Button’s leadership, and his lengthy tenure as head of the school, which he started with his mother in that rented cabin back in 1887, came to an end in 1929.
“He was an able man,” says Reeder, the playwright. “But I think that perhaps there were some who considered that he wasn’t as aggressive as he might have been in helping the new institution get its legs under it.”
In 1930, the school officially became Morehead State Teachers College, with a new president, John Howard Payne. The school also gained accreditation that year from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Sports teams in football, basketball, baseball, and boxing were formed in the 1920s, but the school’s crown jewel in athletics was the Senff Natatorium, completed in 1934. The swimming pool and building were regarded as “the greatest in the south,” according to narrator Middleton.
John Howard Payne became ill in 1935 and was replaced by Harvey Babb. The teacher’s college also was affected by the sudden death of Judge Allie Young in 1935, and four years later, by a tremendous flood occurring on July 4, 1939, which devastated the entire Morehead community and killed 25 people.
The “Blue Jackets” and Postwar Expansion
President Harvey Babb was ousted in 1940, and former Dean Warren H. Vaughan was named president. The onset of World War II brought another crisis point to bear on Morehead State, as enrollment dropped from approximately 1,300 in 1939 to 378 in 1944.
To help sustain the college, Vaughan and administrators secured a contract with the U.S. Navy to train sailors in electrical techniques. This made Morehead State the first college in Kentucky, and one of the first in the nation, to be selected for the Navy College Training Program. The program opened in 1942, and over the next several years, sailors joined regular students on campus.
According to Morehead historian Jack Ellis, over 3,000 seamen were trained at the college. They were prominent in college and civic life during this time, and nicknamed “Blue Jackets.”
Morehead State suffered academically during the war, as did other colleges, but the end of World War II brought the G.I. bill and hundreds of thousands of veterans back home in search of education and a way to improve their lives. Nearly one half of Morehead State students were veterans in the years after the war ended.
Another crisis occurred at Morehead State during the late 1940s as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools investigated the 1946 dismissal of President Vaughan, which they deemed political. New President William Jesse Baird helped get Morehead through this difficult time and preserve its accreditation, but he died in 1951. After Charles Spain served as president for three years, the board of regents of what was now known as Morehead State College selected a president who would lead the still relatively unknown regional institution to new heights.
Adron Doron: A Transformative President
Adron Doron was a minister, a former teacher, and a former Speaker of the House in the Kentucky legislature. He became president in 1954, and served for the next 22 years.
When Doron became president, Morehead State had not had a new building constructed on campus since 1937. Through his political connections, Doron started a construction surge on campus that remade the school.
“Buildings were being built often, more than one being built at one time,” said C. Nelson Grote, who was Dean of the College of Applied Sciences and Technology under Doron and was later Morehead State’s president. “And our enrollment was growing at an exceptional rate.”
In addition to his vision for a new campus, Doron also led Morehead to become the first state-supported institution to integrate its dormitories and athletic teams. In the summer of 1956, the first two African-American students, both women, attended Morehead State.
Desegregating Morehead was not easy, and many in the town and county were opposed, but Doron provided leadership and supported his students during the civil rights movement.
Marshall Banks was the first black player in the Ohio Valley Conference as a member of Morehead State’s basketball team in the late 1950s. He eventually switched to cross-country after a dispute with his coach and set the Kentucky record for the 100-yard dash while at Morehead State.
Banks recalls the support he received from the Doron administration during his playing days, and says that an even bigger commitment to civil rights was made after he graduated and was hired as the campus’ first black faculty member.
“To trust me as an athlete was something, but to trust me to be able to go into the classroom, to be able to shape the minds of all of the kids there, that was another bold step Doron was able to take,” he said.
Morehead State’s enrollment increased to around 2,000 by the late 1950s, and Doron and his administrators implemented a Master Plan for the 1960s that would include even more building construction as well as curriculum development with the goal of achieving enrollment of 7,000 by 1970. In 1966, the school became Morehead State University, and longtime Dean Warren Lappin was appointed vice president of Academic Affairs. Numerous buildings were constructed during this period, the nationally recognized public radio station WMKY was launched, and the young university’s stature steadily rose.
“Dr. Doran, when he came in, he was a Jedi Master of working the political scene,” said Jim Wells, grandson of Warren Lappin. “He had been a Speaker of the House in Kentucky, he knew the politicians, he knew the system, he knew how to work it, plus, at that time in the mid-1950s was when the big burst of money from the federal government for education came in.”
Doron and his wife, Mignon, were effusive ambassadors for Morehead State during this period of expansion, and though many often chafed at Doron’s dominant leadership style, he is widely regarded as the most important administrator in the school’s history.
Doron officially retired in January 1977, and he proved to be a hard act to follow. Morehead State went through three presidents over the next 10 years before former dean Nelson Grote came back to campus after a 16-year absence to lead the university.
The Modern Era: A Mission of Service to the Region
“From the time I came here, watching Dr. Doran and watching the university, I dreamed of becoming president of Morehead State,” Grote said. “I considered it the epitome of my career. I came here because I thought I could put this place back together again. I came here to help my university that I loved. And that showed.”
Grote’s service set Morehead back on an upward trajectory, and he announced his retirement two years in advance in order to give the university board ample time to find the right replacement. In 1992, Ronald Eaglin became president, and served for 12 years. He firmed up Morehead’s commitment to improving education in the Appalachian region, created the renowned Space Science Center, an important research center for satellite technology, and raised the school’s educational standard to where it was named as one of the top 25 regional public universities in the south by U.S. News and World Report by the time he left–a distinction it has maintained.
“What drew me to Morehead was its mission, being a first-generation college student myself,” Eaglin said. “Its historical mission and what it seemed to mean to this part of the country was very appealing to me, and I thought it would be a good fit. And it did–it turned out to be a very good fit.”
Wayne Andrews replaced Eaglin as Morehead’s president in Jan. 2005. He has overseen major infrastructure redevelopment, enhancing the natural beauty of Morehead’s campus with modern buildings, and raised the bar for everyone in the university community to build on their success this century and become recognized not just as one of the best regional universities in the south, but as the best regional university in the south.
“I can give you examples today where Morehead State University is the best among those regional comprehensive universities in the southern states,” he said. “Space sciences would be an example. Biomedical sciences, the program where we prepare students to go to professional schools, whether it’s medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, veterinary science, and the like, is a top program. Our acceptance rates are terrific.”
As Morehead State University celebrates its 130th anniversary, Andrews believes the best is yet to come.
“So here we sit today, talking about the vision Frank Button and his mother Phoebe had for this place–that an educational institution could become a college and a university and contribute so powerfully to the region and the state. Their notion was, this place–this place–could be a light into the mountains of eastern Kentucky. It has been, it is, and it will continue to be. Because that’s the heart of what we do.”
Editor’s note: Dr Jay Morgan was named as president in February 2017.