The college was not founded here in answer to a conscious need of its constituency. It owes its existence rather to the desire of its prosperous founders who wished to devote their wealth so that it would be of the greatest possible service to the people of their neighborhood. The neighborhood was previously unacquainted with a college and its ideals. During its early years the task of the leaders of the college was to interpret such ideals to the community.
— Perry Daniel Woods, “The First Fifty Years of Rio Grande” (1926)
RIO GRANDE — For more than 140 years, higher education has been brought to scholars both local and out-of-state through the offices of the University of Rio Grande/Rio Grande Community College, which handed out diplomas to over 400 students during its most recent commencement ceremony in May.
There was a time in the early days of Rio Grande College, as it was known until the latter part of the 20th Century, when the number of graduates was greatly smaller; the campus, its educational offerings and student life limited to a small cluster of buildings; and a feeling of closeness akin to family that made the institution as special a place then as it is today.
Evolution of Rio Grande from its founding on Sept. 13, 1876, is detailed in the recently-published “University of Rio Grande/Rio Grande Community College,” part of the Campus History Series of Images of America books issued by Arcadia Publishing of Charleston, S.C. Its authors are veteran Rio Grande faculty members Jacob L. Bapst and Dr. Ivan M. Tribe, whose devotion to spotlighting the institution’s heritage goes beyond having their names on the book.
Indeed, Bapst, who has been serving as a volunteer in Rio Grande’s archives, and Tribe, professor emeritus of history and author of other diverse works, are available for presentations on the university’s background and willing to talk to anyone with an interest in everything Rio Grande. Bapst recently announced that starting the week of June 12, Rio Grande’s Archives, located on the third floor of the Esther Allen Greer Museum, will be open to the public on Monday and Wednesday from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m.
The Images of America books, which have covered numerous communities and places around the country, are primarily known for a wealth of local history preserved through photographs. The new volume on Rio Grande, which became locally available on April 10 at the university’s bookstore, follows this format closely with introductory remarks from Tribe and pages of photos and illustrations selected by Bapst from the archives, many not seen in some time.
“Another sidelight to this was that I was took over as a volunteer archivist,” explained Bapst, who commenced work on the visuals in July 2016 soon after he and Tribe signed a contract with Arcadia and proceeded to meet the publisher’s three-month deadline to complete the work. Tribe is co-author with project originator Jordan Pickens on the Images of America history of Meigs County.
How did it all come about? After Tribe and Bapst collaborated on the Arcadia “Images of America: West Virginia’s Traditional Country Music” that appeared in 2015, Tribe learned of the Campus History Series and pitched the idea of a Rio Grande study to the company. Tribe also co-authored (with Abby Gail Goodnite) the more exhaustive campus history “Rio Grande: From Baptists and Bevo to the Bell Tower,” commissioned on the occasion of the school’s 125th anniversary and published by the Jesse Stuart Foundation of Ashland, Ky., in 2002. Arcadia accepted the proposal, which became a labor of love for the educators.
Many of the new book’s illustrations and accompanying captions speak of Rio Grande College’s founding as a Free Will Baptist site of higher learning, thanks to the financial assistance of Nehemiah and Permelia Atwood and the inspiration of clergyman Ira Z. Haning. Photos harking back to the turn of the 19th Century into the 20th provide a definite sense of a close community of teachers, students and ministers going about the task of education but also providing the socializing effects of a college located in agricultural surroundings. Photos from succeeding decades, especially the 1950s, have the same impact on the reader. This impression is bolstered by the book’s cover photo, an image of female residents of Davis Cottage apparently having fun in 1951.
A photo of students in a snowball fight in front of the ruins of the Boarding Hall, destroyed by fire in February 1917, informs us that nothing as catastrophic as the loss of a residence dormitory stopped the little campus from carrying on with its appointed task. When another major fire leveled Atwood Hall, one of the campus’s first structures in November 1937, it was another case of leaders and students staying on mission; indeed, it was followed by a period of “self-help” that continued into World War II.
Tribe and Bapst deliberately limited coverage of the fabulous period of attention Rio Grande earned in 1952-1954 due to the sensational basketball team coached by alumnus Newt Oliver and shooting phenomenon Clarence “Bevo” Francis, since their saga had been so well-documented in other books. Bapst recalled the archives yielded a team photo of Oliver, Francis and the Redmen in civilian garb, providing the athletes with not only a different kind of image but also one of what was worn by the well-dressed man of the time.
“Bevo’s wife had never seen that photo before,” Bapst noted.
Rio Grande was known to the world as a college until 1989, when it declared itself a university in conjunction with Rio Grande Community College, which came into existence in 1974. By then, Rio Grande had earned and maintained accreditation as a degree-granting institution. The Bernard V. Fultz Center for Higher Education at Rock Springs opened in 2008 to serve the needs of Meigs County residents. An off-campus site was established in 2010 in the old Vinton County High School at McArthur and is now housed in a new structure. A Jackson center near opened in January of this year.
An offshoot of the research conducted by the authors has resulted in an article on the life and career of Beryl Halley, a native of the Gallia County river community of Bladen who attended the school in 1916. The article, “From Bladen to Broadway: Rio Grande’s Forgotten Ziegfeld Girl,” details how Halley, one of the first women to enlist in the U.S. Navy, appeared in three seasons of Florenz Ziegfeld’s “Follies” from 1923 to 1925 and in the 1926 season of Earl Carroll’s “Vanities,” in addition to a pair of musicals and at least one silent movie. She died in 1988.
Since its release, the book has been snapped up by Rio Grande alums and interested parties and is a part of the curriculum for the university’s Gateway to Success program. Bapst also plans to include the book in the speech class he will soon teach, which he said is to be his last in summer instruction at Rio Grande.
Bapst, a 1975 graduate of Rio Grande, taught for more than a decade in public schools and joined the university’s faculty full-time in 1990, recently retiring from the community college. Tribe began teaching part-time at Rio Grande in 1976 and became a full-time history instructor the following year. Both have donated all royalties from the book to Rio Grande, Bapst to the McArthur Center he oversaw in recent years, and Tribe to the history department.
Kevin Kelly, who was employed at the University of Rio Grande/Rio Grande Community College from 1987 until 1994, resides in Vinton, Ohio.