A.B. Barret and Charles Roberson were riding in a buggy near Barret's home in Denison, Texas, on their way to a gospel meeting when Barret first said to Roberson, "Let's build a school in West Texas."
That was in 1903. In 1905, Barret, a teacher at Southwestern Christian College in Denton, was finally able to make a site survey.The Church of Christ in Abilene was growing solidly, and after Barret preached there in December 1905, members agreed to help support the project. Barret soon moved west and traveled by buggy with his wife and friends to raise more support.
Col. J.W. Childers, a leader in the Abilene church, agreed to sell Barret some land he owned west of town and deducted about $2,000 from the price of the land on the condition that the school would be named in his honor. The Childers Classical Institute opened its doors in the fall of 1906 with 25 students enrolled for classes.
The five acres occupied by the institute included the old Childers mansion, a two-story frame house used as the president's home and girl's dormitory. Boys boarded in private homes approved by the president. An eight-room administration building was constructed on the site for $8,000.
Only the 11 primary and secondary grades were offered that first semester. College courses were not accredited for eight years. By the end of the first school year 85 students were enrolled.
Childers' first years were difficult for everyone, particularly the students. Cold classrooms, crowded living conditions and a water shortage necessitated hard work and ingenuity on the part of everyone. The school went through four presidents during those early years: Barret, H.C. Darden, R.L. Whiteside, and James F. Cox, who served another term as president from 1931-1940.
To complicate matters, Col. Childers hired an attorney to collect on a note he had retained on the land and mansion. The school had to borrow money at 15 percent interest to pay the debt, making it difficult to meet operating expenses.
A good businessman was needed and found in Jesse P. Sewell, who became the president in 1912. Sewell declined the offer of a salaried position as president, opting instead to run the school as though it were a personal business enterprise. Sewell certainly didn't get rich in the deal, but the college benefited from approximately $60,000 donated to the school by the Sewells during his 12-year presidency.
With Sewell's new approach came a new identity for the school. Since its beginning the Institute had been commonly referred to as Abilene Christian or the Christian college in Abilene. When Sewell became president, the school began using the name Abilene Christian College in its catalog and other printed materials.
Lawrence Smith explained that the original deed to the Childers land required that the school be named after the colonel. Childers' heirs threatened to sue if the name were changed. In 1920, the school paid the family $4,000 and formally changed its name to Abilene Christian College.
Sewell's leadership brought the college out of debt. The campus was enlarged by four new brick buildings, an enlarged administration building and six frame structures, and an increased enrollment of about 300 students during his final term. Sewell's reign also resulted in accreditation as a junior college in 1914 and as a senior college in 1919.
Batsell Baxter became the young school's sixth president when Sewell resigned in 1924. Baxter initiated more relaxed restrictions on the social privileges of students, and student activities and organizations increased in importance.
Continued growth demanded more space, and in 1927 the Board of Trustees appointed a committee to investigate new locations for the school. San Angelo made an attractive offer of two sections of land and $50,000 for building, to which the Abilene Chamber of Commerce responded by raising $75,000 to help keep the college from moving. With this contribution, the college trustees decide to purchase 680 acres on a hill one mile northeast of Abilene known as the Hashknife Ranch. Nearby residents donated 75 additional acres.
Life on the original campus continued as usual while construction began on the Hill. Then on Jan. 28, 1929, the old administration building caught fire. Smith, then an employee in the business office, served as fire marshal and instructed the firemen to soak the southwest part of the building so the records could be saved. A human chain was assembled to move the library books, and some holdings were salvaged, but most of the building was gutted.
Opening of the new campus was scheduled for Sept. 5, 1929. To meet the deadline the contractor put three shifts to work. New facilities included an administration building, two dormitories, an education building that housed the elementary and high schools, a dining hall, a president's home, a gymnasium and an auditorium. Only six weeks later, the stock market crashed on "Black Thursday," Oct. 29, 1929. The Depression plunged the college deep in financial debt.
Loans kept the school from closing each semester, and salaries were cut in 1930. President Baxter and Dean James F. Cox took 15 percent salary cuts. Faculty salaries were cut 10 percent. The next year, all salaries were cut in half.
Financial struggles worsened in the early 1930s, and by 1933 many bonds were coming due. John G. Hardin, also a major benefactor of Hardin-Simmons University, helped alleviate many of the growing financial pressures with a gift of $160,000 in bonds. Later the school borrowed $40,000 more from Hardin to retire some urgent notes.
Under Baxter's leadership, and later during the presidency of James Cox, the college survived the Depression.
Don H. Morris, then head of the speech department, took office as president in 1940. A sparse student population through World War II was followed by unprecedented enrollment increases after the war. Housing posed the biggest problem. Barracks from nearby Camp Barkeley, deactivated by the U.S. Army in the spring of 1946, were moved to the Hill to house students and provide additional classroom and office space. The college was officially accredited Dec. 6, 1951, by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
The postwar prosperity allowed several new buildings to be constructed to accommodate the increasing student body, which passed the 2,000 mark in 1955. Between 1940 and 1961, five dormitories, a science building, a president's home, a cafeteria and both wings of the administration building were completed.
In 1957, Morris recommended that a planning committee be appointed. The following February the board of trustees appointed a master planning council "to study academic, financial and plant problems facing the college."
From among board members, the Advisory Board, administration, faculty, alumni and students, 24 individuals were appointed to the council, which then established 10 subcommittees to study specific areas or problems. Four years later, in April 1962, the "Design for Development, Abilene Christian College, 1962-72," was adopted by the board of trustees.
Those 10 years produced $10.8 million in gifts and brought many changes to the campus, including Brown Library, McGlothlin Campus Center, Moody Coliseum, Gibson Health and Physical Education Center, Sherrod Residential Park, the Don H. Morris Center, A.B. Morris Hall, Smith-Adams Hall and Sikes Hall. In his final chapel speech Sept. 27, 1973, Chancellor Morris said, "This is no ordinary college."
Morris became chancellor in 1969 when Dr. John C. Stevens, historian, World War II chaplain and former Abilene City Councilman, was named president. Stevens' 12-year term was marked by upgrades to campus housing, improvement in the school's financial aid program for its students, and more enrollment gains. ACC had enrolled 3,000 for the first time in 1965, and it passed the 4,000 mark in 1977.
"ACC" officially became "ACU" Feb. 22, 1976, by vote of the Board of Trustees. A committee chaired by trustee Jack Pope, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Texas, recommended the change. Trustees, under the leadership of Ray McGlothlin, Jr., unanimously approved the new name.
ACU's endowment grew from $18 million to $56 million in the presidency of Dr. William J. Teague, former assistant to Morris and corporate and university executive who returned to ACU to succeed Stevens as president in 1981. The decade of the 1980s produced $78 million in gifts to the university, and Judge Ely Blvd. was moved east to accommodate construction of new buildings for Bible and business administration.
ACU added its School of Nursing in 1981, and in 1986 the NPR affiliate KACU-FM was launched. Teague had said in his inaugural address, "One individual with conviction can and does make a difference in our world."
Enrollment rebounded in the 1990s during the presidency of Dr. Royce Money, Bible professor and licensed family therapist who took office June 1, 1991. ACU attracted students from all 50 states and 60 nations and endeavored to take its place as a national leader in Christian higher education. Money acknowledged that ACU is not the church, but he added, "ACU will remain loyal to the Biblical and historical principles that have distinguished our religious history."
To fund its growth in academic quality and image, serve its record numbers of students, and solidify its financial foundation, ACU received gifts in development campaigns amounting to $30 million during "Advancing the Changeless" in 1993-96 and $114 million in "To Lead and To Serve" in 1996-2000.
During the 2000-01 school year, a record 4,761 students enrolled, financial aid annually for ACU students reached $40 million, and ACU ranked among the top 10 percent of institutions in the nation in endowment with $142 million. The university adopted "Change the World" as its theme as it began plans for its 100th school year in 2005-06. A record 943 bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees were awarded at May, August and December commencement ceremonies.
Faculty members Dr. Michael Sadler (physics) and Dr. Jason Morris (McNair Scholars) received the sixth and seventh Fulbright scholarships in university history from the U.S. Department of State. Dr. John C. Stevens, chancellor emeritus and president in 1969-81, attended the opening of the U.S. Army Chaplain's Museum in Columbia, S.C., Sept. 27. Dr. Stevens is pictured leading U.S. troops in the center of the World War II victory parade down the Champs-Elysees in Paris, France, Aug. 29, 1944, in one of the most famous military photographs in history.
Classes opened Jan. 13 in the new Williams Performing Arts Center, a $17 million facility with 92,000 square feet of space for the Departments of Music and Theatre.
Twenty-four students from the Republic of Madagascar arrived on campus Aug. 34 as participants in ACU's Madagascar Presidential Scholarship Program. The program was founded in collaboration with Madagascar president Marc Ravalomanana.
ACU officially began its yearlong Centennial Celebration Aug. 22 with the Centennial Convocation. This assembly included the annual Parade of Flags, a speech by Dr. Royce Money, the inaugural presentation of “Centennial Fanfare,” commissioned by M.L. Daniels, and the patriotic “Ceremony of Allegiance.” Events continued throughout the 2005-06 school year as ACU reflected on its first century and looked ahead to its second.
Highlights of the Centennial included the unveiling of The ACU Century, a coffee-table book about the university's history, at the JMC Gutenberg Awards Dinner Oct. 13; a Centennial Speaker Series including Robin Roberts, Pat Summerall and Kathleen Norris; the Centennial Historical Walking Tour, with exhibits around campus; and three Centennial Commencements in December 2005 and May and August 2006.
The Centennial Celebration continued with Sing Song: "The 50th Show" Feb. 17-18 and a host of other speakers and events on campus. The 88th Annual Bible Lectureship happened for the last time in February (Feb. 19-22), before transitioning to a September date (Sept. 17-20). The university held its 101st Opening Assembly Aug. 28 in Moody Coliseum, and officially concluded its Centennial Celebration several weeks later, on Sept. 11, with the Second Century Convocation.
A group of ACU administrators and friends, including president Dr. Royce Money, traveled to Madagascar for a special commencement ceremony, honoring the 24 Madagascar Presidential Scholars who arrived on campus in 2004.
More than 900 entering freshmen at ACU received an Apple iPhone or iPod touch, as part of the university's mobile learning initiative. The students used the devices in class and out of class to explore new ways of connecting learning to technology.
ACU's football team, led by head coach Chris Thomsen, earned the Lone Star Conference Championship for the first time since 1973. Running back Bernard Scott won the Harlon Hill Trophy, the highest honor in NCAA Division II football.
The 57,000-square-foot Hunter Welcome Center, named in honor of Dr. Bob Hunter and his wife, Shirley, was dedicated Feb. 21.