JSU celebrates 137 years in business

Jacksonville State University, originally known as Jacksonville State Normal School, celebrated its 137th anniversary on Saturday. JSU has had a total of 12 official presidents. (Scott Young/The Chanticleer)Jacksonville State University, originally known as Jacksonville State Normal School, celebrated its 137th anniversary on Saturday. JSU has had a total of 12 official presidents. (Scott Young/The Chanticleer)

Zachary Grizzard, Correspondent

Jacksonville State University, originally known as Jacksonville State Normal School, celebrated its 137th anniversary on Saturday, February 22, 2020.

On February 22, 1883, Governor Edward O’Neal signed a bill into law to create Jacksonville State Normal School.

A “normal school” is an institution designed for the training of high school graduates to become teachers through learning teaching standards and curriculum

The normal school did not originally start out by building its own facilities, but rather, it took over what was considered the Calhoun College. The entire campus consisted of one double-story building that was seated upon twelve acres of farmland.

In its earliest days, a board of trustees was appointed to hire employees and assist in running the then-small college. One of the first motions of the board was to hire James C. Ryals Jr. as president. At the end of 1883, the chair of the Normal School Directors, Mr. William Mark Haymes, reported that the school had taken in $4,751 that included a grant from the state of Alabama totaling $2,500. The normal school had 25 students enrolled and the preparatory school had 222.

The normal school kept its name until the 1930s, where it became the Jacksonville State Teachers College. The name remained the same until the 1950s when the school was accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. With this accreditation, the name changed to Jacksonville State College. The college then kept this name until roughly the mid-1960s, when the Alabama State Board of Education elevated the school from college status to university status.

By the late 1960s, the name ‘Jacksonville State University’ had been taken on, and the Alabama State Board of Education divested themselves of the responsibility. 

In August of 1967, the University appointed an independent Board of Trustees to assume the role previously filled by the state department of education. The Jacksonville State University leadership seen today was a result of this decision in 1967.

Leadership at JSU has had many different names and faces — with varying terms and accomplishments. The university has officially had 12 presidents, the first was James Gazaway Ryals, Jr.

  • James Gazaway Ryals, Jr. was the first president of the State Normal School, his term was a short 2 years.
  • J. Harris Chappell was selected to finish out the term of Ryals. Chappell resigned at the graduation of the first graduating class in 1886. He was later elected president of Georgia College in Milledgeville, GA.
  • Carleton Bartlett Gibson served the college for six years. He was born and raised in Mobile, AL and worked for several years at a college in Autauga County before coming to Jacksonville. 
  • J.B. Jarrett served the university less than a year, there is little recorded at the university level about his history other than his name was often misspelled and in multiple ways.
  • Jacob Forney served the university from 1893-1899. Forney attended the Normal School and graduated with honors, he later attended The University of Alabama, and also assisted with the founding of the Noble School for boys in Anniston, AL. He later resigned from the presidency to serve as a chair for the Education Department at the University of Alabama. Forney Hall, a former dormitory built in 1927 that has since been abandoned, was named after the former president.
  • Clarence William Daugette served as the president from 1899-1942. Daugette married the sister of Jacob Forney while he was teaching at the State Normal School. After his brother-in-law’s resignation, he was elected to serve as the president. It is recorded that although Daugette held the highest rank at the normal school, he attended summer college classes at the University of Chicago. Daugette served the longest presidential term ever recorded at JSU and has one building and a scholarship fund named in his honor.
  • Houston Cole served the university from 1942-1971 and is recorded as having the second-longest presidential term in JSU history. A university historian once said regarding Cole that “many ‘firsts’ have been credited to President Houston Cole. Two big steps upward were expanding from the Jacksonville State Teachers College to the Jacksonville State College in 1957, and then to Jacksonville State University in 1966. Other firsts were the development of the Student Government Association, the ROTC program, the student center, the football stadium, the Teacher Hall of Fame, the nursing school, and the police academy. Rapidly increasing enrollment necessitated additional faculty members and changes in the curriculum… The campus grew and new buildings seemed to appear overnight.” 
  • Ernest Stone served the university from 1971-1981. He was in the U.S. Navy and served as both the Alabama State Superintendent and as a local superintendent. Stone married Ms. Kitty Gunn from the area who taught at the local elementary school. The school later became known as Kitty Stone Elementary School, and the art building at JSU later became known as the Ernest Stone Center. Under the leadership of Stone, the JSU budget exceeded $16,800,000 a year, and the campus size stretched to 300 acres.
  • Theron E. Montgomery served the university from 1981-1986. While in office, Montgomery strived to get accreditation standards not held by most other universities. Montgomery also urged individual departments to seek out accreditation for their departments. Montgomery also purchased the Roebuck home which was the former alumni house at the corner of Roebuck Waters and Pelham Road. The Theron E. Montgomery building, colloquially known as the “TMB”, was named in his honor. 
  • Harold J. McGee served the university from 1986-1999. During his term as president, enrollment increased over thirty percent and technology was improved with a $50,000,000 grant. Every accreditation possible was gained for the university and students in almost every subject succeeded. The addition to Martin Hall in 2001 was named in McGee’s honor.
  • William A. Meehan served the university from 1999-2015.  His presidency is recorded as the third-longest in JSU history. Meehan received his Bachelor of Science and Master of Science from the university. He was later asked to stay and teach biology full time. While teaching, Meehan was eventually asked to become the university president on July 1, 1999. While serving as president, five-buildings were constructed and one named after him in his retirement, Meehan Hall.
  • John M. Beehler served the university from 2015-2019. Beehler assisted the university in bringing the department of academic affairs into six sub-groups or schools for individual degree work. Beehler also supervised an increase in enrollment while serving. Beehler also led the university through a major rebuilding effort when an EF-3 tornado affect the campus on March 18, 2018, leaving virtually no building untouched. On October 22, 2019, Beehler’s contract was terminated by the JSU Board of Trustees.
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