40 years & counting
National Park Community College celebrates anniversary
N ational Park Community College has a different name, a different location and a different student population than when it began 40 years ago, but the same student-first approach remains the college’s key to success.
National Park is celebrating 10 years as a merged institution and the 40th anniversary of the founding of Garland County Community College this year. The community college merged with Quapaw Vocational Institute in 2003.
A vote in 1967 denied the opening of a new college, but new legislation invoked a new effort in 1973 and voters overwhelmingly supported the founding of Garland County Community College in July of that year by a 74-26 margin.
“We had a tremendous amount of support from the community once we got started,” said Ron Chesser, director of counseling at NPCC.
The board of trustees first met in August and hired Gerald Fisher as the first president of the college. Registration opened on Sept. 20 and classes began for 500 students on Oct. 1. Evelyn Marie Fagan was the first student to complete registration. Today, National Park’s student population still skews female, but the average age is more along the average college student age. The average age of a GCCC student in 1973 was 37.
“These are people who had busy lives and wanted to go to school, but even to drive just to Henderson was too much,” said Kenneth Cook, the first faculty member to sign a contract at the school and a current member of the faculty at National Park.
Garland County Community College began without its own physical location. Offices of the college were established in St. Gabriel’s School on Silver Street and later moved to the First Federal Building. Classes were held in locations all over Hot Springs, including St. Gabriel’s, Langston school, Southwest Junior High and First Methodist Church, which would serve as the college’s main hub.
“Wherever there was an open room,” said original and current faculty member Barbara Briscoe. “I didn’t teach at a strip club like Thad (Flenniken).”
Classes outgrew Langston, and Flenniken, who still teaches art at National Park, began to teach class in a building between two bars on Ouachita Avenue. He said there was also a “flophouse” over the top.
“Every time we had classes, there was an incident,” Flenniken said. “We had fire trucks and police cars and everything that would be interrupting the classes that would be going on. We would have to clear off all of the liquor bottles and everything when we came in the morning. And sometimes we would have to encourage people to move on who had spent the night on the doorstop.”
Flenniken met a woman nearby and suggested she take courses with the college. The woman enrolled in one of Briscoe’s classes. Briscoe tells of a time the woman began a presentation set to music during one class.
“And she didn’t say a word,” Briscoe
said. “She had on this straight shift dress with a zipper on the front and she pulls the zipper down toward her cleavage. I go, ‘Oh my God. I’m going to lose my job if this woman takes her clothes off,’ because I knew she was a stripper.
“The guys in the class were going, ‘Yeah.’ The music kept going. She turned her back to the class and we heard the zipper go all the way down. I said, ‘She really is going to strip.’ She pulled one (strap) off one shoulder and one off the other shoulder and the music still going. People were going, ‘I can’t believe this.’
“She let the dress drop and she had a bikini on underneath. Then she said, ‘Now that I have your full attention, I’d like to talk to you about burlesque.’ That was her attention-getter for the speech.”
Enrollment increased to 1,000 in January as members of a site selection committee were seeking a permanent campus location. Gene Parker, who is still a member of the board, was appointed chairperson of the site selection committee. Quapaw Vocational Technical School joined the joint effort to acquire the land.
The Mid-America Park campus began with five buildings for administration, math, science, liberal arts and a library, as well as extra pods for additional space and offices. The dedication address on April 24, 1977 was made by former U.S. Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt.
The move began a nearly three-decade long neighborship with Quapaw, which had been authorized in March 1973. The school had originally been authorized as a branch of Ouachita Vocational Technical School in Malvern in December 1969.
John L. Kaufman served as the first director of Quapaw until August 1977 and was succeeded by Hugh Cheek. Cheek would serve as director for the next decade. New facilities constructed in 1978 would cost $1.25 million on 28 acres. The two schools would operate next to each other yet unaffiliated until 2003. College employees would eat in the cafeteria at Quapaw, which even advertised in the GCCC yearbook in 1979.
The Garland County Community College Lakers began competing in several sports, including basketball and tennis, in 1974. The school colors were green and gold and the teams competed in the National Junior College Athletic Association. The basketball team originally practiced in the gym at Langston and played at area high schools. Chesser coached one year in the situation before deciding the team needed its own home court.
Larry Bracken and Don Harris, a dean with the school at the time and later elected to the board, went to Boston on behalf of the college and arranged the purchase of the Boston Celtics’ practice floor for $10,000. It was set up on a Sunday at the convention center and 4,000 people were in attendance the next day for a Harlem Globetrotters game.
Legislation passed in the early 90s led to the elimination of athletics at nearly all twoyear institutions in the state by prohibiting the use of school funds on athletics. Colleges must now fund athletic departments through their own booster clubs. The restrictions are still in place today.
Fisher retired in June 1994. The Gerald H. Fisher Campus Center was officially dedicated with keynote speakers Sen. Dale Bumpers and Gov. Jim Guy Tucker.
State legislation passed in 1991 led to the mergers of many of the state’s vocational schools, but Hot Springs voters rejected the measure. Quapaw eventually became the Quapaw Technical Institute in July 1991. Prospects for a merger stalled until Sally Carder became the director at Quapaw in 2000 and talks resumed. A two-year feasibility study cleared the way for a merger.
The two sides decided to begin with a new name, new mission and a new logo instead of merging into one or the other. Garland County and Quapaw taught many of the same courses and consisted of duplicate divisions. Still, both institutions were funded differently and board seats were governed differently.
“What we had to do was work out all of those details,” Carder said. “And the good thing about it, going through the process that we went through, we were able to put together – in legislation – benefits that were the best benefits from Quapaw and the best benefits from the college. There is no other institution in the state that has the benefits package that we have because we were able to put all of that together.”
National Park Community College began operations in July 2003. Carder served as
vice president for Technical Education until Spencer retired in 2005, when she immediately succeeded him as president.
A number of buildings have been added in the decade since the merger, the population soared to over 4,000 for a semester in 2011 and the student body now consists of a majority of traditional students ages 18-24. Some of the changes have been aided by an improved perception of community colleges.
“I think over the years, the recognition and the credibility of the community colleges have grown,” said Susan Aldridge, assistant to the president at NPCC.
“It took a while for (parents) to trust us with their 18-year old children,” Cook said. “They just didn’t. It took a while for that to happen.”
Briscoe, Chesser, Cook and Flenniken are just a few examples of faculty members who have been with National Park for the long haul and it is likely that only Chesser, who was principal at Southwest, would live or work in the area if not for the college.
An inevitable staff turnover and ever-improving technology are the most significant changes on their way to National Park. The college fights to keep up in technology despite state funding dropping from 80 percent of the budget to 58 percent.
The addition of a technical campus remains a priority for National Park, despite voters rejecting an attempt to increase the college’s millage from 0.8 mills to 2.5 this April by a 60-40 margin.
“What hasn’t changed are the facilities that we have on the tech side,” Carder said. “It’s to the point you don’t want to pour money into a rat hole. We’ve got it as good as I guess we could have it. We’ve got to start supporting that side. We still have waiting lists.”
Carder said faculty at Henderson love students from the National Park. She said that shows that the school’s student-first approach is what still makes it successful after 40 years.
Registration by computer
Story by Jay Bell Photos by Mara Kuhn and Richard Rasmussen and courtesy of National Park Community College
1982-83 Lakers Baseball Team
National Park Community College faculty and staff gather for a photo to celebrate the school’s growth during the past four decades.
National Park Community College President Sally Carder stands in front of a portrait of the first college president Gerald Fisher.