Dearths of Information

At UHD, the name O’Kane is ubiquitous. Both our gallery and our theater are named for this person. But how much do we really know about the life and work of Harry O’Kane, for whom these two places are named?

When I began working here, I assumed Harry O’Kane was some kind of art professor. His name is attached to fine arts in a very tangible way, so my assumption could probably be forgiven. Later, I heard that he was actually the Dean of Students, and that he started the basketball team, and the rodeo team, at South Texas Junior College. What? I asked myself. Basketball? But his name is on an art gallery.

The other day, as I was listening to the oral history of the first basketball coach at South Texas, Coach Dickerson, I heard him say that O’Kane hired him in 1955, as part of his attempt to create an atmosphere of camaraderie among the students at the junior college. With no dorms and no campus life to speak of, O’Kane probably realized this was an uphill struggle. Unfortunately, there is no way to know what O’Kane thought about nearly anything: we have no archival materials from his work or life.

This happens sometimes, in archives. When I was writing my masters thesis, for instance, there was a man named Hackett who was integral to the story I was telling. But he had no story, because his papers were never donated to an archives (there is a good possibility that they were destroyed after he took his own life). So when I heard about Harry O’Kane, I felt like I had to at least try to piece his life together, if I could. With no primary archival materials to work from, I resorted to the genealogists’ tools: vital records and census files.

This is the story of Harry Ward O’Kane, as far as I can tell:

He was born April 19, 1905, in Polo, Illinois. He may have been the youngest son of Aaron and Sadie (McNair) O’Kane. They moved to Waverly, Nebraska by the time Harry was 5. By 1920, Harry’s two older brothers, Charles and John D., had both moved out to Sacramento, California, to work for the railroads. By 1930, young Harry had joined them there (we must assume that he either did his bachelors degree in Nebraska or in California, but there is no record at hand of where he did his studies). Harry is listed in the 1930 census as a Methodist/Episcopal pastor in the rolls.

In the 1940 census, we find Harry has turned up in Chicago, Illinois, working as a “clerk” and boarding in the 46th Ward (this is north side Chicago, so we could make the assumption he was studying at either Loyola or DePaul for his Bachelors of Divinity, a postgraduate degree that he claimed to have earned).

The census records go quiet after this, because the National Archives does not make records post 1950 available to the public without permission of the individual or their descendants. However, we have something better: the catalogs and yearbooks of the South Texas Junior College.

There is, unfortunately, no record of when Harry arrived here in Houston, although he came to be the Dean of Students sometime in the 1940s. From all he accomplished here, he must have kept very busy with his work at South Texas, and with hobbies (he never married). He was one of the founding members of the Houston Philatelic Society, and as mentioned above, started many clubs and other social endeavors for the College. The catalogs of the College don’t mention staff members until 1950, and he is listed there and afterwards, until his death in 1967.

O’Kane died of carcinoma of the tongue, March 31, 1967–his attending physician stated on the death certificate that he had been treating him for nearly a year at the time of death. He is buried in the Lawndale cemetery. While we know that O’Kane had at least 6 nephews and nieces, we only have records of them to the 1940 census, and show them as living in Sacramento (his two brothers both passed away before him, and both in California). As far as I can tell, there was no obituary sent to the papers.

The gallery and the theater, both named for him, were founded in 1970, and the story is that they were started from his monetary donations. We can only assume it was designated from his will and estate.

When we have so little information to use, piecing together a life can be very difficult. But in the case of a man as important to our history as Harry Ward O’Kane, it is worth the trouble.

 

Accreditation, 1959-1960

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In 1959, the South Texas Junior College, which for 11 years had been intrinsically tied to the destiny of the South Texas College of Law, decided to become accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). It was a major step for the College, since SACS, established in 1895, had a very rigorous process for accreditation and there were several hurdles to jump over before being approved. We are lucky in the archives to have the personal correspondence between Chester Cochran, South Texas director of development, and Gordon Sweet, Executive Secretary of SACS, during the process of initial accreditation.

The College began investigating the process in 1956, and by late 1958 reached out to the organization to apply. The preliminary site visit was promising, but there were concerns: namely, that the Junior College had no separate Board, the library was in several unconnected rooms, the Registrar and the Dean of Students were the same person, there were not enough women for a co-educational college, and the faculty did not do enough service through committees and administration. After several site visits and a lot of letter writing (and some rented limousines for the SACS officials, and a few golf games at the Houston Country Club with John Kelsey and other influential Houstonians), Mr. Sweet was pleased to offer the final report and acceptance.

When SACS offered their accreditation to South Texas, many substantive changes had occurred, probably in what felt like a whirlwind to the college community. Faculty were shown to be more engaged,  the library built out new space, the students had created a Student Government Association, and most importantly, the Junior College had begun to administratively de-tangle itself from the College of Law (the Colleges would break permanently in 1966).

Even today, a visit from SACS, like the one that occurred this past April, is a flurry of activity as the University puts its best foot forward for inspection. During the first round of this process nearly 60 years ago, it must have felt like quite an accomplishment indeed to make it through the gauntlet.

The Last Halcyon Days of South Texas Junior College

As an “insider’s look” at the transfer from South Texas Junior College to UHD, a guest post from Dr. Garna Christian on a mysterious and notorious President of STJC, David Reagan:

David Reagan did not assume the presidency of South Texas Junior College in the early1970s as a knight in shining armor, but he did “tool around” in a fast red sports car.

He might have been confused with Sir Lancelot for good reason: bright, young, and personable, Dr. Reagan convinced the anxious college board that he was the man to guide the once prosperous, now faltering, downtown school through an unusually rough patch in its twenty-plus-year history. Created in the optimistic post World War II period, the sister of South Texas College of Law outperformed its expectations. One of only several institutions of higher learning accommodating the general Houston public, STJC outgrew its quarters in the parent YMCA at 1600 Louisiana and moved into the cavernous Merchants and Manufacturers building in 1967. The Vietnam War pushed attendance to the highest of any private two year college in the state. However, the cost of acquiring the building combined with a slack in enrollment as the war wound down placed the school in a precarious financial position. The new Houston Community College system offered a variety of locations at low tuition to prospective students.  President W.I. Dykes, fatigued by years of managing STJC and the fragile health of his wife, was open to retirement.

The college board doubtless picked the most vibrant candidate available. Reagan exuded energy and confidence and the determination to breathe new life into the institution. He clearly perceived the faculty as, at best, lethargic. The new president resolved to reinvigorate his charges. In the first faculty meeting he challenged them to speculate on how many uses one could find for a pencil. He followed this novel beginning by doubling efforts during registration. Two profs returned from a brief lunch to read a note on the door: “I was here! Where were you?” He closed the faculty lounge to misdirected teachers loitering between classes. Reagan and his imported aides pressed the departmental chairs to keep their members in line, dividing the faculty. Conversations became suspect. At a faculty meeting an attendee accused another of plotting with an administration official.  The accused denied the allegation and went to work for the community college. A subsequent meeting found the faculty in open rebellion, laying plans to protest the administration to the board, donors, and to High Heaven. Reportedly, a well placed prof went to one of the college’s most generous benefactors and moved him to carry the message to the board. Reagan was immediately removed from the presidency and, rather as in the reverse of a Hollywood Western, Dr. Dykes rode in from the sunset to temporarily take the reins.

Already seeking a merger and inspired more so by recent events, Dr. Dykes assumed negotiations with the Houston Community College.  The talks reputedly broke down when HCC would not promise to retain the faculty and staff. Ever the caring father, Dykes would not sacrifice individuals for the benefits of the deal. Against such prolonged drama, it seemed perfectly reasonable when a deus ex machina appeared in the form of University of Houston president Dr. Philip Hoffman, a true knight, seeking a downtown campus to replace a lost business school.  In the end, all contributed to the formation of the University of Houston-Downtown, albeit some in a bizarre fashion.

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Purchase of STJC by the University of Houston, 1974

It has been difficult to find the “true” story behind the purchase of the South Texas Junior College by the University of Houston, although the outline is quite straightforward: in 1974, South Texas was in talks with HCC to merge. But in a very quick turn of events, UH bought the College in August, foregoing the state coordinating board’s approval with the reasoning that they were not merging at all. President Hoffman and the University of Houston attorneys argued that UH was merely buying assets to expand its own downtown operation which had been closed due to building projects. In a private memo from spring 1974, one of President Hoffman’s staffers remarked that if HCC and STJC were allowed to merge, it would be disastrous for the University, which might never get another foothold in downtown (earlier that year they had lost their property there when it was bought to build the Houston Center).

The state coordinating board was furious when they were informed of the purchase, but it was a fait accompli.  President Hoffman worked swiftly and tried to use his influence to make the way easier for the changeover, but South Texas had been, until its purchase, a private junior college, and now would need to orient all of its business operations and procedures to being a public junior college in just three weeks. This was a massively complex undertaking, since all of the students registered to begin classes in August needed to be vetted and approved by the state as eligible candidates for in-state tuition. Molly Wood, then the Registrar, recounted how they worked every day and every night for seven days under the supervision of a state auditor to get nearly 5,000 students verified for eligibility. In the end, though, in late August 1974, the College opened its doors as the downtown branch of the University of Houston. That year, commencement was held with the regular UH graduation in Hoffheinz Pavilion, and everyone at One Main was a “Cougar,” but it was not an easy arrangement. One reason for this was that the faculty of the Junior College had all moved over into faculty positions, per the terms of the purchase. The faculty of UH did not think that their colleagues at UH’s “downtown college” should be afforded the same treatment or tenure, since many of the faculty from STJC had only their masters degrees.

The solution was relatively simple, however: the next year, University of Houston Downtown College became its own administrative unit, adopted the Gator as its mascot and its marketing colors went from red and white to green and white. The student newspaper reinvented itself as the Bayou Review, and Dr. Dykes formally resigned as President of the College, passing the torch to Dr. J. Don Boney, formerly the head of HCC. As an African-American and with a PhD in urban education, Dr. Boney personified the kind of commitment to the community on which the College had always prided itself. As Elliott Johnson, Chairman of the Board of Trustees said, the College was “dedicated to making high quality educational self-improvement and citizen-enlightenment opportunities available to every diligent Houstonian.”

Under Dr. Boney, the College went from a junior college to a four-year institution in 1979, though the fight through the state legislature and coordinating board was incredibly difficult (thanks, of course, to the still-fresh insult of not petitioning the state for the right to merge with UH in the first place). Cementing its place, however, as a fully-fledged university within the UH system was key to the institution’s health and success in later years: open enrollment and low-cost, UHD could continue to offer the under-served and nontraditional students of Houston an education that focused on their needs and programs that they wanted.

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Reminiscences on South Texas

Thanks to the research and publication of materials on South Texas Junior College by archivist Melissa Torres, the shadow that has long hung over UHD’s predecessor is lifting. The results are a pleasant surprise to many, rather like learning that a vaguely known relative was a solid citizen and not the feared drinking uncle.

The founding of what was once the largest private two-year college in Texas represented a bold concept, fashioned in the heady aftermath of World War II. It opened its doors in 1948 in the beautiful ten story Italian Renaissance-styled Young Men’s Christian Association building at a somewhat remote 1600 Louisiana. The newest center of higher education in Houston shared a couple of floors with South Texas College of Law, the remainder of the space housing dormitories and activities of the parent YMCA.  The two schools constituted a planned family, as the YMCA sought to provide the law students with a fuller college agenda.  The times proved propitious for an even brighter future for the new entry. Returning war veterans, bolstered by the G.I. Bill of Education, were pouring into rapidly growing Houston and set enrollment records at the University of Houston. There were few alternatives with no local community college system and no state supported universities bearing low tuition. Students liked the family like atmosphere of South Texas Junior College, some fondly calling it “L.S.U.—Louisiana Street University,”—and attendance increased until it burst its rock walls in 1967, declaring its independence from the Y and moving into the present UHD location of the Merchants and Manufacturers Building.

When I arrived at the college in 1962, a number of the industrious first responders remained, W.I. Dykes, “Doc” Shannon, Harry O’Kane, names which still resonate at UHD. Dr. Dykes, whose quiet humor and speaking style echoed Will Rogers, was president and his philosophy was that the administration administered and the teachers taught. And they taught well. Dean Ross Toole emphasized at my hiring that South Texas considered itself the first two years of university, not “grades thirteen and fourteen.”  The college prided itself on its successful basketball and rodeo teams, the latter sponsored by a wonderful fellow named Joe Norwood, who with his brother had wrestled in the area as the masked Demon Brothers before managing the college bookstore and later becoming UHD police chief.

Under reported, South Texas set an example in racial integration in the racially charged 1960s. Segregated by law from the time of its founding, the college opened its doors to African Americans without fanfare while local school districts were funding budgets to block desegregation. One day registrar Helen Hutchens received a telephone call from a young man stating that he and a group of friends were en route to the college and expected to be admitted.  Not pausing, Mrs. Hutchens told them to hurry and welcomed them at the entrance. South Texas Junior College conducted integrated classes the following semester without incident.

Garna Christian

The Fundraising Letter of 1967

While listening to the oral history of W.I. Dykes, the first head of UHD and the last head of South Texas Junior College, he mentioned that one of his greatest accomplishments was settling the College into the M&M building.

After the move in 1967, however, the cost of refurbishing and repurposing the building for academic uses was staggering. Dykes and the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Elliott Johnson, found themselves  with a debt of $250,000, and unsure how to make up the difference (in today’s dollars, that would be about a $1.7m shortfall). C.W. Denman, who was the director of development at the time, suggested sending ” a letter” to alumni, the business community, past donors, anyone that they could think of. Dykes mentioned that no one seriously thought they could make up all that shortfall with a single request for money.

About a week after listening to this story, while going through a collection of donated materials, the “letter” appeared. It was not actually a letter, but a two-color brochure, double-sided, with photos of the new classrooms and labs, the library, students at work, and the administrators in their new location with “ample space.” In the text, it reminds the reader that all of the work done to “provide business and industry in this area with its greatest asset, trained personnel…is being done without any cost to the taxpayer and for this reason the Board feels that those who are served by this institution of higher learning will want to contribute to its continued growth and prosperity.”

And apparently they were right. In Dykes’ oral history, he said that it was by this single letter that they received, in donations, well over the $250,000 they needed. He was quite proud to say that no one ever expected they could accomplish so much with a single letter.

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1967 development “letter.” Language lab featured on the cover of the brochure.
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Interior of the 1967 “letter.” The biology lab on the left, the library in the middle and the audiovisual classroom, plus photos of Elliott Johnson (top) and C.W. Denman (middle).

The Legacy of South Texas Junior College

Although most people within the UHD community believe that the University is around 40 years old, our institution is much older. Founded by the YMCA in 1948, the South Texas Junior College was meant to serve returning veterans and other nontraditional students to help them achieve higher education. The Junior College was paired with the South Texas College of Law, and they shared space at 1600 Louisiana for many years. When the two entities split, South Texas took over its own management and broke ties with the YMCA. They leased space at One Main and we all know the rest of the story.

But even after the purchase of STJC by the University of Houston, the University kept its identity as an institution that served students who would not usually be served by the higher education system. Open enrollment, programs that focus directly on student success, low tuition rates, a central location that can be accessed from most of the city–these are the cornerstones of what the South Texas Junior College, and UHD, have built their reputation upon. This is the history that needs to be shared of this place, and hopefully as we build the archives, the story will continue to develop, deepen, and grow richer.

The South Texas Seahawks

Originally, the South Texas Junior College and the South Texas College of Law were the same institution, a private junior college and law school administered by the YMCA. Classes were held in the basement of the YMCA building that used to sit at 1600 Louisiana (now the site of the Lyric Center). The South Texas Seahawks had their own yearbooks, newspaper (The Talon), basketball team, student government, and community service organizations. The law school, which started in 1923, predated the junior college by 25 years, but after World War II, the YMCA saw the great need to offer associate’s degrees and college coursework to veterans returning home. The Junior College began in 1948 as a night school, serving many low-income and non-traditional students in furtherance of their education. In the yearbooks, it’s easy to see the difference between the students of law and the students of the junior college, but the two existed peaceably until the mid 1960s, when the American Bar Association began to require a certain level of certification in the law schools in order for their students to be eligible to sit the bar exam. It was at this point, in 1966, that the South Texas College of Law became its own private law school, and the South Texas Junior College officially cut ties with the YMCA to become a private junior college (the largest in the state of Texas). In 1967, looking for a new home, STJC signed an agreement with the Merchants and Manufacturers Building to buy the entire thing and take over its current leases with tenants. Several donors helped to make this a reality by giving large monetary gifts or gifts-in-kind (including a diamond necklace worth over $10,000 in 1960s dollars). However, it was difficult to make ends meet, especially with the booming growth of the Houston Community College system. STJC looked at partnerships with HCC and, of course, the University of Houston, who had to close the doors on its original downtown center due to the competition from HCC and STJC. As we know, it was a merger with UH that eventually succeeded, although in 1975, scarcely a year after the finalizing of the merger, the new University of Houston Downtown College hired Dr. J. Don Boney away from his position as president of HCC to take over the presidency at UHDC.

Early History of the University of Houston-Downtown

Written circa 1987; scanned from an original typed copy signed only LME

South Texas Junior College, a private junior college offering only academic courses leading to the AS and AA degrees, had prospered until the very early 70’s when the Houston Community College System came into existence. Not able to compete with the far lower tuition, the junior college experienced rapid declines in enrollment dropping from approximately 5,000 students in 1970-71 to 2,500 in 1973-74.
The problem was compounded by a president who had replaced the president of many years, Dr. W. I. Dykes. The new president, Dr. Reagan, virtually depleted the fund balances of South Texas and made sweeping moves which demoralized personnel. Long-time administrators were replaced by others, and he ranked the faculty with no prior consultation of the Faculty Senate. The faculty rebelled, went directly to the Board of Trustees with documentation sufficient for Dr. Reagan’s removal from office. Dr. Dykes was persuaded to come out of retirement and resume the presidency until the crisis could be resolved.
Realizing the college’s dire financial straits, Dr. Dykes in consultation with Mr. Elliott Johnson, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, determined that affiliation with another higher education institution was the only alternative. Houston Community College’s President, Dr. J. Don Boney, was approached in Fall 1973. Dr. Boney was very interested and worked diligently to have South Texas Junior College become a campus of the Houston Community College System. HCC was at the time only one of three community college systems in Texas, at that time, to have no tax base and no independent board of trustees (Houston Independent School District trustees served as the community college system’s trustees). The politics and logistics of merger developed into a quagmire of obstacles. In early summer, 1974, negotiations ceased.
In July, 1974, Dr. Dykes and Mr. Johnson approached Dr. Philip Hoffman, President of the University of Houston and Chancellor of a newly evolving University of Houston System. Dr. Hoffman involved Mr. Douglas Mclean, Vice President for Finance. These four individuals, with no consultation outside the group, crafted an agreement subsequently approved by the South Texas Board of Trustees by which the University of Houston System assumed all assets and liabilities of South Texas Junior College and declared it the fourth campus of the University of Houston System. The University of Houston System Board of Regents approved.
The two boards, and the four negotiators–Hoffman, Mclean, Elliott and Dykes–were the only ones who knew of the action until early August. Dr. Hoffman called Dr. Boney to give him early warning since he had previously been in negotiations for a merger with the community college system; some South Texas personnel were informed. Then in a newspaper headline, the Houston community, state and governmental officials, and others learned of the new addition to the University of Houston System.
Especially noteworthy was the fact that the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board was informed by the media even though they were charged by the State Legislature to approve all proposed additional campuses. With a new Coordinating Board Commissioner, Dr. Kenneth Ashworth, functioning in a new environment that emphasized ceasing the proliferation of universities and curtailing program duplication, there was consternation at the state level. Had the state not been in the beginning stages of a transition of Commissioners from Bevington Reed to Ashworth, the “slight of hand” by which the University of Houston-Downtown came to be might have had a different ending. But, with a thinly veiled excuse of reestablishing the University of Houston’s Downtown School, an adult education branch campus which had existed until a few years previously when the downtown location’s lease was lost, the University of Houston-Downtown (then known as the University of Houston Downtown College) was not officially approved, but was ignored and allowed to exist.
The Downtown College acquisition met with similar consternation at the University of Houston. Outrage prevailed. President Hoffman was censured by the Faculty Senate. Had it been known by more than the inner circle that University of Houston resources, both human and financial, would be used to support the first year of operation of the new campus, the resulting hostility can only be imagined.
Dr. Hoffman called Dr. J. Don Boney in early fall, 1974, and told him he wanted him to become the first permanent president of the Downtown College. This transpired August 1, 1975. Dr. Boney took over a campus acquired strictly as an “opportunity purchase” with no thought to its role within the system, population to be served, or mission. The campus began the transition–private to publicly funded, two-year to four-year, unranked to ranked faculty.
For two years all energies were focused on the development of baccalaureate degree programs, hiring faculty and staff to support the burgeoning student body, developing administrative support systems, and implementing a new organizational structure. The new structure was implemented before asking Coordinating Board approval, further “blackening” the reputation of the campus.
In 1979 yet another back-room deal, again without Coordinating Board approval, was cut. This time Dr. Hoffman was not in on the contrived strategy. On the floor of the Texas Legislature, then Lieutenant Governor Hobby introduced a bill, legislatively authorizing the Downtown College. This legislation made the campus legitimate and knowledge of the inner circle at UHD working with Lieutenant Governor Hobby is still closely held. While not endearing the campus with the System or Coordinating Board, it was probably the most significant event in the College’s history.
Upon Dr. Boney’s death in August, 1979, Dr. Schilt assumed campus leadership in 1980 and was the “great healer” with the University of Houston System. In order to get the first four-year degree programs approved, the University of Houston and the Coordinating Board were placated by an emphasis on career-focused degrees. Non-duplication was stressed. The first approvals were for degrees in Business Services Technology, Business Management Technology, Engineering Technology, and General Studies. These titles somewhat disguised our business and liberal arts offerings.

Moving to the modest offerings of today with titles which are fairly understandable has taken much effort, patience, confidence building, and persuasion. A base is laid for future progress but only finesse and political savvy can bring program expansion to desired for fruition.

O’Kane Gallery

This is a short history of the O’Kane Gallery, written just before the current curator of the gallery, Mark Cervenka, took the position. This history covers 1967 (when the South Texas Junior College moved to One Main) until 1998.


The O’Kane Gallery, recently relocated to the south area of the third floor at One Main Street, traces its beginnings to the late 1960’s. A small art gallery was sponsored and maintained by the South Texas Junior College Humanities Department in the area now occupied by the UH-Downtown Police Office. At that time, STJC also had a small theater with a proscenium stage on the tenth floor. The theater proved to be inadequate and was demolished in order to remodel the tenth floor for rental purposes.
A committee of Nicholas Franks (then Chairman of the Department of Humanities), Marvin Suits (then Business Manager), and Ross W. Toole (then Dean of the College), consulted with Dr. W.I. Dykes (President of STJC) and presented the need for an art gallery and a theater. A bequest to STJC by Harry O’Kane (Athletic Director and dean of Students, 1949 – 1967) had not been expended for want of a suitable project; an additional bequest of $5000 became available following the death of Mary Bingman (an English instructor at STJC, 1966-1970). Dr. Dykes approved the use of these funds toward a gallery/theater project. A plan was presented to the Humphreys Foundation, and Trustees John S. Boles and John M. Winterbotham visited STJC to view the proposed site on the third floor. They, together with Trustee J.C. Bertman, Jr., approved the plan and provided the additional funds for the facilities in which art and drama activities could enrich and broaden the educational experience of students and serve as a cultural center for the downtown area and its service communities. The gallery/theater was named for Harry W. O’Kane, memorializing the impact of his warm personality upon the students and faculty of STJC.
From 1976 – 77, Floyd Newsum, currently Professor of Art at UHD, directed the Gallery, followed by Mrs. Veta Winick from 1977 – 95. Since 1995, Mrs. Ann Trask has developed the gallery as a focal point for art exhibits and activities which mirror the campus and the city’s vitality and ethnic diversity.