Throughout the past 60 years, dreams have preceded realities at South Plains College.
In 1957, Dr. Thomas Spencer set out to establish a new two-year college in Texas, the first one in the state in more than a decade.
“The first vote for it was in 1957, and it was defeated,” recalled Nathan Tubb, the college’s first registar who later served as the academic dean from 1965 to 1981. “So they formed a committee and tried a different way. They put posters in town for it.”
As president of Blinn College, Dr. Spencer was up to the challenge of starting up a new college in the South Plains region.
One of the first faculty to be hired was Earl Gerstenberger, a former Blinn College agriculture and science instructor. Gerstenberger taught agriculture at SPC from 1958 to 1969, then served as Dean of Men from 1967 to 1973. In 1973, he was became Dean of Students, a position he held until 1982 when he became vice president of academic affairs before retiring in 1993.
“I was an assistant football coach, baseball coach and taught physical education at Blinn,” recalled Gerstenberger. “I had a degree in agriculture education, and our president there came up here and started this college, Dr. Spencer.”
Dr. Spencer came to the area before the college started to speak to groups that would be interested in building a college.
“So he came a year before the college opened and he supervised the forming of the junior college district,” Gerstenberger said, “establishing a tax base for paying for the college, building the campus and hiring the faculty.”
When Dr. Spencer arrived in Levelland, there was nothing but a field to build a brand new college on. With instructions from the South Plains College Board of Regents, he had $1,086,920.01 to open a college for the fall semester of 1958.
“We were accredited by the Texas Association, but you had to be 5 years old to be accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools,” Tubb explained. “They sent out a group and they liked what they saw. So they went back and recommended that we get fully accredited by the Southern Association of College and Schools. That accreditation was the highlight of my career.”
The land for SPC was acquired from the Post-Montgomery estate. The first five campus buildings were built on 44 acres of land that cost $29,566.85. Contractor Harry E. Miller agreed to complete the construction of the college’s first five buildings, which were the Administration Building, Gym-Student Center, Library-Fine Arts Building, Agricultural Shop Building and Auditorium, by Sept. 10, 1958.
“Almost all of the faculty, there was 19 faculty and three administrators, nearly all of the faculty were young,” said Gerstenberger. “Even the president at that time was in his 40s. The rest of the faculty was young, in their 20s to 30s. It was a new experience for all of us. Everybody did whatever it took to make it go.”
Gerstenberger arrived in mid-summer in 1958, finding the college uncompleted as the first registration neared and classes were scheduled to begin on Sept. 15. The first faculty helped prepare the college to open for the first registration.
“We had to go in and nail the windows into the library shelving to keep the window from falling in,” Gerstenberger recalled. “All of the faculty and their spouses, in meeting the deadline for opening up the college, went in and helped clean. I went in and helped put in blackboards. It was a closeknit bunch of people, old friends, and we had classes to teach. But we also did other things, whatever it took. Every faculty member had a club or two that they sponsored. It was just a new experience for all of us. It was fun really, but we worked hard too.”
Despite some naysayers in the community, the first registration was a success with 576 enrolling in both day and night classes.
“It started out pretty small,” said Tubb. “There were 202 or so in the day program, and 258 or so in the evening college. We didn’t have computers. We did it all with pencils. There were people in town that didn’t think we would have eight or more students.”
Faculty worked all night to process the registration for the 60 classes that would begin the very next day.
“There was a lot of optimism in the Levelland district that we would grow,” Gerstenberger explained. “But there were some negative feelings that we were over-building, and what would happen if students didn’t show up. We had anxiety about having students show up. We had built the school for 500 or so students. A lot of people said that we would never meet that. We had almost 500 students that first semester. We’ve had so much support from the community over the years. To ever be this size, none of us ever thought that would happen. But it did.”
First commencement at SPC was held on May 25,1959, with two graduates from Levelland, Betty Moore Rowell and Billie G. Alexander. One year later, during spring graduation in 1960, 43 students walked the stage. Forty years later, the number of graduates rose to 707, in 1998.
“The first two or three years were pretty small,” said Tubb. “It wasn’t till the fourth year the enrollment started to grow.”
In 1960, the first three dormitories were constructed. Frazier, Stroud and Sue Spencer halls joined the original five buildings. Later, South Sue Spencer, Gillespie and Magee halls were added in 1962, Lamar hall was added in 1995, and the Smallwood Complex was added in 1981. The construction of residence halls allowed the college to enter a period of growth.
“I like to think of South Plains as a community college,” explained Tubb. “Most junior colleges then just offered the first two academic years and then it would transfer to a university. We started out as having welding, and machine shop. We had a technical building, so we offered a wide variety of things, and that appealed to students in the area. We had an extension course at Reese Air Force Base, and that attracted a large number of students.”
By 1968, SPC’s enrollment had grown from 574 students to 1,641 students in more than 42 programs.
“It’s an entirely different institution,” Tubb said proudly. “I retired in 1981. Well, it has changed a good deal.”
As the college entered the 1970s, residents of Levelland, Hockley County, the South Plains and Eastern New Mexico realized that SPC was on the educational map.
“After we got up and running in 10 years, there were several community colleges opening in the state, after they had seen how successful we were,” Tubb added.
Dr. Robin Satterwhite, the fifth president in the history of SPC, said the most significant changes to SPC since he attended in 1988 are to the buildings on campus, including the entire Student Services mall, which was just a grassy area. Tubb and Southwest Halls didn’t exist, and other buildings such as the current Math Building and the PE Complex had not been built.
“I am very proud of how the college has grown over the years,” said Dr. Satterwhite, the first alum to serve as president. “The size of the college sets it apart from many others in that it rivals many universities. In a way, I believe that speaks to the demand for our educational experience and allows SPC to command a greater respect in the delivery of higher education.”
Additionally, Dr. Satterwhite said that the growth of the college has allowed SPC to meet a greater number of educational needs of students in both technical and transfer education areas. The growth of the physical plant has also allowed SPC to be a larger part of the Levelland community.
Today, the enrollment has grown to more than 9,000 students across four campuses, with 42 buildings on the Levelland campus. The faculty number nearly 400.
“South Plains College must focus most on maintaining the culture of student-centerdness and the quality of education that has always been a cornerstone of our success,” Dr. Satterwhite explained. “However, we also need to look at ways to grow our student numbers and continue to identify programs that meet student and industry demand. Also, while having a 60-year-old campus allows for a great amount of maturity across the campus landscape, it also presents some issues for many of the original buildings.”
Dr. Satterwhite added that the college will need to identify opportunities to make improvements to facilities so SPC can continue to provide the best educational experience to our students.
“South Plains College remains a very special place for so many students, employees, and community members,” Dr Satterwhite explained. “The thing that impressed me most about my time at SPC was the faculty that took a genuine interest in my success. After all of my educational experiences, I was able to point back to faculty members such as Ann Gregory, David Etheredge, Larry Norris, and others who have left since I was here, and reflect on the outstanding impact that each of them had on my educational and personal life. That is what makes SPC a great college.”