Vignettes about Events & People


Dr. Gwendel A. NelsonDr. Gwendel Nelson became the college's second president on July 1, 1968.

Dr. Gwendel A. Nelson became the college’s second president on July 1, 1968. Technically, William S. Scott was the second president of the college, but he served just two months on an interim basis after Dr. Paul Johnson became ill in March 1968 and died. The Board of Trustees appointed Scott, who was a dean at the time, as interim president while the search for a new president began.


Dr. Nelson, known to most as Gwen, came to Cowley from Little Rock, Ark. But he almost didn’t. When Nelson first arrived at Cowley to visit, he took a look around and returned to Little Rock. He then telephoned Cowley officials and said thanks, but no thanks. Nelson was prepared to take a job as dean of education at Tulsa University. Ed Gilliland, then chairman of Cowley’s Board of Trustees, then called a special meeting. Gilliland telephoned Nelson and asked him to bring his golf clubs for a three-day weekend. Nelson came to Arkansas City for the weekend, was treated like royalty, took the job, and the rest is history.


Nelson was described as a "possibility thinker" who got college officials involved in long-range campus planning. What bothered Nelson the most taking over as president was that the college owned no property. In 1968, the college operated in 11 rented facilities. In early 1969, Nelson initiated a five-year plan for the growth and development of the college. The master plan called for a $5.1 million bond issue to fully meet the needs of a rapidly growing enrollment. The plan would be developed in three phases, two of which were in the area of technological needs. The third plan was to move the entire college complex to a new location, providing voters would approve. The issue was put to vote on Oct. 28, 1969, and was defeated by 952 votes. The defeat was the first of many the college would experience during the next few years. A revised bond issue that carried a price tag of $2.5 million was put before voters on Feb. 2, 1971. But again, the issue lost, this time by only 78 votes.


And once again, Nelson and college officials would not be silenced. Another bond issue was submitted to build the campus at Strother Field. It, too, failed. And yet another bond issue, scaled down again, to build where Arkansas City High School is today, was defeated. Nelson and the Board took a step back and re-evaluated the situation. In June 1971, an agreement was reached with Unified School District 470. whereby the college would transfer the land it owned northwest of the city, plus $68,500 in cash for the building known today as Galle-Johnson Hall, the property surrounding it, and what is now Ireland Hall. Finally, the college owned usable property, and the campus just off downtown Ark City would continue to grow. During Nelson’s tenure, the college constructed Renn Memorial Library, the Charles Kerr Business & Service Technology Building, the Harold B. Walker Industrial Technology Building, the Nelson Student Center, the Recreation Building, the D. Robert Storbeck Dormitory, and the first phase of the Kirke W. Dale Dormitory. Ireland Hall also was renovated. Nelson truly spearheaded the groundwork of the physical appearance of the campus.


Under Nelson’s guidance, the vocational-technical school became one of the most advanced in the state.

Nelson, an Oklahoma native, was a World War II veteran, having received two Bronze Stars and the Presidential Citation. After arriving in Arkansas City in 1968, Nelson immediately became involved in community service. He served on the Arkansas City Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors from 1968 to 1986. He was president of the Human Relations Council from 1969 to 1971. He was president of the United Way Fund from 1971 to 1972, and he was president of the PRIDE organization from 1976 to 1978. In 1977, Nelson received the Harry Long Award from The Salvation Army for his community service. That same year, Nelson received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from Pittsburg State University and had the Nelson Student Center named after he and his wife, Lu.


His professional experience began in 1947 as a teacher and later principal in Greenwood County, Kansas. Later, he would serve as director of guidance in Columbus, director of curriculum in Lawrence, as an educational consultant for Science Research Associates, and become director of educational research for the Wichita Public Schools, and later serve as assistant superintendent there. Nelson died on July 12, 1993, at age 66.


He is remembered as a very personable president, one who would jot encouraging notes to students and employees on small pieces of orange paper, ending them with "Great Work Tigers!" He’s also remembered as a man who took great pride in his community and the way it looked. In fact, the Nelson Sensation Award is still presented today to owners of commercial and residential property who exemplify the high standards Nelson was known for. Nelson was inducted into the Tiger Athletic Hall of Fame on Feb. 1, 2003.


When he retired, he was asked about the state of the college and his successor. "I’m often told that we haven’t really arrived yet as a college, and I agree. So I hope it’s (his successor) someone ambitious. If we can make the same progress in the next 10-15 years that we have in the last 10 or 15, we’ll be in good shape. I hope the new person doesn’t just come in and say ‘This is it,’ because I still think there are a lot of things that can be done."

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