Audra Stark has a vivid memory of her days as a youngster growing up in Arkansas City; as a teenager yearning for an institution of higher education in her own community; and that as a wife and mother watching her dream grow and prosper.
The college is celebrating its 80th birthday this academic year, and no celebration would be complete without the thoughts of Audra Wooldridge Stark. Why? Because Audra was one of those energetic Arkansas City High School students who took it upon themselves to get Arkansas City Junior College started.
She became a member of the college’s first graduating class. And to this day, she remains a staunch supporter of the place where she met her husband of 54 years and created a lifetime of memories. Audra remembers the college’s beginnings as if they occurred yesterday. She’ll be 98 years old on March 11. “When I finished high school in 1922, a group of us who didn’t feel we could afford to go to college because there were no scholarships, went door to door campaigning for votes for the necessary bond for the college,” Audra said. “The people of Ark City were very much in favor of it. The vote was four to one.”
Audra, who was honored in May 1994 with the Outstanding Tiger Alumni Award, has lived in La Grange, Ga., since 1989. Her oldest son Dan lives there. Her youngest son, Jack, is retired and lives with his wife, Gail, in Jackson, Wyo.
The Early Years
Audra Wooldridge was an only child who never met her father. He died in January 1905 of tuberculosis, just two months before Audra was born. He was just 28 years old. Her father was in the construction business with his father. He was an educated man, having studied two years at Southwestern College. He also was studying electrical engineering. Audra’s mother was a bookkeeper. She never remarried. She was 80 when she died in 1964. “When my mother was terminally ill, I went over to her home and I came across my father’s love letters,” Audra said. “I didn’t even know she had any love letters from him. At the time, he was in Ark City and she was living in Wichita. Those love letters were just precious to me. I got them out recently when both of the boys were here. I said, ‘I want you to hear these letters.’ There were so many of them. They said, ‘Wow, he sure did love your mother.’ That’s the only thing I knew other than what mother would tell me.
Juco Here we Come!
Audra was one of 58 students who began classes at ACJC on Sept. 11, 1922, and one of 28 who graduated with the college’s first class in 1924. She was a member of the Spanish Club, the Young Women’s Christian Association, and was on the staff of the college’s first student newspaper, The Pepper Box. She also belonged to a student organization called the Pepopaters. “We didn’t know what we wanted to do in terms of organizations,” Audra said. “They gave us something of a social life.” Edith Davis, got out on the field and tried to teach us how to play hockey. She was reading from a book. That never did catch on. But we did enjoy basketball.” So did her future husband.
Dan Stark came to ACJC in the fall of 1923 after completing his master’s degree at the University of Missouri, where he was a star on the basketball team. The handsome young man immediately caught the attention of young coeds. “I always said he didn’t have a chance,” Audra laughed. “I was walking down the hall after we had enrolled in our classes and some girls said, ‘Have you seen that good-looking chemistry teacher?’ and I said, No, I didn’t. I managed to go down and take a look at him and I enrolled in chemistry right there. Of course, I was one of his best students. I really enjoyed chemistry.”
Dan, eight years older than Audra, became a legend in basketball coaching ranks at ACJC. He coached 21 seasons, won more than 200 games, and is credited with giving the college its current mascot, the Tiger.
Audra spent her sophomore year waiting to graduate and the opportunity to have an open relationship with Dan. “There was a very strict rule that teachers did not fraternize with students,” she said. “We might have played tennis a time or two during that first year, but we didn’t go together. Teachers were always trying to figure out that we must have dated, but we didn’t.” Audra and Dan started dating in the fall of 1924. They were married on June 18, 1925. “Not only did the college give me an opportunity my first two years, but I also married the chemistry teacher who was also the coach,” she said.
Audra is proud of the education she received at ACJC. “I wouldn’t call it an extension of high school,” she said. “Our teachers all had master’s degrees. I enjoyed the small group. Socially, we did things as a whole unit. We knew each other really well. “That first graduating class was sort of a small group. It was a real interesting time and we had a lot of fun. We were trying to establish a few traditions that carried on.” Audra’s freshman class is credited with establishing the school’s colors, orange and black.
Settling Down in Ark City
Audra, an English major, taught one year at ACJC after completing 16 credit hours of education classes. She had gone two summers to Emporia Teachers College. At the time, a person could teach at the community college level with a two-year degree, providing that they had at least eight credit hours of education courses. In 1927, Dan Jr. was born. Four years later, Jack was born. “I’ve always been real happy that I stayed home and took care of the children,” Audra said. She never finished a bachelor’s degree, primarily because of a rule at the time that prohibited a wife and husband from teaching in city schools together. “If it hadn’t been for that, I could have finished out my degree in a year,” she said. “But there was no point in it since I couldn’t teach.”
Dan taught navigation and ground school aviation classes for a program the federal government put in place for college students. Because of that experience, he went into the Air Force as a commissioned officer. He was discharged from World War II in October 1945. Dan retired from ACJC in 1964. “We stayed in Ark City and did a lot of traveling,” Audra said. “Both boys lived a considerable distance and were successful in their work. We visited them in the summer, and then there were grandchildren. I’ve been in every state in the union except Alaska. We traveled a lot.”
Audra has received several civic awards throughout the years. She received a commendation from Arkansas City Memorial Hospital (now South Central Kansas Regional Medical Center) for her distinguished service. She was a member of the hospital’s board of trustees 19 years. And in 1981, she received an award from the college for outstanding service. While in Arkansas City, Audra was the first female chairman of the board and one of the first female elders at Central Christian Church. She is now Elder Emeritus. Audra was on the committee to plan and establish Renn Memorial Library at the college, and on April 16, 1974, she spoke along with Sen. Bob Dole at the dedication ceremony.
Georgia on my Mind
After Dan died in 1979 at age 82, Audra continued to live in Arkansas City at 1227 N. Second St. And up until October 2002, Audra lived in a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in La Grange, all herself. “I’m still mobile,” she said. “Of course, I have aches and pains, and I take a few pills.”
She now resides in an assisted living/independent living home where she gets three meals a day. “I don’t have to cook any more,” she said. “It’s never been fun to cook for one.” Audra can’t see well enough to read, so she has books on tape, which she enjoys. “My arthritis is bad, and I can no longer read, which is real frustrating of course,” she said. “When you can’t read the newspaper or Time magazine or sign your name, it’s bad. “But the talking books are really helpful. Currently, I’m between books. I recently read John Adams. These books on tape are the complete book. I’ve had one on Lewis & Clark, which was excellent. I try to get some of the ones that have received Pulitzer prizes. I prefer history and biography.”
Audra also watches basketball on television. Her favorite team is the Kansas Jayhawks. “He (KU coach Roy Williams) had a very successful year,” Audra said. “Dan always coached the fast break, and I notice that’s what KU likes to do. He wanted those fellas to get into position as quickly as they could. When he started coaching, a system came in where they would line up the defense three and two and try not to let anybody through. It slowed the game down.”
Audra’s sons have been very supportive throughout the years. Jack fell in love with the Rocky Mountains during family vacations, and he ended up working in their shadow. “When he was little, that’s what he said he was going to do,” Audra said. “He supervised parks and was head of a district in Boston. When he found out there was an opening at Grand Teton National Park, he said that’s where he wanted to go.” Dan Jr. talked Audra into moving from Ark City to La Grange. “It’s been a blessing for me,” said Audra, who has seven grandchildren and six great grandchildren. “But it’s been an extra thing for him to do. But he’s been up to it. He’s taking good care of me.” Dan Jr. was successful in his line of work, too. He got into the carpet business, eventually becoming vice president in charge of design for two companies. “When he retired, he’d always wanted to run a store,” Audra said. “So he opened a gift store in La Grange to give his daughter something to do.”
Audra has never forgotten her days in Ark City, at “Basement University,” and serving the community. “I claim the college as my baby,” she said. “I’m so glad it has done so well and is doing so well. I’m very proud of it.” And the college is proud of her.