A Family Legacy
by Ben Schears
In the spring of 1938, Lela Mae Lamey Schooler graduated from Arkansas City High School at the back of her class, not because of her academic performance, but because of the color of her skin. Like so many African American students during the height of Jim Crow, Lela Mae found herself lined up at the end of the graduation line behind the white graduates. Not one to be easily deterred, Lela Mae enrolled the following semester at Arkansas City Junior College, known then and affectionately remembered today as ACJC or JUCO, and began a family tradition at Cowley College that has spanned three generations, five children, one grandson, and two All-American athletes. Through her efforts to overcome adversity and a strong desire to see her family attend college, Lela Mae shaped and molded her family tree. She achieved not only a family full of educated individuals, but more importantly...educators.
Of Lela Mae’s six children, Melburn Brown, Gertrude Duckett, Joyce Johnson, twins Waldon and Walton Brown, and Louis Schooler Jr., five can boast of ACJC being their first big step into higher education.
Over 73 years after Lela Mae began at ACJC, I had the opportunity to visit with one of her daughters, Joyce Johnson, during a trip to visit with alumni. Although it has been since 1962 that Johnson walked our hallways as a student, her love of the college remains as strong as her appreciation for what the college did to kick-start the educational experience of so many of her family members. “It really equipped us to lead successful lives and become productive citizens.” Johnson said.
During her senior year of high school, when Joyce and her fellow classmates were anxiously mapping out their future, she and her sister Gertrude remember encountering a few obstacles along the way. “Even though the Junior College was across the street from the high school, I can recall many African American students being advised not to attend college.” She recalls the boys being advised to become auto mechanics and the girls to become housekeepers. She was careful to point out there was nothing wrong with either profession; it simply was not the same career advice being given to all students. “Even though Jim Crow was the way of life for many African Americans, the college provided an opportunity for many African American students to continue their education,” Johnson said.
Looking back on their experiences at Ark City Junior College, family members are grateful for the opportunity the college provided. “The college was close to home, affordable, and practiced diversity.” Joyce goes on to say, “It provided us with an opportunity to beat the odds and a chance to start a formal education.” She sums it up best by saying, “Since their inception in 1922, Cowley College not only provided the Lamey Brown Schooler family members an opportunity to continue their education, but continues to provide an affordable education to all regardless of race or economic status.”
Lela Mae Schooler
Although Lela Mae did not finish her degree at ACJC, she started the ball rolling and set a fine example of excellence for her children. After waiting until the kids had all grown up, Lela Mae returned to higher education in 1966 with Wichita State University and earned her bachelor’s degree in 1972 and later a master’s degree in 1977 - both in elementary education. She taught kindergarten for 14 years in the Wichita school district, later retired, and now resides in Wichita, KS.
Melburn Brown, Sr.
A remarkable all-around athlete during his time at ACJC, Melburn Brown, Sr. was a standout competitor in football, track, and basketball. During the 1960 football season, the first football season with Coach Ben Cleveland at the reins, Melburn was named an All-American fullback and was nominated to play in the North-South All-Star game but had to miss due to a knee injury. In 2002, Melburn would be inducted into the Cowley College Athletic Hall of Fame for his significant contributions to the legacy of Cowley College Athletics. After completing his degree in the fall of 1960, Melburn transferred on to Washburn University in Topeka, KS and then started a lengthy career with Goodyear where he worked in quality control. Now retired, he lives in Topeka, KS.
Gertrude Brown Duckett
With a successful year of music courses from ACJC behind her, Gertrude enrolled in Sherwood Music School and the University of Chicago, Il. She jokes it took nine years, four children, and four schools to graduate from Wichita State University where she distinguished herself by earning her bachelor’s degree in Music Education, master’s degree in Early Childhood Education, and later a Specialist Degree in Administration and Supervision. She pursued, and later retired from, a successful career in public education with the Wichita Public School System. During her time with USD 259, she served in a variety of positions related to Early Childhood Education and Multicultural Education. She was administrator of several district-wide programs and served as school principal at different levels for a number of years. She resides in Wichita, KS.
Joyce Brown Johnson
It was during her senior year Joyce had her first official contact with ACJC by taking two college courses; organ lessons from Mrs. Fostine Moncrief on the Old Royal Memorial Organ and piano lessons from Miss Jeannette Bogart. Music was certainly her passion as she continued taking organ and piano classes for the next two years as a full-time student at the college and even served as a Piano Student Teacher under Miss Bogart. After achieving high academic marks at ACJC, Joyce continued on to earn her bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from Roosevelt University in Chicago, IL. Later she would return to Roosevelt to complete her master’s degree in Education, with a focus on Reading Specialist. She is now retired and resides in Tuscon, AZ.
Waldon “Donnie” Brown
After graduating in 1965 from Wichita North High School, Donnie enrolled at ACJC, attended on a football scholarship, and played as a guard for coach Ben Cleveland. He recalls the college did not have dormitories and local African American families opened up their homes to give the students a place to live. Donnie remembers being fortunate to have lived with other athletes in a home belonging to the Watson family. In October 2004, Waldon was presented a plaque from the City of Arkansas City in recognition of his vision and dedication for organizing the Arkansas City Northwest Community Reunion held on Arkalalah weekend. The Reunion brought back many African Americans from Arkansas City, many of whom had attended ACJC and went on to earn advanced college degrees of all levels. Donnie works as a custodian at Washburn University and lives in Topeka, KS.
Walton “Ronnie” Brown
After high school, Ronnie left Wichita and headed to Butler County Community College and later Wichita State University where he completed a bachelor’s degree in education. Ronnie continued on to complete a master’s degree from North Texas State University and taught history in the Dallas School District. After a successful career in secondary education and working for teacher rights he was able to retire. Still residing in the Dallas area, Ronnie drives a school bus which allows him to continue mentoring and encouraging the students he comes into contact with.
Louis “Joe” Schooler
It was the fall of 1967 when Joe stepped onto the football field under the guidance of coach Ben Cleveland. The following year as a defensive halfback, Joe served as co-captain of the football team along with teammate Dan Peterson, and earned “JUCO Conference All Star Team Honorable Mention” for 1968. During his time at ACJC, Joe had the privilege of living with Mrs. Ardella White. Joe would stay at ACJC for a total of three semesters before accepting a football scholarship to attend Weber State College in Ogden, UT. He would eventually make his way back to Kansas where he finished his bachelor’s degree in business administration from Emporia State University (then Kansas State Teachers College). He went on to have a successful career as the Area Manager for Global Markets for Southwestern Bell (now AT&T). He is now retired and lives in St. Peters, MO.
Melburn Brown, Jr.
Not so long ago, another member of the family walked our hallways - Melburn “Junior” Brown, Jr. The third generation of the family to attend the college, Junior was a standout in tennis and earned All-American status in 1994 by winning the No. 1 Doubles Title at the Division II National Tennis Championships alongside partner Orlando Martinez. In doing so, Junior and father Melburn Sr. became the first father/son All-Americans in the college’s history. After leaving Cowley, Junior transferred to compete at the University of Central Oklahoma where he completed a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Safety. For the past 10 years he has served as the Head Tennis Professional at Hallbrook Country Club in Kansas City, MO.
Today, students of all different colors, backgrounds, and capabilities call us home. With representation from around our state, nation, and world, our doors are open to anyone seeking higher education. Although the name has changed since the days when Lela Mae’s family attended here, Cowley College continues a legacy of offering an open access education to students regardless of the color of their skin, the amount of money they make, educational abilities, or a dozen other things used to limit access to a college degree. We are proud of our past efforts and look forward to an even brighter future.