A Look Back
As I walked along the sidewalk toward the building, I couldn’t help but admire the timeless beauty of the limestone blocks that had been so carefully set in place to create the timeless and sturdy retaining wall. As I walked up the steps toward the voluminous wooden doors of the building, I passed by two benches painted a muted shade of red to match the trim of the building. I had passed these benches dozens of times over the years with a cursory glance and had, on more than one occasion, sat down to visit or relax for a few minutes to take in the beauty of Ireland Hall. Little did I know at the time, I was resting on a treasure of historical value to the college. This treasure may have faded off into oblivion had it not been for an old football reunion and the chance meeting of alumni, coach, former teacher Reece Bohannon.
Reece and I have talked a few times over the past couple of years and, during one of our recent visits, he asked me if I could locate some old benches he built years ago when he worked at the college. He thought they might be out by Ireland Hall – the ‘original stone high school’ – a building of historical significance of which I am quite fond. This one simple request sent me on a mission that has not only allowed me to have a small hand in saving the benches, but has earned me the opportunity to sit at his kitchen table, sip ice water and be captivated while Reece recounted the stories, memories and love he shares for this college.
High School and College Years Growing up 30 miles east of Arkansas City in the little town of Cedar Vale, Reece looks back fondly on his upbringing and the experiences he had, and admits he was somewhat naïve in his younger years.
“When I was in high school we were given a poll and asked the question whether the government would lie to us.” Laughing, Reece said, “Our poll came out 32-0 that the government would not lie to its citizens.” On the field he was a standout track athlete with a particular talent for the pole vault. “That was back when bamboo poles were being used,” he said. “They stopped using them because they didn’t have much flex and would break.”
He didn’t have access to the popular steel poles that were being used in the wake of athletes injured by broken bamboo poles. Characteristic of what would define much of Reece’s life, he improvised and made one. “The high school didn’t have any of the new style poles to practice with, so I cut a hackberry tree sapling and learned to vault with it.” Being an all-around athlete, Reece attended Ark City Junior College (ACJC) on a basketball scholarship and was on the 1952-1953 basketball team, which earned distinction for their 2nd place finish at the national tournament. His track skills would eventually lead him to the ACJC track team where he would go on to compete in both the pole vault and the high jump. During his time at ACJC, he quickly became involved both on and off the field. He was selected to serve as freshmen class president, played trumpet in the band, and sang in the choir. There were several people who were influential to Reece’s success during his time at ACJC including instructors J. Kelsey Day (who taught Geography and Biology) and W.G. Bunt Speer (who taught Mathematics and coached Track).
Of the instructors at the college at that time, none - 4 This 6-inch telescope was built from scratch by Bohannon (pictured right). The sister 12-inch telescope resides at the University of Kansas. had a greater impact on his development as a person and on his life as did Basketball coach Dan Kahler. Thinking back on Kahler’s impact, Reece reflected “If there is any goodness in me, Dan had something to do with it.”
After graduating from ACJC in the spring of 1954, Reece continued on to Kansas State Teachers College (now known as Emporia State University). There he earned his teaching degree and achieved renown for his 2nd place pole-vault finish in the NAIA National Championship, earned distinction as an athletic All-American, and set the school’s basketball scoring record. Coming Back to ACJC Flash back with me for a moment to the year 1959. It was a year framed in history by the rise of Fidel Castro and the establishment of the first communist nation in the West, the expansion and addition of Alaska and Hawaii to the United States, and an average yearly wage for most Americans of $5,000. It was a time when a loaf of bread would only set you back .20 cents and you could fill your gas tank for .25 cents per gallon.
It was not an easier time by any means, but life seemed simpler…and people, less distracted by techno gadgets and cell phone apps, spent time sitting on front porches and benches enjoying their time talking to one another. For Reece, the year 1959 found him back at ACJC taking up the role as the Machine Shop instructor for a base salary of $2,900 a year. Long before planning periods were a part of a teacher’s work day, he was expected to teach a full day of courses, and if he wanted to coach, he would need to do so in the evenings. “It was 21 years of teaching before I got my first planning period,” he chuckled. In keeping with his love of sports, he decided to step into a coaching role. “During these years, if you wanted to coach you were required to be involved in 3 sports and the pay was $100 per sport per year,” he recalled. Throughout his time as a coach at ACJC, Reece had the pleasure to serve as head coach of the track and golf programs, as co-coach and assistant coach for basketball, and as an assistant coach for football. For nearly 10 years, Reece and his wife raised three kids while he worked for the college teaching both machine shop and science courses. He would remain at ACJC until 1967, when he took a teaching position working for Arkansas City High School. He learned back in his college years to balance his busy lifestyle and quickly employed the same skills while teaching, coaching and being involved in the Ark City community. Running in tandem with his professional career, for 37 years, he was well known around town for running the local Paris Park Pool for Continued on page 15 the Recreation Center.
“Teaching salaries weren’t very high and a guy always had to be working something on the side to make ends meet,” he recalls. One afternoon, the call came from K.R. Galle, dean of the college, asking Reece to construct a few benches to sit outside one of the buildings. very comfortable with being able to build about anything he put his mind to Reece, being able to build anything he put his mind to, quickly built the benches out of materials he had on hand in the machine shop. “I put it together with spare pieces of metal I had around the shop,” Reece said. “It’s made out of the real stuff – ¼” pipe – but I never thought it would last this long.” Preserving History For the past 55 years, the benches have floated around the campus and, at some point, came to rest outside of Ireland Hall after the college took ownership of the building in the 1980’s. When I learned about the benches from Reece, I called Todd Ray, a longtime supervisor in our maintenance department, and shared the story with him.
It wasn’t long before he and his staff had loaded the benches up and took them back to the shop for some freshening up. With hands that knew and appreciated the heritage of the benches, they wire brushed the faded black paint off the pipes, replaced the aging wood, and gave them all a fresh coat of paint. About a month after we last met, Reece was sitting in my office visiting and wrapping up a few last items for the article. As we prepared to walk across campus, he mentioned it had been several decades since he had taken a trip through the college facilities. I was anxious to show him the refurbished benches, so we wrapped up and headed off toward Ireland Hall.
At 79 years young, Reece showed the energy and enthusiasm of a man half his age. After taking the photo on the bench, we worked our way around the rest of the campus - walking through buildings, talking about the growth of the college and me listening intently as he recounted stories of his time here. It’s moments like these that bring me back to work each day, eager to share the stories of friends like Reece with readers like you who know, appreciate, and love this college. In an era where we find ourselves caught in the tide of whatever new fad or trend society says we should be chasing, we find it easy to fall prey to forgetting the care, attention, and effort put forth by those who came before us.
The historical preservation of Cowley College is an unwritten, but morally obligated mission of the Endowment Association. It is our hope to assemble artifacts relevant to the history of the college and to preserve the stories that accompany them, so that future generations of Cowley Tigers can appreciate the heritage that makes this college as great as it truly is. Along the way, we are blessed to make new friends with people like Reece who share our passion and vision. For decades the benches have dutifully served their purpose. Now, thanks to a simple question and a little bit of effort, they will be around for decades to come, ever vigilant…sitting…ready and waiting for those who pass by to slow down. To notice them. To sit on them. And perhaps, if the timing is right, to even spend the time enjoying a conversation amidst their company.