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A&M's 125th Anniversary

Ross elevated college from 'reform school'

By Christopher Ferrell
Eagle Staff Writer

Ross

If Lawrence Sullivan Ross were remembered only as the great teenaged Indian fighter who grew up on the Texas frontier, his place in the state’s lore may very well be secure.

The same could hold true were he known only as a Texas Ranger, a 24-year-old general in the Confederate Army, or as the governor of Texas.

But it was his time as president of the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas — a period that lasted seven and a half years, until his death — that made him as big a part of history at Texas A&M; University as any figure to set foot on the school’s campus.

Every historical record, every newspaper obituary written after his death, and every A&M; historian will point to a common belief. It is a statement that is backed by so much evidence it has become more gospel than matter of opinion in the years following his death: “Sully,” as he is known to Aggies everywhere, saved Texas A&M.;

After his term as governor ended in 1890, Ross turned down a chance to become a senator in Washington in order to accept the job of president at the state’s struggling 14-year-old land-grant institution.

He arrived in College Station to find that “everything looked cheerless.” The campus had no running water, a housing shortage, a disgruntled faculty, and a wild, unruly student body. It had acquired the reputation as a “reform school” for its incorrigible boys.

An editorial in the Galveston Daily News, the state’s oldest and largest newspaper at the time of Ross’ presidency, went so far as to suggest that the school’s agricultural and mechanical departments be transferred to Austin and the remaining infrastructure be used as a “Central Texas lunatic asylum.” The feeling was that there was no need for two colleges in the state of Texas.

But Ross’ reputation as both a soldier and governor soon earned him the respect of those on campus and persuaded those who felt best to close the school to reconsider.

Parents began sending their sons to Sul Ross — the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas just happened to be where Ross could be found. Ross encouraged students to have pride in their school.

During his tenure, the Aggie ring was created, the Aggie Band formed, the Olio — A&M;’s first yearbook — was printed and the first intercollegiate football game was played — against the University of Texas at Austin.

It was also during his term that the Corps of Cadets made its first trips, traveling to San Antonio, Houston and the San Jacinto Battlefield.

Ross was so well-respected that one of the Corps’ elite groups, the Scott Volunteers, changed its name to the Ross Volunteers. More than 110 years later, the name remains the same and the group’s outstanding reputation is known throughout the nation.

By the time of Ross’ death on Jan. 3, 1898, he had transformed the college. A Houston Press article written more than 50 years after Ross’ death stated that A&M;’s once insubordinate students — and the school’s reputation — for the first time resembled Ross the man and the words of his own epitaph: “Soldier, Statesman, Knightly Gentleman.”

The day after Ross died, an editorial appeared in the Galveston Daily News remembering his contributions to Texas.

“As a Confederate Soldier, he was brave and true; as a legislator, he was faithful to his constituents and to the state’s best interest; as a member of the constitutional convention of 1875, he was an earnest worker and wise counselor; as governor of Texas, he gave the state the best and most prosperous administration in its history; as president of the state agricultural and mechanical college, he has rendered services the value of which will be reflected in the manhood and character of generations to come.”

Aggies will tell you that value still is reflected.

• Chris Ferrell’s e-mail address is cferrell@theeagle.com

The Bryan - College Station Eagle

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