By Loretta Fulton
Abilene’s first school was in a tent. Its newest is a modern brick structure with red tile roof and state-of-the-art medical equipment.
In between those two school openings – the first in 1881 when the city was founded and the second in 2016 – much has happened.
The tent housed the new city’s school age children. The first batch of them graduated in 1888. The new structure, located on Pine Street near Hendrick Medical Center, is the latest of three schools opened in Abilene by the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center to offer degrees related to medicine.
On the horizon are a new campus of Texas State Technical College to house an industrial trades facility and a state-of-the-art performing arts center in the Wylie Independent School District.
The following timeline shows the emphasis that Abilenians have had on education from the beginning. New schools have opened. New school districts created. Six institutions of higher education have opened in the city since its founding – Hardin-Simmons University, Abilene Christian University, McMurry University, Cisco College, Texas State Technical College, and Texas Texas University Health Sciences Center, which offers degrees in nursing, pharmacy, and public health.
A couple of Abilenians recalled some of the earlier days of education in Abilene. Former Mayor Fred Lee Hughes entered third grade at Alta Vista Elementary School after his family moved to Abilene from Merkel.
He recalled how apprehensive he was moving from a small country school to a bigger school in Abilene. But he needn’t have worried. His third-grade teacher at Alta Vista teacher made sure he felt welcomed from the first day.
“She put her arms around me,” Hughes recalled. “I can almost feel them now.”
Hughes remembered that from then on, school was a pleasure. He graduated from Abilene High School in 1945 at age 17 when high schools had only 11 grades. His senior English teacher at Abilene High, which was located on South First Street at the time, was Miss Tommie Clack. Her class was modeled after a freshman level college course, which paid off for Hughes when he enrolled the following year at Texas A&M University.
“I sailed through freshman English at A&M,” he recalled.
The Hughes family lived at 1202 Amarillo St., across the street from Alta Vista. Those were pleasant days. Hughes recalled playing catch or basketball during recess–and the warm, welcoming hug from his teacher.
“I have really great memories from there,” he said.
Virginia Connally, 104 and still extremely active, enrolled at Simmons, now Hardin-Simmons, University as a sophomore in 1930. She grew up in Temple and lived with her physician uncle, Dr. W.R. Snow and his wife, Mae Cagle Snow, in Abilene.
Connally, who would return to Abilene after medical school in 1940 as the city’s first female physician, had no intention of becoming a doctor when she enrolled at “Simmons.” But her uncle saw her potential and encouraged her to follow his footsteps.
A fond memory was being in the Cowgirls pep organization, serving as president her senior year.
“That was the thing to do,” she said of the Cowgirls. “We did the Cowgirl Stomp.”
The year that Connally enrolled in college, she also became a member of First Baptist Church, where she still attends faithfully. Connally is a lifetime devoted Baptist and loved attending a Baptist university.
One of her more humorous recollections from her “Simmons” days was one day when she went to the campus bookstore for a Coke. It turned out not to be as pleasant an outing as she hoped for–she skipped chapel to get a Coke and got “sent to the office” for it.
“It’s probably the only time I ever did,” she said.
ABILENE EDUCATION TIMELINE
1881–First school in Abilene housed in a tent located between Hickory and Cedar streets. Miss Bell Clark served as first teacher; “Professor Barnes” served as superintendent for one year
1882–F.W. James named superintendent of schools, serving until 1885
1883–Second Abilene school, with two rooms, opens at North Third and Hickory streets and doubles as a Baptist church
1887–Abilenians rent an old “beer and ice” warehouse at South First and Chestnut streets for the city’s first high school
1888–First Abilene High School graduating class
1889—New high school constructed at South First and Peach Street at a cost of $10,000
1890–First school for black children located in the 200 block of Plum Street
1891–Abilene Baptist College (now Hardin-Simmons University) founded on north side of Abilene by the Sweetwater Baptist Association. Jefferson Davis Sandefer was the first president. Named changed to Simmons College in 1892 in honor of James B. Simmons, who gave the first large donation to the school. Current name adopted in 1934 to honor Mary and John G. Hardin, donors.
1902–Mrs. H.V. Wylie donates two acres of land on the west side of Buffalo Gap Road and local residents raise $110 to build a new school
1903–Wylie becomes a public school
1906–Childers Classical Institute (forerunner to Abilene Christian University) opens at North First Street and Sayles Boulvevard, with A.B. Barret serving as first president. In 1912, Childers Institute becomes Abilene Christian College and In 1976, Abilene Christian College becomes Abilene Christian University.
1909–New high school constructed at South Third and Peach streets at a cost of $40,000
1916–St. Joseph’s Academy founded by the Sisters of Divine Province (later becomes Central Catholic High School)
1923–High school built in 1889 burns and is rebuilt in 1924 for $35,000
1915–Wylie builds new school on east side of Buffalo Gap Road
1923–McMurry College (now McMurry University) opens at South 14th Street and Sayles Boulevard, with James Winford Hunt serving as first president. The college was named for William F. McMurry, who was bishop of the Northwest Texas Conference of the Methodist Church at the time.
1925–Wylie opens new brick school building with four classrooms, auditorium, and manual training and home economics departments
1928–Wylie adds two additional classrooms and dining room to complex that opened in 1925
1953–Woodson school for black children opens
1955–Abilene High School constructed at 2800 North Sixth Street
1960–Cooper High School, named for Oscar Henry Cooper, opens at 3639 Sayles Boulevard
1963–Central Catholic High School opens at 1600 Sherman Drive
1968–St. Joseph’s Academy closes
1969–Woodson schools closes
1971–Central Catholic High School closes
1980–New Wylie High School opens on Beltway South, just east of Buffalo Gap Road; Cisco College begins offering courses in Abilene
1983–St. John’s Episcopal School, founded as a kindergarten in 1952, relocates to 1600 Sherman Drive, former home of Central Catholic High School
1984–Wylie opens new middle school on Beltway South
1985–Texas State Technical College begins offering programs in Abilene and moves into former West Texas Medical Center building on East Highway 80
1986–Wylie opens new intermediate school
1986–Abilene Christian Schools became a separate entity from Abilene Christian University and moved to its own campus. The name was later amended to Abilene Christian School to signify unity among the pre-school, elementary, middle and high schools that all share one campus.
1994–Wylie opens new high school on Antilley Road, west of Buffalo Gap Road
2000–National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature opens at North First and Cedar Streets
2002–Texas Tech University opens a graduate level software engineering program in a downtown building
2004–Cisco College opens freestanding Abilene Educational Center on Loop 322
2007–Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center opens School of Pharmacy on Pine Street
2009—ATEMS (Academy of Technology Engineering Math and Science) opened and was housed in a downtown building also occupied at the time by Texas Texas University. After one year, the school was relocated to its present location, in the TSTC building on East Highway 80.
2012–Martinez Elementary School, the newest school in Abilene ISD, opens
2013–Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center opens School of Nursing adjacent to pharmacy school on Pine Street
2015–David Young named superintendent of Abilene schools; voters pass bond election for state-of-the-art performing arts center at Wylie High School
2016–Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center opens School of Public Health adjacent to pharmacy school and nursing school and announces plans for possibly two more schools in the mini-campus on Pine Street; Laura W. Bush Institute for Women’s Health, an outreach and research center, opens in the new public health building.
2017–Texas State Technical College breaks ground on new building near Abilene Regional Airport to house industrial trades
Sources: University and school websites; Handbook of Texas online; Abilene Independent School District communications office; “Wylie: Surviving and Thriving for 100 Years,” a history of Wylie Independent School District, by Al Pickett; “A People, A Place: The Story of Abilene,” Volumes 1 and 2, by Robert W. Sledge