News From Terre Haute, Indiana


June 26, 2010

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: Founder of the University of Houston has Wabash Valley roots

TERRE HAUTE — When the Houston public schools became an independent taxing unit in 1923, a committee was formed to seek a qualified candidate to serve as its superintendent.

The committee sought an applicant who demonstrated energy, vision and knowledge of sound educational concepts. It also wanted someone who had experience in a school corporation facing a sharp escalation in enrollment.

One name surfaced repeatedly: Edison Ellsworth Oberholtzer.

Though a native of Indiana, Oberholtzer had performed near-miracles in 11 years as superintendent of public schools in Tulsa, Okla. He had accepted the position in 1913, only six years after Oklahoma was admitted to the Union. Thanks to the Sooner oil boom between 1913 and 1923, Tulsa’s population increased from 22,000 to 125,000.

Oberholtzer met the challenge by building two new high schools and 14 new primary and secondary schools, introducing innovative classroom designs and teaching concepts and raising educational standards.

On Monday, April 7, 1924, the Houston Board of Education unanimously chose to offer the job to Oberholtzer with a salary of $9,000 a year.

The 11th of Augustus and Mary Anne (Collins) Oberholtzer’s 12 children, Edison was born May 6, 1880 at Patricksburg in Owen County, about 30 miles southeast of Terre Haute. He was educated in country schools in Owen and Clay countys, graduating from Clay City High School in 1895.

In 1896, Edison attended Westfield College in Clark County, Ill. After one year, he received a certificate and secured a teaching job at age 17. In 1899, Edison met Myrtle May Barr of Clay City. She became his wife on March 26, 1901. Later that year he was hired as superintendent of schools in Carbon, where son Kenneth was born Dec. 20, 1903.

While a student at Indiana State Normal between 1903 and 1905, he was a college mathematics instructor. He was named supervising principal of the Terre Haute Public Schools in 1905, serving through 1911 and earning a permanent teachers certificate from Indiana State in 1907. While residing in Terre Haute, the Oberholtzers lived at 79 S. 18th St., where Myrtle gave birth to daughter Myrtle Esther.

Edison was superintendent of Clinton schools between 1911 and 1913. Meanwhile, he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1910 after spending summers studying in the Windy City.

When a department chairman at Illinois Normal College in Bloomington (now Illinois State University) took a leave in 1913, Oberholtzer filled the position. Accolades he earned during that stint resulted in his appointment in Tulsa. He completed his Masters at the University of Chicago in 1915, the year Edison E. Oberholtzer, Jr. was born.

Oberholtzer was awarded an honorary LL. D. from the University of Tulsa in 1921. He returned to graduate studies in 1922 at Columbia University under the legendary John Dewey and eventually received a doctorate.

Dr. Oberholtzer long remembered the telephone call he received at a Dallas hotel from Charles H. Hurlock, president of the Houston Board of Education, offering him the job. Among other things, he asked for the opportunity to address the 1924 graduating classes from Houston Heights and Houston Central high schools. Edison notified his constituents in those speeches that he would introduce the junior high school concept to the school system.

Back in Indiana on March 28, 1925, Edison’s niece Madge — the daughter of older brother George, who resided in Indianapolis — was kidnaped, tortured and raped by Dwight C. Stephenson, Grand Dragon of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan. Madge’s death bed statement convicted Stephenson of second degree murder.

The long ordeal, which made newspaper front pages from coast-to-coast, must have taken an enormous toll on Edison during his first year on the job at Houston. The name, “Oberholtzer,” was not very common.

In November 1926, Edison met with a dozen high school seniors to discuss “an urgent matter.” They were Houston students of modest means who wanted to attend college but fell short of the high academic requirements needed enter Rice Institute (now Rice University), Houston’s only accredited university.

After the meeting, Oberholtzer concluded that creating a junior college in Houston was the only answer. There were obstacles to overcome: money, facilities, administration, faculty, accreditation and, of course, convincing the board of education.

On March 7, 1927, with the board’s approval, Dr. Oberholtzer founded Houston Junior College. Registration for the initial summer session beginning June 5 as a night school with 232 students and 12 faculty members at San Jacinto High School. Edison was named president without additional salary.

In 1934 — the year Oberholtzer earned a doctorate from Columbia University — his academic creation became a four-year institution named the “University of Houston.”

In 1936, philanthropists Ben Taub and Julius Settegas donated 110 acres for a campus and, two years later, industrialist Hugh Roy Cullen, later chairman of the University of Houston Board of Regents, endowed the Roy Gustav Cullen Memorial Building to honor his son who was killed in an oil field accident. It was the first building on any campus in the nation with air conditioning.

Cullen donated more the $11 million to the college before his death in 1957. In 1945, the Texas legislature transferred control of the university from the Houston Independent School District to a Board of Regents. On Oct. 19, 1945, Dr. Oberholtzer was inaugurated the first full-time president of the University of Houston.

A law school was created in 1947 and, two years later, M.D. Anderson Foundation gave $1.5 million to build a new library. When Edison retired in 1950, UH was the nation’s fastest growing college with 14,000 students and a full-time faculty exceeding 300. To recognize his achievements, the university presented him an honorary doctorate. Today, its enrollment exceeds 37,000.

Dr. Oberholtzer died June 18, 1954, at age 74, and is buried in Forest Park Abbey Mausoleum in Houston. His widow passed away Dec. 24, 1959, at San Bernadino, Calif.

Their son Kenneth, superintendent of schools in Long Beach, Calif., and Denver, Col., was featured on the Feb. 20, 1950 cover of Time magazine.

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    March 12, 2010