The road unreels hypnotically, and distance seems to increase rather than lessen as you drive through northeast Texas in late summer. Miles of thirsty brown land are broken only occasionally by squares of black plowed earth. Your first glance tells you that this soil should be fertile, but early settlers long ago discovered the blackland dirt assumes the consistency of clay when damp, and the Texas sun can bake it into brick. Cotton grows fitfully, subject to the fickle rainy seasons.
It is startling to reach Highway 513. Abruptly, a supermodern six-lane highway pops under the wheels. Through the shimmers of heat produced by the summer sun there seems to appear a sprawling colony of modern architecture. It is no mirage. It is East Texas State College.
The wonder is not so much that East Texas is undusty and gleamingly new, but rather that it should exist in this particular place at all, on the edge of the town of Commerce. Commerce (pop. 5,789) is shabbily genteel, its streets reflecting the region. In the halcyon days of the cotton-railroad era Commerce was the bustling economic hub its name implies. But as the cotton market dwindled, Commerce began to lose its ebullient frontier optimism and to depend upon the college for its existence.
East Texas State did not rise easily from this stubborn, faded land. Building his college from nothing in 1889, founder William Leonidas Mayo voiced the philosophy of hard work that was to become the school's credo: "You give me the will and I'll give you the education. I'll provide a garden plot or a cow or a job so that you can sell vegetables or milk or ring the college bell or do janitor work to earn your way."
Sam Rayburn, late Speaker of the House, rang that bell and did that janitor work. Speaker Sam wrote, shortly before he died, "If it hadn't been for Mayo's college, his credit and his inspiration, I don't know where I'd be today. Professor Mayo instilled the importance of having an objective in life and the need to bend every energy toward it. If teachers today are able to inspire students as Mayo did, our American future is secure."
The credit to which Rayburn refers ("students could attend free with a promise to pay when they got out") forced Mayo to turn over his college to Texas in 1917. It may not be true, as legend claims, that Mayo died within an hour of the state senate's acceptance, but it is true he is buried in a corner of the campus. Ironically, alumni returning for the homecoming football game gather around the tomb of a man who opposed the sport. The first games were bootlegged onto campus with Mrs. Mayo's approval but not the professor's. Even today they say that East Texas is a good place for a poor boy to go to school, but this—and a determination to provide education—is about the last vestige of Mayo College. More than 62% of the faculty hold doctorates, and East Texas is now the only Texas state college offering the Ph.D. Growing academic pride is reflected by a student's reaction when a friend flunked out of East Texas and enrolled at North Texas. "And thereby," he said, "we raise the academic level of both colleges." Dotting the campus are 87 buildings, most new, including a large library and a tastefully elaborate student center. The visitation committee of the Southern Association of Colleges said in 1962: "East Texas is not only a good institution but also in some respects approaches superiority."
One approach to superiority probably not contemplated by the committee is through football. East Texas has won the Lone Star football title 15 times since the league was organized in 1932 and has taken second place seven times. Since 1953 four Lion teams have played in the Tangerine Bowl, where they have won three games and tied one. The old victory bell (opposite), the same bell Sam Rayburn rang for his supper to call Mayo College students to class, was once rung for all these football victories. There were so many that the clapper wore out.
The 1964 season would have been as hard as any on Sam's bell. With so many small colleges to choose from, it is all but impossible to pick the best in the country, but by late fall East Texas State should be in contention for the national title. All the more remarkable, it will arrive at the top while relying heavily on its tradition of transmuting adversity into success. The Lion team was first stricken by the death of Coach J. V. Sikes late in the spring. Then all three fullbacks were lost. Gordon Scarborough signed with the Detroit Lions, alternate Tony Bryant (261 yards last year) decided to go on his mission for the Mormon Church and Wesley Cummings was sidelined by a back injury. Finally, two-way Halfback Olin Smith was felled by grades. But there are plenty of good men to take their places, among them Glen Robinson (459 yards rushing at halfback), who is moving to fullback. At halfback, former Assistant Ernest Hawkins still has Doug Bruner and two high-explosive sophomores: big, fast Charles Mitchell and Clyde Aicklen, who got better and better as he gained 333 yards. And Linemen Bob Burrows, 6-foot-6 230-pound tackle, and 230-pound 6-foot-5 brothers Ted and Fred Polzer are as terrifying as a plague of boll weevils.