Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with William L. Sullivan, August 5, 2004

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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O'HARA: This is an unrehearsed interview with Senator William Sullivan at his office in Henderson, Kentucky, conducted by Adina O'Hara on August 5 2004. Senator Sullivan, on September 17 1957, at a meeting of the UK Board of Trustees, the board voted unanimously to establish a University of Kentucky Extension Center called the Northwest Center here in Henderson. What was your role in the creation of this institution of higher learning in Henderson?

SULLIVAN: Well, uh, I was elected to the Kentucky State Senate, uh, for the years '54 through '58, and in 1956, Governor Chandler took 00:01:00office as governor, and I was majority leader of the Senate then, in that year, or those years and was pretty close to the governor. And during that period of time, our Mayor Hecht Lackey, H-e-c-h-t Lackey, got with me, and we thought it would be a mighty nice thing to have a community college here in Henderson. And, I led a delegation of Hendersonians, uh, there, we had reached agreement to get the land for it, and we approached Governor Chandler, uh, with this idea of a community college here. To my knowledge, at that time, they had no 00:02:00other. There was one which, uh, I believe it's Paducah, which may have been considered a community college but had not been organized as such. And, uh, the governor agreed to build it, and we raised the money to buy the land and everybody pitched in. They built it, one building to start out with. (laughs) We were, we were, we were very thrilled with it. Then we were especially thrilled, uh, that it became a part of the University of Kentucky. Uh, a, uh, degree from here bearing the name of the University of Kentucky meant more, uh, to us than it 00:03:00otherwise would and --(clears throat)-- needless to say, we were quite distressed that, uh, it was separated from the university in the Patton administration. Uh, and we lost that identity and that connection because we had a very enjoyable relationship with the University of Kentucky all through those years, uh, before that was done.

O'HARA: The delegates from Henderson who went to the UK Board of Trustees, I've read the UK Board of Trustees' minutes and they mention that the delegates, including yourself, um, who went there, brought a brochure that was outlining their plan for building a, a community college --


O'HARA: -- and this caught my attention, because in reading about the other towns and cities that were coming to ask for extension centers, 00:04:00the term community college had not previously been used in the, in the literature that I've read. So, my question for you is, since you were there, you can explain how this early acceptance of the community college concept came to be? Where did the terminology come from? Um, because it was the first time we saw it in the state.

SULLIVAN: We researched what was being done in certain other states, and I can't recall exactly which states, uh, they were. I was a member of the Southern Regional Board of Education during the time I was in the Senate, and I probably picked it up, uh, from there.

O'HARA: Very good. I was wondering if there was a Southern Regional Education Board connection.



O'HARA: Because I've been trying to make that --


O'HARA: -- link in my dissertation.

SULLIVAN: I had a part in the organization of that board, and Terry Sandford of North Carolina was the first head of the board and my wife and I visited him. Uh, he had served a term as Governor and was then president of Duke University. And, we visited him, uh, out at that time and had dialogue about the concept.

O'HARA: Oh, that's fascinating. I was thinking that there might be a North Carolina connection, but I didn't know where it was.


O'HARA: And you just pinpointed it for me. Do you remember having any, um, any more specifics on the conversations or did you all visit community colleges, um, in North Carolina?

SULLIVAN: Now, that would be conversations with --

O'HARA: With, uh, Terry Sandford.

SULLIVAN: With Terry Sandford.

O'HARA: Um-hm.

SULLIVAN: They had Triangle Park, um, there, uh, close to Duke. And it 00:06:00was a big research center and they were develop-- developing it and, uh, uh, did develop it, uh, very successfully. Um, with regard to community colleges, other than just discussing the concept, I have no recollection of, of conversation.

O'HARA: North Carolina is u-- unique in, in one regard, they had a technical system, a technical institute. And then, that was created, I, I think in the fifties, if not earlier. And then they had a community college system.


O'HARA: In the sixties, when UK was creating their community college system, North Carolina was merging the community and technical college system, and they were one of the forerunners in that --


O'HARA: -- endeavor.


O'HARA: Was that among the discussions with, with Governor Sandford?


SULLIVAN: I'm sure it was, I'm sure it was.

O'HARA: Well, that, that's great to know. That's a good connection. Thank you. Um --

SULLIVAN: But our mayor Hecht Lackey was a driving force, once we got into it, um --

O'HARA: Um-hm.

SULLIVAN: -- he was good, better, best; never let it rest. (both laugh) And we were proud of it and we're proud of the thousands of young men and women, uh, who had a chance at a college education that they would have never wise -- er, otherwise have had.

O'HARA: And it's amazing, the growth and development.

SULLIVAN: It surely is.

O'HARA: Among those proposals, the proposal that, that you all, the delegation, took to the UK Board of Trustees, you mentioned that they, they brought a deed to land.


O'HARA: And, that deed to land came from a local tax base, am I correct?

SULLIVAN: Yes it did, they were local contributions.


O'HARA: Oh, okay, local contributions.

SULLIVAN: Local contributions. And it was sold by a, uh, uh, philanthropic family, uh, who got probably much less for it than it was actually l-- than it was actually worth. But, we were able to provide the campus for the college. We first thought we might build it out at Corydon, Kentucky, uh, which is six or seven miles, uh, from Henderson, uh, and where governor Chandler was born.

O'HARA: Mmm.

SULLIVAN: Uh, we may have mentioned that to him at the time he endorsed the idea, but it soon became apparent that it made better sense to keep it close in to Henderson, and that's the way it turned out.

O'HARA: Who actually chose the site? Was that the whole delegation or --


SULLIVAN: I think a, a committee, uh, of those original people who contributed, uh, decided on the site, and, of course, the offer of the land at a nice high-on-a-hill, location. The price which was offered was very attractive to everybody. There was no question, once we decided it should be at Henderson that it would be built there.

O'HARA: And the idea to, um, when you went to the Board of Trustees at UK to offer land, where did that concept come from, the idea --

SULLIVAN: The contact with the board?

O'HARA: Right, to -- the idea to propose land, um, was that something that was done in other states that you had --



O'HARA: -- borrowed the idea from?

SULLIVAN: Governor Chandler was always close to the University of Kentucky, and for long years on its' Board of Directors, so it was jointly that, uh, we discussed with the Board of Directors of the University of Kentucky the concept, and how it would evolve.

O'HARA: Because I'm -- from reading the Board minutes, it appeared to me that Henderson was the first city to propose the land. The idea of -- and then after that, um, the, uh -- a committee of -- a committee was set up at UK to study the need for additional extension centers, and that was in the late 1950s. That committee drafted up some policies 00:11:00on how to choose a location, and, based on geographics and population data, and -- but one of the things they mentioned was also that the city or local area would have to put forth the initial property.


O'HARA: And I think that you all were the very first ones to ever bring that idea to them.

SULLIVAN: I believe so.

O'HARA: And then they made it mandatory (Sullivan laughs) So that's a real contributing --

SULLIVAN: We're proud of that. (laughs)

O'HARA: Uh, Governor Combs established a commission on the study of public higher education in 1960 to study the needs for higher education in Kentucky. With the guidance of out-of-state consultants and the research assistance of the Legislative Research Commission, the governor's commission recommended that a super board replace the 00:12:00current council on public higher education and that an independent board be established for the governance of a new system of community colleges in Kentucky. And the proposal was in November of 1961, so right before the 1962 legislative session. Since you were involved as, uh, this Senate Majority Leader at this time period, do you recall discussions about these recommendations by the governor's committees and I couldn't find very much attention to the idea --


O'HARA: -- of an independent governing structure.

SULLIVAN: Well actually, I served from '54 through '58, and did not return to the Senate until 1966. And I served them for sixteen years, 00:13:00uh, eight of which were as, as president pro tem of the Senate, during that period of time.

O'HARA: Do you remember, um, any discussions -- so you weren't aware of the discussions or recommendations from the commission?

SULLIVAN: Well, I'm sure I was, having served in the Senate recently, I know I had liaison with the legislature about community college problems and developments, uh, even during the period that I didn't, I didn't serve there.

O'HARA: So you're probably aware of what was going on. Did you anticipate the transformation of what UK called branch centers, like the Northwest Center, and then changing its name to community college and giving it community college status. Did you anticipate that transformation?

SULLIVAN: Well, uh, probably did not. Probably did not, we were 00:14:00certainly con-- content with Northwest Center of the University of Kentucky.

O'HARA: So, until the 1962 legislative session, when the community college bill was passed, authorizing UK Board of Trustees to transform these extension centers and then add to them, that -- was that pretty much the first time you'd heard about a system-wide --


O'HARA: -- community college system?

SULLIVAN: Um-hm. I think so.

O'HARA: Knowing as we do what happened and how it happened, we need to consider why it happened. Would you recount the reasons why the UK Board of Trustees was chosen as the governing authority for a system of public two-year colleges?

SULLIVAN: Well, uh, I think that it was the only institution strong 00:15:00enough to develop the community college system. The other state universities were smaller and, uh, perhaps did not have quite as much expertise in, in, management of a thing of this size, at least what it, what it came to be in future years. UK was a f-- focal point, and, uh, it's great love for University of Kentucky among Kentuckians; it just suited for them to do it.

O'HARA: Were you familiar with, um, the idea of, of UK extending its land grant mission of service to the entire state through the community college system?

SULLIVAN: Now let's see -- give me that again, if you please.

O'HARA: UK has, um, official -- officials from UK have mentioned that 00:16:00part of the reason for having a community college system was it was a part of their land grant mission.

SULLIVAN: Indeed, indeed and --(clears throat)-- one of the strong points was that two years could be obtained here, then transfer to the University of Kentucky, and finish a four-year course. And of course, it's grown since then to where you can get the four years right here at, right here in Henderson, which is important to us.

O'HARA: That's, that's -- how recent has that been, that you can get all four years?

SULLIVAN: Um, Murray is cooperating and, uh, having a branch here, which allows them to complete a college education.

O'HARA: Now when the, um -- mentioning Murray brought up something I 00:17:00read recently. Um, I read in -- that the community college here in Henderson was not the first public institution proposed. That in 1922, there were plans for a new state normal college. Um, I don't know how familiar you are with that, but according to the, um, to the records, it says that it was proposed, but it ended up being built in Murray. Are you aware of, of --

SULLIVAN: No, I certainly, I certainly -- first time I had heard that.

O'HARA: Well, I found that, I went to visit the historical center today, and so I just, just stumbled across that. I hadn't heard about that before, the first paragraph right there.

SULLIVAN: Thank you.

O'HARA: But that's, that's interesting to me. I had no idea, so now to have Murray have an extension here is an interesting situation, but I'm 00:18:00glad that it, it is definitely possible to have all four years here.

SULLIVAN: That is interesting.

O'HARA: Now, didn't UK pursue the governance of the community colleges, or do you think that Governor Combs imposed them upon UK?

SULLIVAN: I viewed it as UK, from the beginning, having a certain governance. Uh, they certainly cooperated in every respect. Um, they held grants for us, uh, that had been made to the college. Uh, we did organize, uh, our College Foundation, Incorporated, which was designed 00:19:00solely to support the college, and we, uh, had, uh, grants. I've been president of that for over twenty-five years now, and still am I'm afraid. (O'Hara laughs; Sullivan coughs) Such things, say as the sale of the portion of our campus, money would come in for it, and we did -- and I say sale, actually the widening of roads brought money from the state to, really to the University of Kentucky, but they earmarked that for this particular campus, those grants. And then there were grants which bypassed College Foundation that were made to the University 00:20:00of Kentucky for the use and benefit of Henderson Community College, uh, which they held and administered. So we worked closely with them the whole time. As a matter of fact, you could become a fellow, a University of Kentucky fellow, uh, by contributions to Henderson Community College, or to College Foundation. I became a fellow in that, in that way.

O'HARA: Interesting.

SULLIVAN: So we worked closely together.

O'HARA: Going back to A.B. "Happy" Chandler and, um, his involvement in the creation of the community college here at Henderson --

SULLIVAN: Well, I think he thought this was sort of the star in his crown. (O'Hara laughs) He grew up here in Henderson, loves Henderson. He's always been close to them, always got a resounding majority in 00:21:00the vote out of Henderson, and, uh, he deserves great credit for being willing to, uh, build the college, uh, through appropriation at the next session of the legislature after we approached him.

O'HARA: When you, when you approached Governor Chandler, you had to, you had to go to Governor Chandler and as well as the UK Board of Trustees, so both were involved in the decision, correct?

SULLIVAN: Yes. Uh-huh.

O'HARA: There were other colleges, later, who some of them went only to the UK Board of Trustees and others went only to the state legislature --


O'HARA: -- And, I think that's when Governor Combs finally said, "We've got to get organized here --" --(both laugh)-- "-- and have a convention." But, um, I was just curious about that, so you all went in 00:22:00both directions and got permission in both areas. Do you remember some of those conversations with Governor Chandler about this? Did he have in mind to build any other community colleges in Kentucky?

SULLIVAN: Uh, we discussed the future of the program, but no, no further plans, that I ever heard of by him to build other community colleges during his term.

O'HARA: In oral history interviews after asking a person why a decision was made, we often ask next why a different result did not occur. During the discussions with Governor Chandler or even later, did you at any time expect a different result? Did you at any time expect the 00:23:00regionals to get control or an independent board or anything?

SULLIVAN: Well, we had a lot going for us, uh, in this quest. We had some public spirited people who contributed sums of money to get it started here, to buy the campus and we had a very friendly governor. And those two things melded together, and, uh, I may have had reservations at first about whether it would go. Uh, I knew it hadn't been done before, I didn't know what the money situation would be, but, uh, I remember someone asking Happy, "Now, how we going to pay for all of this?" Happy says, "Put in the budget. Put it in the budget." (both laugh)

O'HARA: He took care of it.

SULLIVAN: And he did. He did. (laughs)


O'HARA: In this interview, we have determined who decided what, how and why, but we have not yet considered when the decision was made. Um, and I mean the decision to create a system of community colleges. Because the timing is worth knowing about, would you explain when you think that the decision was made?

SULLIVAN: To go forward?

O'HARA: To, to build beyond Henderson.

SULLIVAN: To build others. I can't tell exactly when it was made, but if one city obtains a very valuable and treasured asset, you can be sure there are other cities are going to be looking for the same thing, so it developed rather rapidly after, uh, our community college was built. Owensboro had three colleges, I think. Uh, two at least. Uh, one of 00:25:00the -- one of theirs, and they were fortunate and got the whole campus built in one session of the legislature. That was an unusual thing.

O'HARA: But much, much later.

SULLIVAN: Came much, much later, Um-hm. Sure did.

O'HARA: Did, do you know of any discussions to build a community college at Owensboro at an earlier period? Like in the early 1960s, soon after you all had?

SULLIVAN: No, I don't. I really don't.

O'HARA: I'll keep on checking on it. Documentation leading up to the decision to create a system of community colleges is very informative and a historian can reconstruct how the issue was emerging, but the records are blank when it comes to explaining how the issue was resolved with the regional colleges. My understanding from talking to 00:26:00others is that the regionals would have preferred that the University of K-- Kentucky not govern the community colleges. What can you tell me about how this issue was resolved with the regionals?

SULLIVAN: Well, I know there were moves by, uh, some of the, uh, lesser, lesser state universities that became Murray, Western, Eastern, to manage, uh, to become a part of the direction of community colleges in their, in their area. And, this was usually looked upon unfavorably by, at least by -- in Henderson it was, because we'd had such splendid 00:27:00cooperation from the University of Kentucky, and because we thought it was maybe a little more prestigious to have them on sheepskin than, um, Western or Murray or Eastern.

O'HARA: The decision to place the community college system under the state's flagship and land grant universities was considered unique across the nation. How did Kentucky's development of public two-year colleges, community colleges, compare to the expansion of community colleges in other states in the 1960s?

SULLIVAN: Well, I'm not sure that I know the, the answer to that. It just, uh, grew as a part of the original charge, uh, and I don't know 00:28:00how many other states, uh, have the same charge in their constitution --

O'HARA: Um-hm.

SULLIVAN: -- but it was certainly a justification to build more in Kentucky.

O'HARA: Some states developed independent governance structures, uh, for the community college system, and eventually North Carolina took on that form while other states chose to develop four-year branch campuses. That's evident in Indiana; until just recently, they've had talks of doing something different, but basically, the university has four-year branch campuses. Fort Knox is a little like that still today, although 00:29:00that's unique in Kentucky, because it's a military base. Um, do you know of any other alternative models that you all researched that were initially considered for the governance in Kentucky?

SULLIVAN: Well, I don't suppose I, I do. Uh, the concept of the technical, joint technical community college governance, governance is probably still being tested, although it seems to have worked out better than a lot of us figured. Uh--(pauses)--it's safe to say that 00:30:00we would have preferred they had let it alone, but they didn't and perhaps it will work out for the good.

O'HARA: That leads us into my next question. Critics have attacked the UK Community College System since its conception. What were the benefits? You've spoke of some of the benefits to being connected to UK. From the local, um, community college, it was very advantageous to have that connection, 'cause of -- they protected you all and took care of you all both financially, and, and gave you a sense of -- the local colleges a sense of -- having a UK relationship or having that prestige; what were some of the drawbacks of having one governance structure for both the state's flagship university and community 00:31:00college system, or were there any drawbacks?

SULLIVAN: I don't know of any. They were such a help in certification matters --

O'HARA: Um-hm.

SULLIVAN: -- you know. They've been there a long time, uh, and they have representation from all over the state, of course, on their board. And, uh, it was a good marriage, I thought.

O'HARA: Speaking of their board of trustees, um, I came across the name of a board of trustees member, Carl --

SULLIVAN: Debawoe (??)?

O'HARA: Yes.


O'HARA: Yes.

SULLIVAN: Carl was very, uh, enthusiastic about this idea. He was quite old at that time, but he was enthusiastic about it and really pitched in and helped.

O'HARA: So, he played an instrumental role along with yourself and Governor Combs and the mayor.



O'HARA: Both economic and political factors played a key role in the decision to grant the UK Board of Trustees control of the community colleges. How did the debate over governance of Kentucky's community colleges change over time as they grew and developed and got larger?

SULLIVAN: Well, I think there was, uh, a certain amount of jealousy throughout the education system, uh, over the control by the University of Kentucky. Uh, there was -- I think that possibly was a motivating factor into the, uh, making it a Kentucky Technical, uh, and Community 00:33:00College System. Um, they thought, perhaps, the University of Kentucky was wielding too much influence in the education system to have control, so it got, it got them unmarried.

O'HARA: One thing that I read about recently, um, reading some transcripts from Breathitt's administration and different things was that the regional institutions in the early 1960s, um, and the University of Kentucky, each one had a vote on the Council of Postsecondary Education --


O'HARA: -- and this was prior to a, uh, a change in the mid-sixties, 00:34:00but at the time of the creation of, of the community colleges, if the university had a vote, one or two votes and then each regional had a vote, they could all vote -- the community colleges -- I mean, could vote -- the University of Kentucky could over ride. You know, the regionals had more votes than the, than the University of Kentucky --


O'HARA: -- is one theory or argument that was made for -- if you gave the University of Kentucky the community colleges, it lent them additional power --


O'HARA: -- or support --


O'HARA: -- as well as the fact the community colleges needed, more or less, some, um -- needed the university to help them survive and build up. So, are you familiar with the argument that, uh, there was some -- that having the community colleges allowed UK to have a more equal 00:35:00footing, I guess you might say, with the regionals --(both laugh)-- when it came time to vote on the council issues and stuff like that? You ever heard anything like that?

SULLIVAN: Oh, yes, I was very, very familiar, having gone through many sessions of the Senate, as to how that worked. They used to have, uh -- when the appropriations bill would come up, we'd have all three presidents in the gallery. (O'Hara laughs) I remember one picture that the Courier-Journal took of the three presidents, and called them Winkum, Blinkum and Nod. One of them was nodding a little bit. (both laugh)

O'HARA: Oh, that's great.

SULLIVAN: There was, uh, uh, good natured competition, you know, for -- by each of them. Just never enough money to go around, you know.


O'HARA: Are there any questions that I have not asked that you wish I had?

SULLIVAN: I think you've been thorough. (laughs)

O'HARA: Good, good. Well I really appreciate your time, Senator.

SULLIVAN: I'm so glad to and so glad to meet you.

O'HARA: You've really, um, highlighted and brought out some details I did not know about Henderson Community College and I really appreciate it.

SULLIVAN: Well, tell Dick Frymire I said hello.

O'HARA: I sure will. I'm looking forward to meeting him tomorrow.

SULLIVAN: You live in Lexington?

O'HARA: Yes, I do.


O'HARA: Um-hm.

SULLIVAN: I'm going to be up there on --

[End of interview.]