Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with John S. Hager, September 27, 2006

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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O'HARA: This is Adina O'Hara, interviewing John Hager at his office in the Public Life Foundation on Frederica Street, in Owensboro, Kentucky, on September 27th, 2006, for the Community College Oral History project. In March of 1984, resolutions passed the Kentucky General Assembly calling for the state to provide community college services in Owensboro for the 1984-1985 academic years. What was your role in the creation of Owensboro Community College?


HAGER: I came -- I became editor and co-publisher of the Messenger and Inquirer in 1973, I think it was, or '72. And one of my interests or passion was higher education, and there was virtually no presence of higher education -- public higher education in Owensboro. Under some agreement, the Legislature had appropriated small amounts of money to Western Kentucky [University] to conduct -- to bring courses to the 00:02:00Owensboro area. But that was largely perceived as a function, here, as more benefiting the university than it did the community. And so one of the basic tenets of our editorial policy was that the state owed an obligation to the citizens of this area. And sometime in 1975, the Council on Higher Education sent two consultants to examine the 00:03:00educational -- higher education scene in Owensboro, and they concluded that indeed there was deprivation. We had the lowest going-to-college rate, I think, of any metropolitan area in the state. Nothing came -- they made a report that said yes, we are deprived. And I remember we devoted a whole editorial page with a headline across the top, 00:04:00heralding that finding.

O'HARA: I think I've come across the name of that report. It could have been the Wood-Patterson report of May 1976?

HAGER: Yes, yes, that was it. Well, that -- and of course -- anyway, that started things -- that helped solidify, I think, public opinion here.

O'HARA: Provided evidence and validity in a case --

HAGER: Yeah.

O'HARA: -- upon which to build.


HAGER: Yeah.

O'HARA: Now, was the idea for a community college even proposed at this stage?

HAGER: No, it was not. The -- sometime in the early '80s, I guess, '81 or '82, Morton Holbrook and Dennis Hendrix both served on the Council on Higher Education. And they together brought the executive director of the Council to a public meeting at the Executive Inn here. It was an afternoon meeting, as best I can tell. And I think -- I was there, 00:06:00and Roger McCormick was there, and Waitman Taylor was there, and I've forgotten the executive director's name.

O'HARA: I know that I've got it. Harry Snyder, executive director of the Council?

HAGER: Harry Snyder, yeah.

O'HARA: Okay.

HAGER: Harry Snyder spoke mostly at the meeting. Dennis Hendrix here was CEO of Texas Gas, and so in Morton and Dennis, you had two heavy- weights on the Council on Higher Education. And the thrust of that meeting, Harry Snyder says, "Tell us what Owensboro wants." And from 00:07:00that command or that direction, Waitman Taylor, whom you may have heard of, he was probably our most popular mayor and capable mayor of the --

O'HARA: What mayor? Waitman Taylor?

HAGER: -- of the 20th century. He said -- he got up and said, "I nominate John Hager and Roger McCormick as co-chairs of a committee to determine what (laugh -- Hager) Owensboro wants.

O'HARA: (laugh -- O'Hara) So you got nominated.

HAGER: So I got nominated.

O'HARA: And so the purpose of this committee was to formulate a plan of 00:08:00action to determine --

HAGER: To communicate with the Council on [Higher] Education what it wanted. So we formed this ad hoc committee that included ------- ---(??) Bob Darrell -- you ought to get the names of the additional members. One was a boilermaker, Tom -- I can't think of his last name right now. But we -- at our first meeting, we laid out how we would 00:09:00proceed and what our objective was. And our objective was [to], as objectively as we could, examine what Owensboro's need was, and what the possible solutions for meeting those needs. We were pledged to faithfulness to the service we were engaged in -- or the mission we were engaged in and renounced any loyalties to employers or anybody else (laugh -- Hager) in the community.


O'HARA: Oh, you took this very seriously.

HAGER: Bob Darrell was a -- Kentucky Wesleyan's most -- one of their most well-known professors. And I must say that he and all the other members of that committee always stuck to the objective and loyalty to it. I mean, there was no personal ----------(??), no personal loyalties that -- and the other thing we decided is that although we would do studies and we would maybe come to -- would come to tentative conclusions, we would never make a decision without first going public with it. And following those -- and then after we got 00:11:00started, we realized that we needed a consultant. And that's where A. D. Albright's name came up. And he was just one outstanding educator and consultant and human being. I would say that he gave us invaluable service and direction. Well, it was after he had been with us and we explored the possibility of tuition supplements from the state and this -- and all the private sector avenues -- and then of course, there was 00:12:00the community college as an option.

O'HARA: Would you describe each of the options, some of the private sector options that were available in Owensboro?

HAGER: They weren't available. The question was could -- was it -- were they legislatively achievable? I think Illinois and New Jersey, any number of states had good plans that provided tuition supplements to in-state students attending private schools. But in the end, Dr. 00:13:00Albright said, "You may get what you want or something of what you need through the Legislature in maybe ten to fifteen years, but if you want to get something now, you go for the community college."

O'HARA: Really?

HAGER: Yeah.

O'HARA: That's very interesting. So it was Dr. Albright's idea for the community colleges? Or one of the earliest --

HAGER: Well I --

O'HARA: -- proponents?

HAGER: We were aware of the community college system --

O'HARA: Sure.

HAGER: -- of course, and we knew it was always an option. The 00:14:00consideration of the private venue or roadway was -- the exploration of that was deemed appropriate, because if feasible, it could have been a solution, and one more -- obviously more acceptable to the private schools and their supporters.

O'HARA: What was --

HAGER: And we were very much aware of that. And in fact, one of our resolutions, an early consensus of the committee was that whatever we did, we were not for a school that would trash either of the 00:15:00local schools. And we spent a lot of time looking at the effect of community colleges on the schools, and we concluded that there would be some loss of students initially, but in the long run a community college would be even a plus. And that's -- it was -- that's where 00:16:00our decision-making came in important, that we didn't make any decision until after we reported privately to most of the hierarchy of the two local colleges. And we had a public meeting, as I recall, over in the courthouse, which we reviewed all of the information and reasoning of the committee. And so that's when the formal request for a higher education -- for a community college got -- was born.


O'HARA: What was the role of Henderson Community College in this at this time? I had read a little bit about it.

HAGER: It was an important role, but more important was the financing of its involvement. The -- I don't know what the sequence was, that resolution or that date for the community college, but it was --

O'HARA: You mean as far as -- the funding --

HAGER: Do you have the date that the -- it opened up, with the -- the 00:18:00-- Henderson first offered courses over here? It was in '83? Was it as early as '83?

O'HARA: I think you're right. I know it's definitely in here. It was several years before this, and I think it was, like, 250 Owensboro students were being served by Henderson.

HAGER: Well, I don't know who thought of getting a demonstration project done, but obviously I would suspect that -- listen, an important person in founding this college was Dr. Wethington himself. He was 00:19:00not publicly activist, but he sure was supportive of it. And I -- and he -- see, the community colleges in -- as you may know, were an important asset to the University of Kentucky as a political force. And he was a good friend of Don Blandford, Speaker of the House. So I 00:20:00would imagine the idea of starting offering courses through Henderson, once the momentum for the community college got here, would have a salutary effect, and that it did indeed. But Blandford held up the budget, either in '82 or '83, whatever -- I hope you can find that date -- until he got $500,000 in there to finance those Henderson Community College courses over here. Now, the reason that was important --


O'HARA: It makes mention of it in here, but it does not give a date, in this particular article.

HAGER: Yeah.

O'HARA: But I'll be able to locate it.

HAGER: Yeah.

O'HARA: You were saying?

HAGER: And when they had predicted maybe 50 or 75 people would show up, and over 250, it was really a big boost to the project. The --

O'HARA: One option that is spoken of in this article on Owensboro Community College states that one option was a combination community 00:22:00college between Henderson and Owensboro. And it even suggests a name for -- as the Green River Community College. Were you aware of this option?

HAGER: Oh, yeah.

O'HARA: And did it -- was it just an idea thrown out there, or did it get much support?

HAGER: It didn't get -- it got a lot of support in Henderson. It didn't get any support here. And I must tell you that I haven't visited other community colleges, but my sense is this community college is -- in its level of services and academics, is -- if not the best, it's one of the best in the state. And I attribute that in some part to a very active 00:23:00citizenry here in Owensboro, that peopled a foundation to support that. In one of the classic examples of the spontaneous support the community college had, when the campus was finished and with some inferior trees, Morton Holbrook brought a well-known -- the best-known nurseryman to visit the college, and they went out and replanted that whole campus --


O'HARA: Really! It's a beautiful campus.

HAGER: -- with trees that had beauty and endurance to them. And they shipped the other trees off to some other community college. (laugh -- Hager and O'Hara) But Morton personally raised money for that and solicited money. As I recall, it was about a $10,000 project.

O'HARA: Wow! That is something that is -- a lot of communities take pride in their community colleges. But Owensboro, I think, has a very unique story here, because it already had -- its interest in higher education goes back so far.

HAGER: Mm-mm.

O'HARA: And its population, you know, being now the third largest in 00:25:00Kentucky. It has such a -- as you said, a public interest, a public service, in providing for the people and in taking pride in these type of --

HAGER: I don't know whether you know this, but of course, Kentucky Wesleyan was brought here because the community met the challenge to raise a million dollars to move them from their home in Central Kentucky down here. They were originally in --

O'HARA: Winchester, I believe.

HAGER: -- Winchester. You're right. So --

O'HARA: There's that early dedication to higher education and then the public. What -- since you're -- you've talked about these -- knowing 00:26:00what happened and how it happened, let's consider why did it happen? What is unique about the local leadership in Owensboro -- and you're a key person -- that led the creation of the Community College System. What are the characteristics and attributes of Owensboro that have set it apart from other cities who were doing similar things or wanted to do similar things?

HAGER: Well now, of course, the only thing I had anything to do with was bringing a community college here. I -- my work in the System was only working on annual meetings that Charles Wethington held throughout the 00:27:00years. And -- the --

O'HARA: Speaking of Charles Wethington, I'd like to know more about his personal role. And you spoke about -- but initially, when was the first time that he really became involved, at what stage? Because the commission had already been created, and Dr. Albright had already come in. When did Dr. Wethington directly enter the picture?

HAGER: I don't remember the date. It would be as early as he was 00:28:00willingly brought in. My guess is -- I mean, Dr. Wethington was no fly on the wall. He was an aggressive leader himself. I would speculate that from the time he was aware of what the -- as soon as he became aware of what that -- that Council's meeting here in Owensboro and our setting that up, and then I'm sure he followed that with great 00:29:00interest. But I personally --

O'HARA: When the actual legislation was passed, then, I assume he, as the chancellor of the Community College System at the time, he began to estimate costs for academic years and how much it would cost, estimating financial cost for the --

HAGER: Oh, yeah!

O'HARA: -- University of Kentucky System. (Coughs -- O'Hara) Excuse me.

HAGER: You see, higher education in general wasn't for a community college in Owensboro. I mean, the public higher education has always being starved for money, sufficient funds, and the University of Kentucky was among them. So every time you added a school, they saw 00:30:00that there was less money in the pot for them. So my surmise would be that in the initial phases, Dr. Wethington would have been fairly discreet about whatever he did. And he did come down here to -- one thing I remember -- it was a boost ----------(??) -- it was before the Legislature had acted. But I remember at a public meeting relating 00:31:00to the school where he said about the Owensboro Community College, [reading from an article] he said, "'The success of Owensboro -- of the Owensboro extension of the Henderson Community College has been a 'shot in the arm' to the University of Kentucky Community College 00:32:00System,' the chancellor of the system said Thursday. 'I think it makes the future exceedingly bright. Our cause is somewhat -- .'" Oh, he was speaking to the Owensboro-Daviess County University of Kentucky Alumni Association at the country club. Oh, this was the quote I remembered, "'Nothing does my heart more good than being involved in the movement 00:33:00that has been going on in Owensboro,' Wethington said." Now, this is the quote I like, "'Those who talk about whether Owensboro will get a community college have missed a page,'" meaning they just were not reading the newspaper, that one was already in place. "'The community college is here, the only question is -- .'" And this was 7-1985.

O'HARA: Wow! And that was the first -- 7-1985, that was the first year that funding was made, for the 1984-85 year, according to this, that 00:34:00funding was appropriated. This article said that estimated costs for the 1984-1985 program were $150,000.

HAGER: It was how much?

O'HARA: $150,000.


O'HARA: And $225,000 for the 1985-1986 program. Now, those were estimates. But that's a key article. That shows Dr. Wethington's thinking.

HAGER: Mm-mm, you can have that.

O'HARA: Thank you very much. That shows his interest. Also I found in here -- the date goes back to March of 1984, but there's State Senator Delbert Murphy --

HAGER: Delbert Murphy, yeah.

O'HARA: -- introduced Senate Resolution 63.


HAGER: Was that in '53?

O'HARA: 1984. It was Resolution 63, calling for the Legislative Research Commission, the Council on Higher Education, and the University of Kentucky Community College System to jointly study the feasibility of establishing a community college in Daviess County. What can you tell me about study? Because that's different than the one in the '70s, correct?

HAGER: Oh, I think that was a study that the Legislature -- Murphy or -- they got -- I got to tell you a cute story.

O'HARA: Please do.


HAGER: After the Legislature approved a community college, I -- well, the committee, we worked hard to get it approved by the Council on Higher Education. When they first took it up, I think there were about two or three votes out of twenty for it. Morton Holbrook and maybe -- I don't know who else was on there. But it was a vote that reflected the judgment that we've got too many institutions already, we don't need any more. But we went through a hearing up there. And I'm not 00:37:00sure it -- and I doubt our hearing had as much effect as the influence Morton himself personally had on that Council, but nonetheless, we got, as I recall, near unanimous approval. Now prior to that, just to show you how powerful this notion is that we've got too many higher education institutions, in a private meeting in my office, the -- I 00:38:00had the pleasure of a visit from the chairman of the Council on Higher Education. And he came in and he laid out two options for me -- for Owensboro. One option was, accept an offer -- and it was a significant amount of the increase of the funds to Western Kentucky to open more classrooms here. I forget the -- it was a significant amount of money. 00:39:00The other choice was, or you get nothing (laugh -- O'Hara). And I thanked him for that information. I said, "I'll take it back and give you the committee's answer after we've considered it, that I don't make those decisions." (laugh -- Hager). And -- but that just illustrates that there was a political hill to climb here to get that through.

O'HARA: And he was --

HAGER: Oh! And when I later congratulated Don Blandford on his 00:40:00achievement, I mentioned something about being pleased that the Council on Higher Education had approved it. And he said to me, "I never understood why that was important. It's the Legislature that allocates the funds for (Laughter -- Hager) the community college." In other words, he was saying they didn't matter. And I answered him, I said, "Well, Don, we just wanted to give you all the cover we could give you," (laugh -- O'Hara) that this just wasn't a political gift.


O'HARA: And I think that's important, is showing how many different parties were involved in this, and how many -- and like you said, the uphill battle that -- it took a lot of years before the community college's -- the legislation was passed and then the funding was in a separate approval.

HAGER: Yeah.

O'HARA: Now, do you know how -- can you explain how the funding was approved separately? And do you know why it didn't go through with the resolution?

HAGER: No, I don't have any idea.

O'HARA: I've asked a lot of these of questions not in order, because you've provided me with such excellent information, so I've skipped 00:42:00through a lot of those. Let me ask -- in oral history interviews, after asking a person why a decision was made, we often next ask why a different result did not occur. And during the discussions with the committee, did you at any time expect a different result?

HAGER: I have no recollection of being anything less than wholly optimistic. It was a -- there was such a yearning here for this to 00:43:00happen, there was no unpleasant local consequences.

O'HARA: I think you've answered the next question about when the decision was made. Do you want to elaborate on that any more? You painted a nice story of how it -- how the committee was formed, but yet, you all did not actually make the final decision. But research was conducted, and A. D. Albright, it appears, had a lot of influence.

HAGER: Well, his advice was valued. I mean, I don't know, but he'd been 00:44:00executive director -- if anybody knew the politics of education, he knew it. And (laugh -- Hager) nobody questioned his judgment when he told us how long it would take to do it any other way than get going for a community college. I'm sure that we had minutes. If the minutes aren't in this, I don't know where they are. But there ought to be a formal resolution when that decision was made.


O'HARA: Did you say that you had papers in Lexington?

HAGER: Well, at the University of Kentucky. This is all archived. It's accessible. Not access -- but through the computer, but you can access it through your computer.

O'HARA: Then I'll look that -- I'll look up the minutes on that discussion. So when the committee came up with a recommendation, did they come up with a recommendation for the community college? And who did they present that to?

HAGER: Oh, of course, we presented to the -- first to the public and then to the representatives.


O'HARA: The next question I posed is, critics have attacked the UK Community College System since its conception, some critics. But what were the benefits of Owensboro Community College's relationship with the University of Kentucky, and then what were the drawbacks?

HAGER: And what were --

O'HARA: So first what were the benefits of Owensboro Community College being affiliated with the University of Kentucky?

HAGER: Oh, you're talking about the decision of the Legislature.

[End Side 1, Tape 1]


[Begin Side 2, Tape 1]

O'HARA: Testing, testing.

HAGER: -- community college side, their sentiment was that if they were independent, they could do better in representing themselves and getting appropriations from the Legislature. With it all coming through the auspices of the University of Kentucky, they felt that 00:48:00the UK campus would take priority. It's the same perception that the people here had towards Western when they were -- and probably persists even now. I still hear it now, that Western is interested only in serving where they can make money, in that it's actually costing the community money to -- because of the way that works. But I've never seen any accounting records that would be proof positive that that's 00:49:00what happens, but that's the perception.

O'HARA: That's what I was looking for, exactly, wondering what the perception was of that relationship. Thank you very much for sharing that. Both the economic and the political factors, as we've discussed, have played a key role in the decision to establish Owensboro Community College. How did the debate over creating a community college in Owensboro change over time? As you suggested, some of the early -- even as early as possibly the '60s, but primarily in the '70s, how did that debate change over time?


HAGER: I don't know who was debating it prior to -- you know, when you think back -- I was listening to -- I do not recall any public figures in a public setting debating or even deliberating on the possible effect of a public higher education institution here. Those kinds of 00:51:00conversations would come up in a setting where you had representatives of the local higher education and representatives of -- with representatives wanting public -- and those conversations didn't burst out in some public debate. They just -- and in fact, it was a given 00:52:00that -- by our committee, that whatever we did, we would have to do in a transparent and statesmanlike manner to avoid being embroiled in any public debate. Public officials don't like to do favors when a favor is going to offend or get them enemies. So that's why a public agency 00:53:00like the Council on Higher Education says, "Get your act together and tell us what this community wants. Don't come to us for something that, if we provide it, is going to split the community apart." They don't want that and we don't either. So we took seriously our mission in handling this, and really didn't feel at any time we were asserting 00:54:00our will upon the community. And we felt we had public trust in that regard, because we were transparent, our meetings were open, and we did not make any significant decisions without prior consultation in public.

O'HARA: It sounds like there wasn't a lot of open debate or controversy. It was well-handled, it appears.

HAGER: Yeah.

O'HARA: Very well-handled, thanks to the committee and yourself.

HAGER: Well, you had a Speaker of the House that was from this county 00:55:00(laugh -- O'Hara), and a very able -- probably the most capable lawyer in the state and advocate in -- on the Council on Higher Education itself.

O'HARA: Do you recall any conversations with the Representative, regarding the community college?

HAGER: Not other than the congratulatory conversations I had. I -- you know, I don't recall all the meetings that we had. I -- we may have 00:56:00had numerous meetings with him. I'm sure we kept the legislative group in Owensboro informed about what we were doing.

O'HARA: Well, you've provided me with some good stories today, and a lot of useful information, a lot of information that I think that people doing research on a community college will benefit from. You've open up my eyes to how the political and economic circumstances in Owensboro were able to bring about the creation of a community college system. Are there any questions that I did not ask that you wish I had and that you would like to discuss, any topics more -- further?


HAGER: Well the yearnings of this community are still unrequited. They're now -- we're now trying to get -- our on-to-college rate has fallen, the number of people with baccalaureate degrees has fallen. And so we are in a -- we are still striking a battle. And it's for a full presence of a -- with a Western Kentucky campus here. That's what 00:58:00they are asking.

O'HARA: They are asking --

HAGER: Meanwhile, they are trying to work in this two-plus-two to increase the baccalaureate rate.

O'HARA: Did you say that they're trying to bring a greater -- have a greater presence from Western --

HAGER: Yeah.

O'HARA: -- than there is already?

HAGER: I think they're -- I think -- yes. The county judge-executive 00:59:00made a public announcement that we ought to have a campus here with quite a -- maybe 2,000 students by 2010 or something, I mean, quite an ambitious thing. He hasn't pursued it.

O'HARA: What are the barriers today of -- to higher education, and are those barriers the same as the ones faced in the '70s and the '80s?

HAGER: I think they are greater, because of globalization of commerce 01:00:00and knowledge. And I think we -- I think the bar has been raised. (Cell phone rings)