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Making History Today: Presbyterian Colleges - Lyon College

Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest

James S. Currie, Executive Secretary 

In the book The Liberating Arts: Why We Need Liberal Arts Education (Plough Publishing House, 2023) 25 writers collaborate in making the case for the need for and the importance of liberal arts in American education. The argument is that education should have as its aim to explore and examine the human condition and the various ways it is expressed – in literature, music, theology, philosophy, the visual arts, history, other languages and cultures. 

While other fields such as medicine, law, engineering, and business are essential to our lives and can be expressions of what we believe to be important, underlying them all is the issue of what it means to be human and where and how we find meaning to life. Why do we do what we do? What do we believe and why? How are those questions explored and expressed? Brandon McCoy writes, “While productivity and financial security are laudable goals, they should not be the primary purpose of education. The goal of education should be to create liberated persons who seek to examine life in its fullness, to enjoy friendship with others, and to foster the health of their communities” (pp. 53-54). A broad-based education lays the foundation for whatever lies ahead and makes for a life of ongoing learning, exploration, and discovery. 

Traditionally, Presbyterian colleges and universities have the study of liberal arts at the center of their purpose. In our four state region there are six Presbyterian colleges and universities: Lyon College (Batesville, AR), the University of the Ozarks (Clarksville, AR), the University of Tulsa (Tulsa, OK), Austin College (Sherman, TX), Schreiner University (Kerrville, TX), and Trinity University (San Antonio, TX). In this column the focus will be on Lyon College. Most of the information is taken from Brooks Blevins’ volume, Lyon College: The First 150 Years, published in 2023. Blevins himself is a Lyon College graduate, Class of 1992.

Originally named Arkansas College, the school first opened for classes on Monday, September 2, 1872 on the grounds of what is now First Presbyterian Church in Batesville. There were 41 students and four teachers in a building that 20 feet by 40 feet. Isaac J. Long, Presbyterian minister, was the first president of this new institution that at the time was known as the Presbyterian High School. Born in 1834, Long grew up in the South Carolina Piedmont. Orphaned at age 14 and due to funding from a Presbyterian minister, Long found his way to Centre College in Kentucky from which he graduated. His plans to attend seminary were cut short by the Civil War. He ended up in Batesville  in 1867 on a missionary journey sponsored by the Southern Presbyterian Church. He remained president of Arkansas College for 19 1/2 years. 

The school’s name was changed to Arkansas College in 1872 when it received its charter from the state of Arkansas. While there were two other independent colleges in Arkansas before Arkansas College, they did not survive. Hence, today Lyon College is the state’s oldest independent institution of higher learning. Arkansas College was the first college or university in Arkansas to provide the same education and the same degree to women that it did to men, and that was the case from the very beginning. At its first commencement in 1876 the first three B.A. degrees were to women. It would almost be another century before African Americans were admitted to the college. 

The years 1918-1954 were ones of expansion and struggle. While new buildings were constructed and enrollment went up, so did the college’s debt, especially with the effects of the 1927 flood and the onset of the Depression. In 1931 the Synod of Arkansas voted to close the school. However, the pleas of the residents of Batesville, led by alumni Nels and Kitty Barnett, prompted a re-vote. The College survived. World War II enabled the school to re-gain its financial footing. Dozens of alumni served in the armed forces, eleven of whom died in the war. 

In 1954 the school left the original campus and re-located to 100 acres to a bluff that overlooked Miller Creek valley. Brown Chapel was one of the first buildings constructed on the new campus. The funding campaign was led by trustee Frank Lyon, Sr. and the Chapel was named for the Brown family of Hot Springs who had made the largest contribution to the campaign. 

In the mid-1960s enrollment topped the 300 mark. In the fall of 1964 Arkansas College was desegregated when Mitcheal Brown enrolled as the first African American student. He graduated with a degree in biology in 1967. Integration increased to such a degree that in 1976 Mr. and Mrs. Arkansas College, William Adair and Darlene Crow, were African American. 

On April 19, 1973 a tornado took down three buildings and damaged Brown Chapel. Buildings were expanded and new buildings were constructed in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1981 Jean Brown of Hot Springs left $14 million, at the time the largest single gift to an Arkansas institution of higher learning. This gift sparked other gifts which increased the endowment significantly. In 1994 the college’s name was changed to Lyon College to honor the service and contributions of Frank Lyon, Sr. and his family to the school. 

Today Lyon College is led by Dr. Melissa Taverner, the college’s 19th president and its first woman president. With an enrollment of almost 600 students the College offers degrees 20 disciplines. In new and creative ways Lyon College is continuing the Presbyterian tradition of educating young people in the arts and sciences, preparing them for life in a variety of vocations. 

The Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest exists to “stimulate and encourage interest in the collection, preservation, and presentation of the Presbyterian and Reformed heritage” in the Southwest. If you are not a participating member of the Society and would like to become one, the annual dues are $20 per individual and $25 per couple. Annual institutional and church membership dues are $100. Checks may be made out to PHSSW and sent to: 

PHSSW – 5525 Traviston Ct., Austin, TX 78738.  

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