BY HANNAH BUTLER
SOPHOMORE, HOPE, ARK
J.W. Hull stopped at nothing to keep the doors of Arkansas Polytechnic College open in spite of the Great Depression.
Hull, who had taken office as Arkansas Tech’s eighth president in 1932, sought out a variety of creative methods to maintain the vitality of campus during the first decade of his administration. Among these was service from 1935-42 as Arkansas director of a federal agency, the National Youth Administration.
Dr. Kenneth R. Walker’s “History of Arkansas Tech: 1909-90” reveals that by 1937, the NYA was employing approximately 14,000 Arkansans, including 138 Tech students.
It came to pass in 1940 that Hull successfully applied for funding to construct an NYA state headquarters building on the Arkansas Tech campus in Russellville. The United States entered World War II the following year, and a shift in federal priorities led to the end of the NYA in 1943.
The agreement that Hull had brokered to construct the NYA headquarters stated that the facility would revert to the ownership of Arkansas Tech once the building was no longer needed by the NYA or its successors.
And that is how the storied and colorful history of Williamson Hall began.
Arkansas Tech students from the 1940s through the early 1970s knew the building as the home of the fine arts program. Marvin Williamson, the namesake of the facility and first band director in Tech history, taught there, as did his successor, the equally legendary Gene Witherspoon.
The studios for radio station KXRJ, which later became KARV, were located in Williamson Hall from the time it went on air in February 1947 until 1957.
U.S. Army ROTC students trained inside Williamson Hall. One of Tech’s most decorated ROTC alumni is Major General William Wofford, who returned to the front lawn of Williamson Hall as Adjutant General of the Arkansas National Guard on Oct. 26, 2013, to help re-introduce the tradition of Jerry the Bulldog to Arkansas Tech following a 76-year absence.
More recent Arkansas Tech students and alumni know Williamson Hall as the home of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Hospitality Administration (PRHA). The facility was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992 and was amidst a major renovation project when it caught fire shortly after 4 p.m. on Wednesday, April 3.
If there is a single thread that runs through the history of Williamson Hall, it might be the camaraderie felt among those who have studied there. Music students and ROTC cadets established that culture in Williamson Hall. There’s no doubt that PRHA has continued and strengthened the tradition.
That culture was never more evident than on the day after the fire. PRHA students, faculty, staff and alumni gathered for lunch. They laughed. They cried. They hugged.
Dr. Cathi McMahan, PRHA department head, stood before the group and with these words summed up why the spirit of Williamson Hall, and Arkansas Tech, is indomitable:
“We lost a building, but we didn’t lose our family.”
As of our deadline for this issue of Tech Action, authorities were reviewing the structural integrity of Williamson Hall to determine if it could be restored or if it would be demolished due to damage sustained during the fire.
“I don’t know how you describe what Williamson Hall is,” said McMahan during the April 4 lunch. “It is a tough time. That was my home away from home for 22 years. To see your faces today and have your support is why we do what we do. The saving grace is we weren’t in the building, none of you were in that building…for that, I can’t tell you how thankful I am.”