Kenneth Bridges | History Columnist
Of the many figures to shape higher education in Arkansas, John Conger has perhaps the most unique experience. Throughout his leadership career, he served as president of five colleges, including three in Arkansas.
John William Conger was born in Jackson, Tennessee, in 1857. His father was an architect. He earned a bachelors degree from Union University in 1878, followed by a masters degree in 1885.
One of his earliest duties as an educator was to serve as president of the Odd Fellows College in Tennessee starting in 1879, which served mostly as a college preparatory school. The institution was sponsored by the popular civic organization, the International Order of Odd Fellows.
He married Carrie McKinney in 1882, but his wife died less than a year later. Distraught, he left Tennessee for a new life and a new challenge. With W. H. Tharp, he co-founded the short-lived Searcy College in Searcy and served as its first president. He married Tennie Hamilton in 1884. But by 1885, with Searcy College faltering, he left to become principal of Prescott High School in southwestern Arkansas.
He found himself with yet another opportunity the next year as Ouachita Baptist College prepared to open in nearby Arkadelphia. The college was off to a promising start as the people of Arkadelphia donated 13 acres of land for the new college and secured funding. The site originally housed the Arkansas School for the Blind, which had since moved to Little Rock.
Ouachita Baptist was founded with education as its top priority and was extraordinarily generous to many of its students. It initially offered education for all grades as well as college degrees. Ministers of all faiths were invited to attend the college to expand their education as well as their wives and children, all of whom would attend tuition-free. Conger was tapped to be the founding president of the institution in 1886.
Hired in the summer, Conger quickly assembled a curriculum and recruited as many students as possible, all the while supervising repairs to the college’s main building. However, he faced financial challenges for the college as it opened its doors. Only 166 students initially attended, and a large portion of the students did not pay any tuition because of the generous tuition policies in place. Conger and his wife taught several courses while hiring four other instructors. The college was popular and grew steadily under Conger’s leadership, even as Ouachita Baptist faced competition from the new Arkansas Methodist College (the present-day Henderson State University), which opened in 1900 literally just a few blocks down the street.
Conger decided that the college should focus its efforts on college education and college preparatory work and disbanded the primary school by 1900. As the number of students and staff grew, the personal pressures grew with it. In 1907, Conger left Ouachita Baptist as the student population passed 400.
He returned to Jackson to become president of Union University, but stayed only two years. Conger was called upon again to lead a third Arkansas college, Central College in Conway in 1910. He guided the small college through World War I before retiring for good in 1919. Central College continued for several years but failed by 1947. It was revived in 1952 as Central College for Christian Workers, later becoming Central Baptist College in 1962.
Conger’s health was a constant problem in his later years after his 1919 retirement. He contracted cancer, which was virtually untreatable at the time. He died in Fort Smith in 1924. Ouachita Baptist later placed a memorial on its campus in honor of Conger.