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History of UAFS

Founded in 1928 by the local school board as an extension of the high school, Fort Smith Junior College (FSJC) had 34 students in its first class. Financed in the beginning out of the high school budget, the college was established during a national educational movement toward two-year colleges. In 1937 FSJC students moved out of the high school itself into their own classrooms, which had been built into the new football stadium. In 1950 the college separated from the high school entirely and moved to the outskirts of  town into a spare building on the county poor farm. There, along a narrow street shaded by oak trees, FSJC re-chartered itself as a private institution and sought to support itself solely through tuition and private donations. Upon this move Elmer Cook became the college's first president.

Students, faculty, and administrators swept hallways, washed windows, and painted the inside walls of the brick three-story building that was soon rechristened Old Main and which would house offices, classrooms, a student lounge, and a cafeteria. Students laid out a baseball field on the farm’s former garden plot. The Lions basketball team and its pep band hitched rides across town for practice and varsity games in the gym and facilities of the Fort Smith Boys Club. The faculty and administration were so dedicated to preserving the college that some returned part of their meager paychecks to help keep the institution solvent.

The private college struggled financially until 1964 when Amendment 52 to Arkansas's state constitution allowed two-year colleges to receive public funding. This was brought about particularly by the persuasive work of Shelby Breedlove, the third president of the college. For the now publicly supported college, stability brought with it a steady growth over a period of years. To reflect increased educational responsibilities and programs, the governing board of trustees changed the name of the institution in 1966 to Westark Junior College (WJC) and then in 1972 to Westark Community College (WCC). Fort Smith native Joel Richard Stubblefield oversaw the booming student enrollment, millage support from the city and county, and  construction of impressive new facilities during his 20-year tenure. In 1998 the institution became Westark College.

Westark College had gained a reputation as the flagship of Arkansas junior colleges because of the academic achievements of its transfer students at four-year schools, a tenured faculty, its substantial endowment fund, and enthusiastic community support. However, it was increasingly clear that a city of more than 80,000 with a seven-county commuter area of 270,000 people -- the second-largest urban area in the state -- needed a full-fledged university. On Jan. 1, 2002, the college formally merged into the University of Arkansas System and became the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.

For more details check out our entry in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.