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Saturday, September 23, 2023


A greater vision

"My dream is the establishment of the University of Houston as an institution where men and women of Houston… can obtain a higher education while living at home, and at a reasonable cost."

That’s what Houston Independent School District Superintendent Edison Ellsworth Oberholtzer told HISD seniors at a meeting called to discuss "an urgent matter" in 1926. The city was graduating 2,000 students a year, while Houston’s only university, the Rice Institute, was accepting only 200 local applications.

The meeting laid down the foundations of what would ultimately become the University of Houston.

"Oberholtzer and (Hugh Roy) Cullen (UH’s main benefactor) had this vision of someplace where working people can come and get a college education," M.D. Anderson Library supervisor Robert Marlin said. "They wouldn’t have to go off to school in Austin or College Station. You could hold a job and go to school and better yourself."

Oberholtzer was used to working and going to school his entire life. He enrolled in summer school every year while he was a teacher, earning both his masters degree and Ph.D. while holding a full-time job.

He was born in the town of Patricksburg, Ind., on May 6, 1880, where he lived until he was orphaned at age 10 and moved to Clay City, Ind., where he graduated from Clay City High School at age 15. Oberholtzer’s teaching career began in the same town in a single-room schoolhouse.

In 1924, the city of Houston formed the HISD to organize public education in Harris County and invited Oberholtzer to become its first superintendent.

He soon saw the difficulty that his graduating students faced in continuing their education.

"He had a full-time job running HISD at the time," Marlin said. "He could have done that and just been perfectly happy receiving his paycheck. He wanted to provide another avenue for people to be able to stay in Houston, to go to work and have families."

On Sept. 19, 1927, Oberholtzer’s vision started taking shape and the Houston Junior College had its first regular session with 367 students and 12 professors.

"(Oberholtzer) recognized UH was just starting out in what would become a large metropolitan center,and from the beginning geared the University to accept people from all walks of life, most of whom where not born with silver spoons in their mouths," said long-time friend, UH alumnus and renowned Houston attorney Richard "Racehorse" Haynes.

Oberholtzer had to pull a lot of strings to sustain the privately funded college. In the beginning, he "borrowed" teachers from The University of Texas and from Sam Houston State University, along with HISD teachers who were interested in the project.

Night classes were held at San Jacinto High School (now part of the Houston Community College System) and day classes at a nearby Baptist church.

The college quickly grew, and in 1934, the University of Houston was officially founded.

"Oberholtzer was the man behind the whole University," said Mikaela Selley, a corporate communications sophomore and M.D. Anderson Library research assistant. "He started it. It was his idea. He’s the one who organized and established UH."

"The Chief," as he was called, died on June 18, 1954 in Houston from circulatory disorders.

To celebrate the 80th anniversary of the University, the library has put up an exhibit on its first floor celebrating Oberholtzer’s legacy.

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