(Excerpted from James F. Willis, Southern Arkansas University: The Mulerider School’s Centennial History, 1909-2009, pp. 103—05, and 125)
Students cleared the ground in the pine tree grove on the Magnolia A&M campus’s southeast corner during the first days of April in 1936. Unlike student labor in the school’s early years, this work had nothing to do with agriculture. These students—junior college sophomores enrolled in a history class—were building a Greek amphitheater. They were members of a course on ancient Greece and Rome taught by a new instructor, Samuel Dorris Dickinson, who had inspired them with stories of the classical world. At his suggestion, they had decided to perform the most famous of all Greek plays—Sophocles’s Antigone—for the class’s capstone experience. Initial plans to stage the drama in a pasture were changed when the 1936 graduating class voted to spend the $200 they had raised for a class memorial on a Greek theater. Leaving a permanent structure behind to improve the school was a tradition established in the 1920s. Earlier classes had given sidewalks, a rose arbor, an archway, tennis courts, a log cabin clubhouse for meetings, and street lamps along the east-west road that traversed the campus in front of Old Main and the dorms.
Students followed a blueprint drafted by sophomore Sterling Cook, who later became a professor at Miami University of Ohio. Students dug the traditional orchestra pit and, with help from a manual arts class, nailed together wooden forms into which they poured concrete for the stage. Names of the 1936 classmembers were inscribed on the floor. The manual arts class built molds for fluted Doric columns that framed the stage. The capital was a flat slablaid across the columns. The structure, however, was not finished, according to Cook’s plans. No cornice was placed atop the capital. Time ran out. Construction was halted before completion because the performance of Antigone was set for May 14 as part of graduation week and Former Students Day.
Later in 1937–38, National Youth Administration (NYA) vocational students constructed a semicircular set of concrete bleachers facing the stage; seating was available for seven hundred spectators. The NYA placed a stone pillar at the arena’s entrance with an inscription that inaccurately claimed credit for building the entire structure, not merely the bleachers. Still unique in South Arkansas seven decades later, the Greek Theater remained one of only two such campus structures in Arkansas. It and the other one at the University of Arkansas are both listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Greek Theater symbolized changes that occurred as Magnolia A&M became a full-fledged junior college. The agricultural school begun a quarter century earlier was transformed in fundamental ways. Although most students were still from Southwest Arkansas, Dean Earle E. Graham, in his brief unpublished history of the institution, pointed out that more students came from larger high schools in towns and fewer from rural schools. The change, he concluded, “resulted in marked changes in student life on the campus.” A survey in the late 1930s revealed that only one-third of students’ parents engaged in farming. Parents from the towns of Southwest Arkansas who might, in better times, have sent their children to the University of Arkansas in the hard times of the Depression sent them for the first two years to the less expensive Magnolia A&M. In these years, far more students majored in liberal arts and sciences than in any other field. Education was in second place with agriculture and home economics far behind. Magnolia A&M retained elements of vocationalism, but in response to the interests and ambitions of the students themselves, the school increasingly tilted toward the liberal arts.
The NYA employed fifty to sixty A&M students each year to work in the library, in labs, and in faculty offices. To administer the federal program, Overstreet hired Milton Talley, a 1927 alumnus, as student worker supervisor in 1936, beginning Talley’s long service at the institution. NYA students could earn a maximum of $15 per month but had to maintain a higher grade point average than other working students.
A lesser-known part of the NYA provided work and vocational training for youth not enrolled in college. An NYA resident training program began in 1937 at Magnolia A&M, one of four colleges in the state to have such a program. The NYA provided its teachers and supervisors. Within two years, some eighty young men were housed on campus learning a craft through work experience and special noncredit vocational classes. It was these young men who built the Greek Theater’s seating. There was an NYA training program for area black youth, but it was not housed on campus. These black youth were among the workers who built the theater’s seating learning how to mix concrete, construct complex wooden forms, and handle curing concrete. NYA training youth also built a new dairy barn and a student union building.