As published by the Daily News Journal, Sunday, July 10, 2011
By Greg Tucker, President Rutherford County Historical Society
The attempted “assassination” was a near miss with the intended victim taking out two of his antagonists.
As it did for most businesses and institutions of that time, the Depression severely weakened the State Teachers College (STC) at Murfreesboro. The state budget allocation for STC in 1935 was barely a third of what it had been before onset of the Depression.
The college administration was making partial salary payments to faculty with funds borrowed locally, and student accounts went unpaid at an alarming level. Maintenance funds were non-existent. Campus vehicles were idled for lack of tires and repairs, and campus employees were using the college president’s personal vehicle.
The college continued, however, to be a very significant part of the Rutherford County economic, social and political infrastructure. In 1937 these circumstances prompted opportunistic interests in the local business and political communities to challenge the beleaguered college administration.
The apparent objective was to increase local influence over the college. The primary target was STC President Pritchett Alfred Lyon.
Lyon was a native of southeast Rutherford County. As a mathematics instructor, he had been a part of STC from its earliest beginnings as Middle Tennessee Normal in 1911. In 1922 he became the second president of the school and played a major role in its transition from a two-year “normal” to the four-year “State Teachers College, Murfreesboro” in 1926.
(Although STC was informally dubbed “Middle Tennessee State Teachers College” in the 1920s, the unofficial phrase “Middle Tennessee” had completely disappeared by 1931 and was not again used until the name was changed to “Middle Tennessee State College” in 1943. See “Rutherford… for Real,” pages 66-69.)
A local group including Edward W. “Ned” Carmack, publisher of the Murfreesboro Daily News Journal, lobbied and pressured the State Board of Education and Gov. Gordon Browning to terminate the 69-year-old STC president and to appoint Knox T. Hutchinson to the post.
Hutchinson headed the STC Agriculture Department. He was well-known and popular in the state farming community. His advocates, according to M. E. Bragg, publisher of the Rutherford Courier, were using him as a means to remove a political opponent. It was also reported that one of Hutchinson’s supporters wanted his son-in-law to succeed to the agriculture post when Hutchinson became the college president.
Despite aggressive political lobbying by the local interests, the State Board and the governor were unwilling to take the political risk involved in removing a respected college president. Undaunted, the local opportunists turned to political allies in the state Legislature.
On May 7, 1937, the Courier headlined that a “group of local politicians” had gotten the Speaker of the House and the Speaker of the Senate to introduce jointly a bill requiring that presidents of teacher colleges in Tennessee have a four-year college degree. Lyon had only a two-year Normal College diploma and an honorary degree. The immediate effect of the bill would be to disqualify him. (Teacher college presidents in West and East Tennessee had degrees, and the “colored normal school” in Nashville, where the president did not have a degree, was excluded from the bill.)
Labeling the bill proponents “Legislative Assassinators,” the Courier harshly editorialized: “Of all despicable and damnable actions, the worst is that of legislating people out of office … Concocted and conceived in the brains of certain local people who have been opposed politically to P.A. Lyon or who have been unable to get Mr. Lyon to follow their dictates … , the bill is absolutely nothing more or less than an effort to get one man out of office and another man in.”
Most observers conceded, however, that the bill would likely pass and would be signed by the governor. Rumors circulated, encouraged by The Daily News Journal, that Lyon would soon announce his resignation.
But Lyon was no political novice. Soon there were rallies and demonstrations on campus indicating virtually unanimous student and faculty support for their embattled president. A campus delegation went to Nashville to canvass legislators on Lyon’s behalf. The Tennessee Education Association (TEA) Legislative Committee added its support.
Lyon’s loyalists on Capitol Hill delayed the proposed legislation, and the Browning administration expressed concerns. The bill was soon amended to make it only applicable to future appointments.
In early June, the State Board of Education, acting on recommendation from the STC President, confirmed reappointment of all officers and faculty at STC with only two exceptions. As recommended by Lyon, Knox T. Hutchinson was not reappointed to any position at the college, and J.C. Waller, head of the Training School, was reassigned to a faculty position without administrative responsibility. (Waller had been identified as an ally of the Hutchinson faction.)
Hutchinson appealed his termination. At a subsequent meeting of the State Board Lyon candidly noted that in light of what had transpired he did not believe that he could work “in harmony” with the former agriculture teacher. Hutchinson had been “devoting too much time to activities outside of the school,” according to Lyon. The board agreed.
In August, still under pressure from the anti-Lyon faction, Gov. Browning brought the matter to a close by stating publicly that “anything done (at STC) will be in agreement with Dr. Lyon … there are no differences between us.”
The 1937-38 school term began without further controversy or speculation. In December Lyon announced that he would assume the position of STC President Emeritus and Advisor, relinquishing his duties as president, as soon as a successor could be confirmed.
At the same time it was announced that the State Board would offer the STC presidency to W.A. Bass, the state commissioner of education and a close associate of Gov. Browning.
But despite what had apparently been arranged and agreed between Lyon and the governor, Bass declined the STC job in order to assume the Nashville City Schools’ superintendent position.
Finally, in mid-1938, with the endorsement of P.A. Lyon, the State Board offered the STC presidency to the chairman of the TEA Legislative Committee, Quintin Miller Smith. At that time, Smith was also serving as president of STC arch-rival Tennessee Polytechnic Institute in Cookeville, and was the youngest college president in Tennessee. An alumnus of the first graduating class at the Middle Tennessee Normal School, Smith had subsequently earned bachelor and master’s degrees from George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, and a degree from the Chattanooga School of Law.
With no concerns regarding the statutory degree requirement, Q.M. Smith accepted the position.
Greg Tucker can be reached at email@example.com.