Bryan College graduation

A previous Bryan College graduation ceremony is pictured above.

The summer of 1925 brought a few days of national focus to the town of Dayton. A world-renowned politician and a famous defense lawyer stepped off separate trains to be greeted by welcoming crowds eager to be in the public spotlight.

Community leaders of Dayton had jumped at the chance to bring new life to their once-thriving town now in the throes of financial distress. The town’s rapid response to an appeal from the American Civil Liberties Union had set in motion The State of Tennessee vs. John T. Scopes. There was no local uproar about evolution being taught in the schools. In fact, there is even questioning today about whether such teaching actually occurred at Rhea Central High School. There was, instead, much enthusiasm for bringing people, money and attention to the town and perhaps even finding an entrepreneur with an interest in a commercial venture here.

A procedural technicality resulted in the guilty verdict of the eight-day trial being invalidated. The ACLU was left with no basis for appeal, but the town of Dayton had been changed forever by the trial. The townspeople had fallen in love with William Jennings Bryan. His death in Dayton during the week following the trial led to a public outcry to memorialize this man who had endeared himself to the locals.

Bryan, a strong Christian, had specified in his will that some of his money be used for religious education, possibly administered by the Presbyterian Church in the training of young men. The people of Dayton took a leadership role, which led to the 1930 opening of William Jennings Bryan Memorial University, known today as Bryan College. The four-year liberal arts college has held to the teaching of Biblical truths as professors have prepared educators, engineers, and business professionals. But the founders didn’t stay with the proposal for a men’s school. I know that because my mother was in the first class.

For the next several weeks I will be publishing a series of articles that I have entitled “The Town and The Gown.” These articles will share today’s connection and close relationship between Rhea County and Bryan College. The college, which is the living legacy of William Jennings Bryan, continues to impact our area.

The opening of the college led not only to the sought-after investment that would become an economic engine for the county, but also led to an influx of educated professors who would provide higher education opportunities locally and who would contribute to spiritual leadership in the community. From its beginning days, Bryan College also provided musical and theatrical performances, which contributed to the cultural enrichment of the area. The newspaper articles will focus on the impact of Bryan College financially, educationally, culturally and spiritually to the quality of life in Rhea County.

Bryan has no ivory towers filled with aloof professors, but instead has unassuming offices and classrooms that are daytime homes to our neighbors, workout buddies, fellow worshippers and friends. It is temporarily home to the thousands of students who come to Dayton to prepare for adulthood. Flowing academic gowns add to the grandeur of scholarly celebrations, but khakis, plaid shirts, capris, jeans and pullovers are the everyday dress of students and faculty.

This series will introduce you to individuals whose lives were changed by their experiences at Bryan College and who in turn have changed our community.

You’ll meet those who came to Dayton as teenagers, fell in love, married fellow classmates and chose Rhea County as their place to call home. Now, decades later, they tell of adventures here rearing children and enjoying meaningful careers in the schools, businesses and industries of Rhea County. One article will feature Annalyn and Caleb Ebersole, Nathan and Erika Snyder and Nathan and Kristen Lorensen who are only three of the many couples who fit this category.

You’ll meet local individuals who chose Bryan College as the place to continue their education after graduating from Rhea County High School and Rhea County Academy. Both the undergraduate and masters programs have provided advanced education which prepared graduates for local positions. Jonathan Hostetler, finance official at Southern Silk Mills; Angie Price, HR Director at Bryan College; and Frank Sheddan, beloved Rhea County High School band director, now retired, will be featured in this article.

The locals of the 1920s helped to found the school and four locals of 2021 are among those who govern the school as members of the Board of Trustees. Meet Ralph Green, Lebron Purser, Jeff Smith and Brad Harris in an article devoted to their role in the town-gown connection.

One article will highlight the work of Margie Legg in developing and maintaining a close relationship between the college and the community. Margie, Executive Assistant to the President/Director of Community Relations and her husband, Ray, a recently retired professor at Bryan, will share significant events in the life of the school since they came to Dayton in the mid 1980s.

Vice President of Advancement and Athletics David Holcomb is a Rhea County native and a 1994 graduate of Bryan College. After working in another state for several years, Holcomb returned to Dayton to take a leadership position at Bryan. He will share facts about the Rhea County scholarship, the degree completion program and athletic scholarships which should be of particular interest to local readers.

The series continues next weekend by featuring Dr. and Mrs. Doug Mann, the president of Bryan College and his wife. Both of the Manns graduated from Bryan College more than 25 years ago and have now returned to Dayton where he has assumed the leadership role of college president. Mrs. Mann is a Dayton native. Read about Dr. Mann’s vision for the advancement of the school and for a strong community bond.

I encourage you to do more than just read this series of articles about Bryan College. Learn more about the school by going on the hill for a soccer game or a musical concert. Meet and greet college students at your church, local stores and restaurants. Extend true Rhea County hospitality to those coming to Bryan College temporarily or those who, once here, make Rhea County their home. Read about and be a part of “The Town and The Gown” connection.