O'REILLY GENERAL HOSPITAL OF SPRINGFIELD, MISSOURI

The Demise of O'Reilly Hospital and the
Beginning of Evangel College, 1946-1955
by Lawrence J. Nelson


Reprinted from Missouri Historical Review, Volume 81, July 1987, pp 417-446.

In the late summer of 1955, Missouri’s newest liberal arts college opened its doors in Springfield to a small pioneer class, the members of which came from more than half the states in the nation. At the inauguration of its first president on September 8, the fledgling institution, Evangel College of the Arts and Sciences, featured Missouri Congressman Dewey Short. He punctuated his keynote address with optimism about the impending growth and contribution of the new college, an institution “destined for a great future in service to our country and to the world.” Short’s reference to military preparedness and the Soviet leadership’s sinister aspiration of “world domination”1 reminded the crowd of the current Cold War, though this institution had roots deeper than that.

The founding of the new college had not come easily and, neither had its location—part of the facilities of a former federal military hospital that had served the nation well in war and peace. The college was the creation of the General Council of the Assemblies of God church, for decades internationally headquartered in Missouri’s third largest city.2 At first, however, the sites, part of O’Reilly General Hospital, constituted a potential federal white elephant on Springfield’s east side.

Once the locus, among other things, of a nine-hole, sand-green golf course, O’Reilly General possessed more than 200 buildings on nearly 160 acres. Established in 1941 with the help of local citizens, the tract had expanded to include Springfield’s Smith Park and the “Pythian Home,” a formidable stone structure once owned by the Grand Lodge of Knights of Pythias. By war’s end, the hospital grounds comprised nearly a quarter section of land within the city limits. Named for former Army Surgeon General Robert Maitland O’Reilly, the hospital, touted as “the best in the nation,” produced an economic bonanza for Springfield, eventually pumping a million dollars a month into the economy.3

War profits, however, meant reconversion problems. One person who had been at work on it was Springfield’s congressman, Marion T. Bennett. As a junior member from Missouri’s solidly Republican Sixth District, Bennett probably had little clout. Nonetheless, he served as a member of the House Veterans Committee, and his district possessed a federal hospital. Since 1943, Bennett had wanted a veterans’ hospital or soldiers’ home for Springfield. O’Reilly’s temporary frame structures, however, made the facility less attractive to the Veterans Administration. Still, when that agency looked for sites in Kansas and Missouri in 1944 to locate a hospital, Bennett claimed credit for placing Springfield on the list of potential sites.4

By mid-1946, when the army announced O’Reilly’s impending close, prospects for a second life under the VA had dimmed. Although Bennett had lobbied VA administrators, including General Omar Bradley, the Springfield site appeared larger than VA requirements warranted. The wooden structures – so efficient and necessary during the war – now proved unattractive. Any hopes for a long-term VA commitment to Springfield crumbled when the agency broke ground for a new facility in Kansas City. Such operations, henceforth, would locate in larger cities proximate to medical schools.5

Even before the army’s announcement to discontinue O’Reilly’s operations, effective September 30, 1946, suggestions circulated about possible uses for the facility. The Naval Reserve expressed interest in part of the hospital. One local resident wanted to bid on O’Reilly’s chapel, and other parties including a member of the State Health Department, believed the hospital could be used as a tuberculosis facility.6 Not least among those who eyed the sprawling tract were numerous national leaders of the Assemblies of God church.

Church leaders anticipated a new college to serve retiring veterans with G.I. Bill benefits in hand. They not only expressed interest to the War Assets Administration’s regional office in St. Louis, but also scouted the perimeter of the facility in September 1946. Soon thereafter, the VA announced it did not want O’Reilly. As disappointment reverberated through the local Chamber of Commerce, the army hospital suffered yet another indignity. For some time, workers carted off its equipment for use in other federal facilities. The loss of operating materials, including kitchen items, lessened the hospital’s attractiveness. State Senator Jasper Smith, an advocate of state acquisition for O’Reilly’s reconversion as a mental hospital, earlier argued that the state’s interest hinged on a fully equipped facility, and Assemblies officials suggested it might alter their plans to bid on the property.7

Those waiting to bid on the tract had little time to speculate on its disposition. Eight days after rejection, the VA announced it had discovered a new need for O’Reilly as a 500-bed tubercular hospital. On September 25, the agency placed a “freeze” on the property, and the exodus of equipment halted. Surprisingly, the Assemblies planned to bid on the property anyway. Any lingering hopes surely dimmed in October when the VA asked for the entire O’Reilly tract. They faded altogether when President Harry S. Truman approved the deal on December 4.8

Blocked in their attempt to secure O’Reilly, college proponents faced an even more fundamental obstacle within the church. At the church’s biennial General Council in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1947, delegates rejected the call for the creation of a liberal arts institution by a vote of nearly two-to-one. Ironically, while the government refused to yield O’Reilly Hospital, the General Council of the Assemblies of God would not start a national liberal arts college anywhere.9

While the General Council debated in Grand Rapids, O’Reilly enjoyed its second life as a tubercular facility for veterans. In 1948, over a year after opening under the VA, the hospital cared for more than 400 patients and boasted eighteen doctors, two service personnel from the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, one Protestant clergyman, and a good library for the patients.10 The economic impact of the VA facility would never rival that of the high days of World War II when thousands of soldiers crowded O’Reilly’s busy wards, but it remained important to the local economy. That became evident when the VA slated O’Reilly’s closure in the early 1950s.

A rumor about the hospital’s future surfaced at least as early as 1948, but even from its opening under the VA in 1947, O’Reilly’s days clearly were numbered. A combination of factors, including the wooden construction, other new or planned VA facilities, and slackening need militated against it. If Springfield civic leaders harbored any hopes for a long-term VA presence, those hopes suffered a setback early in 1952. A medical journal listed O’Reilly among six VA hospitals scheduled for closure. “Our community is much disturbed” over the article, wrote Louis W. Reps, managing director of the Springfield Chamber of Commerce, to Missouri’s Democratic Senator Thomas C. Hennings, Jr. “To walk away from a facility such as we have here is truly a civic sin.”11

A flurry of letters and telegrams from veterans groups and other interested parties protested to Senator Hennings and probably his Republican colleagues, Senator James P. Kem and Sixth District Congressman O.K. Armstrong. The Springfield City Council passed a resolution, on June 27, favoring O’Reilly’s retention, and the Chamber of Commerce, which had worked for years to retain the facility, bore part of the expense of a brochure, “The Case for Springfield.” Also, some local citizens had formed a “Keep O’Reilly in Springfield” committee. Some advocates, including Maj. Gen. (ret.) Ralph E. Truman, the president’s cousin, had already lobbied in Washington. In late June, Senator Kem told the VA that he daily received wires from O’Reilly patients who wanted to stay at the facility. Lobbying proved futile. The VA began phasing out the tubercular hospital through attrition and patient transfers. Remaining patients departed in the small hours of August 28, 1952, and for the second time in its eleven years, O’Reilly suffered the indignity of idleness.12

As hope for VA retention faded, increasing attention shifted to a possible third life for the aging facility on Glenstone Avenue. As early as June 1952, Congressman O.K. Armstrong speculated that O’Reilly might warehouse materiel for military installations at Fort Leonard Wood and elsewhere. One Humansville doctor wanted a building for a Bible Institute, publicly indicated his school “might be interested” in some of the O’Reilly structures, probably for off-site use. In October, even the Grand Chief of the Grand Temple Pythian Sisters, of Odessa, Missouri, claimed – incorrectly – that the lodge possessed reversion rights.13

Most interest focused on city or state acquisition. Even before the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, Missouri’s Democratic Governor Forrest Smith expressed interest to President Truman about using O’Reilly as a state mental facility for indigents. The City of Springfield also seemed a likely candidate for the O’Reilly tract, or at least part of it. The mayor advised Missouri’s two senators of the city’s interest, and the Sunday News and Leader argued that “the federal government has a strong moral – if not legal – obligation to return at least a portion of the O’Reilly property to the City of Springfield.” As early as September, the Springfield Public Park Board got in line for old Smith Park – and more – which hugged the northern edge of the O’Reilly plot.14

As before, those who cast longing eyes at the property found temptation soon removed, at least temporarily. On December 2, 1952, the Veterans Administration put O’Reilly on the procedural market, formally declaring it excess to its needs; four days later, the Department of Defense, armed with “priority,” put a “freeze” on the property.15 Very likely occasioned by the Korean War, still dragging toward an armistice, that act may have helped save a sizable part of O’Reilly for the Assemblies of God church.

Meanwhile, since the Grand Rapids General Council of 1947, attitudes within the church had shifted in favor of establishing a college of arts and sciences. The 1953 General Council, meeting in Milwaukee, endorsed the creation of a college, although problems of location, curriculum, and potentially conflicting interests of the denomination’s Bible schools loomed as formidable issues for resolution. In any case, the Milwaukee General Council not only endorsed the college idea but also elected the Rev. Ralph Meredith Riggs to head the church. For years, Riggs had waged a lonely but vocal uphill campaign for a liberal arts college. With grace yet bulldog tenacity, he refused to let the issue die despite defeat. The convention also named the Rev. Thomas F. Zimmerman as assistant general superintendent. A respected Ohio clergyman, he would play an important role in the college’s location. Several months later, the Rev. J. Robert Ashcroft, a long-time liberal arts advocate, joined the Springfield headquarters as national education secretary. With probably the best grasp of the liberal arts concept among the church’s national leaders, Ashcroft, whose son John later became Missouri’s forty-eighth governor, performed yeomen service, eventually serving sixteen years as the college’s second president.16

While possible college sites in Texas and southern California appeared during 1953 and 1954, the search focused on eight midwestern states. The Church made numerous contacts with chambers of commerce, boards of education, and others. When nothing solid developed by late winter, eyes turned to the old hospital gathering a layer of dust on Springfield’s busy Glenstone Avenue.17

As if trapped in a replay of 1946, aging O’Reilly mostly lay dormant while politicians and bureaucrats haggled over its future. Even the hospital’s ballfield, previously the scene of local organized play, stood silent. After freezing the property in December 1952, the Department of Defense permitted the Southwestern Power Administration, a federal agency, to temporarily utilize several buildings for storage. Further, under agreement with the VA in 1949, the Army Reserves continued to occupy the old stone-constructed Pythian Home in the western portion of the O’Reilly tract.18 Meanwhile, the property became something of a football in Southwest Missouri politics. Even as early as 1952, Republican Dewey Short, soon to represent the new gerrymandered Seventh Congressional District, talked of introducing legislation to get O’Reilly for the City of Springfield. But Senator Hennings, in Springfield for a Jackson Day Dinner in 1953, told the press the city’s mind seemed divided on O’Reilly. Some residents wanted federal control, while others favored city or state. The Sunday News and Leader indignantly replied that Hennings was “Trying to evade his responsibility to Southwest Missourians.” Ultimately, “the people of the Ozarks” desired VA control, argued the paper. It then warned that Hennings should “set the record straight as to how he feels about O’Reilly if he knows upon which side his political bread is buttered in Southwest Missouri.” The criticism was unfair, but local residents clearly wanted something at O’Reilly.19

Henning’s office monitored the intentions of the Defense Department which placed O’Reilly under study in the spring of 1953. When Pentagon reviews dragged through the summer and into the fall, the senator went public with his criticism. Addressing Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson in a letter released to the press, Hennings called the indecision “incredible,” “unreasonable,” and “appalling,” and asked for Wilson’s reply as to Pentagon intentions or, failing that, “some explanation for the further delay.”20

As it developed, except for some acreage for the Army Reserves, none of the military services had immediate need of the property. The guns in Korea had long since been stilled. Hennings’s impact remains unclear, but the Pentagon formally released O’Reilly within a week of his public criticism. Officials placed the old hospital back on the market, and the General Services Administration looked for early disposal.21 General Services would act as a type of broker and eventually even assume curatorship of O’Reilly. GSA believed the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) should be included in the disposition discussions. Under authority of the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act of 1949, surplus property could be used for health or education purposes to benefit the public at a discount up to 100 percent. The task of screening applicants had fallen to HEW and to that agency’s appropriate regional office. O’Reilly stood in HEW’s Region IV, headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri. That office was administered by the able and conscientious James W. Doarn, formerly a regional director in the defunct Federal Security Agency. Primary screening for O’Reilly fell within the portfolio of Theodore P. Eslick, Doarn’s Regional Property Coordinator in Kansas City.22

With the Pentagon’s release, the haggling began anew. While the state’s interest had waned, the City of Springfield demonstrated renewed interest. Others, too, got in line, including one person whose campaign to create a not-for-profit benevolent agency at O’Reilly started even before the Pentagon released it. Southwest Missouri State College, a pride of Springfield since its founding in 1905, showed interest as did Drury College, the city’s oldest collegiate institution. Others included the Executive Presbytery of the Assemblies of God, the church’s twelve-member governing body. Since the Milwaukee General Council, Ralph Riggs had given little or no thought to O’Reilly as a possible college site. However, the virtual collapse of the southern California option plus the lack of progress in developing other prospects, along with the discount feature, likely contributed to the decision to explore O’Reilly.23

The church had some support. Tacit admission of the city’s failure to make progress to acquire a large part of O’Reilly became evident as early as February 25. Louis Reps of the Chamber of Commerce told Thomas Zimmerman that he would support the bid of the Assemblies of God over Drury or Southwest Missouri State College. Mayor W.L. English, who once angrily berated a federal official for the city’s lack of success, apparently encouraged the Assemblies’ effort. However, he later tried to interest the Federal Civilian Defense Administration in locating at O’Reilly. Failing there, he wrote a letter to HEW on the church’s behalf. Giving up hope for the bulk of O’Reilly, the city began its campaign to retrieve old Smith Park, which the federal government acquired during World War II.24

Aside from seeking Congressman Dewey Short’s support in the Assemblies’ drive, City Councilman J. Roswell Flower, the church’s general secretary, appealed to the state’s two Democratic senators. Already burned on the O’Reilly question, Hennings proved of little help. “You will be interested in knowing,” he advised Flower, “that I have received a number of letters expressing interest in all or parts of this property for a variety of worthwhile purposes,… And while I earnestly believe that yours is a most worthwhile cause indeed, I cannot properly suggest that the claim of any one application … is more meritorious than any other.” Missouri’s other senator, W. Stuart Symington, who replaced Republican James Kem in 1953, also reported he had “received many similar evidences of interest.” He offered Flower slight encouragement by contacting HEW’s Regional Office in Kansas City “to express the hope that careful consideration be given the request of your group.”25

While Flower made little political headway, assistant general superintendent Zimmerman already had opened negotiations for a portion of the old hospital. On March 3, he telephoned Theodore P. Eslick, HEW’s regional property coordinator in Kansas City, about details. Legal provisions allowed a “100 percent discount,” but Eslick indicated the property would have to be utilized for education for twenty years. For that period, the government retained temporary reversion rights during emergencies proclaimed by the president. Regulations also permitted federal inspection and required annual reports.26

Within a week, Riggs and Zimmerman appeared in Eslick’s Kansas City office, armed with letters of endorsement from Louis Reps of the Chamber of Commerce and James A. Jeffries of Springfield’s Citizens Bank. Chief James Doarn remembered Eslick as “a good property man.” A conscientious and professional bureaucrat, Eslick’s coaching proved of great assistance in preparing the Assemblies’ application for O’Reilly and in the negotiating that followed.27

Since Southwest Missouri State College had expressed desire for the tract, Eslick thought the two applications might be coordinated to everyone’s satisfaction. But SMS president Dr. Roy Ellis spurned Zimmerman’s initial discussion. Despite friendship with Ellis, Zimmerman later suggested the SMS leader did not envision what the Assemblies had in mind and perhaps did not want any competition from a new school. There would be no coordination; SMS would apply for all the available land.28

Even as Zimmerman worked on the General Council application, the Executive Presbytery, on March 26, designated him its liaison officer for the negotiations. His selection seemed logical. The son of a devout mother and an Indianapolis businessman, Zimmerman had left an Indiana University scholarship after his freshman year to assist his financially strapped family during the Great Depression. He married his pastor’s daughter, spurned a business career and plunged into full-time pulpit ministry in several Midwestern states. In 1943, that ministry brought him to Springfield’s prestigious Central Assembly. His diplomacy, business skill, leadership presence, plus community involvement led to important “contacts’” within the city. After serving a stint as Southern Missouri District Superintendent, Zimmerman left Springfield for an Ohio pastorage in 1950; in late 1953, he came back to the city as an assistant general superintendent. The trust of the city leadership in him had not dissipated.29

The Assemblies’ drive to obtain O’Reilly shifted into higher gear with the completion of its fifty-plus-page application. The document, bearing Zimmerman’s heavy stamp, bristled with glowing recommendations,30 and included rationale and plans for the facility’s use as a new college of the arts and sciences.31 Meanwhile, a 24-member board of trustees, heavily weighted with clergy, organized and met initially late in May 1954. Aside from money matters, the board unanimously endorsed the Executive Presbyters’ choice of Klaude Kendrick of Texas as the college’s first president. In his mid-thirties, the soft-spoken and amiable Kendrick had logged many years of service at Southwestern Bible Institute. Later, he would obtain a doctorate in history from the University of Texas at Austin. When the Executive Presbytery chose a name for the new college, in August 1954, the embryonic institution had a designated president, a board, and a name, but no property.32

Months earlier, Senator Hennings reported that his mail indicated constituent interest in O’Reilly. Understandably, he had been “baffled” to learn from HEW’s Regional Office, in February, that it had received “no applications, nor … any indication of interest … by possible eligible claimants.” Cecil Jenkins, of the Missouri Department of Education, acknowledged that many schools expressed interest in O’Reilly buildings for off-site use. In addition, two Springfield colleges had indicated interest in a portion of the facility. However, he told Hennings, “It is our understanding that we can make no formal application for this property until it becomes available.” Apparently, Theodore Eslick did not share that understanding. He told Zimmerman, in April, that the General Council’s application could be received prior to O’Reilly’s declaration of “surplus” status.33 In other words, HEW would screen applicants for property it anticipated coming under its jurisdiction. Hence, the petition of the General Council of the Assemblies of God church evidently constituted HEW’s first formal application for O’Reilly.

Some of the confusion could be traced to eligibility. Before the General Services Administration assumed custody of the O’Reilly tract on July 1, 1954, the hospital’s disposal became the subject of numerous conferences involving GSA, HEW, and the Department of Defense. The prevailing attitude held that the hospital should be disposed of essentially intact. Those eligible under health and education provisions of the appropriate legislation, such as the State of Missouri, did not seem interested or had not formally petitioned HEW. Although interested parties such as the City of Springfield or the Ozark Empire Fair contemplated worthy uses, they did not qualify within the narrow proscriptions of health or educational use. In Springfield’s case, the city compounded the issue by its desire for the O’Reilly tract without the buildings. Apparently, ineligible petitioners could bid on property remaining only after federal agencies, including GSA and HEW, worked their will.34

Meanwhile, Zimmerman expected rapid disposition of the issue. Instead, he encountered the snail-paced vicissitudes of federal bureaucracy. Even though GSA desired rapid settlement, the required screening of federal agencies consumed many months. In mid-April 1954, GSA reported to Senator Hennings that some acreage and numerous buildings would be given to the Bureau of Prisons, Southwestern Power Administration, Organized Reserve Corps, and Federal Civilian Defense Administration. Over two weeks later the Kansas City Regional Office “rescreened” federal agencies in Region VI, apprising them of the remainder. No new takers appeared.35

Still, new problems emerged. The Federal Civilian Defense Administration’s need for warehouse space delayed disposition. Every day trucks unloaded Civil Defense material at its O’Reilly facilities. The Veterans Administration added more pressure to GSA by indicating it would not fund O’Reilly’s maintenance past June 30, 1954.36

Meanwhile, HEW in Kansas City did more than wait on General Services. Although Eslick had suggested coordination with Southwest Missouri State College, he sympathized with the Assemblies’ petition. With Zimmerman, he discussed matters relative to the General Council’s application, including fire protection, right of access to remove buildings and the like. Telling Zimmerman, on June 7, that things looked “very favorable,” Eslick believed GSA could issue a “temporary permit” to end its maintenance burden. But HEW in Washington acted with more restraint. W.T. Frazier, HEW’s chief of the Surplus Property Utilization Division, wanted to delay, giving GSA the responsibility “until our negotiations are concluded.” HEW’s Commissioner of Education leaned to state institutions in such matters and thought SMS should be accommodated. But Eslick’s view had some foundation. The SMS proposal suffered serious flaws. College officials had no money to develop the land had their petition been granted and would have to wait without guarantee for Missouri’s legislature to convene in 1955. Further, their use of the O’Reilly tract for an agricultural department would have collided with a local ordinance prohibiting pasturage within city limits. SMS surely knew its petition had problems; in any event, the college’s board of regents voted in mid-July to withdraw its application.37

Even before the departure of SMS, the narrow field concerned officials in Washington, and they made a new effort to generate more applicants. Accordingly, HEW appropriated funds to advertise in Kansas City and Springfield newspapers and to distribute an advertising mailer “to potential applicants.” Back in Springfield, however, things neared an embarrassing turn. Zimmerman desired a low profile for the church’s application. He did not wish to “embarrass” local civic leaders by making public their support. Nonetheless, Springfield papers, on June 19, 1954, featured the page-one story. Proclaimed the Daily News: “Third College to Be Established Here Soon.” More subdued, the Leader and Press claimed “O’Reilly Site is Requested For a College.” Although Assembly officials had not leaked the story, Zimmerman, out of town when the story broke, attempted to repair any damage at HEW. He asked Education Secretary J. Robert Ashcroft to tell Eslick the story originated with newsmen in Washington. Ashcroft learned the Leader and Press had contacted GSA in Kansas City and therefore “felt free to make such a spread of the story.” He told Ralph Riggs the newspaper inferred from GSA’s regional director “that at this juncture it is almost a foregone conclusion as to the final decision.”38


Evidently, publicity surrounding the case generated some active opposition. Three days after the splash the Southwest Missouri School Administrators Club affirmed resolutions supporting “the application of Southwest Missouri State College” and calling for prior consideration of all qualified public agencies. Referring to HEW and the Assemblies of God, the president of the club told senators Hennings and Symington: “I hope it is possible to stop this anticipated transfer.” Another opponent expressed resentment at “This giveaway,” while another contended “that no one religious group [should] be permitted to accept any government gift.”39

The religious issue impinged on the question of separation of church and state. The secretary of the St. Louis chapter of Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State had waged an unsuccessful protest against of St. Joseph of Carondelet. The protests focused on both procedure and substance. Now the chapter learned of the impending transfer of O’Reilly to the Assemblies of God church. The chapter’s secretary told Symington and Hennings – the latter a personal friend – “Our position with regard to this give-away is the same as in the matter of the Kirkwood Hospital. We cannot have separation of church and state if property purchased by tax money is to be turned over to religious institutions.” As late as October, the chapter’s president, a Baptist pastor from St. Louis, politely raised the issue with the Assemblies’ General Secretary, J. Roswell Flower. Flower believed if the church felt the deal violated the principle, it would reject the property. “Possibly,” he replied, “this is a matter of interpretation and all may not interpret the matter in the same way.”40

For its part, HEW long had realized its inability “to question the constitutionality of legislative action taken by Congress,” and argued that the Marine Hospital had been disposed of properly. In late June, Senator Symington told the president of the Southwest Missouri Administrators Club that current legislation did not provide for prior consideration of public operations. The Assemblies’ proposed utilization appeared eligible under federal provisions and fell within the public interest. Also, the church’s desire for the whole property, or at least a substantial part, impressed HEW.41

About the time the embarrassing story hit the newsstands, the Assemblies learned it must produce a recommendation from Missouri’s education department to supplement its application. Missouri Commissioner of Education Hubert Wheeler declined to issue a recommendation, arguing his portfolio included neither accreditation matters nor direct involvement in the deal. Apparently, given the presence of other colleges and area need, he hinted the Assemblies would not like his recommendation, based on an area canvass. Church officials quickly turned to Manning M. Patillo, an official of the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools in Chicago. The academic efforts of the proposed college would be directed to North Central, the regional accrediting organization. Eslick believed the substitution would suffice. In mid-July, Patillo, having “reviewed carefully” the General Council’s proposals, declared: “The proposed curriculum and organization of the college are in accord with commonly accepted practice in American higher education.42

To further boost the church’s position, Zimmerman turned for endorsement to Seventh District Congressman Dewey Short. In late July, the churchman signed a joint letter with Lester E. Cox, prominent Springfield industrialist and board president of the city’s Burge Hospital, regarding use of the college’s facilities for nursing and geriatrics programs. Short pointed to the proposal and told HEW in Kansas City: “I hope you will give the above application due consideration.” Actually, the administrators in HEW’s regional office already favored the church’s application. HEW officials in Washington and the General Services Administration needed convincing. Of course, the issue also hinged on the property’s ultimate availability. Still, Eslick believed the Short and Cox-Zimmerman letters significantly boosted the church’s application.43

By the end of July, the application of the Assemblies of God had some company, a result, perhaps, of the dutifully run advertisements in the Springfield Leader and Press and the Kansas City Star. Southwest Missouri State College had taken itself out of contention in mid-July, but four new applications for O’Reilly land appeared. Although the new applications involved “considerable duplication” in terms of desired buildings and acreage, none requested the entire available site. The new proposals, which Eslick forwarded to HEW in Washington, contemplated either health or education utilization. Furthermore, three hospitals and thirty-seven schools, mostly in Southwest Missouri, contemplated acquiring at least one O’Reilly building apiece. Apparently many of the old hospital’s temporary structures, available at discount for off-site health and education purposes, might soon be scattered to the Missouri winds.44

One O’Reilly building, the massive steam plant, would go nowhere. Zimmerman agreed the church would pay normal market value for both the steam plant and O’Reilly’s old chapel if the General Council received a considerable portion of the requested facilities. A complication arose over the plant’s boilers. Zimmerman learned in September the church would not be granted the plant if it contained high pressure boilers since they would be too dangerous and require round-the-clock licensed engineers. He told Eslick an engineer would be employed on a twenty-four hour basis. An investigation revealed the boilers to be “high-pressure,” but they could be reduced.45

Eventually, Zimmerman learned of a new request from HEW in Washington. Officials wanted some assurance the proposed college would not generate hostility in the neighborhood. Zimmerman doubted whether Lily Tulip Company, whose large and attractive two-year-old building faced a significant portion of O’Reilly’s Glenstone exposure, would lodge any protest. To gauge neighborhood attitude, the church turned to the news personnel at KWTO, a local radio station. Of fifty-six interviews, fifty-one looked with favor on the proposed college, four expressed “No opinion” and only one objected.46

By mid-summer, O’Reilly had been screened, filtered and cannibalized. As summer turned into fall, the bureaucracy ground on slowly. GSA wanted freedom from the maintenance that burdened its budget and, although they had not formally requested the property for reassignment, HEW worked on it.47 Within the bureaucracy, meanwhile, some of the General Council’s potential property slipped away. The Federal Civilian Defense Administration discovered new requirements. It altered the land pattern by giving up two buildings but grabbing nine more. Then, a Springfield-based campaign successfully took more than sixteen acres for the Missouri National Guard. GSA reshuffled the O’Reilly map, eventually transferring land to Civilian Defense that might have been deeded to the church.48 GSA also held back Smith Park pending final outcome of the city’s application. All this resulted in loss of buildings and land requested by the General Council. The loss included a two-story house ear-marked for the residence of the new college president.49

By the fourth week of October, nearly everything appeared ready. Appraisals, surveys and amendments to the General Council application were in place. That the church would get a good chunk of land seemed clear for some time, or so HEW’s Kansas City office believed. What happened to other applicants remains unclear, but by late October, only two remained.50 HEW’s Regional Office worked out details with its General Services counterpart. On October 25, 1954, it hand-delivered to the GSA office in Kansas City the request for transfer of property. HEW slated Springfield’s St. Agnes High School, of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City, for more than 13 acres and two buildings for athletic purposes; the General Council of the Assemblies of God church would get some walkways and scores of buildings sprawling over approximately 58 acres, most of which fronted Glenstone Avenue.51 That same day HEW’s Regional Attorney forwarded to Eslick copies of quitclaim deeds, prepared in his office, covering the requested property. Since Kansas City’s regional GSA office formally endorsed the HEW move on October 28, the issue awaited only official approval in Washington. Eslick advised Zimmerman, on October 27, that approval might take a few days to a few weeks. The buoyant hopes held by Ashcroft for opening the new college in 1954 had long vanished.52 In fact, Zimmerman had not yet emerged from the bureaucratic gauntlet.

For some reason, the General Services Administration in Washington held up the transfer. Zimmerman strained for the brass ring. He visited Lester E. Cox, Springfield’s leading citizen, at his office on Jefferson Street. Cox and Zimmerman had worked together on civic projects in the past and enjoyed mutual respect. But Cox, a wealthy industrialist, had considerable influence. “I laid before him some of the plans and aspirations of the General Council … in initiating a senior college program within our Fellowship,” Zimmerman recalled years later. “Mr. Cox was a man of vision and could quickly see the advantages that would accrue to Springfield should this institution be established in this city.”53

With Cox convinced, Zimmerman sat in his presence for an hour and a half while the industrialist talked long distance to Representative Dewey Short in Washington. Cox remained a politically powerful supporter of Short, a fact not easily overlooked by the congressman. Short, of course, needed no convincing, and had been of assistance earlier; still Zimmerman believed the telephone call “became very crucial in obtaining Mr. Short’s unqualified support for this request.”54

Whether Short acted on the matter immediately is not certain. But when GSA had not acted several weeks after its Regional Office had recommended the transfer, Zimmerman called Short direct. Short responded by quickly telephoning Administrator Edmund F. Mansure at General Services. Mansure subsequently advised Short by letter that “some of our people feel that it is at least questionable as to whether we should assign property to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare for educational purposes at 100% discount when the land has an appraised value for sale of $2500 per acre.” Short’s response, solicited by Mansure, displayed scorching diplomacy: “Apparently you are not taking cognizance of the fact that the city of Springfield incurred a bonded indebtedness of approximately $85,000 in order to acquire this property for use by the Federal Government … Certainly, that is an act in good faith on the part of the City for the public good.” The congressman looked for a like response from the government and argued against allowing the disposition to “be dominated by purely financial considerations.”55

Short’s intervention proved significant. His argument had merit, and he possessed political influence as chairman of the large and powerful House Armed Services Committee. Democrats would soon organize the new House and he would lose that chairmanship, but he would remain the ranking Republican on the committee. Still, it remains difficult to believe that GSA in Washington would have resisted the release to HEW indefinitely, at least for monetary reasons. It is also questionable that any individual or group waited in the wings to purchase the tract at market value. Given GSA’s Regional Office endorsement, a reversal in Washington might have occasioned morale problems; as for HEW in Kansas City, James Doarn declared years later that the deal would have been blocked “over my dead body.” Certainly Dewey Short’s eleventh hour intervention could not hurt – as Eslick advised Zimmerman – and it may have broken the logjam. Within a week of Short’s letter, Mansure signaled his Kansas City regional director to release the property to HEW. On December 10, 1954, the Regional Office yielded to HEW and by Christmas the Assemblies of God had their O’Reilly deed – signed, notarized and recorded in Springfield’s Greene County courthouse.56 On December 15, after word of the victory, J. Roswell Flower, one of those who had eyed the property back in 1946, wired Congressman Short: “The Executive Presbytery of the Assemblies of God on behalf of our 50,000 young people thank you sincerely for the effective part you have played in securing the O’Reilly property for our new college.”57

Despite dual victories within the church and the federal bureaucracy, little time remained for rest or celebration. Numerous obstacles had to be hurdled for the new college to open in the fall of 1955. Having already ratified Klaude Kendrick as president, the board of directors, in December, endorsed an interim budget, approved an institutional seal and named a business manager. It also selected Richard D. Strahan as dean of the college. Strahan would turn twentyeight and receive his doctorate from the University of Houston weeks before the college opened. According to Ashcroft, Strahan constructed a curriculum that previously “did not have very much of a philosophical foundation….”58

Before classes could commence, the faculty roster had to be completed, catalog finished, and a thousand other issues resolved. Many of O’Reilly’s buildings stood ready for removal, and the college began preparing a number for its own use. The college secured personal property including, apparently, unused bunk beds, and mattresses from Malden Air Force Base and bedding from Southwest Missouri State College. Meanwhile, officials laid elaborate plans for Kendrick’s inaugural. And then a small but pioneering group of freshman began arriving from all over the nation, having cast their lots, for whatever reason, with the infant college. Despite significant philosophical and budgetary limitations, Evangel College began its struggle to find a place in American higher education. The new institution, the church’s weekly publication optimistically reported, “bravely set out on its course of ministry to the rising generation.”59


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