Dr. Walter Nelms would never pass up the opportunity to talk about Jackson State Community College – the institution he helped to found and has been his life’s work.
“I love to talk about Jackson State,” he said. “It’s my baby.”
In fact, he was a part of the college even before it opened in August 1967. Jackson State’s first president, F.E. Wright, hired him in June 1967 as the Academic Dean so he could help get the college off the ground.
“It’s hard to imagine the real joy of giving birth to an institution,” said Dr. Nelms, who became the college’s president in 1976 and held that position until he retired in 1997. Since then, the college has continued to be a big part of his life. He attends graduations and is a frequent sight at college events.
The arrival of community colleges
Dr. Nelms was just starting his career in education when the momentum to open community colleges arrived in Tennessee. First known as junior colleges, the two-year institutions started in California, Mississippi and Michigan and then spread across the country, he explained. Tennessee’s first was Columbia State Community College in Middle Tennessee. Jackson State was the second to open.
Dr. Nelms was teaching a course on the administration of junior and community colleges at Memphis State. “I was selling them on a community college career,” he said. “I kept telling them what a good opportunity it was to be at a community college. One day after teaching that class, I was getting a haircut. I remember sitting in the chair and thinking that working at a community college was a good opportunity for me, too.”
Dr. Nelms already knew Jackson. His father worked for the Illinois Central Railroad and Nelms spent part of his growing up in Jackson. He graduated from Jackson Central High School. He left Jackson to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Harding University in Arkansas. He then taught two years in Arkansas, joined the U.S. Marines for another two years, and earned his doctorate in education from the University of Mississippi.
He met his wife, Peggy, in high school and married when he was 19. They have three children: Brenda, a lawyer; Walter Jr., who owns a heating and cooling business; and Lee, a pilot for Delta Airlines. They also have nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
In the weeks before Jackson State opened in 1967, the first staff members worked out of a house on Airways Boulevard. As Jackson State’s first academic dean, Dr. Nelms and his secretary, Anne Crossnoe, developed courses and a curriculum, hired faculty, bought textbooks and created an academic class schedule.
The college opened with 640 registered students that fall, he said.
A quality education for $55 a quarter
At $55 a quarter for full-time students, the new college made a post-secondary education affordable and opened opportunities to many in West Tennessee. “Community colleges are absolutely the best bargain in education,” Dr. Nelms said.
The early curriculum was mainly general courses students needed to get an associate degree, but already technical courses were available. Old Hickory Mall had just opened, and Dr. Nelms remembers a one-week course that taught how to operate an electronic cash register.
It wasn’t long before business and medical-related programs were in the curriculum. At the time, Dr. Nelms said, business and technical courses were reserved for vocational schools, but now students could get two-year degrees in these fields and enter the job market. Early medical courses included courses in radiology and inhalation therapy.
Outside of the college, Dr. Nelms has been involved in the community. He is a member of Rotary Club and has been an elder at the Campbell Street Church of Christ for 40 years. He also rides and shows walking horses, loves to play golf and has his private pilot’s license.
An integrated faculty and student body
One accomplishment, of which he is quite proud, was the opening of the Ned R. McWherter Center for Advanced Industrial Technologies. The college had a state-of-the-art building for the courses it offered to meet the needs of area industry.
While many institutions were still segregated in the late 1960s, Jackson State was not, said Dr. Nelms. From the beginning, African-American students were welcome, and Dr. Nelms sought out minority teachers. “By the second year, our faculty was integrated.”
In 1968, when racial tensions exploded elsewhere, Nelms worked to keep Jackson State out of the fray. “We had a significant number of minority students. When Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis, we lowered the flag the next day. We’ve never had racial problems at Jackson State.”
The impact of Jackson State
One of the hardest parts of his job, he said, was getting people to accept the value of a community college. “The impact of Jackson State is immeasurable.”
Industries locate here because of Jackson State, he said. The medical community could not have grown as it has without Jackson State feeding it with people skilled in the medical field.
The college offered remedial courses to help students catch up and then succeed at the college level. “I can’t think of turning away a student for academic reasons. We take them from where they are to where they want to be.”
He has stories of many students who arrived unprepared. They would not have gotten the attention they needed at many other colleges, he said. “We cared about them, gave them help along the way and the foundation they needed. That’s what a community college is all about.”
“We offer a quality education. I will maintain that the average student coming out of high school in Madison County is more likely to earn a four-year bachelor’s degree if he or she spends the first two years at Jackson State.”
“My greatest pride” – faculty and staff
Of everything Jackson State offers, Dr. Nelms is most proud of its faculty and staff. “My greatest pride in this institution has always been the faculty and staff. No institution is any better than its faculty. I’ll put the quality of Jackson State’s programs up against any other program.”
Dr. Nelms likes to point out that the Jackson State faculty is hired to teach, not to do research. “The faculty really put their hearts and souls into teaching. That’s critical for a community college.”
Finally, Dr. Nelms is proud of the difference Jackson State has made in people’s lives: the bank president, the politician, the hospital administrator and the many others who started their college educations at Jackson State. The nurses, the therapists, the office workers and industry technicians who got their first jobs with associate degrees and technical training from Jackson State. “The pride of the people who worked here and who attended here is strong,” he said.
Jackson State is as proud of Dr. Nelms as he is of the institution. The Walter L. Nelms Classroom Building is named for him; a tree is planted in his name.
“Eternally,” he said, “I am going to be here. My heart and soul are here. They always have been. I’m just proud of Jackson State.”