Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon called Missouri State University-West Plains “a beacon of higher education” and a “campus of opportunity” as he helped more than 700 community leaders and dignitaries, area residents, and faculty, staff and students celebrate the campus’ 50th anniversary Monday at the Student Recreation Center.

Although rain forced the celebration to move indoors, it did little to dampen the spirit of those who gathered to mark the day 50 years ago the campus first opened its doors.  Nixon, the event’s featured speaker, praised the community spirit and unity which launched the campus on Sept. 16, 1963, as well as its continued support of the ideal that will help this area compete on a global scale.

“Everyone here should be rightfully proud of what has been accomplished,” the governor said, “but it’s just a milestone in the journey.  The past 50 years have been an arc of progress we should celebrate and use as a springboard for the years to come.”

Nixon said MSU-West Plains fills a unique role in the education of the state’s residents.  Because of its unique relationship with Missouri State University in Springfield, the only such relationship among the state’s institutions, and its status as an A+ eligible institution, area residents have the opportunity to obtain a quality education at an affordable price without being “encumbered” by student loan debt, a growing problem nationally.

“This school is leading the way…to make sure that education is the best economic choice for area residents,” he said.  “It’s a beacon of higher education for a wide swath of south-central Missouri.  It will continue to be a campus of opportunity, and it will continue to rise to meet the challenges of the next 50 years.”

Nixon praised campus and community members for the national recognitions Missouri State-West Plains and the City of West Plains have received in the past few years, including the campus’ recent sixth place ranking in the Best Community Colleges category of the 2013 Washington Monthly College Rankings, saying such recognitions only come in a community where education is a priority.  “Education is a value we all share.  It cuts across many social and economic lines.  There’s a unity in the Show-Me State to make education a priority.  We are in a worldwide competition, and education is our strongest tool.”

He also praised the continued collaboration between the community and Missouri State-West Plains, which has made access to a higher education possible for thousands of residents in south-central Missouri.  “This community works together to pass along the best thing it can to its children – the opportunity of a better life,” he said.  “Our ability to work together, to challenge the next generation, to develop the leaders of tomorrow, starts right here.”

Nixon was introduced by Missouri State University System President Clif Smart, who pointed out the campus opened in the midst of several important events in the nation’s history, including the civil rights movement, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the escalation of the Vietnam War.  Just as important to residents in south-central Missouri was the opening of the Missouri State-West Plains, which marked the beginning of the effort to break the cycle of poverty that hovered over the area, he added.

“The impact of this campus can be seen in this county and surrounding counties,” he said, pointing to those residents who were able to become doctors, nurses, business professionals, teachers, bankers, and more, because of the education this campus has provided.  “I want to thank everyone here for everything you’ve done to make Missouri State-West Plains a reality,” he said.

In his brief remarks, Missouri State-West Plains Chancellor Drew Bennett pointed out how the campus has grown over the last 50 years, from 111 students on that first day of class to more than 2,100 students this fall, from a few evening classes at West Plains High School to today’s 23-acre, multi-building campus.  “We owe our progress to those who came before,” he said.

Bennett then announced a new scholarship has been established in honor of the campus’ founder, former state representative Granvil Vaughan and his wife, Idell.  The Granvil and Idell Vaughan Memorial Endowed Scholarship, he said, was made possible with a generous donation from the Vaughans’ daughters, Karyn Vaughan of West Plains and Reta Tyrrell of Mountain Grove.  “Generosity and support like this has made this campus what it is today,” Bennett said.

Student Government Association (SGA) President Dakota Bates, Alton, welcomed everyone to the celebration, saying a student-centered focus has always been a hallmark of Missouri State-West Plains and will continue to be so.  “This truly is a place where students come first,” he said.

Several dignitaries attended the event, including 33rd District State Sen. Mike Cunningham (R-Rogersville), 154th District State Rep. Shawn Rhoads (R-West Plains), 153rd District State Rep. Steve Cookson (R-Poplar Bluff), and Missouri State University Board of Governors member Peter Hofherr of St. James.

Following the presentations, everyone gathered for a historic photo then enjoyed a picnic meal and cake.  Those attending also were asked to sign a banner that will be placed in a time capsule that will be displayed on campus in a place to be determined until it’s opened in 50 years.  Pre-ceremony entertainment and the playing of the national anthem were provided by the Zizzer Pride Band from West Plains High School.

Prizes also were given away. West Plains resident Sierra Perez won an assortment of Missouri State-West Plains and 50th anniversary items, and Lyn Mans, also of West Plains, won an iPad.  The first 400 people through the doors also received commemorative T-shirts.

As a teaching and learning institution, Missouri State-West Plains provides quality post-secondary educational opportunities to a primary service area that includes Douglas, Howell, Oregon, Ozark, Shannon, Texas and Wright counties, and beyond.  In recent years, the campus has earned recognition as one of the top two-year schools in the nation by the Aspen Institute, been named a “military friendly school” by Victory Media, the premiere media entity for military personnel transitioning into civilian life, and most recently, ranked sixth in the nation in the Best Community Colleges category of the 2013 Washington Monthly College Rankings.

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