Eastern Arizona College has provided educational opportunities to residents of Southeastern Arizona for over 110 years. Throughout the past century, EAC has gone through many changes including being renamed nine times, becoming a public college, and expanding its campus from a single building in the Gila Valley to multiple locations across three counties. While the college has experienced tremendous growth, its commitment to providing educational opportunity for all continues to shape its programs and services.
Chartered in 1888 by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and founded long before statehood, Eastern Arizona College has a distinguished history as Arizona’s oldest community college. Early Gila Valley pioneers, cared deeply about the quality of their children’s education and, soon after settling the valley, established the St. Joseph Stake Academy, which officially opened on December 8, 1890 with 17 students. Christopher Layton, an early Gila Valley pioneer and local church leader, was the president of the school’s first Board of Trustees and helped establish early school protocol and curriculum.
The first classes were held on December 8, 1890 in a local church building in Central, Arizona. However, the majority of the students lived in Thatcher and the travel time required to make the journey to Central proved burdensome. Early the next spring, the academy was moved to an adobe building in Thatcher, but within a year, the school had outgrown this building. Consequently in 1891, the fledgling academy moved from the one room adobe to a new brick building (known as the Tithing Building) built by Christopher Layton, where it remained for 16 years.
The school was largely successful during its first years of existence, yet struggled financially. Although, many teachers and administrators took much of their pay in farm produce, the academy had accumulated serious debt by 1895. That December, an epidemic of diphtheria and membranous croup struck the valley claiming many children’s lives and forcing the school to close for three weeks. When it reopened, attendance faltered and, in February of 1896, the school closed its doors for four years.
Despite this setback, the board decided in the spring of 1898 to construct a $1,500 addition to the tithing building and reopen the school in September 1898 under the direction of the new Church Stake President Andrew Kimball. Then, as now, school officials emphasized a curriculum that would be of practical benefit to students. Telegraphy was a popular class now that Morse Code messages could be sent over newly strung telegraph lines. In addition, engineering, shorthand, typing, and practical business classes drew students from throughout the Arizona territory.
Over the next several years the school experienced enrollment growth to the extent that the current facilities were no longer adequate. Therefore in 1903, $2,200 was appropriated by the College Board for the purchase of property in Thatcher on which to erect a new academy building with 21 rooms. The Board of Education appropriated an additional $12,000 toward the cost of the building with the additional $14,000 to come from donations. The cornerstone was laid in 1908 and the building eventually became known as ‘Old Main’.
Throughout the next several years, the college continued to grow as enrollment increased and new programs and athletic teams were developed. During the 1920’s, the college often made headlines on sports pages. Its football team beat the University of Arizona Wildcats in only its second year of existence, 1926. The men’s basketball team took the state title three years running and, in 1927, had a perfect record of 33 wins and no losses. This earned the team a birth in that year’s national AAU Junior College tournament.
The school also developed other programs that were just as successful as its athletic teams, including one of the largest music programs in the area and an excellent drama program. Over a nine-year period from 1927 to 1935, the drama program put on a yearly play, called the Red Knoll’s Pageant. It was a theatrical production presented in a natural amphitheatre with outstanding acoustics in the nearby rock formation, Red Knolls.
In an effort to expand the curriculum and number of classes offered, the college began a night school with 17 courses in 1931. However, the school did not have enough money to pay the teachers. Incredibly, the faculty members teaching night classes donated their teaching time.
In late 1932, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints determined to close the college unless the people of the Gila Valley agreed to assume control. The Graham County Board of Supervisors scheduled an election for March of 1933 to decide the question. Voters saved the school by a vote of 1,564 to 366. Shortly thereafter in 1938, high school level courses were eliminated from the curriculum. The name of the college was renamed to "Gila Junior college of Graham County", then again to "Eastern Arizona Junior College" in 1950.
After World War II ended, the campus began to boom as young men returned to take advantage of the G.I. Bill. Several new facilities including classroom buildings, a library, and a new dormitory were built to accommodate the rise in enrollment.
By the early 1960's, the school again faced financial difficulty and new funds were needed. John Mickelson, a state senator and former president of the College Governing Board, sponsored legislation to establish the state system of junior colleges and county voters approved the college entering the state system by the overwhelmingly positive vote of 4,233 to 29. On July 1, 1962, Eastern Arizona Junior College became the first member of Arizona’s Junior College System. Thanks to the new law, the state began to provide a portion of the school’s maintenance and operating costs, thus relieving some of the school's financial burden.
In anticipation of future growth, the college tripled the size of its 16-acre campus by purchasing the 34 acres that are now known as South Campus. A building boom ensued. Plans were drawn up for a new gymnasium, football field and stadium, baseball diamond, softball field, 13 classrooms, and three large lecture halls. The new campus was dedicated on September 21, 1963 and a year later a new men’s dormitory, Mark Allen Hall, was dedicated as well, built on the spot where Christopher Layton’s home once stood. Soon after in 1966, the college changed its name once more to "Eastern Arizona College".
Construction on South campus continued for the next several years and included a new Vocational-Industrial facility built in 1967. The facility made it possible for many new courses to be offered in the technical-vocational area as well as in general education.
Fine Arts programs also benefited from the building boom. Since its earliest days, the school has been the hub of most cultural programs in the Gila Valley. However, the music, dance, and drama programs were hampered by inadequate facilities. These were jumpstarted by a $50,000 donation from alumnus Walter Johnson, initiating plans for a new auditorium and performing arts center with a full-size stage and seating capacity of 1000. The Fine Arts Center was dedicated on August 28, 1972 and continues to serve the college today.
In 1979, tragedy struck the Thatcher campus. Two fires in a week’s time destroyed ‘Old Main’ and after nearly 70 years of service it was razed and replaced by a new administration building.
Throughout the college's distinguished history, the school has had ten names. During 42 years of church sponsorship, it was successively known as the St. Joseph Stake Academy, the Latter-day Saint Academy, Gila Academy, Gila Normal College, Gila Junior College, Gila College, and back to Gila Junior College. As mentioned in brief previously, when it became a public institution in 1933, the words ‘of Graham County’ were added. In 1950, indicating its broad sphere of influence, yet another shift made it Eastern Arizona Junior College, and in 1966, a perhaps final change dropped the word junior in favor of Eastern Arizona College.
First accredited by the North Central Association in 1917, EAC received its first 10 year accreditation, the highest available, in 1986. This was repeated in 1996.
During 1987 and 1988, a yearlong centennial celebration was held in honor of EAC’s 100th anniversary. The Red Knoll’s Pageant was revived featuring Joan of Arc, which was first produced in 1931. Thousands of alumni returned to campus for the event and proclamations and congratulatory greetings were received from the White House, Arizona’s Governor, and many others.
Today, after more than 110 years of illustrious history, EAC’s reputation for academic rigor and fiscal responsibility is second to none in the state’s community college system. EAC has consistently implemented educational innovations, both small and large, in order to better serve students, faculty, and the surrounding communities. Recent student service developments include computer support for advising, registration, tuition, and fee payment in every full-time faculty member’s office; publication of a full academic year class schedule; a single registration for the full academic year; the development and publication of competencies for all courses; and the development of the middle campus facilities.
From Christopher Layton to Lois Ann Moody, EAC alumnus and current chairman of the Governing Board, generations of dedicated governing officials, faculty, and staff have worked tirelessly to make EAC one of Arizona’s academic and cultural highlights.
Today, EAC offers many associate degrees and certificates of proficiency and serves students on the main campus in Thatcher and at the Greenlee location. Students may also earn bachelor degrees in five areas of study and master’s degrees, post-degree certificates, and endorsements in nine majors on the EAC Thatcher Campus through Northern Arizona University.
With each succeeding year, EAC is better positioned to continue its outstanding record of service to Southeastern Arizona and to the state at large. We work hard to ensure that for our students, futures begin at Eastern Arizona College.