Stephanie Cannon '06 June 26, 2013 10:57 PM updated: June 26, 2018 1:31 PM
Happy 139th birthday, former students!
On June 26, 1879, a reception in Houston kicked off the Ex-Cadets Association, the forerunner of The Association of Former Students.
A few key moments from The Association's history since that initial meeting:
Today’s organization serves more than 444,000 living former students. The Association also has a mission to serve the more than 64,000 current A&M students and, as part of that, provides a financial impact on Texas A&M of more than $12.5 million a year.
A few other facts about the modern reach and impact of The Association:
No summary of dates and milestones can begin to convey the countless gifts of time, talent, and treasure from loyal, passionate former students throughout our history. While our methods and programs have evolved tremendously during our first 139 years, the noble cause of the Ex-Cadets Association is still carried out by the staff and dedicated volunteers of The Association of Former Students.
In 2014, as part of the celebration of The Association's 135th anniversary, Association President and CEO Portner S. Garner III '79 and Vice President Kathryn Greenwade '88 went on TexAgs Radio to discuss the ever-growing Aggie Network and to share stories of good bull from years past. Listen to that interview at https://texags.com/s/13990/ceo-porter-garner-celebrates-the-associations-135th-birthday/25.
The Bryan-College Station Eagle and the Houston Chronicle also reported on The Association's anniversary in 2014:
Below is a history of The Association researched and written by John A. Adams, Jr. '73. It was first published in Texas Aggie magazine in 2009 on the occasion of The Association of Former Students 130th anniversary.
By John A. Adams, Jr. '73
Being a Texas Aggie is a lifelong experience. For some the journey began at birth, as many families speak of generations of Aggies. For untold larger numbers of present and future Aggies, the path toward the ranks of former students begins each semester. Whether enrolled for a single semester, or for four years or more, membership is both automatic and virtually irrevocable. The bonds of loyalty, the Spirit of time-honored Texas A&M traditions, and the love for our alma mater have long been the focus of The Association of Former Students.
The Aggie Network Begins
The roots of The Association are deeply entwined with the fall 1876 founding of the Agricultural & Mechanical College of Texas. Located on a raw post oak prairie, the college opened its doors to an initial group of hardy students and six faculty members. Authorized under the federal mandate of the Morrill Land Grand Act of 1862 to establish public schools in each state, the first public institution of higher learning in Texas was authorized and confirmed by the Texas Legislature on April 17, 1871. In the statewide search for the campus location, the commissioners were instructed to find a centrally located site, with adequate water and access from across the state. The population of the state of Texas in the 1870s, numbering some 1.3 million, was almost exclusively concentrated in a broad eastern Texas corridor stretching from north of Dallas through East Texas to the Gulf Coast town of Galveston.
Intended to provide instruction in the “mechanical arts,” the course work instead tended to be directed towards a broad classical curriculum in the literary arts, as there were few available instructors in engineering and agriculture. Furthermore, the Morrill Act stipulated that training would be provided in “military tactics,” hence the organization of the Corps of Cadets on Oct. 4, 1876. The new campus was comprised of two lone buildings: Old Main with classrooms and administrative offices, and Stewards Hall, later renamed Gathright, which housed both the dormitory and mess hall. By December, 48 Aggies, or “Farmers” as they were soon called, were in attendance at the Corps’ first final review and ceremonies on June 25, 1877.
During the first few years, the college struggled with poor housing, funding problems, difficulties among the faculties, and cadet rowdiness. At times, college President Thomas S. Gathright surely questioned the wisdom and survivability of the fledgling college. To gain a degree of control, admission standards were enhanced to require students to be at least 14 years old, of good character, and able to enter the prescribed studies. In the 1877-78 session, enrollment surged to 331, yet it fell during the next two college sessions, to 248 in 1878-79 and then 144 in 1879-80.
The First Meeting Of Former Students
It was this spirited group of cadets from the Classes of 1876 through 1879 who organized a gathering at the Bachelor’s Hall in Houston on June 26, 1879. During this meeting, initial actions were taken for the formation of an organization of former cadets. In their deliberations at Houston, attended by a dozen former cadets from Waco, Millican, Marshall, Forth Worth, Navasota, and Paris, it was agreed to form the Association of Ex- Cadets. The most likely catalyst for this first gathering came from Houstonian Edward B. Cushing ’80. Those at the 1879 meeting pledged to hold, from this time forward, a gathering on the A&M campus to coincide with the annual June commencement ceremonies, beginning in 1880.
Furthermore, it was decided at this first meeting to endeavor to keep a record of all former cadets who had matriculated in the A&M College of Texas, “thus promoting and maintaining fellowship.”
Given that there were only two graduates in the Class of 1878—Robert A. Rogers of Galveston and William A. Trenckmann of Wilheim—and 20 students obtained conferred degrees in 1879, the Association of Ex-Cadets from the very inception maintained that its members would be drawn from any who attended the college, regardless of graduation status. The gathering at the commencement in June 1880 witnessed the addition of seven new graduates as well as the listing of some 100 former students. New graduate E.B. Cushing was elected the first chief secretary of the association of the A&M ex-cadets, and William M. Sleeper ’79 became the first president, with vice presidents William Trenckmann ’78 and Pinkney L. Downs ’79.
Former Students Take Action
The Ex-Cadets moved quickly to gain the support of the A&M Board of Directors for having a special day set aside at each graduation for former cadet activities and an annual meeting. Cushing at once began to plan the 1881 gathering. In his call to announce the reunion on campus, he asked each former cadet to send information of their whereabouts and activities since departing the A&M College—the forerunner of the modern Directory of Former Students and the online Find An Aggie directory. It is the hope of the Association, Cushing wrote, “to keep afresh the feelings of fraternal regard which existed among us while we were under the kindly care of our alma mater.” In the years prior to campaigns for annual giving, membership was secured in 1881 with a 25-cent initiation fee and annual dues of 25 cents—payable in coins or postage stamps.
To encourage attendance at the annual meeting, free passes and reduced rates were obtained for those who traveled by the Houston and Texas Central Railroad. The train ran from Galveston through Houston to College Station, a siding and ramp six miles south of
Bryan, and on to its northernmost terminal at Corsicana. Access by horse and buggy was difficult
in an era of unimproved highways.
At the 1883 gathering of the ex-cadets, formal steps were taken that provided a legacy to what was to become one of the most time honored Texas A&M traditions, Aggie Muster. In the preamble of the Association, a statement of objectives noted:
Being composed of the Alumni of the College, many of whom pass from its halls into the bivouac of life, it is but met that we should form and ever preserve an organization for uniting us fraternally, and always at necessity’s call. Extend a helping hand to an old comrade. In reunion we meet and live again our College days, the victories and defeats won and lost upon drill field and in classroom. Let every Alumni answer to the roll call.
This reference to the “roll call” is most significant, as the annual roll call for fallen A&M comrades by those “mustered”on campus was to continue throughout the years and become an integral part of the annual Aggie Muster ceremonies held on April 21 of each year. And thus, from the rugged early days of the college, the former students were to become the bedrock of Aggie traditions.
Association Name Changed
In time, the Ex-Cadets Association was reorganized to form the Alumni Association with an attempt to limit membership to only degreed graduates. This objective proved short-sighted—given that by 1887 there were only 97 graduates and some 600 former students—and was altered to include all former students. Unrest among the faculty resulted in a substantial reorganization of the college, including the replacement of the president as well as an ongoing fight with the state Legislature in Austin to secure enough funding to maintain operations of the floundering college.
The Alumni Association was to prove pivotal in raising public awareness of the needs of Texas A&M. Applauding the timely efforts of former students, the student publication the College Journal noted: “the success of the alumni [former students] of any institution is the best and truest indication of its usefulness and prosperity.” And thus, the Association prevailed in Austin. Funding was secured and at last under the administration of Louis L. McInnis a fully developed academic program and extension activity in both engineering and agriculture was offered.
Pioneering members of A&M’s first class gathered in reunion on the steps of the YMCA Building in June 1921. Front row, left to right: W.J. Bryan ’79, Abilene; Charles Rogan ’79, Austin; P.L. Downs ’79, Temple; W.M. Sleeper ’79, Waco; and L.J. Kopke ’79, Beaumont. Second row: F.W. Fort ’79, Waco; P.H. Levy ’79, Navasota; J. B. Dunn ’79, Benchley; the Rev. Malcom Buck ’79, Sterling City; R.D. Bowen ’79, Paris; and J.S. Steward, Houston. Pictured alone at center rear is Sam Wilson, assistant to Bernard Sbisa in the Mess Hall. Wilson and Sbisa were the only two staff members on campus in 1921 who were also at A&M during 1879.
(Photo at top of page) The Association of Former Students proudly dedicated the Clayton W. Williams, Jr. Alumni Center on Sept. 5, 1987.