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Front Page » September 25, 2003 » Local News » CEU's Sixty Fifth Anniversary Almost didn't happen
Published 4,397 days ago

CEU's Sixty Fifth Anniversary Almost didn't happen

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Staff reporter

The new Reeves Building on the CEU campus might never have been built had local residents not fought to keep the college open in 1953 when the political powers of the time tried to end funding for the institution.

Last Saturday, a large party took place on the College of Eastern Utah campus in Price, celebrating 65 years of providing higher education to eastern Utah.. However, if a home town boy had had his way in the early 1950's, the college would not exist at all today.

In June of 1953, Governor of Utah, J. Bracken Lee announced that he wanted to see a halt to state funding to a number of educational institutions in Utah . Carbon College, the name that CEU went by at that time, was one of them.

Lee, who was a native of Carbon County and had been the mayor of Price for many years, announced that he wanted to see Dixie College in St. George, Snow College in Ephraim, and Weber College in Ogden turned back over to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Both schools were originally started by the church many years before.

He also wanted to turn the Salt Lake Area Vocational School and the Central Utah Vocational School turned over to the respective school boards in whose areas they were located.

Finally, since Carbon College and Carbon High School were one and the same at the time, he wanted Carbon School District to take over the school in Price.

"These are frills that the taxpayers can do without, " he said in a press conference at the time. "I think the state should spend a larger percentage of its school money for elementary schools because pupils at that age are more receptive and more subject to impressions than they are later."

According to Lee the closure of the schools could have saved the state $1,285,000 a year, a great deal of money in 1953.

At the time Carbon College was a very small school. In that year the institution only had 100 students and graduated 52 students that spring.

People in Carbon county went into immediate shock at the suggestions of the governor. After all he was a hometown boy, born and raised in Price, and had been mayor of the town for a number of years. When he was elected governor, despite the fact that he was a Republican from a traditionally Democratic county, many thought his tenure as governor would help Carbon county. Obviously at that point most Carbon county citizens began to think they were wrong.

A committee to battle the suggestions the former Price mayor had made was immediately formed by the community. But it turned out that Lee's suggestion was much more than a pie-in-the-sky proposal that he might have the legislature look at in a few years. The next December he called a special session of the legislature, something only he as governor could do, and one of the main things on the agenda was the issue concerning the college and technical schools.

The committee, headed by Chamber of Commerce president Gomer Peacock, along with other members of the Carbon community spent almost the whole legislative session in Salt Lake trying to keep the funding denial from happening.

At first it appeared that they had succeeded in stopping the big bad train that had started rolling down the track a few months earlier, when the Senate voted to not end support for Carbon by an 11 to nine vote on Dec. 17. However the next morning the bill was reintroduced and the Senate passed it 14-9.

The story behind the battle over the bill is convoluted and the reasons for the reintroduction and reversal takes many forms. First, in the bills at the legislature, the move to kill Carbon had been separated from the transfers and other closures, probably in a political ploy by someone to gain support for the transfer and yet to keep Salt Lake and Provo tech campus' open, because in the end they were dropped from the closure list. Carbon College had become the sacrificial lamb, so to speak.

According to the Salt Lake Tribune at the time, Lee called in the Republican Senators the next morning and told them that if they didn't reintroduce the bill and kill Carbon as well the vocational schools, he would veto the transfer of the other three institutions. He put tremendous political pressure on a few Senators who said they had voted against the measure because they felt the issue needed more study before it could be fairly considered. The next morning the bill to kill Carbon was reintroduced by Senator Grant Thorn of Springville and the infamous vote took place.

That evening Carbon county officials convinced the Speaker of the House to allow members of the Carbon county community to speak to them before they took their vote on a companion bill. During the meeting everyone from the Mayor of Price, William Welch to Hal MacKnight, then the publisher of the Sun Advocate, spoke to the House about how much the college meant to the community. Later that evening the lawmakers sealed Carbon's fate at the legislative level by voting 31-29 to close the college.

Despite the fact that the two technical campus' were saved against his wishes, Lee said he would sign the bill because it accomplished what he wanted. To Carbon residents it all became a personal affront. Even some of his biggest supporters from years past turned against him.

But obviously, despite the passage of the bills at the time, the college didn't go away. It was scheduled to be turned over to Carbon School District that next summer, but on the following Saturday, a public meeting was held about the possibility of organizing a statewide referendum to reverse both the transfers and the closing of Carbon. The meeting had so many people attending that it had to be held in the Price Civic Auditorium, and the committee which had been set up to battle the legislative process now became an organizing force to put a measure to rescind the bills on the ballot at the next general election, which would be on Nov. 2, 1954. To do that, the petitions and qualifying signatures had to be turned over to the state within 60 days after the bill was passed, in this case the end of February, 1954.

The work began immediately, with Peacock still leading the group and Belmont Anderson heading up the petition drive. To achieve what they wanted the group had to gather 32,770 signatures (that was 10 percent of the states citizens who had voted in the last general election).

Beyond that, those signatures would also have to reflect 10 percent of the registered voters in each of 15 of the 29 counties in the state as well.

If they succeeded in gathering the signatures, the repeal would not only be put on the ballot, but it would also prolong the life of the college into the next year, because it could not be closed as long as the measure was pending.

But Carbon citizens did not have to do this alone. While people in and about Dixie and Snow Colleges had no real qualms about having their schools (which had been seeded to the state during the depression from the LDS church) back in the realm of private religious institutions, Weber officials and the Ogden community were not happy about it. The rift became an alliance with the Carbon movement and the two schools and their supporters went around the state looking for people to sign dual petitions, utilizing almost every person who ever had anything to do with either school.

However, success of getting it on the ballot was certainly not assured. At first the signature gathering seemed to go well, but by the first part of February, with only a couple of more weeks to go before the petition turn over deadline loomed, the movement had lost momentum. The organizers were still 10,000 voter signatures away from the total needed, but they had gathered enough in 15 counties to qualify in that category. With renewed energy the communities worked harder and by mid February the groups had put together 24,000 more signatures than needed to place the repeal on the ballot.

For the next eight months the committees, government officials and private individuals worked diligently to inform the states voters about what a loss it would be for Carbon to be closed and for the other colleges-to be turned over to the LDS Church. One of the biggest arguments used to diffuse the idea of the transfer was the concept that the state had put so much money into facilities on the three campus' over the years since they had taken them over and that that money would be in effect transferred from the public coffers to a religion.

On Nov. 2 the voters of Utah opted to stop both actions and to keep Carbon College going by a margin of over three to one. Statewide the returns showed that citizens voted to keep Carbon open 176,650-50,533 and to stop the transfer 135,207-91,091.

Even in subsequent years, during the worst economies and most desperate times in the states finances, no one officially has ever come close to closing CEU again. Today Weber is a university with well over 10,000 students, Dixie offers four year degrees, Snow is thriving as a junior college, Provo Tech (now the four year Utah Valley State College) and Salt Lake Tech (now Salt Lake Community College) are larger in terms of studentbody than all the other state schools except the University of Utah.

As for CEU, despite it's financial problems in recent years, it is a key to education in eastern Utah and certainly a force in the world of paleontology, due to it's stature bolstered by the CEU Prehistoric Museum. It has not grown as substantially as some of the other schools, but it is considerably bigger than it was at the time Lee proposed closing it.

Interestingly enough, tucked away in the present day CEU Library there is a room called the Lee Family Reading Room. It is filled with memorabilia of a famous son of Carbon County whose years as mayor of Price and Salt Lake City as well as his time as Governor of the State of Utah are remembered.

On the wall of the room hangs a portrait of the man himself and nearby sits his favorite red leather chair, where one can sit and read about his political life and its successes, as well as its failures, including his efforts to close Carbon College.

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