College in Curtis, Nebraska finds new vigor with campus expansion

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March 14, 2011 - 7:00pm

There have been so many "near death experiences" in the life of the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture(NCTA) that it sometimes becomes a source of dark humor among veteran faculty members. After all, it seemed calls for the end to NTAC have come up nearly every time the State of Nebraska faced difficult budget choices. It's an interesting history.

The college was born in 1965 as a land-grant institution, but it's use as a teaching facility goes back much further. According to a researcher at Cornell College in Iowa, NCTA is the oldest college campus that was previously a high school and is still functioning today as an educational institution.

According to the University of Nebraska's historians, the Nebraska State Legislature voted to build an agriculture high school in 1911. The facility in Curtis opened two years later. At the time, formal school ended for students in the eighth grade. The first students arrived two years later. A brochure from the school's early days described course work "in agriculture and manual training and regular high school subjects offered for the young men who wish to go back to the land." For female students, classes dealt with "sewing, cooking and the art of housekeeping, along with the regular high school subjects." There was no tuition and room and board cost $4 a week. Students stayed with families in the "best homes in Curtis" before dormitories were built.

"They had cattle and horses and hogs, remembers life-long Curtis resident Roy Cole. "When it was a high school, they grew all their own food that they used in the dorms. The school ran a butcher lab, hen houses and, Cole recalls "the dairy barn was actually a dairy. They made ice cream here and delivered milk and cream around town." Today Cole is Facilities Manager for the Technical Ag school and be sees a school that is "more or less the same, with just a different emphasis in agriculture."

Fifty five years later years the Nebraska state legislature revised the school's mission, creating a two-year college emphasizing studies in agricultural technology. In a history of NCTA, Donald Ringstmeyer that a study done for the legislature revealed the lack of an "adequately trained, technically educated, work force to meet the needs of farmers, ranchers and agribusiness related industries in Nebraska." The study added that "this need was serious enough to actually impede the normal economic growth of rural as well as urban Nebraska."

By the 1980's some of the enthusiasm for that mission began to fade. The University of Nebraska Board of Regents and some state senators, suggested the school be closed. Enrollment dropped because of the uncertainty of its future. Barbara Berg, head of the Veterinary Technician program remembers "there was one year that we taught just one class because we were not allowed to take on a new class in the fall."

Alumni rallied and Berg recalls many of them "got out there and said I got an education that made me employable'" and as a result kept their family in Nebraska. In addition, a substantial push from agriculture organizations, and community leaders in southwest Nebraska went even further than just saving the campus. A bill was passed and signed by Governor Orr in 1988, making the Curtis school a College within the University of Nebraska system. According to Berg "some of us refused to believe we would go away."

NTAC was targeted again during another tight budget year in 1992. Coverage from the McCook Daily Gazette at the time highlighted the efforts of Omaha Senator Jerry Chizek to close the campus and turn it into a minimum security prison. Again, supporters successfully fought for its survival. Noting the progress the school had made since the earlier budget challenge, Senator Owen Elmer of Indianola told the Gazette "he school has developed very nicely since the last political hoo-ha."

At one point even one dean of the college did not see a future for the campus in Curtis. Weldon Sleight, the current Dean credited with revitalizing the campus, told NET News: "My predecessor wanted to make this a community college." Sleight said had that idea taken hold "we would die. We have a community college 40 miles to the north. We have one 40 miles to the south. We don't have local taxes. There's just no way that we can compete with those community colleges."

Instead, Sleight pushed through the largest expansion of new buildings in the school's history. Fifteen million dollars in state funding, new student fees, and donations from supporters of the college are paying for a new student center, dorms, and an expansion of the Veterinary Technician program's facility.
Dean Sleight told NET News "the only way we are going to survive and thrive and grow is by fulfilling our mission which is to produce the next generations of farmers and ranchers and rural business main street business owners in preserving the rural communities of the state. "



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