Williams Baptist University began as the vision of a young pastor in Pocahontas, Ark. Dr. H.E. Williams, the pastor of Pocahontas First Baptist Church, saw the need for a Baptist college in northeast Arkansas and set about to fill it. After several years of organizing the effort, he would become the founder and first president of Southern Baptist College.
The fledging college welcomed its first students on September 10, 1941. SBC got its start in the Pocahontas Community Building, site of the present Pocahontas High School. That would serve as the school’s campus until a fire claimed its main building the day after Christmas in 1946.
But the college moved on, literally and figuratively. The fire would result in SBC moving to the recently decommissioned Walnut Ridge Army Flying School in spring of 1947, and that campus has been the institution’s home ever since.
The college continued developing in the 1950s. Enrollment fluctuated in the decade as World War II veterans were wrapping up their postwar education, but Dr. Williams guided the institution through several challenging financial situations.
The 1960s brought the college to critical milestones. Accreditation was achieved in 1963, and SBC was formally adopted, after a prolonged effort, by the Arkansas Baptist State Convention in 1968.
The ’60s were boom years at SBC, particularly toward the end of the decade as military draft deferments made college an attractive option for students. The college hit enrollment records, some of which still stand.
The draft and the college’s enrollment both wound down considerably in the early 1970s, however. It was also in this period that Dr. Williams retired after 32 years at the helm, and Dr. Jack Nicholas became president.
Nicholas’s first years in the presidency were challenging, as the operation had to be downsized to match SBC’s decreased enrollment. That led to cuts, often painful, in the size of the college’s faculty.
But Southern weathered the storms and, during Nicholas’s presidency, began to take shape as the institution it is today. More modern buildings went up to replace the military structures of the former air base. And the college began to focus on a seminal transition: four-year status.
The process was lengthy and occasionally hard fought, but SBC officially moved from junior to senior level in 1984. The work of adding four-year majors was slow at first, but by the mid-1990s degree offerings were becoming diverse, and the school was on its way to maturity as a senior, liberal arts college.
In 1991, the college celebrated its golden anniversary, 50 years of existence, and made another big transition: a name change. The generic “Southern” was replaced in honor of its founder, and the institution became Williams Baptist College.
Nicholas stepped down as president in 1991, after 18 years in the office, and returned to the classroom as a psychology professor. Mrs. Nicholas continued as director of library services, a role she filled for over 30 years. The couple retired in 1996.
Nicholas’s tenure as president was followed by relatively short presidencies for Dr. Jimmy Millikin and Dr. Gary Huckabay.
Then, in 1995, the mantle passed to Dr. Jerol Swaim, who by then had logged over three decades at Williams, starting as a history and civics professor, and then as academic dean and executive vice president. During his tenure, Williams truly came of age as a four-year, liberal arts college. A thorough facelift of the campus during Swaim’s presidency resulted in the most prominent buildings at Williams being constructed.
Swaim retired in 2012, to be replaced by Dr. Tom Jones, who had earlier served as vice president for institutional advancement. Jones’ tenure was marked by a successful strategic planning effort, which resulted in WBU’s Diamond Vision Plan. The plan outlines more than 100 objectives in six broad areas, helping Williams set priorities and notch a number of achievements. He resigned in 2017 to take a position in California.
In 2016, Williams celebrated its Diamond Anniversary, 75 years of service marked by incredible progress, and yet a consistent dedication to Christian higher learning through educational excellence, personal attention to students and spiritual commitment.
The 21st Century thus far at Williams has been marked by financial stability, enrollment gains and a campus that has experienced transformation. Swaim Administration Building (the name was a surprise tribute to the president from the Board of Trustees) and Manley Chapel have become icons at WBC, but the rest of the campus also bears the marks of progress.
Student dining space was doubled with the addition of the Billie Harty Dining Hall. The former Community of Science Building was doubled in size and reborn as the Sloan Center. And Mabee Student Center was likewise transformed to be a centerpiece of campus life.
Belle Hall and Nicholas Hall are recent additions to the Williams residence facilities, along with Cash Hall and Butler Hall, which were added a few years prior. Nicholas and Callahan Apartments were built for married students.
Nearly every campus facility at Williams has either been newly constructed or thoroughly renovated in the past dozen years.
In September of 2017, Williams announced its transition to Williams Baptist University. The name change doesn’t reflect a change in the institution as much as an acknowledgment of what it has already become: a comprehensive and excellent center of Christian higher education.
After seven and a half decades, the WBU family has touched the lives of over 30,000 students. And, after due reflection on its proud history, a healthy and vibrant institution looks forward to the thousands of students it is sure to reach in the next 75 years, and beyond.