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Stephen F. Austin State University

School site looked hospitable to the LeTourneaus (March 2013)

School site looked hospitable to the LeTourneaus
By Van Craddock

Some folks will tell you LeTourneau University sits in south Longview by accident. Others insist the location is nothing short of divine intervention.

It was December 1946. World War II recently had ended and industrialist R.G. LeTourneau and wife Evelyn (known to friends as "Mom") were flying above Gregg County seeking a potential plant site.

Longview News-Journal publisher Carl Estes had invited the LeTourneaus over from their Vicksburg, Miss., home. Estes had told them about a potential plant location next door to Lone Star Steel Co. near Daingerfield.

"The wheels were scarcely up … when we flew over an array of white buildings covering nearly a section of pine-studded land," LeTourneau recalled in his autobiography, "Mover of Men and Mountains."

What they saw was sprawling Harmon General Hospital, which sat along South Mobberly Avenue in south Longview. The facility had been closed by the U.S. Army at war's end.

"Evelyn and I looked at each other. Those white buildings amongst the tall pines. A small lake in one corner. The large administration building. I picked up the airplane phone and instructed the pilot to circle the hospital grounds again," LeTourneau said.

"Then we went on to Daingerfield, finding there a steel mill ready to supply me with almost anything I could want. I'm afraid I wasn't very enthusiastic. Evelyn and I were both thinking of those white buildings in the beautiful setting" in Longview.

It turned out the LeTourneaus had this dream of creating a technical school.

"Maybe I had gone out hunting for a plant site adjacent to a steel mill, but the Lord had something else in mind," LeTourneau wrote. "He wanted a school in which to train Christian engineers, and let me build my steel mill adjacent to it."

Mrs. LeTourneau recalled in an interview many years later: "I said to Carl Estes, 'If the right people got to the right people in Washington, someone could make a school out of that. He asked me if we could get the property, would we build a school. I looked at Mr. R.G. and he nodded."

Estes went to Washington, D.C., for a face-to-face meeting with Stuart Symington, at the time U.S. government surplus property administrator. Those who knew Estes, an old-school two-fisted publisher, understood he could be very, well, persuasive.

By January 1946 the deal was done. Symington even came to Longview to dedicate the new school, to be known as LeTourneau Technical Institute.

The new school not only let GIs returning from World War II receive an education, but it allowed them to work at LeTourneau's new Longview plant while they got two years of technical training.

The school became LeTourneau College in 1961 and in 1989 achieved university status. LeTourneau University attracts students from around the world. The manufacturing plant established by LeTourneau now is owned by Joy Global Inc., but remains one of Gregg County's largest employers.

R.G. LeTourneau died in 1969, "Mom" LeTourneau in 1989. The founders are buried on the campus they grew to love. Today the LeTourneaus wouldn't recognize the hospital-turned-college, whose old wooden barracks have given way to a thoroughly modern campus.

A centerpiece of the campus is the beautiful S.E. Belcher Jr. Chapel and Performance Center, a 73,000-square-foot facility that features world-class acoustics and seats 2,011 patrons. The center attracts national touring companies and is home to the Longview Symphony, Longview Ballet Theatre and the East Texas Symphonic Band.