ATLANTA — As the 25,000-student Kennesaw State University prepares to mark its 50th anniversary this October, some of the people who made it possible, among them former Gov. Carl Sanders, recently gathered to celebrate the golden anniversary.
Among those lunching in the dining room of Sanders’ law firm, Troutman Sanders, located in Atlanta’s Bank of America Plaza, were former Cobb Board of Education member John Strother of Marietta, who turns 100 in August, former Marietta City Schools Superintendent Lloyd Cox, age 93, of Marietta, banker Joe Daniell and former Gov. Roy Barnes.
Sanders, who lives in Buckhead and turns 88 this month, was governor from 1963 to 1967.
Part of his platform was to build a junior college in every congressional district in Georgia.
“And we damn near did that too,” Sanders said.
Prior to his election as governor, when he was in the Georgia Senate, Sanders said he took an interest in California’s community college system.
“Out in California they built these community colleges in areas where the population was, and anybody could go, they didn’t charge them tuition,” Sanders said.
“So I said to myself, ‘I’m going to see if we can do something like that in Georgia.’”
Lt. Governor is put on notice
Sanders said he paid a call to the lieutenant governor at the time, Peter Zack Geer, to ask for his support.
“I said, ‘Now you enjoy having that patrolman drive you around the state in that state patrol car?’” Sanders recalled, noting Geer said he did indeed.
“I said, ‘You like to fly in the state aircraft too?’ He said, ‘Oh yeah.’ I said, ‘Well, I want to see you do that, but if you screw up one of these bills you’re not going to have a patrolman driving you around the state. You’re not going to have an aircraft to fly in.’ He said, ‘I understand,’ and he never screwed up the first bill we had.”
Sanders said he was able to build about a dozen community colleges across the state.
“Before that time all the college education went to Georgia Tech or University of Georgia,” Sanders said. “And many of the boys and girls who would like to go to college were not given the opportunity. When the community colleges were built, local people who otherwise might have left the state stayed in Georgia.”
State Reps. Harold Willingham and Joe Mack Wilson represented Cobb County at the time.
“I told them if they would raise the money locally for the land to put the college that I would see to it that the college would be built, and that it would be part of the university system,” Sanders said.
Marietta and Cobb pay for a college
Joe Daniell, whose late father Herman Daniell was on the Cobb Board of Education in the 1960s, said a citizens committee was formed, chaired by former MDJ editor Bob Fowler, to rally community support for the college.
The largest bonding group in the county was the Cobb School District.
“They had more access to funding than anybody else did,” Daniell said. “The county was kind of broke at the time and didn’t have any bonding capacity to speak of, so the Cobb School District partnered with the city of Marietta.”
The Cobb School District came up with bonding for $1.9 million and the city with $425,000. But first a law was passed in the Legislature to allow school districts to spend money beyond the 12th grade, Daniell said.
Willingham was also the attorney for the Cobb School District.
“Harold put a bill through the Legislature to allow the Cobb County Board of Education the authority to issue $2 million, and that was enough to start it,” Strother said.
The school district and city then bought the 150 acres of property in Kennesaw for $100,000, deeding it over to the Georgia Board of Regents.
Cox, who was principal of Marietta High School in the 1960s prior to becoming school superintendent, recalled scheduling the community meetings to sell the bond referendum.
Cobb taxpayers approved the bond referendum in April 1964.
Kennesaw Junior College was chartered Oct. 9, 1963. The university will commemorate Oct. 7 to 12 as Founders’ Week, KSU President Dr. Dan Papp said in his April state of the university address.
Betty Siegel, fireball
Kennesaw Junior College became a four-year institution in 1976, changing to Kennesaw College in 1977, Kennesaw State College in 1988 and Kennesaw State University in 1996. The key figure overseeing that transformation was Dr. Betty Siegel, who served as the school’s president, taking it from 3,500 students in 1981 to 18,000 at her retirement in 2006.
“Betty Siegel, she was a fireball,” Sanders said.
Strother said Siegel wanted from the beginning for KSU to become a university.
“I thought the Atlanta Journal was going to come off the top of the world,” Strother said. “They didn’t think it was possible. She believed in it and she worked her butt off and she did it fairly and squarely, and I still think that she did a better job than anyone else could have done.”
Papp said in April that KSU has an economic impact of $900 million.
Without Kennesaw State, Barnes said the county would be quite different.
“Until the early ’60s and Carl Sanders came along with having community colleges, education was only for the well-to-do, that is higher education,” Barnes said. “If you didn’t have a daddy or a momma that had money and had gone to the University of Georgia before them, you weren’t going. I mean that was it. You didn’t have the money to go, and you weren’t getting in.”
Community colleges opened the doors for everybody to have access to higher education.
“So you just imagine what would happen to Cobb County if that 25,000 students, that economic impact, plus the intellectual capital that has been created there, wasn’t,” Barnes said.
Sanders said the bright students who didn’t get into Georgia or Georgia Tech, but whose parents had money, would send them out of state.
“And we were getting nothing out of it,” he said. “When we built these junior colleges and all, they stayed in the state because they could go to college and get a degree and get something that they can live with and that turned out to be a great thing for the state, and of course Kennesaw was one of the early ones and one of the best ones and look at it today.”
Barnes said it wasn’t until 1951, when the state brought a sales tax, that there was much of any state support for education. Prior to that it was all local funding and few high schools were accredited.
Marietta High was the only accredited high school in Cobb County in the ’30s and ’40s until North Cobb and South Cobb high schools were built, Barnes said.
“But if you wanted to go to college you had to pay tuition and go to Marietta High School to get to an accredited school,” Barnes said. “So what you have to understand is this has been a progression.”
Georgia had been an agrarian state where all that was needed was people who could drive tractors and harvest crops. When the economy began to change after World War II, the state wasn’t ready for it.
Gov. Herman Talmadge was the first to address this problem by passing the three percent sales tax to fund the schools, followed by Sanders, who strove to make higher education available for everyone, Barnes said.
The only other Southern governor who followed Sanders was North Carolina’s Terry Sanford, Barnes said.
“And what are the two most prosperous states in the South now? North Carolina and Georgia,” Barnes said. “And what worries me in today’s Georgia is we don’t seem to have and hold education in such great esteem like we used to.”
Sanders smiled when told that KSU is expecting a fall enrollment of more than 25,000 students.
“That makes me feel very proud that I had a part in it, but bear in mind that the people up in Cobb County had a great part in making sure that college had the attractiveness where people wanted to go to it, and of course it turned out to be a great example of what a community college can do and mean to the community,” Sanders said.