Superintendent John True

Monday, March 12, 2012

In the first full week of March 2012 the McCook College Indians played their last competitive game of basketball at McCook's True Hall. Next year the MCC cagers will be playing their games in a brand new, state-of-the-art sports complex. Much will be written about the new sports complex in the coming months, but we thought it might be interesting to look back on the man who gave his name to the building, which was built in 1939.

Mr. True was a resident of McCook for 12 years, from 1918-30. Yet, it would be difficult to overstate the impact he made on the McCook Schools in those few short years.

John True was a very progressive school administrator, and a life-long learner, as well as teacher. He became Superintendent of the McCook School system after World War I, following a successful stint at Schuyler, Nebraska, where he also served as superintendent of schools.

True had received his Bachelor's degree at the University of Nebraska, his master's degree at the University of Chicago, and spent time in New York working on his doctorate at Columbia University. He was a popular speaker at education seminars throughout the Midwest, and for several years taught courses in school administration in summer sessions at the University of Nebraska and the University of Missouri.

True was a popular administrator, and during his tenure in McCook he surrounded himself with a capable and loyal staff of teachers. The decade of the '20s was a period of growth in McCook and the McCook Schools. During this time the number of teachers in the system doubled, from 31 in 1928 to 61, when Mr. True left in 1930.

A number of innovative programs for the school system were instigated by Mr. True. He is credited for the founding of the junior high school program. He started a vigorous physical education program for the school, hiring a school nurse and a physical education director who oversaw a physical education program for boys and girls in all the grades. He had a knack for bringing together students, teachers, parents, and taxpayers, achieving a degree of cooperation that was not common in school districts of the time.

Mr. True took a leading part in the affairs of the Nebraska Teachers Association, serving as president of the organization and on the Legislative Committee for five terms. However, he is best remembered for his work in establishing McCook College.

A few years after arriving in McCook, True led a group of concerned McCook citizens, who felt that a higher education facility in the community would be a great asset for the young people of the area and boon to the community, both culturally and economically. At that time less than 2 percent of high-school graduates went on to college. Private colleges were too expensive, the University of Nebraska was too far from home, classes were too big, and the whole University experience was intimidating to freshmen.

By 1926, spurred on by the leadership of school board member, Harry Stewart, superintendent of Schools, J.A. True, and a crusading Chamber of Commerce, the dream of an affordable, student friendly higher education school for the young people of McCook and the surrounding area became a reality. McCook Junior College opened its doors on the second floor of the old YMCA on Main Street in downtown McCook.

In 1926, Junior Colleges were not even legal in Nebraska. But this did not stop 43 students from signing up for classes that first semester. The McCook school board assumed the responsibility for opening the school and keeping it open. A full array of courses was offered for college freshmen students. Full tuition was $50 per semester. If a student elected to take less than 15 semester hours, tuition was charged at the rate of $3.50/ semester hour.

Superintendent True, with the wholehearted backing of the board of education, assembled a top notch faculty for the college, and used its small size as a selling point -- "The college extends to the graduates in the territory adjacent to McCook the opportunity to complete the first two years of a college education ... at half the cost or less of going elsewhere... The classes are smaller ... the individual receives more assistance from the instructors, and there is a closer personal touch between the pupils than is possible in larger institutions."

In 1927 the Nebraska Legislature authorized junior colleges in Nebraska, and Gov. Charles W. Bryan signed the bill, which made junior colleges a legal part of the educational organization of the state. The McCook school board voted to add a second year curriculum, signaling the fact that McCook J.C. was for real and was going to be around for a long time.

With the junior college bill signed, school district taxpayers agreed to take on the financial burden of the college permanently, and voted to make the boundaries of the junior college district the same as those of the McCook school district and the Superintendent of McCook schools officially became the President of the college -- a system which was in place for many years.

Mr. True was not just involved in educational affairs. He was also a vital member of the greater community. He served several terms on the Executive Board of the Chamber of Commerce and was an active member of the Rotary Club. He was one of the leaders of the community who organized McCook's first Boy Scout Troop. In 1928, True's son, Mark became McCook's first Eagle Scout (just weeks before longtime resident, Dr.Batty achieved his Eagle.)

In June 1928, McCook School Superintendent J.A. True, his wife, and son Mark, were returning to McCook from Lincoln and left a very vivid description of the tornado, which severely damaged homes in McCook. "We noticed the clouds when we were a good many miles down the road. They appeared as ordinary rain clouds ... The scene changed as we neared Red Willow. The clouds became darker ... From the darker clouds four distinct funnels formed, as the column hung directly over McCook.

"These funnels would travel rapidly for a distance and then seem to disappear. Then they lifted and seemed to form again eight or 10 miles northeast of McCook in one huge black funnel, as the storm moved off toward the northeast."

The storm seemed to be heading straight for the heart of McCook. About three miles south of the city it broke into two parts, thereby missing downtown McCook, but struck the Northwestern section of the city. 105 homes were destroyed, leaving about 1,000 people homeless, as the twister mowed a path about six blocks wide, demolishing most of the homes in the 800 and 1000 blocks on West Fourth Street, and on the 1400 block of Main St. (Norris Ave).

In 1930, John True left McCook to accept the position of superintendent of the Council Bluffs, Iowa School System. Though gone, True was not forgotten in McCook. In 1937, he was invited to be the speaker at an occasion marking the 10th Anniversary of M J C, Nebraska's first Junior College. Two years later the community again honored him when they named the college's second building, the new gymnasium/classroom building, True Hall, in his honor.

True Hall was widely heralded as something of a marvel in its day. Its basketball floor was 50'X 98', making it the largest basketball floor in the area (even though at present a floor that size is smaller than regulation, and has caused considerable negative comments from rival teams for several years.) True Hall was built in 1939 for a cost of some $70,000 -- as contrasted with the new Sports Complex, which is slated to cost some $10 million.

Mr. True, in his 90s, at the time of McCook's Centennial Celebration in 1982, was retired and living in California. Upon leaving McCook, he reflected upon the city's admiration for him and he returned that admiration, saying, "In my 12 years in McCook I had about 99 percent cooperation. That cooperation meant success for the whole school system."

Source: Gazette Centennial edition 1882-1982. "Faces of " by Walt Sehnert

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  • I always look forward to Walt's columns in the Gazette. They help me keep my roots alive. Thanks Walt.

    -- Posted by Tom Klingner on Tue, Mar 13, 2012, at 8:38 AM
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