125 Years of Excellence, Tradition, and Progress

125 Years of Excellence, Tradition, and Progress

Many on SNU’s campus proudly wear their “SNU 1899” shirts but may have not realized that this year marks SNU’s 125th anniversary. As we applaud SNU’s lasting legacy and the many lives that it has impacted, it is important to look back to recognize the many ways that SNU has grown and will continue to grow moving forward. Of course, there is not enough space to address 125 years worth of history, so I’ll just focus on some of the highlights.

SNU is the result of a consolidation of several Holiness colleges in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Kansas. SNU’s history traces back to the establishment of the Texas Holiness University (THU), which was founded in Peniel, Texas in 1899 by president Dr. A. M. Hills (whom the co-ed dormitory on the east side of campus, A. M. Hills, constructed in 2011, was named after). THU had very humble beginnings but a strong vision for the Wesleyan movement, as is reflected by Dr. Hills, who stated, “I have accepted the presidency of a thirty-seven-acre cow pasture with a multitude of briars, centipedes, scorpions, and blacksnakes thrown in for good measure, and one student.” 

photo by snu archives

Dr. A. M. Hills

Photo courtesy of SNU Archives

Another root of SNU was the Oklahoma Holiness College, established in Bethany, Oklahoma in 1909, and renamed to Oklahoma Nazarene College in 1919. When the Peniel College in the Oklahoma area merged with Oklahoma Nazarene College in 1920, the institution was renamed Bethany-Peniel College (BPC). The first president of BPC was Archie Kay Bracken, whom the girl’s dormitory on the west side of campus is named after. The institution became Bethany Nazarene College in 1955 until finally being named Southern Nazarene University in 1986. According to Dr. Gwen Hackler, the president of the time, Dr. Ponder W. Gilliland, changed the name in 1986 to reflect the idea that SNU was not just for the city of Bethany, but that SNU belongs to a four-state region of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Kansas. Additionally, “university” rather than “college” reflects the fact that SNU now had graduate programs and was no longer just a 4-year institution. 

Dr. Gwen Hackler was a student of SNU (previously named BNU) from 1974-1978. After earning her doctorate at the University of Kansas, she returned to SNU in 1983 to teach. She has been teaching for the English department since, marking her time here to be over 40 years. In an in-depth interview, Dr. Hackler recalls memories from her time here as a student in the 1970s. At this time, she lived in Hatley dormitory, the girl’s dormitory behind A. M. Hills that was torn down only a handful of years ago. One of her favorite stories to tell is about the “great fire of Hatley Dormitory.” She recalls with amusement, “There was a fire in the dormitory on the floor that I lived in. Everybody had to move out for a couple of weeks in the middle of the semester.”

During this time, the cafeteria was located in the current fine arts building, there were no elevators in any of the buildings, including the infamous Beaver, and chapel was held in Herrick Auditorium. Additionally, many of the buildings that were present during Dr. Hackler’s time as a student have been torn down, and she recalls how odd it is to “still see the places where the old buildings once were.” 

When asked about the dating scene at SNU in the 1970s, Dr. Hackler explained that everybody met in Broadhurst during the men’s basketball games. There was no Sawyer building, so everyone crowded around in the small gym together. According to Dr. Hackler, a lot more socializing occurred on campus during this time, and also at Lake Overholser, which was jokingly called, “Lake Hold Her Closer.” Additionally, women were not allowed to wear jeans unless it dropped below a certain temperature. Dr. Hackler found a way to get around this rule, stating, “My roommate and I would leave the dorm super early in the morning when it was still a certain temperature so we could wear our jeans.”

Since Dr. Hackler has taught at SNU, there has been the addition of several graduate programs, with the PA program currently in progress, the addition of a graphic design program in the 80s, grant writing, as well as the expansion of student support services. Dr. Hackler also notes that the “composition of the student body has changed. There used to be a high percentage of Nazarenes in the undergraduate class, and it was not very ethnically diverse.” Dr. Hackler recognizes with pride the way the diversity of SNU’s campus has expanded over the years. One thing that remains the same however is the strong “student focus.” Dr. Hackler states, “Faculty have always liked and supported each other and would do anything to support a student.”

Julie Lyles, who has been the Archivist here at SNU for five years, also shares a great deal of insight into the history of SNU. When Lyles came to SNU, she “gained an interest in history and chose to pursue a career working in museums [and has] loved getting to learn more about the history of the school that means so much to [her] through this job.” When asked about what her favorite story is related to SNU history, Lyles recalls, “I have loved learning more about Dr. Wanda Rhodes, who came to BNC in 1962 to establish a women’s athletic program.” While she pushed for women’s athletics to enter intercollegiate competitions (which they would achieve in 1974), she also was concerned about teaching all students on campus to live physically active lives. She created classes for this purpose in such activities as bicycling, sailing, archery, and badminton.

Lyles also shared about the interesting history that existed between Bethany First Church of the Nazarene and SNU. Lyles explains, “BFC originally met in the Stone Auditorium that used to be located behind Bresee Hall. In 1926, Herrick Auditorium was constructed to house Bethany First Church. The college and the church shared the Herrick facility for many years. In 1969, the present BFC building was built and they moved the majority of their functions to that location giving BNC the right to use the Herrick Building.” Lyles shares Dr. Hackler’s belief about what makes SNU stand out from the surrounding colleges in Oklahoma, stating, “I have always been impressed by the culture of caring that SNU’s professors, staff, and students have. They are always there to encourage and help those around them.”

When asked about what they hope for SNU moving forward, Lyles and Dr. Hackler share similar visions. Dr. Hackler hopes that, “SNU does not lose that student-focus,” and that it will be “welcoming to all the students who want to come.” She also adds that she hopes SNU will continue to be an institution of academic quality that will “push students to see what they can become.” Likewise, Lyles shares, “I hope that SNU will continue to grow in their mission of providing quality education to their students and that the faculty and staff will continue to care for the needs of their students in the future.”

SNU has a very rich history and has changed and grown tremendously over the last 125 years. From new buildings to women now being able to wear pants, SNU continues to adapt to the times while maintaining its “Character, Culture, Christ” motto and being a university that strongly values and cares for its students above all else.


Photo by SNU Archives