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My daughter and I stumbled onto the grounds of Hendrix College one late afternoon in June. We had an uncharacteristically schedule-free day, and as we drove past the campus, my daughter pointed out the window and said, “Hey, let’s walk around over there.” We moved to Conway last year, and there’s a lot we haven’t discovered or explored, so we make it a habit of pulling over if we see something interesting in our new town.
We walked through lushly shaded sidewalks, past red-bricked historical buildings. Since a combination of pandemic and summer break rendered the college relatively deserted, we enjoyed feeling like we were the only people on its grounds. After several laps past a lily pond, vine-covered buildings, fountains, chapels and a Victorian-esque gazebo, my 10-year-old turned to me and said, “This feels like Hogwarts, and I want to go here.” And as the setting sun cast long shadows across campus, I had to admit she was right. There was a lot of magic on that campus.
Hendrix College was initially founded as Central Institute in 1876 by Reverend Isham L. Burrow in Altus, Arkansas (a location known for several wineries, not to mention a Paris Hilton reality show). Its first graduating class was composed of three women. They awarded “Mistress of English Literature” degrees, and as an English major, I feel they should bring that graduate degree title back.
The college changed hands, purchased by the Methodist Church, and was renamed Hendrix College in honor of a Methodist bishop. Despite being socially advanced (women were in attendance originally), it became a “men only” college after the name change. In their 1888 catalogue, a romance-killing rule mandated, “No student is allowed to communicate orally, by writing, or by signs, with students of the other sex.” By 1889, women were allowed to enroll, and I would bet good money there were still plenty of love notes circulated.
In 1890 the board of trustees chose Conway as the college’s permanent location. At that time, there were 150 students and five faculty members. The following years were filled with the sad and the funny. Half the campus became ill during the Spanish Flu Pandemic, and two students died. But like all college students, no matter if the students in question lived 100 years ago or today, they retained their sense of humor, and in 1922 they put a mule in Martin Hall (a prank the janitors no doubt had zero appreciation for).
In 1933, during the Great Depression, Galloway Women’s College of Searcy merged with Hendrix. This is a piece of history that is close to my heart. I attended Harding University and lived in Pattie Cobb Dormitory, originally Holmes Hall, one of the last original structures from Galloway Women’s College on the Harding campus. Unlike my alma mater (which to this day does not allow dancing), Hendrix students protested their “no dancing” rule early on, and in 1936 they had the first dance on campus.
Hendrix is still going strong as a thriving, diverse liberal arts college with around 1500 students who hail from many states and countries. Unlike most state schools, Hendrix has no sororities or fraternities but has over 65 student organizations. Voted as one of the best “Up and Coming” colleges by U.S. News & World Report, Hendrix has a list of accolades (from Forbes to the Princeton Review) that hail it as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Its list of esteemed graduates includes Arkansas natives Mary Steenburgen and P. Allen Smith, Sarah Caldwell (the first female conductor of the Metropolitan Opera) and Trenton Lee Steward (author of my daughter’s favorite book series, The Mysterious Benedict Society).
My daughter specifically asked me to investigate a potential Hendrix-Hogwarts connection and was more than a little disgruntled when I told her, “No, I can assure you, they don’t have Divination or Charms classes in their catalogue.” But for students looking for a thriving liberal arts college, there’s plenty of magic to be found.
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