In the early 1900s, Ottawa County Oklahoma was the center of the world thanks to the mineral boom of the Tri-State Mining District of Oklahoma, Missouri, and Kansas. Millions of tons of ore and slag were being pulled out of the ground and Senator J. J. Smith and Representative James Mabon representing northeastern Oklahoma recognized that the people of their districts needed training to ride the mining boom. With Senate Bill 255 in the seventh Oklahoma legislature, the Miami School of Mines was established in Miami, Oklahoma.
The first mineral runs in the area were discovered in the middle of the nineteenth century and within thirty years, nearly 250 mills were operating in the Tri-State Mining District. As Europe drew closer to war, the demand for minerals from the U.S. began to increase and the Tri-State Mining district produced over half of all lead and zinc used during World War I.
By 1920, Picher, Oklahoma boasted nearly 10,000 permanent residents. Many were laborers or mining families, but there was a significant demand for career education. Originally focused on mining and geological engineering courses, the Miami School of Mines was housed in the Mining Exchange Building in downtown Miami. Two years, later, a plot of land was donated just east of town and Shipley Hall was built. In the first year of Shipley Hall’s operation, 67 students sought a degree or certification from the Miami School of Mines.
Since its earliest days, NEO has been instrumental in providing practical workforce education for the area, but it has also been adaptive to students’ needs. Just five years after its establishment as a school for mining education, NEO became Northeastern Oklahoma Junior College and students and faculty alike were prepared to create an experience previously reserved for four year institutions.
By 1926, there were classes in Latin, Spanish, Agriculture, Mathematics, Chemistry, Music, and more. Students were presenting plays, distributing an annual, playing football, and hosting St. Patrick’s Rat Day. NEO also established the Mu Chapter of the international honor society Phi Theta Kappa, the first outside of Missouri and it remains one of the oldest operating chapters in the world.
Bolstered by the support of Senator A. L. Commons, NEO weathered the Great Depression through New Deal construction funds. By 1935, the NEO Campus had added a gymnasium and two dormitories. This was the first era of major growth and NEO was now a fully residential college. One of the earliest tests of the college’s ability to adapt to students needs came during the Second World War.
In the early 1940s, there was debate about whether a junior college focused on mining education was necessary anymore. The industry in the Tri-State Mining District was running on fumes and demand for mining education was waning. If NEO was going to succeed, it needed a new mission, a reinvention, it needed to adapt. With the arrival of Dr. Bruce Carter in 1943, NEO began its second great era of growth.
One of the first steps was the incorporation of NEO in the Agricultural and Mechanical college system and NEO finally became NEO A&M College. Dr. Carter had a vision of a haven for higher education in northeast Oklahoma. NEO would still be a place to receive career training, but it would also become an entry point for students wanting to earn a four-year degree. Following World War II, GIs took advantage of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act to attend college. NEO purchased the facilities of the Royal Air Force Spartan School of Aeronautics and implemented new vocational and industrial training courses, the 250-acre NEO College Farm was purchased, and fine arts programs were expanded.
Dr. Carter also kicked off a massive building campaign. For sixteen years, Dr. Carter built building after building, first Cunningham Hall in 1952, and then the Physical Education building, Copen Hall, Russell Hall, Vann Hall, the Student Union, the Library Administration Building, and finally the Fine Arts Auditorium in 1968. Demand for an education at NEO was so great that temporary buildings were common as the student body expanded. In total, more than twenty buildings were constructed between 1949 and 1969.
Dr. Carter embodied NEO’s commitment to providing practical education that would help move Oklahoma’s economy forward. Both blue and white collar professionals came out of NEO as it became one of the most modern colleges in the country.
Dr. Carter was joined in his pursuit of excellence by the thousands of students who called NEO home. Students drove campus culture through clubs, organizations, events, dances, giant tug-of-war battles, class rivalries, and so much more. Students secured celebrity judges for homecoming contests and Bing Crosby, Jerry Lewis, and Van Heflin all had a chance to select the Viking Queen.
NEO athletics became a staple as the legendary football coach Red Robertson claimed back-to-back national titles, Coach Max Buzzard led the NEO Basketball program to conference championships, and the Aggies at NEO brought home dozens of judging trophies. The arts were also flourishing, as nationally acclaimed artist Charles Banks Wilson and Dr. Nick Calcagno led painters and sculptors to new heights.
NEO had the tools and facilities to succeed by the end of the Carter Era, but the world was changing. As the U.S. trended toward a business and service economy, there was a greater demand for workers educated in electronics and service trades. Few would have been able to follow Dr. Carter, but Dr. D. Dayle Creech took the helm in 1970 and began his twelve-year stint as president of NEO.
Dr. Carter had completed much of the construction, but Dr. Creech saw a need to continue the growth of the Carter era, especially during years of tight budgets. Dr. Creech recognized three needs: having a well-paid faculty, creating a sustainable development foundation, and innovating programs for the modern era. He was tremendously successful in all three. Loyalty was an important quality to Dr. Creech and he believed that the quality of education delivered at NEO was directly related to long-serving and loyal instructors. He ensured that the instructors were well compensated and was always a supporter of their work.
He also recognized the importance of balancing the needs of the college against available state funds. Dr. Creech laid the groundwork for what became the NEO Development Foundation, the fundraising arm of NEO A&M. From its humble beginnings, the NEO Development Foundation now distributes more than $150,000 in scholarships each year and maintains assets of over $7 million.
Finally, Dr. Creech understood that in order to continue fulfilling its mission to provide quality and relevant education, NEO would have to adapt to the technology-driven world. NEO began implementing computers into both its business operations and instructional divisions. NEO used the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority to initially offer tele-courses in the seventies, as well as broadcasting music programs, athletic events, and enrollment information on local channels.
Dr. Creech’s greatest gift to NEO was his unwavering loyalty to students. Dr. and Mrs. Dorothy Creech would attend every NEO student event and when two events occurred simultaneously, they would attend separately and switch at half time. At the conclusion of Dr. Creech’s tenure, the famous statue of Odin, designed by Dr. Nick Calcagno, was erected in front of the Library/Administration building.
The 1980s and 90s were a difficult time for northeast Oklahoma and for the United States. The economy was in recession, the B.F. Goodrich tire plant closed in Miami, and a series of floods continued to plague campus. However, NEO continued to persevere. Students made NEO a great place to live and learn, the college opened one of the only cardiovascular programs in the state, NEO became nationally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, and the college opened the NEO Grove Center to serve distance students.
Following a devastating flood in 2007, the next great era of growth came for NEO. Under the direction of the newly named president Dr. Jeff Hale, NEO rose like a phoenix from the ashes and has been growing for the last twelve years. Since the arrival of Dr. Hale, NEO has invested over $65 million in facilities improvements, completing the wrestling building, lab sciences building, Milligan Hall, the NEO Suites, the Crossland Complex, soccer locker rooms, and Synar Farm facilities. NEO has also upgraded to a future-proofed fiber-optic system, which offers more capacity than any commercially available hardware. Scholarship and Foundation support has exploded and distributions have quadrupled since 2009.
Like his predecessors, Dr. Hale recognizes that NEO must adapt to serve students and provide career readiness. The addition of the Process Technology Program prepares students for a career in just two years. Nursing students can earn a two-year degree at NEO while they prepare for a four-year BSN degree. Construction technology, business administration, agriculture education, and more prepare students to directly enter the workforce, but NEO still offers dozens on programs geared toward transfer to a four-year institution.
There has been a renaissance of campus life. Students gather in the mall for events like the annual NEO homecoming celebration, Christmas tree lighting, Founders’ Day Celebrations, and more. Student clubs and organization are always busy hosting food drives, community events, and throwing parties. With all that has been accomplished over the past 100 years, this is so much more still to come.
To prepare for the next 100 years, NEO will continue to adapt. Already, renovation on classroom buildings has begun and will continue throughout the next decade. The classrooms on campus will not only be brought up to date, but future-proofed with new technology and cutting edge teaching tools. Campus will be safer and more secure with security improvements so students and parents alike will have greater peace of mind.
New emphasis will be placed on developing work-ready programs and NEO will ensure that its graduates are the most qualified and well-trained candidates for the most in-demand careers. To stabilize tuition, the college aims to distribute $1,000,000 in scholarships support.
NEO will meet the needs of our community, Oklahoma, and the Nation by creating graduates who are highly skilled, highly motivated, and highly engaged. We will create partnerships with local and national businesses to ensure students have hands-on training with relevant equipment. We will continue our innovative agriculture research in the Animal Science Lab and the NEO Crop Research Field.
We will hold true to our roots, tip our hat to the past, and use that momentum to propel us past every two-year institution in the nation and continue to our vision to become a national leader in rural, residential community college education by developing nationally competitive programs in academics, intercollegiate athletics, co-curricular activities, student development and campus facilities.