The following is the first installment of a two-part story. It will be continued in a future edition of the Uvalde Leader-News.
Talk about setting the bar high, Kenneth Towery, the first student to enroll in Southwest Texas Junior College back in 1946, is a hard act to follow. His life could be – and should be – developed into a movie.
Towery lived many different lives within the 93 years between his birth in 1923 in Mississippi until his death in Austin, Texas.
Perhaps becoming the first student in SWTJC history was an accident, but reviewing Towery’s life it seems every phase may have been predestined.
Even becoming SWTJC’s first student was more or less happenstance.
Despite the fact that he never finished high school and had to drop out of Texas A&M, Towery left his mark at all stops along the way.
Here was a gentleman who – although born in Mississippi – became a true Texas hero in more ways than one.
He was a war hero, a journalist who captured the 1955 Pulitzer Prize and a public servant. Among many other important positions, he served as deputy press secretary in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign for the presidency.
For the moment, let’s focus on how he became the first student at SWTJC. This phase of his life began at the end of World War II. Towery had been a prisoner of war for three and a half years in a Japanese POW camp in China. The war ended in September of 1945 and Towery sailed for home on Oct. 10, 1945.
Home was actually Cuero, where the family had settled after moving to Texas from Mississippi. Sailing for home, in this case, was anywhere on American soil. He arrived in San Francisco, California, on Nov. 1, 1945, and went to Letterman General Hospital.
Those three-plus years in the POW camp had taken a toll. Towery was just one of a few survivors and most of them suffered from one health ailment or another. In Towery’s case, tuberculosis was a major issue.
He was moved, one last time, by train to Brooke Army Hospital in San Antonio. He was still suffering from tuberculosis and could not be discharged from the Army until July 21, 1946.
From that time on, he traveled to Waco every three months for testing, and he spent five years in and out of the hospital under going treatments.
Returning servicemen in those years were greeted with love and respect, but people were not willing to give up their jobs to a veteran. The government recognized the problem and in an effort to ease the transition, instituted the “52-20” program. A veteran was presented $20 for 52 weeks or $52 for 20 weeks. It was designed to give the servicemen an opportunity to get back on their feet.
Towery collected money for a couple of weeks, but he felt taking government money for performing no useful service was just not right. He never went back.
There was another government program that seemed to make sense. If veterans enrolled in college, the government would pick up the tab.
There was a problem for Towery. It was late and the deadline for enrolling in most colleges had passed. However, Towery, either by happenstance or divine intervention, saw a small newspaper item about a new junior college getting underway in Uvalde.
He took a bus from Cuero to Uvalde, not knowing if he would be accepted since he had no high school diploma.
So-called luck was on Towery’s side. The new college in Uvalde was having legal problems and would be late opening for the fall semester. Towery took up residence in one of the buildings on the campus and helped a few other prospective students move and arrange furniture.
Had it not been for the government veterans program of providing tuition, most likely SWTJC would not have opened their doors in 1946. Most of the original 67 students were veterans taking advantage of the opportunity.
In his biography, Towery said there was no effort on his part to be the first student to enroll in SWTJC. The room where he had been sleeping turned out to be the registrar’s office and when the office personnel showed up on the first day of registration, he just happened to already be there. In fact, he had been there for quite a while.
That first year at SWTJC, Towery met and courted Louise Ida Cook, from Knippa. They were married May 4, 1947, and she was still by his side 69 years later on May 9, 2016, when he died.