Ralph Arloe Phelps (1921–1997)
Dr. Ralph Arloe Phelps spent over a decade serving students as president of what is now Ouachita Baptist University (OBU) in Arkadelphia (Clark County). Phelps was also influential in shaping the Arkansas Baptist community during his time in the state.
Ralph Phelps was born in Dallas, Texas, on May 27, 1921, one of three children of Ralph Phelps Sr., who was a building superintendent, and Elsie Jack Phelps, who worked as a stenographer in the dry goods industry. Phelps graduated from North Dallas High School in 1939, where he was involved in student debate, Latin, and speech organizations. He enrolled at Baylor University in the fall of 1939.
Phelps married Helen Ruth Kennedy sometime between 1940 and early 1942, when he registered for the World War II draft. They had a son, James, and a daughter, Debbie. Phelps received his bachelor’s degree and first master’s degree from Baylor in 1943 and 1945, respectively. He earned a master’s in theology in 1947 and Doctor of Theology in 1949 from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He was teaching there when a search committee recommended him for the position of president at Ouachita Baptist College in September 1953.
As Phelps was only thirty-two years old when he became president of Ouachita, he brought a sense of youthful vibrancy to the office. He insisted that everyone connected to the institution commit to creating a superior educational program. His first major undertaking was creating a faculty housing plan in June 1954. This was an attempt to encourage faculty recruitment and retention. One of the greatest accomplishments of his administration was the campus development program that built over twenty new campus buildings and acquired many properties around the Arkadelphia campus. The result of this project was an increase in the school’s assets from $1.8 million to $8.4 million.
Phelps’s presidency was an era of growth for the college. Under his guidance, the college’s endowment doubled, the number of faculty more than doubled, and student enrollment tripled. The college also added its first graduate program under Phelps in 1959. In 1961, Phelps resigned at Ouachita to take an executive officer position at the newly founded Houston Baptist College in Texas, but he soon returned. His administration saw the college become a university when the board of trustees voted to become Ouachita Baptist University on January 14, 1965.
Phelps also was instrumental in facilitating the enrollment of the college’s first Black students, Michael and Mary Makosholo, from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1962. The college’s board of trustees had adopted a policy in 1960 of admitting any student from a Southern Baptist foreign mission field. Ouachita completely desegregated the student body in 1964.
The Arkansas Democrat named Phelps “Man of the Year” in 1964, a year in which he also received statewide recognition for his work as chairman of Citizens United Against Gambling, an organization that led a successful campaign against legalized casino gambling in Hot Springs (Garland County). Phelps was considered a likely gubernatorial candidate in 1966 and indicated his own interest in running for Arkansas’s Fourth District Congressional seat. In 1968, Phelps served on the Arkansas Constitutional Revision Study Committee.
In 1967, he took leave from OBU to serve as the regional director of the Office of Economic Opportunities Southeast Regional Office in Atlanta, Georgia. He held the position for about six months but was disappointed with the federal effort in the program and returned to Arkadelphia.
Phelps saw OBU through a long season of financial troubles, the Vietnam War, and the era of the civil rights movement. He made it known to the board in October 1968 that he did not intend to return for the next academic year. Phelps was displeased by how conservatives in the Arkansas Baptist Convention were operating the school, differing with the convention on issues such as integration, federal aid, and academic freedom, among others. He stated, “My views of what a university ought to be and the dynamic role it ought to play in our changing society are quite different from those who feel Ouachita ought to be run like it was in the 1800s.” His resignation, to become effective in August, was made public in March 1969. Upon his resignation he was named President Emeritus. At his last address to the university in spring 1969, Phelps said he hoped that those who would judge his presidency would “be charitable enough to say he tried his best and of all the mistakes he made, doing nothing was not one of them.”
Following his departure from Ouachita, Phelps became vice president and a trust officer at Worthen Bank in Little Rock (Pulaski County). Later, he returned to academia as vice president of Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, and Dallas Baptist College, and president of Howard Payne University in Brownwood, Texas.
Phelps died in Athens, Texas, on July 24, 1997. At the time of his death, he was pastor of Virginia Hills Baptist Church of Athens. He is buried at Grove Hill Memorial Park in Dallas.
For additional information:
Arrington, Michael E. Ouachita Baptist University: The First 100 Years. Little Rock: August House, 1985.
Granade, S. Ray. An Enlarged Tent: Arkadelphia First Baptist Church, 1851–2001. Arkadelphia, AR: 2001.
Granade, S. Ray, C. Fred Williams, and M. Kenneth Startup. A System & Plan: Arkansas Baptist State Convention, 1848–1998. Franklin, TN: Providence House Publishers, 1998.
Newman, Mark. “The Arkansas Baptist State Convention and Desegregation.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 56 (Autumn 1997): 294–313.
Obituary of Dr. Ralph A. Phelps Jr. Daily Siftings Herald, July 29, 1997, p. 3.
“OBC Admits Two Negroes, Both Teachers of Rhodesia.” Arkansas Gazette, January 26, 1962, p. 1A.
“President of OBU Since 1953 Resigns.” Arkansas Gazette, March 14, 1969, p. 11A.
“Ralph A. Phelps, Jr., 1961–1969,” Academic Affairs Employee Files. Archives and Special Collections, Riley-Hickingbotham Library. Ouachita Baptist University, Arkadelphia, Arkansas.
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Last Updated: 06/23/2021