John William Conger (1857–1924)
John William Conger served as president of five colleges, including three in Arkansas: Searcy College, Central College (now Central Baptist College), and Ouachita College (now Ouachita Baptist University).
John Conger was born on February 20, 1857, in Jackson, Tennessee, the seventh of ten children born to Philander Drew Whitehill Conger and Eliza Jane Chambers Conger. His father was an architect and a general contractor and served several terms as mayor of Jackson. His great-grandfather, James B. Conger, invented the turbine water wheel and contributed to Scientific American magazine.
Conger earned an AB in 1878 and an AM degree in mental sciences in 1885 from Southwest Baptist University (now Union University in Tennessee). He became president at the Odd Fellows College at Humboldt, Tennessee, in 1879, where he remained for three years.
In October 1882, Conger married Carrie McKinney of Purdy, Tennessee. His wife lived less than a year. In 1883, Conger assisted W. H. Tharp in the founding of Searcy College and served as president. On October 9, 1884, he married Tennie Hamilton of Memphis, Tennessee, and the couple had five children. In the winter of 1885, Conger accepted an administrative position at Prescott High School in Nevada County. In 1886, he was chosen by the board of directors to be the first president of Ouachita College in Arkadelphia (Clark County).
Conger became president of Ouachita on June 22, 1886. He had barely three months to establish a curriculum, employ faculty, solicit students, and repair the school’s single available building, which had served as the state’s first School for the Blind. More than 100 students entered Ouachita when it opened for the fall semester in 1886, and enrollment more than doubled by the end of the first year. During his twenty-one-year tenure, Conger was responsible for six new buildings, an increase in staff from six to twenty-six, and a student body that grew to a total of 476 students.
Conger, whose health was declining, left Ouachita in 1907 to escape the pressures of the growing college. He became president of his alma mater, Southwest Baptist University, in Jackson, where he stayed from 1907 until 1909. He then moved to Little Rock (Pulaski County), to enter the insurance business. His career in insurance was short-lived, and after a year, he accepted the presidency of Central College in Conway (Faulkner County). He remained there for nine years until he retired and was made president emeritus.
After years of declining health, Conger died of cancer on April 7, 1924, in Fort Smith (Sebastian County), at the home of his daughter. He was buried in a double vault on the campus of Ouachita Baptist University, next to his wife Tennie, who had died a little more than a year earlier.
For additional information:
Arrington, Michael E. Ouachita Baptist University: The First 100 Years. Little Rock: August House, 1985.
Conger’s Personal Writings. Riley-Hickingbotham Library Special Collections. Ouachita Baptist University, Arkadelphia, Arkansas.
Newberry, Farrar. “John W. Conger, First President of Ouachita.” Southern Standard. January 9, 1964.
Syler, Allen B., and Bobbie Jones McLane. Clark County, Arkansas Obituaries and Death Notices. Vol. 4. Hot Springs: Arkansas Ancestors, 1995.
Ouachita Baptist University
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