Victor Cicero (V. C.) Kays (1882–1966)
Victor Cicero (V. C.) Kays was the founding president of the First District State Agricultural School, which evolved into Arkansas State University (ASU) in Jonesboro (Craighead County). During his thirty-two-and-a-half-year tenure, Kays guided the institution through trying circumstances and led its transformation from a regional agricultural training school to a college that offered four-year academic degree programs. He was successful despite hardships that were magnified by the impact of two world wars, the Great Depression, meager public funding, and a fire that consumed the college’s main building.
V. C. Kays was born on July 24, 1882, in Magnolia, Illinois, one of six children of John A. Kays and Mary Alice Kays. His father was a farmer. After finishing high school in Henry, Illinois, Kays studied for three years at Northern Illinois State Teachers College and was student coach for the school’s first football team before completing a bachelor’s degree in 1902. Kays continued his education at the University of Illinois, where he was a star athlete and earned a second bachelor’s degree, in science, in 1906. His first job was teaching and coaching at the high school in Savanna, Illinois, but he also worked on the family farm. Poor health prevented his continued work on the farm, but he pursued his passion by resuming his higher education at New Mexico A&M College, where he completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agriculture in 1909 and then worked as an experiment station laboratory chemist in Mesilla Park, New Mexico.
While working in his next position, director of an agricultural school in Wetumpka, Alabama, he met Arkansas state senator Charles E. Bush of Antioch (White County), who was visiting Southern agricultural schools as a member of the board of trustees of the new agricultural training school that was being organized in Jonesboro. The school was one of four—one in each congressional district—that had been established by the Arkansas General Assembly through Act 100 of 1909. Bush recruited Kays to be principal of the First District school, beginning on June 1, 1910.
Kays and his newly hired faculty welcomed 189 students for the first day of classes on October 3, 1910. They met in rented quarters upstairs in a downtown Jonesboro building while the new agricultural school main building and two residence halls were being built on a 442-acre plot of poor farm land east of town and near the railroad lines.
Kays nurtured the young institution and its growing student body. He emphasized instruction in advanced farming methods, such as crop rotation. One of his first initiatives was acquiring the first herd of Holstein dairy cattle in the state, not only for training the students in livestock farming but for providing dairy products to the campus residents.
The Arkansas General Assembly appointed an investigating committee in 1915 to examine the performance of the agricultural schools. The committee’s report praised the school facilities and its leader, saying, “We find Professor Kays a most excellent gentleman, of indispensable value as the head of such a school….The only deplorable fact in regard to his service to the state is that he is paid a mere pittance for his services.” In addition to his leadership in academic and financial matters, Kays was known as a “hands-on” president who was just as likely to be helping lay brick or checking student behavior in the residence halls as performing his traditional duties.
The school started offering a two-year college-level program in 1918, was renamed First District Agricultural and Mechanical College in 1925, and attained accreditation by the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools in 1928. It began offering a four-year degree program in 1930, but a major setback occurred the following year when fire destroyed the main building that housed all classrooms and offices. Classes met in the dairy barn and other alternate quarters the next day, and Kays immediately began formulating plans for a replacement facility. R. E. Lee Wilson Hall, named for the patron Wilson family of Mississippi County, was erected and dedicated in November 1932. The Arkansas General Assembly renamed the institution Arkansas State College in 1933.
While working to strengthen academic programs, Kays often called upon U.S. Senator Hattie Caraway of Jonesboro for help with securing federal government funding for construction and special projects. Their collaboration has been credited not only for adding at least nine buildings across the campus, but for establishing military training schools on campus in support of the war effort. The federal funding helped keep the college’s doors open during World War II, which came on the heels of the Great Depression. Also, Kays formed a charitable foundation, the Arkansas State College Foundation, to assist with institutional finances. What is today known as Kays Foundation is still actively supporting Arkansas State University.
After retiring as president in January 1943, Kays was named president emeritus and retained as business manager. After his successor’s resignation in 1945, he served as acting president for nearly a year.
Kays married Bertie Hale of Paragould (Greene County) on June 12, 1917, and they had a son. In about 1936, Kays and his wife built a Tudor-style residence on Aggie Road, across from the campus, where they lived during the last seven years of his presidency and the remainder of his life.
The board of trustees of Arkansas State College awarded Kays an honorary doctor of laws degree on May 25, 1956. The citation summarized his contributions to the college’s early success and cited his leadership that promoted “educational opportunities and advantages to the rural, as well as the city youth, of Arkansas.”
Following a brief illness, Kays died in Jonesboro on January 20, 1966, and was buried at Jonesboro Memorial Park Cemetery.
For additional information:
Ball, Larry D., and William M. Clements. Voices from State: An Oral History of Arkansas State University. Jonesboro: Arkansas State University, 1984.
Dew, Lee A. The ASU Story: A History of Arkansas State University, 1909–1967. Jonesboro: Arkansas State University Press, 1968.
“Dr. Carl Reng Pays Tribute to V. C. Kays.” Jonesboro Sun, January 21, 1966, p. 1.
Hendricks, Nancy. Dear Mrs. Caraway, Dear Mr. Kays. Jonesboro, AR: 2010.
“Victor C. Kays, ASC President Emeritus, Dies.” Jonesboro Sun, January 21, 1966, p. 1.
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