Jenkins’ legendary reign led to building name, statue

Jan 06, 2014 by

Standing just over 5 feet tall, Dr. Harry E. Jenkins was obviously not a giant of a man. But to Tyler Junior College, he was as big as Texas – a visionary with the ability to make the extraordinary happen to the benefit of the institution.

Under his reign, TJC grew from a tiny college downtown with an enrollment of 400 to a sprawling, multi-million dollar campus with more than 7,000 students.

Jenkins recruited high school faculty to teach at TJC part time, established the college’s athletic programs (and demanded they win), convinced the federal government to donate old Camp Fannin buildings to the college, expanded vocational and technical programs, and worked with area hospitals to make an existing nursing school part of TJC.

His mark on the college was so indelible by the spring of 1967 that the TJC Board of Trustees voted unanimously to rename the main instructional building in his honor.

Following his death in 1983, board member Watson W. Wise commissioned Tyler sculptor John Harper to create a bronze sculpture of Jenkins. The sculpture was unveiled in October 1986, in the Wise Cultural Arts Plaza. It quickly became one of the college’s most significant icons, and a favorite for group photos. Students of the speech and debate team would rub the head of the statue for good luck before departing for forensics tournaments.

Weeks after the statue was stolen in 1995, there were no clues in the investigation, and it seemed unlikely that it would ever be returned.

When TJC student James Harper learned of its recovery in July 2013, it made him very happy. It was Harper’s father who had sculpted the statue, and James recalled having a role in its creation.

“When he built the bases, I helped him gather rocks and do some of the heavy work. I didn’t do any of the sculpting,” he said.

Ironically, Harper is currently a student at TJC, majoring in psychology. Somewhat of an artist himself, he has been a member of a couple of bands but now finds there isn’t enough time for art.

“I was kind of shocked,” he said of the news of its recovery. “I thought it would probably be at the bottom of a lake. I was pretty surprised that it made its way to Austin. It’s kind of a miracle. It surprised a lot of us. I know my dad would have appreciated all the publicity (the recovery) got.”

Harper said the Jenkins statue was one of only two life-size statues his father created, the other being a cowboy and horse at a bank in Bedford. The artist’s other works were smaller decorations. A bronze chuck wagon in Vaughn Library is another of his works.

“It was something he became interested in late in life,” Harper said of his dad’s “lost wax” casting hobby. He enjoyed helping his dad form the armature that is the first phase of creating a sculpture.

Harper was pleased to learn of the college’s plans to refurbish the statue and install it in the building named after his father.

“It makes me proud,” he said. “I miss my dad. He passed away in 1994.”



Community, Fall 2013

About the author

Fred Peters is the Director of Public Affairs at Tyler Junior College. He can be reached at 903-510-2627 or at