“James Arthur Slater founded the Optimist in 1912.”
I’ve heard that statement so many times and said it so often over the past 25 years, it’s easy to overlook the true and full story.
In the summer of 1912, Jesse P. Sewell was named president of the Campbellite-founded Christian college in Abilene – the fifth president in seven years. He knew he had to accomplish several things – provide some greater stability, get the debt under control, change the name from Childers Classical Institute to something a little loftier. He also knew every great institute of learning had to have a great student newspaper.
And Sewell knew about a 22-year-old former student named Arthur Slater who was putting out a money-losing newspaper in nearby Clyde. Sewell approached Slater and told him to come back to Abilene and take more classes and finish his education.
“I haven’t sufficient funds to pay my expenses in school,” Slater told him.
“You don’t need money,” Sewell said. “Bring your printing outfit to Abilene and start a school paper.”
Slater later described it this way: “I went on to become the founder of the Optimist. It was an eight-page paper devoted to the interests of Abilene Christian College, and to Christian education in general. I was not nominally the editor of this journal, but when I failed to get the proper editors to fill their allotted space, it was my task to fill it for them.”
This August marked 100 years since Slater first printed the student newspaper at what’s now Abilene Christian University.
And what strikes me looking back at the coverage of the university over the past century are not the stories and the columns written by Slater and the people who came after him. Instead, it has been the stories of the people themselves. These young, brash, self-conscious, bold, fragile, determined – occasionally mischievous – people who stepped into this larger story that is the Optimist.
It is easy to get caught up in the amount of time that has passed and these arbitrary round numbers and to overlook the importance of the Optimist and the significance of the person after person who has made it was it is – and what it will be.
And that’s not just those who have had the fortune and opportunity to serve as editor. Dr. Royce Money, tenth president of the university, once called that the hardest student job on campus – and I would not argue. But that goes for the reporters, photographers, copyeditors, the page designers, cartoonists, the videographers and online editors.
The story of the Optimist is the story of the people who have made it what it is.
People like Willie Pritchett Witt, who edited the Optimist in 1918. She wrote: “The publication of a school paper is one of the most vital things in school life, for nothing portrays the heart and inner soul of a school better than its paper.”
I’ve been connected with the Optimist for only about a quarter of its existence, but I know Witt was right.