Dr. J.E. McCracken, Charter President
An interview by the late C.M. (Duque) Wilson,
written for the college's 25th Anniversary
Interviewing Dr. J. E. McCracken, Northwest Florida State College's charter and retired president, made me poignantly aware of the dilemma that frequently challenges writers: How does one compress 40 some years of dedicated service into a tiny biographical capsule?
I enjoyed listening to Dr. McCracken, reminisce and reflect on his professional life, for example, being a resident counselor at the University of Florida; a professor of education and psychology at the University of Mississippi; and originating the counseling center at Mississippi; dean of students at Millsaps College; director of research and development at Pensacola Junior College; and for 24 years, the charter president of Okaloosa-Walton Junior College.
And to paraphrase Robert Frost, the 24 years at OWJC was a road almost not taken, but one that ages and ages hence made all the difference. Dr. McCracken did not apply for the president's position at OWJC. His name was "put in the pot" by PJC's president, Dr. Henry Ashmore.
He refused the job twice. He finally accepted when offered the job the third time by the late Lance Richbourg. The reason? Because the Okaloosa/Walton citizen's concept of a community college mission coincided exactly with Dr. McCracken's concept. Specifically, that for a student legally out of school, a community college should provide a high quality educational experience with a high quality result that would lead the student to enjoy a high quality life.
Dr. McCracken's footnote regarding quality education added to the concept that no hierarchical status be reflected in the college curriculum: That all education, vocational, technical, or whatever would be equal to academic education. No snob appeal or caste system would be present in the college community. No us-highbrows-and-them-lowbrows sort of thing.
At this point in the interview, "Ed" McCracken laughed and said regarding his acceptance, "I was running backward and fell off a cliff and landed in the old ghost town Dodge City Valparaiso campus.
He went on to say that attending his acceptance of the president's position was his deep personal pledge to himself that only two commitments would be the controlling force during his tenure as president: One, commitment to family; two, commitment to the college. Those who know Dr. McCracken, know he honored his pledge.
Relaxed and informal, with flashes of humor, Dr. McCracken paid tribute to those who contributed to and influenced his personal and professional posture as charter president: Family, citizens, college personnel, students, and government officials.
His most sustaining strength was his wife, Ruth. His anchor he said. His love for her and his respect for her wisdom was his greatest resource. He praised his children's understanding, patience, support and love.
Dr. McCracken paid tribute to his father, the late Dr. Charles C. McCracken. A fascinating man who began his career as a hot box checker laborer on the railroad, but who went on to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard in mathematics and science and who became, among other things, president of the University of Connecticut.
The elder McCracken, taught his son many down to earth things. For example, when "Ed" graduated with a Ph.D. his father said, "Son, remember that a Ph.D. is like the curl on a pig's tail. It may add to the beauty of the pig, but it does not add to the quality of the bacon."
The elder Doctor McCracken gave his son many exercises in humility. I wish I could report them all, but a couple will do. "You can afford to wait a long time for the services of a Ph.D. But you can't afford to wait too long for a plumber." Also, "Degrees are important, but a Ph.D. on a deserted island is not much help."
"Ed" McCracken noted his mother's influence. The late Frances C. McCracken's focus was family and positive support. It was her suggestion that the college seal reflect a touch of the classics: Educatio Optima; optimum education.
Mary Ruth McCracken, a sister and noted artist designed the college seal and offered it as a gift to the college.
"Ed's" brother, Bill, was the youngest dean of students ever in the United States. He was "Ed's" idol and model educator.
Dr. Janet McCracken, sister, taught "Ed" the value of analytical thought. She also gave many unpaid hours of consultation to the development of OWJC during the early years.
Space precludes giving the many, many tributes, compliments, honors and anecdotes that Dr. McCracken related about the help, generosity, counsel and activities that Twin Cities' citizens, area organizations, faculty, staff, students, local officials and federal officials gave during his 24 years' tenure as president. To list them all would be encyclopedic.
Many cameos and echoes emerged during the interview. The most poignant and nostalgic were the early days in the old Valparaiso ghost town which was affectionately knows as Dodge City. Chief Maddox in his Stetson and with his .45 patrolled Main Street. Classes were held in old bank buildings, post office, inns, old hospitals, and community centers. The library was in Congressman Sike's old newspaper building. Churches and theatres were used for assemblies, Lincoln and Perrine parks for outdoor gatherings such as Arts Festivals and graduation. It was a friendly, make do, enthusiastic and close knit faculty-student relationship. The campus swayed to folk songs and double-stringed guitars.
"You know," said Dr. McCracken, "our motto on the old Boggy Tech by heck campus was ‘no one a stranger, a stranger to no one,' I hope the tradition endures."
"What was the keynote or cornerstone for the mission of the college?" I asked.
"Faith," said Dr. McCracken. "Success centers on faith, work, and commitments. Those attributes maintained the intense enthusiasm through the years."
"That is an elegant statement," I said.
The charter president smiled and quoted Bishop Sanders: "Elegance is but the evidence of commitment."
Dr. McCracken earned his spurs; he is a legend in his own time.