By Curt Yeomans
A newspaper advertisement taken out by officials with the City of Morrow, when Clayton Junior College opened its doors in 1969, announced that, "The curtain rises on a new era of education in Clayton County."
But, the school's reach would eventually grow to encompass more and more of the Southern Crescent. Forty years later, it has become Clayton State University, has grown beyond the borders of Clayton, and now offers classes in Fayette and Henry counties as well.
On Wednesday, Clayton State will turn 40.
"Forty years ago this fall, 942 students began classes on a campus properly selected for its beauty, at an institution created to serve the needs of citizens in the Southern Crescent of Atlanta," Clayton State Interim President Tim Hynes said during a birthday celebration Thursday in the university's Student Activities Center.
"And 40 years later, through the dedication and hard work of generations of members of the campus community, Clayton State University thrives as a campus known for its beauty, and as an institution that continues to serve the needs of the citizens of this area, and of the state of Georgia," he added.
Over the years, Clayton State has gone through several changes. From 1969-1986, the school was known as Clayton Junior College. In 1986, it became Clayton State College. Then, ten years later, Clayton College and State University. The most recent name change came in 2005, when the title was shortened to Clayton State University.
In 1969, there were only six buildings on the campus. There are currently 17 buildings on CSU's main, Morrow campus, and its adjacent Clayton State University-East campus.
There is also a campus in Peachtree City, and the university offers classes at Henry County Schools' Academy for Advanced Studies in McDonough. The university will begin offering its masters degree in business administration at a site in Rockdale County in 2010.
In 1986, the school began offering bachelor degrees. Twenty years later, it started offering master's-degree programs as well. In 1990, it launched its athletics department with the establishment of the school's men's basketball team. In 1997, officials began offering laptop computers to students, in a move aimed at becoming a wireless campus. Then, last year, the university opened Laker Hall, the school's first on-campus, student-housing facility.
The school reached another milestone this fall. As it celebrates its 40th birthday. Hynes said, there are nearly 6,600 students enrolled, which is a record enrollment.
"It has always been destined that we were going to grow," said Clayton State Library Director Gordon Baker, a 1973 graduate of the school. "Really, I think Clayton State is the gem of the Southern Crescent, because we have great leaders, great students and great faculty."
Some people reflected on their ties to the school's early days, at its birthday celebration Thursday. CSU Network Analyst Kevin Fitzgerald recalled his family taking a trip to see the then-unfinished Clayton Junior College campus in the summer of 1969. His father, Gerald, worked for the company that was constructing the school's first buildings. "There was a lot of mud, because the roads hadn't been put in yet, but the buildings were beginning to take shape," Fitzgerald said.
Baker was an 18-year-old graduate of Stockbridge High School when he began his studies at Clayton Junior College in the fall of 1971. "It was a small school, with only about 1,000 students, and it seemed like we were a close-knit family," he said. "The administrators knew the names of all of the students."
One of the spots Baker and Clayton State Foundation Chairman Starr Helms recalled as a landmark on the Clayton Junior College campus was a funny-shaped tree located between the classroom buildings and school's largest lake. The tree would eventually become known as "The Bent Tree." The original tree was cut down in the late 1990s, to make room for the James M. Baker University Center. A plaster recreation of the tree now stands outside that facility.
Baker said in Clayton State's early days, the students did not call it "The Bent Tree," though. "We called it 'The C Tree' because it looked like the letter 'C,' which we always said stood for Clayton Junior College."
Another memory that Baker had was that as early as 1972, there were rumblings that the school was heading toward becoming a four-year institution. "I only had four classes left to take, and I could have taken them all in one semester and then graduated, but I stretched it out and took two classes one semester, and the other two the next semester," he said. "I didn't want to leave. Nobody did, because we were hearing rumors that the school was about to become a four-year school ...
"It's a good thing none of us stayed, though, because we would have been waiting a long time [to 1986]," he added.