JACKSONVILLE — An idea to create a local college that could replace defunct Lon Morris while also catering to the educational needs of military veterans is gaining momentum.
Jack Webb, owner of Jacksonville company 11x17, has put out a call requesting public input to help make this idea into a reality. It would require plans, timing and money. Webb said he is in the process of meeting with two parties who have indicated similar interest in creating such an institution.
By Webb's own admission, this is not uniquely his idea or even a new idea — simply one that has been pondered at length and refined by many veteran advocates.
Gretchen Martins, founder and CEO of Homeward Deployed, is credited as having put a large amount of thought into the concept. Her non-profit company provides free family coaching and support services to military families before, during, and after the deployment of a parent.
Martins' colleague is Julianne Sanford, coordinator of Cherokee County's Lone Star Military Resource Group. Sanford said she loves the idea of a military college.
“It is fabulous and very viable,” she said.
Webb purchased much of the Lon Morris property during the recent liquidation auction. Shortly after acquiring these properties, he stated his desire to find an institution to fill the vacancy left by LMC's departure.
On Wednesday, Webb said he was in the process of speaking to two parties that were possibly interested in helping him help veterans in this regard.
The idea is still very much in the planning stages but the possibilities it represents — national attention for Jacksonville as well as a new way to help hard-working veterans — drew rave reviews from local residents Thursday.
In many regards, it was one of the best ideas they had never heard of — as Webb has been careful and deliberate in releasing information about his plans.
“I had not heard about that,” said Jason Thomas, a former Lon Morris College athletic trainer. “That actually sounds like a great use of the college. Something to benefit the many men and women that have served in our military and helped protect this great country.”
Chuck Bones, commandant of local Marine Corps League Det. 1381, said such an institution could go a long way toward helping veterans.
“I think it would be a great idea,” Bones said. “A veteran-based college could gather like-minded individuals in one place and they would all share the camaraderie of veteranship.”
Bones said many veterans returning from combat and exiting the military can have trouble adjusting to civilian life.
“If you look at them 10 years after the military, you'll find that many have gone through as much as five to 10 different jobs,” Bones said. “The main reason for that is while they were in the military they were responsible for thousands of dollars in equipment and when they get out in the civilian world a lot of companies don't recognize they had that responsibility and don't trust them with their equipment.”
Bones said that an educational institution that could help younger veterans through the transition to civilian life would prove invaluable.
“It would be good for them and good for the local businesses to learn how capable they actually are and how that capability can help their business,” Bones said.
Darrell Prcin, president of the Jacksonville Economic Development Corporation, hadn't had a chance to review the idea and didn't have an immediate response.
“I've heard a little about it but I have not had the opportunity to visit with Jack about it,” Prcin said.
Jacksonville City Manager Mo Raissi and Police Chief Reece Daniel were not immediately familiar with Webb's idea either but immediately recognized its merits.
“I think anything we can do for the military personnel is great,” Raissi said. “They really deserve it.”
Absolutely, added the chief.
“Anything that benefits veterans can't be a bad idea,” Daniel said.
Dr. Joe Wardell, superintendent of the Jacksonville ISD, was not immediately familiar with the proposed idea but also believes it has value.
“Theoretically that would be a good use for the remaining facilities as well as an opportunity to meet the needs of an important segment of our population,” Wardell said.
Cherokee County Judge Chris Davis said such a college could benefit both veterans and the local community
“Finding a good use for the Lon Morris facilities and helping our veterans, and often neglected segment of our citizens is certainly a worthy undertaking,” Davis said.
Michelle Zenor, a former associate professor of English at LMC, said she believes a college with a specific mission of educating veterans is an excellent idea.
“In my experience, veterans are disciplined and motivated students,” she said. “I imagine the benefits of such an institution would extend to the community that supported such a noble purpose.”
Jacksonville Mayor Kenneth Melvin was very enthusiastic about this prospect.
“It really sounds like a good idea,” Melvin said. “If the discipline is there and everyone behaves themselves and acts properly and doest cause problems with, you know, drinking or swearing or using illegal drugs, I don't see anything wrong with a place for veterans to further their education and get a leg up in the world.”
However, the mayor added, that's not to say he believes the loss of Lon Morris has necessarily created a vacuum that needs to be filled.
“I think Jacksonville College has done a wonderful job of trying to catch up with that particular whirlwind — the one we have all been caught up in,” the mayor said. “Jacksonville College has expanded its curriculum, built new dormitories. I don't think we are hurting for another institution.”
David Heflin, college director of public relations at Jacksonville College, said the important thing about the idea is it outlines specific help for veterans.
“Jack Webb certainly bought a lot of good land from Lon Morris and I'm sure he has great intentions,” Heflin said. “From an educational point of view we already help veterans. When they come to Jacksonville College we bend over backwards to help them set their educational goals. This idea is a good thing. We are very pro-veteran (at Jacksonville College). Without them we wouldn't have the freedoms we enjoy. So from our point of view, we are very much for this.”
Donnie Barron, pastor of Rusk's First Baptist Church and president of the local Ministerial Alliance, sees a lot of positives in the idea. Barron is a United States Army veteran.
“I think it would be something that is needed that could serve to show we go above and beyond to support our military,” Barron said. “It could help them assimilate back into their civilian lifestyles and help them face the challenges involved with that. I was in the military 10 years and served two combat tours. I know that when you get back it's very hard to assimilate.”