Former trustee to receive honorary bachelor's degree

PLAINVIEW – One small comment from her mother started the wheels turning for Donna Reynolds. At her summer graduation from seminary, Eva Graham told her daughter she was proud of her being a college graduate.

Though she heard the joy, Reynolds said she also heard the wistfulness in her mother’s voice.

“She has always wanted to graduate, and I just thought for all she’s done and how hard she’s worked all her life that it would be nice for her to get her degree,” Reynolds explained.

Reynolds and her mother Eva will both get their wish on Saturday, when Wayland Baptist University awards Mrs. Graham an honorary bachelor’s degree, thought to be the first given in school history, during winter commencement ceremonies planned for 2 p.m. in Harral Memorial Auditorium.

The process of making the dream a reality has been several months in the making. After pondering her mother’s comment, Reynolds began putting the pieces in place.

Not even sure of the possibility of such a request, she contacted Wayland officials and asked if there was a way the school could award Graham the degree she never got to finish. She wrote a biographical sketch of her mother’s life and sent that to Wayland, then prepared to wait for the request to go through the proper channels, never mentioning it to her mother.

“I didn’t dare say anything to her, because I didn’t know if it would be approved,” Reynolds said.

Back at Wayland, Reynolds’ question was working its way through the system, first coming before the administrative cabinet for consideration.

“Our response was very enthusiastic,” said Dr. Paul Armes, university president. “Both Eva and her husband have meant and continue to mean a great deal to Wayland. For us, it was a natural thing and something we were enthusiastic about from the beginning.” 

After the cabinet gave its approval, the proposal went before the university’s Faculty Assembly, who approved it and then sent it to its final stop: the Board of Trustees. At their meeting in October, the board voted unanimously to award Graham the honorary bachelor’s degree, making her the first recipient of such a degree.

Immediately, university president Dr. Paul Armes called Mrs. Graham to relay the good news.

“I was just thrilled to no end,” she recalled. “I just stood there for a minute and couldn’t believe that it was really happening to me.”

Reynolds laughed, saying she knows her mom would have screamed in surprise, but she had company at the time. “She screamed later, though,” she said. “She was absolutely thrilled. I was thrilled for her because she’s a wonderful woman and a wonderful mom.”

“This was something I felt she needed after all she’s been through and all she’s done for other people,” she added.

Graham has had her share of ups and downs in life, beginning with a childhood during the depression era. Born in Lawton, Okla., Eva’s mother died of tuberculosis, leaving young Eva and two older siblings with their young father. He moved the family to West Texas to build roads into Palo Duro Canyon for the Works Progress Administration. The children lived with an aunt and uncle not far from the canyon in a tiny house with no electricity or indoor plumbing.

Eva’s father remarried, and the children moved back to the home. Five more children were born and Eva helped on the family dairy near Olton before and after school. Eva met Cleo Morris Smith in her freshman year at Olton High School and the two dated, often going into Plainview for a movie at the Granada Theatre, passing by the campus of Wayland. At that time, Eva assumed only rich students could attend Wayland.

Cleo and Eva married before her senior year and she finished her education before the couple headed to California to work in the war effort. The couple worked for McDonell Douglas Aircraft and shared a home with another young couple. In 1945, after the war ended, the couple returned to Olton with a new baby in tow. Cleo and Eva farmed while the family continued to grow, staying busy with church and the children’s school activities.

In August 1961, Cleo died of a massive heart attack, leaving Eva a widow at age 38. Two weeks later, their 16-year-old daughter and six other young people died in a train accident in Anton. Grieving but still needing to provide for her family, Eva decided to go to college. She attended City College in California for a summer, and enrolled at Wayland the next fall, hoping for a career as a teacher.

Before Eva could graduate, she met Henry Ervin Graham, a cattle rancher who had lost his wife and two of three children in a private plane crash that severely injured him as well. They married in 1965 and Eva began helping her husband in the cattle business, staying close by as he requested.

The Grahams loved Wayland and were supportive of the university in many ways, with Ervin serving on the board of trustees until his death in 2001. Eva completed his term and served until her health declined. She now lives in Austin.

Mrs. Graham will receive her honorary diploma during a special presentation at Saturday’s ceremony, and a reception in her honor is planned for 4 p.m. in the atrium of the Mabee Learning Resources Center. She is excited by the prospect and glad to part of the ceremony.

“It was my life’s goal to get my degree, so I think this is wonderful,” Graham said.