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Greg Morris, Barbara Sherrill Jones and Dr. Pyeper Wilkins
Left to right: Dr. Greg Morris, vice president of academic affairs at El Centro College, presents first graduate Barbara Sherrill Jones with her replica diploma during her visit to Dallas 50 years later. Dr. Pyeper Wilkins, DCCCD’s chief advancement officer and executive director of the DCCCD Foundation, participated in the ceremony as well.

​Contact: Debra Dennis
ddennis@dcccd.edu; 214-378-1851

For immediate release — Dec. 18, 2017

(DALLAS) — Barbara Sherrill Jones paused and let out a sigh as she entered her old school, El Centro College.

“I haven’t been inside this building since I left 50 years ago,” said Sherrill Jones, who returned to the downtown Dallas County Community College District campus last month. “It’s changed so much. I was part of history in Dallas. I was a pioneer.”

When El Centro College first opened its doors more than five decades ago, Sherrill Jones was among the wide-eyed students who were ushered in. Community or junior colleges were a new concept in Dallas County.

“It is so nice to come home. This place is just wonderful,” said Sherrill Jones, a Dallas native who now lives in Bradenton, Fla.

Sherrill Jones is indeed a “pioneer.” She was the first person to complete her courses and became El Centro’s first graduate after amassing enough credits in 1967 to receive her associate degree. She recently sent a copy of a letter to DCCCD from Dr. Donald T. Rippey, El Centro’s first president, which confirmed her status as the school’s first graduate.

“Only freshman courses were offered that year, but that was what I needed to complete an associate degree,” said Sherrill Jones, who already had earned college credits from East Texas State University. “I completed all courses necessary for a degree before El Centro held graduation ceremonies.”

During her return visit at Thanksgiving, Sherrill Jones was showered with gifts and acknowledgements from the DCCCD Foundation, the marketing office at El Centro as well as the college’s administration. Dr. Greg Morris, ECC’s vice president of academic affairs, presented her with a replica diploma for her associate degree in fine arts.

In the letter Sherrill Jones received so many years ago, President Rippey wrote, “You have completed our graduation requirements. I would like to personally congratulate you on this achievement and let you know that we are counting on your participation in our first graduation ceremony.” Of course, she did.

The Dallas County Junior College District, approved by voters in 1965, opened in 1966. Located in downtown Dallas, the school attracted students from all backgrounds who were looking for accessible and affordable public higher education. At 74, Sherrill Jones cherishes her memories of the downtown Dallas school as well as an era that ushered in El Centro and other junior colleges.

“It was such a thrilling experience. I was in my 20s and wearing go-go boots. We thought ourselves lucky,” she said. “Junior colleges were new here, and we needed them. This was a few years after (President John F.) Kennedy was killed.

“El Centro was anything but traditional. Student lounges were on the first floor, decorated in the latest space-age designs. Integration was new. I am proud to say that I was impressed with how smoothly the races came to learn together,” added Sherrill Jones.

Barbara Sherrill Jones
First graduate Barbara Sherrill Jones stands on the steps of El Centro, just outside of the Student Center entrance.

El Centro College opened in the former Sanger Harris Department Store building, located in downtown Dallas, and experienced its own growing pains. “The elevators did not always function properly and would jam before reaching the floor. Students would jump in or wait for an attendant to work with the elevator. Sometimes the building flooded, too,” she said.

Sherrill Jones’ favorite memory was watching Dr. Bill J. Priest, the district’s first chancellor, work the coat check stand if an employee was absent.

“Yes, our college had a coat check. If someone didn’t show up, Bill Priest checked our hats and coats. He was the head of the college (district), and he would do whatever needed to be done,” she recalled.

In spite of all the challenges, students were patient and willing to give community college a chance.

“When I think of El Centro, I don’t just think of the college. I think of the period and the times that were changing so rapidly,” said Sherrill Jones, who went on to teach English, journalism and photography. “That first year, everyone was so happy to be there. The concept of the school was to be modern and innovative.”

Residents of Dallas County, like many counties nationwide, had voted to create and fund two-year institutions in response to a declining labor force that yearned for more skilled workers. The country’s rapidly growing public high schools also were seeking new ways to serve their communities, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

All of those elements factored into Sherrill Jones’ decision to enroll at El Centro, a college that has earned national prominence. El Centro has placed thousands of students on career paths in fields as diverse as nursing, fashion merchandising, culinary arts and business computer technology.

Sherrill Jones is a cherished part of the school’s legacy, said Dr. Jose Adames, El Centro’s current president.

“We have nearly 12,000 students. We celebrate our proud history and — more important — we celebrate our first graduate, Barbara Sue Sherrill Jones, a student who earned her degree during the time when Dr. Donald Rippey was our first president,” Adames said. “Barbara is one of the ‘pioneers’ and ‘trailblazers’ who have paved the way for the thousands of students whose lives were affected in so many positive ways by El Centro College.”

Since her early college days, Sherrill Jones has moved around the country, picked up three more advanced degrees and spent many years teaching. But her alma mater remains centered in her mind and in her heart.

Rippey’s letter, she said, is as cherished as any other heirloom because it is a milestone that marks a lifetime of learning. “I just made him proud,” she said.

For more information, contact Debra Dennis in the DCCCD office public and governmental affairs at 214-378-1851 or at ddennis@dcccd.edu.

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