We conclude our myth, legend or fact series with the bizarre departure of a Highlands University president 60 years ago.
On Nov. 23, 1951, the Highlands University board of regents fired university president Edward Eyring, who had served in that position since 1939. Eyring had apparently served well for more than a decade, but in the last year had become erratic, according to the board.
The regents met on the Highlands campus at 9 that Friday morning, and H.M. Mortimer, chairman of the board and a Las Vegas physician, called the meeting to order and promptly asked Eyring to resign. The meeting was heated and personal, with Mortimer saying that “Eyring is psychoneurotic,” and Eyring calling Mortimer’s comments “psychiatric quackery.”
When Eyring refused to resign, the board terminated him summarily, all five regents voting to fire him. The meeting ended and the regents departed, but not Eyring.
The recalcitrant president defied the regents and refused to be fired.
He remained in his Highlands office and continued to act as president.
The regents were undeterred, however, and swift action was taken.
Two state police officers walked into the president’s office in Rodgers Hall and politely asked Eyring to vacate the premises. He refused, saying the regents had acted illegally and that he was still president.
The state troopers warned the president that if he did not leave, he would be removed forcibly. Eyring did not budge, and stayed put behind his desk.
Eyring was quickly but gently picked up in his chair, and taken outside by the state policemen, who carried the defiant president to the walkway in front of Rodgers Hall, and there left him. (It is unclear whether the police officers were acting on a court order from District Judge Luis E. Armijo, or a directive from his brother, District Attorney Jose E. Armijo, both close friends of Mortimer.)
Eyring’s firing and forced removal became a cause célèbre, and received extensive coverage, even in Time Magazine. In its issue of Feb. 11, 1952, Time reported in its education section, what it headlined a “Storm in Las Vegas.”
Posing the question “Who’s Crazy?” Time was entirely supportive of Eyring, and cast Mortimer and the other regents as villains.
The Time article reported that “Republican Governor Edwin Mechem appointed a new set of mostly Republican regents [and] from that time on, trouble has brewed at Highlands.” According to the article, Mortimer told Time Magazine “straight off” that “it is the great American institution that as the change of political sentiment goes — to the victor belongs the spoils.”
Eyring’s firing resembled a Greek tragedy (or comedy), even Time Magazine’s two-page article noting that “the whole thing seemed to be nothing but a Mortimer plot,” and that one regent’s wife had been overheard saying the “board would drive Eyring crazy if he wasn’t crazy already.” Adding to the bizarre occurrences, Eyring’s secretary, who happened to be Mortimer’s sister, was deliberately trying to sabotage the president, according to Time.
Things eventually calmed down at Highlands that school year in 1951-52, and the University survived an investigation by the North Central Association, which accredits colleges and universities. Eyring sued the regents and took an appeal to the New Mexico Supreme Court, which dismissed his case.
Mortimer, a popular Las Vegas physician, continued to reign over Highlands for another decade, and was later elected to the state board of education from San Miguel County. (Mortimer Hall, named for (by?) Mortimer, stood where the new student union building is now being constructed at the corner of Eighth and National.)
Mortimer would also bring to Highlands the imposing Thomas C. Donnelly, who served as president for the next 18 years, and whose tenure continues to be the longest at the university.
Remarkably, during the Eyring debacle, the prestige of the even-then long-past Romero era, continued in Las Vegas. Among the regents who supported Mortimer was Mary B. Romero, the only Hispanic on the board. Her husband was Joe Romero, grandson of Don Eugenio Romero of the famous Romero brothers, who died in 1920.
Later columns will recount the history of Highlands University, its scholarly and pioneering first president, its transformation from a normal school to an expansive university, the demonstrations and student protests of the early 1970s, including the occupation of Rodgers Hall, the first board of regents with more than a token Hispanic member, and the appointment of the first Hispanic university president in the United States.
Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.