Trinity University Celebrates 150 Years as a School Constantly Remaking Itself

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Trinity University is turning 150.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Trinity University receives a $5 million gift from an anonymous donor.

Coleen Grissom, who has worked at Trinity University for close to six decades, remembers when live oak trees rolled into campus on flatbed trucks, turning the former abandoned limestone quarry into the iconic San Antonio campus it is today.

President Danny Anderson wasn’t there at the time, but sees it as a metaphor for the way Trinity has settled into its home four miles north of downtown San Antonio.

“I think about this quarry that was barren – almost like a rocky desert when the campus came – and now you look at the trees that have established roots,” Anderson said. “There is that sense of what has happened in terms of a university that has that ability to put down roots and become a part of the place.”

Courtesy / Trinity University

Coleen Grissom, 1961

Trinity will celebrate its 150th anniversary this year, with a kickoff event scheduled for Friday, Feb. 1. Its century-and-a-half history didn’t start in San Antonio, but for more than 75 years, the private university of about 2,500 students has served as a cultural hub for the city, often drawing students who put down roots and influenced San Antonio’s path forward.

“Universities once prided themselves on having a very separate relationship from the place that they were located,” Trinity Urban Studies professor Christine Drennon said. “That is where the whole ‘ivory tower on a hill’ comes from – it is an old 19th-century model that is very bucolic. More recently and especially since the last recession, universities realized their place in their geography is really important.”

Trinity graduates grow roots 

Alumni and observers of the university have speculated that Trinity’s greatest contribution to San Antonio is the graduates who decide to stick around. About 7,600 of the school’s 30,000 living alumni currently reside in San Antonio, Anderson said.

To see the impact some of these graduates have made on the city, one need look no further than city hall, where Trinity alumni Mayor Ron Nirenberg and new City Manager Erik Walsh work.

Nirenberg, who once served as the general manager of the university’s jazz radio station, told the Rivard Report that he dreamed of becoming a journalist when he first enrolled at Trinity in 1995. He worked at the student newspaper, the Trinitonian, and later discovered a passion to pursue graduate work in communications. He returned to San Antonio after completing a master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania.

“It was every day that I spent in San Antonio as an undergraduate student at Trinity that made me fall in love with the city,” Nirenberg said. “Coming back to the city after finishing my graduate degree – there was no place I would rather go.”

Richard Yoo, who grew up in Houston and eventually went on to become a co-founder of Rackspace, was surprised to find how drawn he was to the school. Upon visiting, he discovered that the aesthetics of the campus and the city it was located in mattered to him.

“If it wasn’t for Trinity, I wouldn’t have moved to San Antonio,” Yoo said. “A lot of people would probably say Austin is the first choice, it is the place to go. Places like Trinity create a question mark. Had it not been for Trinity, I would not be here, and if I had never been here, Rackspace would never have started. So there’s a whole butterfly effect thing that is definitely real.”

Stories like Yoo’s abound. Lara Kilgore, who came to Trinity from Arizona, discovered the school after the daughter of a family friend enrolled. Kilgore’s initial goals of becoming a doctor changed and when she discovered that she actually wanted to work in education, she decided to create her own tutoring, test prep, and college advising business, Beyond Education, here.

Uchennaya Ogba came to Trinity from Nigeria. Having discovered the school through family connections, he said he was drawn to the small class sizes and accessible professors. After graduating and spending six months in Miami, Ogba returned to San Antonio and eventually started BethanyEast PR (now EHCÜ Public Relations) with his wife, Christian Reed-Ogba.

“What I saw in San Antonio is that there was no other marketing firm run by an African-American team in general,” Ogba said. “I could have moved anywhere else after Miami – I was free to go anywhere I wanted to – but me choosing to come back to San Antonio was because of the bonds I was able to create at Trinity.”

From left, Uche Ogba and Christian Reed-Ogba share a drink during intermission at PechaKucha.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Uche Ogba (right) is a Trinity alumnus who stayed in San Antonio and started a public relations business with his wife, Christian Reed-Ogba (left.

Trinity’s living alumni include such notable figures as U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Silver Ventures CEO and Pearl developer Kit Goldsbury, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Austin), and Brad Parscale, the digital marketing expert and political consultant who is President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign manager.

From Tehuacana to San Antonio

Since its founding, Trinity has transformed into something almost unrecognizable from its modest beginnings, school historian Doug Brackenridge said.

Trinity opened in 1869 in Tehuacana, a small village south of Dallas, located six miles from the nearest railroad station. At the end of the 19th century, university leaders realized it would be hard to fund a school so isolated from population centers. In 1902, the school relocated to Waxahachie, a North Texas town of about 7,500 people.

“We did well there, but then the Depression hit in the 1930s. Again Trinity did not have all the resources,” Brackenridge said. “We either moved or we had to close.”

On the day after the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce invited Trinity to relocate to San Antonio. By fall of 1942, Trinity started classes on a campus on the city’s West Side. The school stayed there for a decade, increasing its enrollment and starting a graduate program, but realized along the way that it wouldn’t be profitable to expand at that location.

“They essentially moved in one day,” Brackenridge said of the move to Trinity’s current campus. “They took a whole bunch of moving vans and students put the library books in their cars and drove them over. When we came in 1952, we had four buildings and not much landscape. It was a very precarious start.”

Trinity moved from the Woodlawn campus to the Skyline campus on May 13, 1952.

Courtesy / Trinity University

Trinity moved from the Woodlawn campus (pictured here) to its current location on May 13, 1952.

From 1952 to 1970, the campus grew dense with structures noted for their distinctive red brick and clean architectural lines, designed mainly by acclaimed architect O’Neil Ford.

The three moves that brought Trinity more than 200 miles south of its original location created lasting change for the school, but even more transformation would come with President Ron Calgaard’s administration. Calgaard, who led the university for two decades from 1979 to 1999, shaped the school into what it is today. He grew the endowment, implemented a new three-year campus residency requirement for students, and focused academic programs toward undergraduate students.

Bursting the ‘Trinity Bubble’

Since then, university administrators have focused on further weaving Trinity into the fabric of San Antonio, offering cultural programming aimed not just at its students but the larger community.

“As a small liberal arts college, I’ve always thought we punch above our weight class because we open almost everything we do to the public,” Anderson said. “Individuals in Monte Vista can simply walk over and have access to world class thought leaders.”

Trinity offers a regular lectureship series, hosting many notable speakers through the years, including Walter Cronkite, Dick Cheney, Desmond Tutu, Madeleine Albright, and David Brooks. The school also is home to Trinity University Press, founded in 2002, which has published close to 100 titles by both local and national authors.

NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly met with Trinity students before his lecture at Laurie Auditorium. Photo courtesy of Trinity University.

Courtesy / Trinity University

Astronaut Scott Kelly shared his story about his year in space with the Trinity community.

The publishing house brings authors to San Antonio to speak on their books and host community-wide forums that attempt to further the university’s commitment to educate for the “personal, lifelong quest of understanding of oneself and one’s place in the world,” according to Trinity University Press’ website.

And if San Antonians can’t make it onto campus to experience one of these events, they can still feel Trinity’s cultural impact by turning their radio dial to KRTU, the university-run jazz station. KRTU has six full-time staffers and seven students who work to keep the station running alongside 55 community volunteers.

The current general manager, JJ Lopez, started at KRTU in 2007 as one of those community volunteers. He said he fell in love with the “magic of college radio” and sought to further KRTU and Trinity’s mission to impact the community.

JJ Lopez, KRTU general manager

KRTU General Manager JJ Lopez

Beyond these programs, school administrators have tried to further burst the “Trinity bubble” by connecting students more strongly to people and institutions within the San Antonio community. Trinity runs programs like Students + Startups, which places students in positions with San Antonio startups, and the Arts, Letters, and Enterprise program, which matches humanities, social science, and STEM students with nonprofits for internships.

Sixty-five percent of students participate in at least one internship, according to the Office of Experiential Learning.

“Students have a full range of choices of all the disciplines in liberal arts to connect the dots for their future life in a way that students at many schools cannot,” Anderson said. “I love talking to employers and hearing that they had a Trinity intern and that was the best intern they ever had.”

Danny Anderson celebrated his inauguration as 19th President of Trinity University outside with a recessional. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone

Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / Rivard Report

Trinity University President Danny Anderson on his inauguration day in 2016.

In the coming years, Anderson acknowledges that future students may not look or face the same problems as past alumni, and Trinity will have to adapt, just as it always has.

“All colleges need to be changing to meet the future student,” Anderson said. “Our real approach is we want to create a place where all students will feel challenged, have the chance to question, and can grow to achieve their fullest potential.”

12 thoughts on “Trinity University Celebrates 150 Years as a School Constantly Remaking Itself

  1. 40k per year. What a waste of money. Private schools like this are NOT worth the cost. Unless your mommy and daddy are paying for it all. Completely immoral for a Christian school to financially hamstring their students for life.

    • (1) It’s not a Christian school. Do your research before posting a dumb comment. (2) I was raised by a single mother with two kids and had *zero* help from her with my education. I graduated from Trinity in May 2009 and had 75% of my expenses covered via scholarships. I repaid 60k in student loans (principal + interest) in 6.5 years, and make well over six figures today. Considering I’m less than 10 years out of school, I’d say my education at TU was definitely *not* a waste of money.

    • Trinity’s scholarship and financial assistance opportunities are second to none. Trinity is filled with hard working kids from hard working families of varying financial backgrounds. The education is top-notch and Trinity teaches its students to make and create their own path. This is not SMU with a heavy population of legacies from daddy’s money. I love how Trinity is a get-your-hands dirty top-tier education. I vehemently disagree that it is a waste of money, and the accusations of immorality are completely unwarranted. I appreciate everything I learned there. It was a great investment.

    • Trinity is a secular institution historically affiliated with the Presbyterian church, and was more affordable (after scholarships) than several public schools when I was accepted. Most will agree that private institutions should be more financially accessible, which is why small, liberal arts colleges like trinity are so valuable. Many others also understand this and strive to provide access to a fantastic education- which is priceless- through generous financial aid.

      Please do some research before you share such an ignorant comment.

    • That’s the price of a college education! The only difference is that since it’s private, it can’t get government money to subsidize the cost of attending the way a public school does. So there’s nothing immoral about charging a price that everyone else does before subsidizing. Also, if you don’t like it…no one’s forcing you to attend. Also, most Trinity graduates make enough money to pay off their student loans faster than graduates of public universities are able to. That’s return on investment!

      And for everyone commenting, unless your comments can get you in trouble with the law or your employer don’t take the low road of posting what amounts to anonymously (using initials).

    • I look forward to you and BM (how appropriate) calling out Baylor ($59.7k/year) for their “immoral” behavior, Mt. Unlike Trinity, they actually *are* a “Christian school.”

      This Trinity graduate from the South Side of San Antonio received a nearly full aid (scholarship, work-study, grant) package and graduated with under $10K in debt, which was paid off in a few years. Not bad considering the six figure annual incomes I’ve earned the last decade.

  2. Emily, what a fantastic article. I especially loved how you used geography to talk about progress and compared it to Dr. Calgaard’s leadership on the journey that changed Trinity.

    And thanks to generous gifts over literally generations, more than 90% of Trinity students receive financial aid or scholarship. We are so thankful to everyone who helps us educate amazing students.

  3. Two things: (1) In singling out Ron Calgaard as the president who “shaped the school into what it is today,” you overlook the even greater contribution of an earlier president, James Laurie, who presided over the development of the “skyline campus” in that barren rock quarry and who really grew the endowment from practically nothing into a substantial sum. Calgaard merely built on what Laurie had already created. (2) In mentioning Erik Walsh as an alumnus, you might have noted that he was preceded by two other city managers who were also graduates of the Urban Studies Department: Alex Briseno and Rolando Bono. That was a master’s degree program which was among those Calgaard threw over the side in his single-minded focus on undergraduate education. Today’s undergraduate major is a paper program quite different from that graduate degree.

  4. trinity encourages student involvement with the san antonio community…during my senior year (1990-91) at incarnate word, i attended an orientation session for volunteers at the original san antonio aids foundation located on broadway…to my surprise, there were ten (10) students from trinity at the session…

  5. Trinity is an amazing institution. Their version of “core classes” allows students to choose what interests them instead of being forced to take the state-prescribed history and poli sci classes. I’m forever thankful for my years there earning both my bachelor’s and master’s. And as for the ridiculous comment above about the price tag… my daughter’s scholarship offer from Trinity actually made it the same price as UT and A&M. It is a top tier research university with Ivy League professors and small classes — definitely worth every penny.

  6. Wonderful article! I want to give a shout out to the Mirage yearbook (mirageyearbook.com), who supplied most of the historical photos posted. They are a wonderful group of students who strive to preserve history so that we can look back on it with admiration and warm-heartedness, just like we did in this article.

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