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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”