The University of Texas at El Paso turns 100 years old in 2014 and will mark the occasion with an epic celebration.
Keith Erekson’s job is to make sure the party goes off without a hitch. Although wrapping a century of history into a yearlong celebration is daunting, he may be the perfect person to get people excited about the university’s history.
Erekson’s an assistant professor of history at UTEP, but he isn’t strictly interested in history; he studies what makes people passionate about history and helps teachers teach history in a more interesting way.
Perhaps it stems from having had bad history teachers in high school, but Erekson, 36, began his career in the automotive industry in Brazil. He went to the South American country as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In the 1990s, he worked for Johnson Controls in Brazil, building seats for GM, Ford and Toyota, but left in search of purpose.
“It was boom times, but I had a moment – I actually remember the day – when I woke up and I thought, ‘You know, there are 1,237 more seats in the world because of me. Who cares?’” Erekson says.
So he decided to try history. He earned a master’s degree in history from Brigham Young University, loved it and went on to earn a doctorate in history from Indiana University.
Erekson, who is married with four daughters, joined the UTEP faculty in 2008 and is the founder and director of the university’s Center for History Teaching and Learning.
In 2011, he received the University of Texas System Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award.
Erekson is the author of “Everybody’s History: Indiana’s Lincoln Inquiry and the Quest to Reclaim a President’s Past,” and editor of “Politics and the History Curriculum: The Struggle over Standards in Texas and the Nation.”
The use of 100 in the Centennial Celebration would make most anybody who is obsessive compulsive comfortable. For instance, the 2014 Commission, launched two years ago to plan the celebration, is comprised of exactly 100 members and planners hope 100,000 people will visit the university during its month long “Open House” in April 2014.
Erekson sat down with El Paso Inc. and talked about why the big celebration is so personal to so many people, what Abraham Lincoln and Pancho Villa have in common, and what he sees in UTEP’s future.
Q: What is your vision for the UTEP Centennial Celebration?
I have a fun job, planning a party – a celebration. Our vision is really simple. We want to involve everybody in celebrating UTEP’s 100th anniversary. You’re only 100 once, so we want to make this a special occasion. That’s the short version.
We are working on events, publications, keepsakes and outreach initiatives. We are designing marketing strategies, centennial clothing and gear. We want to get the message out everywhere, and we want to invite everybody to participate.
Two years ago, Dr. Diana Natalicio appointed a 100-member commission, the 2014 Commission, to plan the celebration. They are alumni, community members, boosters, supporters and key people within the university – people who know UTEP, know its mission and understand its relationship with the community. I came in specifically to oversee the implementation side.
Q: How did you get that job?
That’s an interesting question. I’m a history professor, but I write about popular interest in history. I’m really interested in why people are interested in history…
Q: Sounds rather meta.
Yeah, exactly. It’s the history of people being interested in history. By studying why people are interested in history, I can help teachers teach in a way that engages students’ interest.
Q: How did you get interested in studying why other people are interested in history?
I actually started out in the automotive industry. I worked for Johnson Controls in Brazil in the 1990s. We were building seats for GM, Ford and Toyota.
It was boom times, but I had a moment – I actually remember the day – when I woke up and I thought, “You know, there are 1,237 more seats in the world because of me. Who cares?”
So, long story short, I got a master’s degree in history to try it out. Turned out I liked it, so I went on to get my doctoral degree. While I was in Indiana and the Midwest, I got interested in peoples’ fascination with Abraham Lincoln because he was everywhere.
I also became fascinated about the Texas social studies war we had here over the curriculum in 2009 and 2010. What fascinated me about that was how intense people got about it; I mean there were death threats. People would load up buses in Midland and drive down to Austin to testify.
Q: Why do some people get so passionate about certain figures and events in history? What are the common factors?
Part of it is personal. If it’s about you, or your town or your ancestors, that becomes important. With people passionate about Abraham Lincoln, it’s, “my ancestors were Lincoln’s neighbors,” or “Lincoln slept here.”
Q: Something like Pancho Villa here? Seems like he was everywhere in El Paso.
Yeah, you’re exactly right. His finger’s for sale. Everybody’s grandfather worked with Pancho Villa. When that personal, family, local, community connection is involved, people get interested.
There is also a sense of community among people who get involved; it is a social activity. You don’t just go out all by yourself and say, “I’m going to study Abraham Lincoln” or “I’m going to fight the curriculum standards all by myself.”
It becomes a, “I’m going to join a Lincoln association” or “I am going to get a bus full of people in Midland and drive to Austin.”
That’s one of the things that make the UTEP centennial exciting to me. This is a very personal story. We are dealing with people who graduated from here, whose lives have been transformed here and that is exciting. It’s also social. It’s a celebration, and it is our goal to get as many people involved as possible.
Q: With a 100-person commission generating ideas, I imagine there were a lot of them.
We had lots and lots of ideas and the question became: How do we put those ideas together?
One of the ideas that came out of the commission is you can’t just drop a birthday party on everybody; we need to start warming people up.
About a week ago, we celebrated UTEP’s 98th birthday with a screening of the movie “Glory Road.” We had hotdogs, we had a free-throw contest, the men’s and woman’s basketball teams were there as well as Paydirt Pete and the cheerleaders. We are putting together a series of ring tones for the centennial, and the first one was available at the event by scanning a QR code.
In 2014, we will be celebrating with events all year long. We realized quickly that you can’t hold one event and get all 20,000 students and all 100,000 alumni and all the community together on one day.
But the big party is Sept. 23, 2014, which was the first day of class 100 years ago.
Q: What is going to happen on the big day?
We want to be out in the community on our birthday, making connections. For example, our students making connections with their elementary school or middle school – the things that helped get them here.
Then we want to come to campus and, of course, have a big celebration. We are looking at fireworks, and food and music.
Throughout 2014 there are going to be all sorts of events and we are going at it two ways. First, we want to infuse the centennial into existing events, building on traditions and expanding traditions. We will be talking about the centennial and doing special commemorative things at football games, commencement and all these other events.
We are also going to have a contest for student organizations. They will research their organizations, conduct interviews and create a little film. We will then hold a film festival. It will be kind of American Idol-style with people voting and all that.
We are also planning new events. We want the entire month of April in 2014 to be an open house. It was in April 100 years ago that the chamber of commerce came out and said we have $50,000 to start a university. There will be a visitor’s center on campus with a museum exhibit. There are going to be walking tours.
We are involved in a construction project transforming the center of campus here. The Memorial Triangle and that big parking lot will be replaced by a big grassy oval.
An original production, Opera Bhutan, will be performed there September of 2014. The directors are from Italy and students will perform alongside performers from the Royal Academy of Performing Arts in Bhutan. They are blending Western opera with Eastern musical storytelling; it’s the first time this has ever been done in the history of the world. We are aiming for international awareness.
Q: How many people do you hope come for the centennial?
In the month of April, when we have the open house, our goal will be to get 100,000 people to come onto campus – symbolic of the 100th anniversary. I haven’t added it all up for all the events.
Q: What is the budget for all of this?
That’s a great question. We are working on it. The funding is coming from private donations. We are not doing these events alone. For example, El Paso Opera is making Opera Bhutan one of its season performances in 2014. We are looking for partnerships that really highlight the partnerships we’ve had for a century.
Q: What is the next event?
The next big event is in April. We are going to visit with the legislature and thank them for passing the bill that enabled the creation of the school, and in the evening we will bring alumni together. Paydirt Pete will be there.
Next year at this time, on the 99th birthday, we will start a countdown and will have a larger media campaign.
Q: Tell me a bit about what you have learned about UTEP’s history. What makes UTEP history interesting?
The school really began with a narrow focus to train people to be mining engineers; we had 27 students.
This was boom time. The railroad had come through here in the Southwest, so mining lands were now close to railroad lines. They built the smelter that was later known as Asarco and there were dozens of spin-offs. It was kind of like Silicon Valley today. I mean you have the big companies like Google, but you also have dozens of spin-offs.
It wasn’t like the gold rush of 1849, but it was a big boom. Between the railroad and the smelter, which was the second largest in the world, El Paso was a big place. This is the early 20th century so we’re building cities all over, but you can’t build cities without copper and lead. They got it from the region.
So we have this environment where there is money, there is industry and the next logical thing was building a university.
The state approved the project but here is the catch – and this really becomes the key to UTEP’s history – the state would maintain the school if El Paso would put up the money for it.
There is a bit of a parallel to today. We’ve got a lot of people working together to try to improve the city and that’s what they had to do in 1914. So they raised $50,000, bought a struggling military institute and in the fall they opened this mining school.
A university is so big it’s not like there is one single turning point, there are several moments when things come together. Two years in, the original campus burned, so they moved up here. By the end of the 1920s they had added more subjects, particularly teacher training.
Another dramatic change began in the 1960s when the college’s leadership laid out a vision for the school to become a regional university. They wanted national recognition.
Enrollment rose from 5,000 to 15,000 less than 20 years later. They got the Sun Bowl stadium built and negotiated the contract with CBS that is still in place. They hired a guy named Don Haskins and the rest of that story is history.
The 1980s saw the beginning of another one of those moments. Funding for higher ed was being cut. We had a couple of recessions. So the university starts looking around at research grants and it became a new focus – not just to get the $1-million grant but also to get the $10-million grant. There was a push to increase doctoral programs and research programs.
In the last three or four years, we’ve spent $270 million building some of the world’s finest research facilities. Our research is being recognized and attracting world-renowned faculty members.
Q: There is a lot of history created in a century. How do you convey it all in one celebration?
There are probably two big messages I’d like to get across. One is the transformations. UTEP, as an institution, has transformed, and, in the process, has transformed people’s lives.
The second message is the influence of the community. The more I have studied UTEP’s history the more I have realized you can’t understand UTEP without knowing what the community did for it.
Q: What’s the latest on the Centennial Campaign, the university’s effort to raise $200 million by the 100th anniversary in 2014?
They announced the campaign in 2010 and they’re really quite close. We hope to be announcing that the campaign has met its goal in 2014.
Q: Given your understanding of the history of the school and its trajectory, could you play the futurist for a moment and guess what might be next for the university?
Historians can’t even agree on what did happen in the past so, to move me into the future, I am way out of my league.
For the 50th anniversary, they did invite somebody in who talked about what would happen by 2014. It’s a wonderful little speech. The thing he got wrong is he predicted we would have 40,000 students here – we just set a record with 22,700 or so attending this fall – but he did predict the increase in research, which was pretty cool.
One of the things I do see in the future, and I’m cheating a bit because I’ve already seen it in the past, is families making attending UTEP a tradition. We have lots of students who are first generation college students, but their children are going to start coming.
We have an oral history program underway, it’s our Centennial Story Project, and one of the really fascinating things that is coming out of these stories is people will say, “Oh yeah, I’m the first generation to go to UTEP, but my cousin came and my brother and sister came here.”
One person who we interviewed recently named 12 people all in her generation who had come to UTEP and she said she wanted to come here to be like them.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.