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Thomas Watson Roach, for twenty-one years president of Kansas Wesleyan Business College, and a former president of Kansas Wesleyan University at Salina, had not merely found but had made for himself a distinctive place in educational history of the Sunflower State. He came to Kansas more than forty years ago. His name is closely associated with several progressive movements in Kansas educational affairs. He was the pioneer worker for the consolidation of country school districts. He also did the first practical work toward procuring uniformity of text books throughout the state.
But even more important than all this he will be longest remembered for the impress he had made upon the personal character of thousands of young people in Kansas, many of whom are now successful and prosperous and who look upon Professor Roach as one of the most important influences in the moulding of their destinies.
He represents old American stock. One of his ancestors, Israel Potts, served with distinction in the Revolutionary war. Mr. Roach was born in Ross Township of Jefferson County, Ohio, November 8, 1847. His parents were James Potts and Martha (Wright) Roach. His early boyhood was spent in a period when public schools were just being introduced. The district schools of his native county gave him the foundation of his education, and in 1866 he was teaching his first country school. His higher education was acquired in Mount Union College at Alliance, Ohio, where he was graduated Bachelor of Science in 1870. His class included a number of men who subsequently won distinction, one of whom was Lyman C. Humphrey, afterward governor of Kansas, and also Philander C. Knox, one of Pennsylvania’s foremost lawyers and public leaders, and who held cabinet positions under the administrations of both Roosevelt and Taft.
It was about a year after his graduation from college when Professor Roach arrived in Kansas, in March, 1871, and began his duties as superintendent of schools of Marysville. Later he became a teacher in the schools of Brown County, and in 1873 bought some land at Padonia in that county and for a time was both a farmer and teacher. From 1881 to 1885 he was city superintendent of the schools of Clyde.
The larger influence usually exerted on educational movements was particularly noticeable after he was elected in 1885 to the office of county superintendent of schools for Cloud County. He was re-elected to that office in 1887. As county superintendent he introduced the grading of the common schools, and that was the pioneer attempt to make that important reform in Kansas. It was while county superintendent also that he secured the adoption of uniform text books by three counties, and thus made a beginning and afforded a vision of what had since been accomplished by the law requiring state wide uniformity of text books in all grades. He was the first county superintendent in Kansas who secured the consolidation or union of several school districts into one, and in that movement of school centralization he was a pioneer of pioneers, since the broader benefits and results of such a policy have become generally apparent in this and other states only during the present century.
Several bills which he was influential in having passed through the Legislature in 1887 should also be noticed as a large part of his good work accomplished in behalf of Kansas schools. One of these bills increased the salaries of county superintendents of schools, and thus made it possible for more competent men to seek such positions. Mr. Roach was also originator of the plan for the regular annual meeting of county superintendents and for the annual meeting of the county school board. It should be noticed that after the close of Mr. Roach’s first term as county superintendent of Cloud County he was renominated by acclamation without opposition.
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In 1890 he left Kansas and organized at Denison, Texas, the National Business College, of which he became superintendent and president. In that city of Northern Texas was erected one of the best arranged and best equipped buildings ever devoted to a school of the kind, and all under his personal supervision. The school building cost $105,000. Selling his interests and resigning his position as president of the college, Mr. Roach in the fall of 1891 accepted the offer to establish a business college department for the Kansas Wesleyan University at Salina. He was immediately put in charge of the school with the title of general superintendent, and in 1903 he was also elected president of the university proper. He held the two positions until 1908, when the dual burden became too heavy and he resigned as president of the university.
Not only did Professor Roach serve five years as president of the university without salary, but he also contributed from his personal means nearly $1,000 each year to the support and upbuilding of the institution. Kansas is properly proud of its Wesleyan University, and President Roach’s administration marks a high tide in its constructive progress. In that time a ladies’ dormitory was built, valued at $30,000, an indebtedness of $20,000 on the original building was paid off, an athletic field and grounds for the campus were purchased, and expensive changes and improvements were made on the old college hall. It was through the personal efforts of Mr. Roach that Andrew Carnegie gave a donation of $25,000 for a Science Hall. He also secured $25,000 for a permanent endowment fund. With all this work to his credit, and in order to contribute something toward insuring the continuance of the prosperity and progress which he had instituted, President Roach on resigning his office presented the trustees with a new residence, valued at $7,500, as a home for the presidents of the university.
Since 1908 Mr. Roach had given his entire time and attention to the management of the Kansas Wesleyan Business College. This is one of the foremost schools of its kind not alone in Kansas but anywhere in the country.
A well deserved tribute to Mr. Roach as an educator and citizen of Salina is found in the following estimate taken from another source:
“As an educator Professor Roach ranks among the first in the state. He had been a leader, as well as a teacher, possesses executive ability of a high order, and had brought the administrative policy of his schools up to the point of highest efficiency. Probably no teacher had left upon so large a per cent of the youth of Kansas such an impress for right living, industry and usefulness, as had Professor Roach. This fact is attested by the great number of men and women who have made success since attending his schools. He was considered by the state superintendent of Kansas and his co-workers as the ablest and most aggressive county superintendent the state ever had. While he was superintendent he had few superiors as an organizer. For his work as an educator he was made a life member of the National Educational Association, and had had several degrees of honor conferred upon him, the last being the Doctor’s degree conferred by the Iowa Wesleyan University. Professor Roach had never been an ‘ambitious’ man. In all the positions he had held, in the forty years of his Kansas life, he never applied for a position or sought for an office. His official positions have not been remunerative ones and were always thrust upon him. He accepted such places of trust as a matter of duty. He had led a strenuous life, working with the view of accomplishing something and doing some good. Many waste places have been transformed by his energy into beautiful farms or school grounds, making them models for the neighborhood. Many a careless or indifferent person had changed through Professor Roach’s efforts into a thoughtful, careful man or woman.”
As one of the men whose careers and personalities are objects of general interest, Professor Roach’s name is found in “Who is Who in America.” He had been a resident of Salina a quarter of a century, and throughout that time had given liberally of his own time and means and had co-operated with other citizens in making this not only an important educational center but also a splendid place to live in and as a business town. For more than sixteen years he had been vice president of the Planters State Bank, had served as president or director of several corporations organized in Salina, and though, contrary to the general opinion that an educator is always a poor man, Mr. Roach had been decidedly successful in business. He is the owner of several business blocks in the city, also the Business College Building and the Roach Building, and his prosperity had enabled him to extend financial assistance to the university and to other enterprises closely connected with Salina’s progress and welfare.
As previously noted, he had never been looking for the honors of office. The City of Salina took one of its most pronounced steps toward progressive achievement when the citizens elected him mayor in 1900. He was elected on the caucus prohibition ticket, though his normal political affiliations are as a republican. At that time the council and other city officials were opposed to the strict enforcement of the prohibitory law. Nevertheless, Mr. Roach, taking a firm and decided stand, succeeded in driving the gamblers and many of the joints out of the city. His administration was equally beneficial in the solving of constructive and financial problems. As mayor he lent the city’s aid to the building of the vitrified brick plant, in which brick were manufactured for paving about fifty miles of sidewalk. In this way he delivered a severe blow at the brick trust which previously had made it almost impossible for the city to build other than wooden sidewalks. Through his influence the city also bought for a few hundred dollars some real estate to be held for future city buildings, and later this tract proved to be worth thousands as against the original cost of only hundreds of dollars. Mayor Roach also brought about the passage of the ordinance for installing a splendid sewer system. Salina now had a plant for general sewerage equal to any found in a city of this size in Kansas. With all these improvements, Mr. Roach was the first and only mayor of Salina who ever reduced the bonded debt of the city from a surplus of the general funds.
Much of his good work as a live and public spirited citizen had been accomplished through the medium of the Salina Commercial Club, of which he is an enthusiastic member. Mr. Roach is a Knight Templar and Scottish Rite Mason, and is a prominent Methodist, having served for many years as a trustee of the First Methodist Church of Salina and was the lay delegate to the general conference in Los Angeles in 1904.
Side by side and hand in hand with him in nearly all his work as an educator since he came to Kansas had stood Mrs. Roach. They were married April 11, 1874. Her maiden name was Angelina Olevia Martin, a daughter of Evi Martin, of Fairfield County, Ohio. Mrs. Roach had been the close associate of her husband in all his educational work and business affairs, and is also active in the Eastern Star, in the church societies and in both the social and charitable affairs at Salina. Since the founding of the Kansas Wesleyan Business College she had been looked upon as the “Good Mother” of that institution. The young women students have had in her a constant guide and protectress in matters of health, habits and bodily comforts, and also in that spiritual companionship which exists between the mother and the child. It is said that both the young men and women always remember her no matter how long separated they may be from the school in point of time or distance, and the words “With kind regards to Mrs. Roach” end many a letter to the school.