Heber L. McAlister helped shape greatness on the battlefield and in the classroom. He served as both president of what is now the University of Central Arkansas in Conway and as adjutant general for the Arkansas National Guard. As both a solider and a scholar, he left an important legacy for Arkansas.
McAlister was born in Mississippi in 1882. He was one of three children born to his father, an Alabama native, attorney, and farmer, and devoted mother. After finishing school, McAlister worked as a farm laborer for several years.
He eventually enrolled at Mississippi College to get an education and a chance at a good career, graduating in 1906. Not long after gaining his masters degree from Mississippi College in 1909, he took a teaching job in Arkadelphia. Two years later, he joined the Arkansas National Guard and gained his commission as lieutenant in June 1911, leading Company C of the First Arkansas Infantry. Once the United States entered World War I, McAlister was assigned to the staff of Gen. John J. Pershing, the commander of American forces in Europe.
In mid-1919, McAlister was hired to teach agriculture, or what was called extention, for the Arkansas State Teachers College in Conway (what is now the University of Central Arkansas). He continued with his service, rising to colonel and commander of the 153rd Infantry by 1922. A popular figure on campus, students began referring to him as “the colonel” in honor of his National Guard promotions. For many years, McAlister went to schools across Arkansas to talk with young students about the importance of patriotism.
In late 1922, he was appointed adjutant general of the Arkansas National Guard, earning promotion to general before stepping down in 1925. In 1930, Burr Torreyson, who had been president of the teachers college since 1917, retired, citing ill health. College trustees saw McAlister as the natural choice as successor and named him president of the college.
The Great Depression put an immense strain on many colleges. ASTC was no different. The college had just completed a library in 1930, but McAlister thought further ahead.
Federal funding for colleges became available through New Deal programs starting in 1933. McAlister saw a huge opportunity for the college. He applied for several grants and began an impressive new building program for the college. In 1934, a new women’s dormitory was completed, named McAlister Hall in his honor. Wingo Hall was completed in 1935 as apartments for married students and single women, rented from the college. A permanent on-campus presidential house was completed in 1936. Three years later, a new auditorium was added to the administration building. By the end of the decade, enrollment had increased.
Duty called again with World War II. College trustees did not want the war to disrupt McAlister’s service to the college and offered him a 12-month leave of absence. McAlister knew it was going to be a long war and did not want to leave the college in suspense. Instead, he reluctantly resigned in order to devote his full attention to the war. He spent most of the war in Alaska, defending the territory from Japanese incursions. As the war neared its end in 1945, he was again appointed adjutant general of the Arkansas National Guard, a position he held until 1949.
In 1950, his successor, Gen. Earl Ricks, received a promotion that left the position vacant. As the Korean War had just started, McAlister was called back in order to keep an experienced hand in charge. This would be the third war for McAlister. And for the third time, he was tapped to lead the Arkansas National Guard, a milestone unmatched by any other figure in state history. He coordinated with the army as Arkansas guard troops traveled to and from the fighting in Korea. He stepped down from his position as head of the Arkansas National Guard in 1951, retiring from a distinguished 40-year career in the service and was replaced by Gen. John G. Morris. McAlister’s nearly nine years as adjutant is the third longest in state history.
He lived the remainder of his years quietly with his wife of more than four decades. McAlister died at the age of 74 in 1956. His campus namesake was transformed into a classroom building by the 1960s, which houses the Honors College and art and family and consumer sciences department. McAlister Hall is now on the National Register of Historic Places. The office of the Adjutant General for the National Guard, affectionately called “the hill” by guard members is also now called “Fort McAlister” in his honor.
He spent his career teaching and building a place where students could create, discuss ideas, and explore controversial topics. And he spent decades defending the ideas that allowed American colleges to exist. In the end, he built something worth fighting for.