Vision has been defined as “the act or power of imagination” or an “unusual discernment or foresight”. Imagine where this region of Texas would be today if visionaries had not seen the need for West Texas State Normal College in 1910, Amarillo College in 1929 or Texas Tech University’s School of Pharmacy in 1993.
Moreover, envision how many fewer students would have had the opportunity for higher education if individuals and organizations had not made financial assistance available. Opportunity Plan, Inc. (OPI), based in Canyon, has been providing that assistance since 1954, most recently to the tune of more than $1 million for students in the last academic year.
Even prior to 1954 the vision for OPI was taking shape. While serving as executive secretary of the WT Ex-Students Association, and having provided loans to students from his own pocket, Milton A. "Buff" Morris conceived a concept to assist students with college expenses. In those days, the term financial aid did not exist, not to mention programs such as Pell grants and federal loans.
Mr. Morris realized alumni and friends of the college were willing to assist students, but those donors wanted students to help themselves as well. Believing that what most students needed was a hand up and not a hand out, he also knew that if he loaned the money to students instead of giving it to them in the form of a scholarship, he could continue helping students in the future when the money was paid back. From these ideas, Mr. Morris’ vision for OPI became a reality.
Business people and advocates of education throughout the region got on board with Mr. Morris' plan. Original incorporators included Harvey W. Allen of Amarillo, president; Dorothy Neblett Carruth of Canyon, vice president; Vernon H. Harman of Happy, secretary/treasurer; E.W. "Bill" Boedeker of Levelland, Ivan D. Boxwell and W.H. Brian of Amarillo, Helen Burnett of Dumas, Hudson Davis and Bobby G. Dawson of Borger, Arthur Glover of Amarillo, Carl Lossen of Kress, Mr. Morris of Canyon, and Zell SoRelle and Roy R. Whittenburg of Amarillo.
OPI’s first contribution of $500 was made by Dr. A.E. "Gene" Quest of Lubbock, a friend Mr. Morris knew as an alumnus of WT as well as through their association with Lions Club International. That donation, combined with funds provided by countless donors since, has assisted close to 10,000 students with loan funds borrowed from OPI.
Early support also came from businesses and organizations around the area. Brown Graham & Company Certified Public Accountants (Gene Glazener primarily) provided audit services free of charge for many years. The Twentieth Century Cotillion Study Club of Pampa looked to “adopt a worthwhile project for the entire Panhandle area” when they began a loan fund in 1961 that still provides support to students today. And towns throughout the Panhandle and South Plains created funds to assist students from those communities with contributions coming from individual community members, civic organizations and local fund raising events.
Others around the state soon took note of the assistance OPI was providing. Texas Governor John Connally introduced Mr. Morris’ concept to state lawmakers in January 1965, calling the program, “one of the finest student loan programs that has ever come to my attention” and recommending that a similar program be incorporated into a state-wide platform. In November of that year, the Texas Opportunity Plan was established by Texas voters.
Donna Warrick, a retired educator who now lives in Canyon, was the first student to receive assistance from the Texas Opportunity Plan. Donna currently serves on OPI’s Board of Directors, and was, according to the 1967 press release from the Texas College and University System Coordinating Board, “like many other college students of the era. Both her parents worked and were able to contribute to their daughter’s college education with a portion coming from Donna’s part-time college employment and the remainder coming from a loan from the Texas Opportunity Plan.” The Texas Opportunity Plan eventually became known as the Hinson Hazlewood Act, named for the sponsors of the legislation—Senator Grady Hazlewood of Amarillo, a long-time friend to Mr. Morris, and Representative George Hinson of Mineola.
It soon became evident that many of the students receiving funds from OPI wanted to continue their educations beyond a bachelor's degree, giving OPI the chance to assist students at institutions besides West Texas State University. When Mr. Morris retired from WTSU in 1974 (by this time serving as the first director of the Student Financial Aid Office), he began further expanding the OPI program, raising money for a new building and moving into the organization's headquarters where they are still located today at 504 24th Street in Canyon.
As the program grew, it soon became evident to Mr. Morris that assistance was needed to balance working with students, keeping appropriate records and raising additional funds. His daughter, Cathryn, was teaching school in San Angelo where she had met her husband Carroll and had begun raising a family.
“My dad called me one day and said he needed a little help and could I come help him,” Cathryn Morris Wright said. “I told him I had a family and my husband had a job; we couldn’t just up and move back to the Panhandle. In short order, he called me and told me he’d found Carroll a job at TSTC (Texas State Technical College, then operating a campus in Amarillo) so I could come to work at OPI.”
That was more than 30 years ago, and Cathryn is still involved with OPI. When her father passed away in 1993, already serving as executive vice president, the board of directors elected her president, the position she holds today.
Beginning in the late 1970s, mostly at the request of donors who were seeing the cost of higher education continue to grow, OPI began managing scholarship funds. The scholarship division has become a significant portion of the OPI program with approximately 175 funds under OPI's management. During the 2013-2014 academic year, more than $850,000 was awarded in scholarships to students attending local institutions like Amarillo College and WTAMU but also higher education institutions as far away as Florida and Hawaii.
In 1983, Mr. Morris and Clifford Baker, one of the first students assisted by OPI, envisioned the concept of the Panhandle-Plains Higher Education Authority (PPHEA). Because banks were not interested in providing and servicing loans to such a high risk population as students, a need existed for a secondary market to purchase those loans and take the risk off the bank. PPHEA was organized under OPI, and the Guaranteed Student Loan Division was created to provide student-loan related services for those loans purchased by PPHEA. That relationship continued until 1999 when the servicing agency was purchased from OPI to create the Panhandle-Plains Student Loan and Management Corporation with Mr. Baker as its president.
That change did not, however, remove OPI from the student loan business as contributions are still being used today for students to borrow at no interest and with no payments while they are full-time students. Today, OPI has 106 loan funds with more than $5.5 million available for student loans.
In September 2007, OPI alum M. Keith Brown joined OPI as executive director. His vision is for OPI to be the number one source for financial aid education and funds for students in the region. With the help of continued supporters, OPI looks forward to a bright future continuing to connect students with those who want to help.
“OPI has a phenomenal history of assisting students, and I know first-hand how critical that assistance is,” he said. “I am honored to be carrying on a legacy and look forward to continue meeting the challenges students face in paying for post-secondary education.”
Societal needs change and the cost of meeting those needs grows. The vision for providing higher education opportunities for people in the Panhandle and South Plains regions of Texas has not changed and has been consistent with this region’s success for more than a century. Opportunity Plan, Inc. has been a continual factor in meeting those needs for 60 years, growing from that initial contribution of $500 to becoming a $30 million organization. OPI will continue providing the assistance to meet those changing educational needs for years to come.