William Leonidas Mayo, founder and first president of East Texas Normal College (now East Texas State University), was born on November 3, 1861, in Prestonburg, Kentucky. He attended Prestonburg Seminary and Cedar Bluff Academy in Tazewell County, Virginia, before entering Central Normal College in Danville, Indiana, where he received his bachelor of arts degree in 1883. After graduating, he returned to Virginia to become head of Cedar Bluff Academy. He served there for nearly three years before resigning to spend a season cutting logs to earn money for additional study at Indiana University. The project ended in disaster as a flood washed away his entire season's work. Mayo left for Denver, Colorado, to take a position in the Denver public school system. When he arrived there and discovered that the school system was integrated, he resigned rather than teach Black and White children in the same classroom.
He subsequently traveled to Pecan Gap, Delta County, Texas, to visit relatives. When he arrived in 1886 he was poor in health and nearly destitute. After several weeks of rest he contracted to teach the public school at Pecan Gap. Three years later he became superintendent of the public school system in Cooper, county seat of Delta County. In 1889 he purchased the public school property and founded East Texas Normal College, a private teachers' college, in connection with the public schools. While in Cooper, Mayo married Etta Booth of Henderson on June 24, 1891. The couple had eight children, five of whom survived childhood.
When the college was destroyed by fire in 1894 Mayo moved the institution (East Texas State University) to its present site in Commerce. By 1917 the school had grown to an enrollment of almost 2,000 students. Mayo and his college were known primarily for the emphasis they placed on the education of rural schoolteachers. Seeking to ensure greater permanence for his institution, Mayo had begun to lobby for an appropriation from the Texas legislature to purchase the college from him and make it part of the state system. On March 14, 1917, he received word in Commerce that the House of Representatives had passed the bill that appropriated funds for the purchase of the school. While walking back to the college from the telegraph office, he suffered a heart attack. He was taken to the administration building, where he died a few minutes later.
East Texas State University was renamed Texas A&M University-Commerce in September of 1996 prior to entering the Texas A&M system. The university is the fourth oldest state institution of higher education and the alma mater of Sam Rayburn, the longest serving Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
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James Marcus Bledsoe, A History of Mayo and His College (Commerce, Texas: Nelson, 1946).
Founders and Pioneers
University Presidents and School Administrators
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Cecil Harper, Jr.,
“Mayo, William Leonidas,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed May 20, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
Most Recent Revision Date:
December 2, 2020