Chris Huckabee returns to campus to address students and faculty at the Huckabee College of Architecture lecture series.
A renovation couldn't come soon enough for the building.
Texas Tech University's Huckabee College of Architecture's (HCOA) gallery was at standing room only during Monday's highly anticipated lecture by Chris Huckabee, philanthropist and alumnus. The 200 chairs set out for the lecture filled quickly, leaving students standing shoulder –to shoulder around the sides of the room.
Huckabee held the attention of every attendee, though, even those in the back.
“This isn't going to be like other lectures you usually have,” Huckabee announced from the start.
Huckabee introduced students to his family (the namesake of their college), shared his vision for the future and talked about the fusion of architecture and leadership.
Chris' father, Tommie J. Huckabee, enrolled at Texas Tech University in the 1950s as an architecture student. Tommie was a first-generation student and worked hard to put himself through school. Unfortunately, there was not much financial support at the time and after one year, Tommie ran out of money.
Tommie went to a bank in Lubbock and inquired about a loan.
“If you're willing to transfer to business, we'll give you a loan,” the banker said. “We don't think there's any future in architecture.”
The shock from students was audible. Everyone grinned over how inaccurate the banker's prediction was.
Today, there are almost 900 students who call the HCOA home.
“The world has a ton of problems that need solving,” Chris said. “Architects are uniquely equipped to solve those problems.”
The annual lecture series usually focuses on pedagogy and technique. Huckabee's focus was a bit different.
“Every one of you in this room is a leader,” he said.
If Huckabee and his father didn't believe that – their name wouldn't be on the building. When Chris went to his father to tell him he wanted to put his name on the architecture building, Tommie adamantly said no.
Tommie is a simple man.
He eats all his meals at home. He lives in the same small town. He resides in the same house where he raised his children.
Chris worked on persuading his dad, and eventually Tommie asked, “What will this do for students?”
After Tommie was turned down by the banker all those years ago, he had to drop out of Texas Tech. There simply wasn't money. He apprenticed with an architecture firm for many years until he acquired the experience needed to pass his registration exam.
Tommie knows firsthand how important access to education is.
Chris told his father the gift to the college would not only help renovate the building and add lecture spaces and labs, but it also would establish scholarships for first-generation students.
Tommie was sold.
“That's the legacy of the name on your building,” Chris told students. “He watches every one of your commencement ceremonies online. He is so proud of you all.”
Chris went on to fulfill the dream his father had. He graduated from Texas Tech in 1991 with a bachelor's degree in architecture and business, a terminal five-year degree. Though the road getting there was rocky with a change of majors and a few failed courses, Chris has gone on to be one of the most successful graduates the college has ever produced.
Chris is the chief executive officer of MOREgroup, a family of architecture, design and engineering brands. He has served as chairman of the Board of Regents for the Texas Tech University System; he serves as chair emeritus of the Board of the North Texas Community Foundation and also established the Huckabee Community Excellence Fund, which supports organizations in education, health, community programs and arts and cultural affairs.
This only scratches the surface.
When the West Fertilizer Plant exploded in the small rural town of West, Texas, in April 2013, Chris and his team were on the ground four hours later.
“It was one of the most devastating things I've ever seen,” Chris told students. “Their schools and many of their homes were leveled.”
Chris knew if students didn't have a school to return to by fall, the community would be at risk of dissolving. Six weeks later, Huckabee had built temporary facilities for students and rolled out a new football field so the first game of the season could be played.
One of the staff members in the lecture listened intently. Senior Academic Adviser Amy Peterman had friends in West when the tragedy struck. She thanked Chris for what his firm had done.
“That's the kind of change our students can make,” Peterman said, renewed in her purpose.
Chris then showed an all-too-familiar picture.
It was the sign in front of Robb Elementary School, covered in flowers and stuffed animals. Not long after the horrific school shooting in Uvalde that claimed 21 lives on May 24, 2022, Chris got a call.
The client asked, “How do you put children back inside Robb Elementary?”
Chris' answer: “You don't.”
Chris insisted a new school had to be built. And after two phone calls, he secured more than $60 million to do it.
“I share this not to harp on myself or our company but to demonstrate the impact you can have as an architect and as a leader,” Chris said.
The future of the industry is bright, and the challenges ahead are big. The Huckabee family has paid it forward in both finance and skill. As they approach the next season of life, their biggest investment is the education of the next generation.
“It matters that you're here and it matters that you have access to an education,” Chris told students.
These words hit home for fourth-year student Thaila Leyba.
Leyba is a first-generation student earning a dual degree in architecture and civil engineering.
“It's nice to know you're thought of,” she said. “After scholarships, the conversation dies off around first-gen experiences.”
Leyba was moved by Tommie's story and the generosity ensuring her story turns out differently. Leyba and her classmate, Susana Brinez, also a fourth-year student, are working on the building's renovation in their studio class. The vision cast by Chris left students buzzing over the possibilities of the next few years.
It is a vision that will be renewed next year. Chris plans to visit with students at least once a year as part of his investment in the college.
“It's important to have regular connection,” he said.
The family doesn't want the Huckabee name to be an abstract concept.
If the few minutes after the lecture were any indication, it won't be.
Chris visited with students for an hour, deep in thoughtful conversation, at other times laughing along with a student's joke. He even welcomed selfies.
And while Tommie couldn't be at the lecture, his photograph was on the screen.
A picture of a hardworking, West Texas man in overalls. Rich in determination, lacking in resources, resolute in helping students finish the dream he started.
About the Lecture Series
This year's lecture series is titled, “Publicness” and leans heavily on guest lecturers working in fulltime practice and those who own their own firms. Publicness refers to the power of architecture and design to shape out built environment for the benefit of society at large. It celebrates conditions of interaction, adaptability, collaboration, spontaneity and openness.
The Texas Tech Huckabee College of Architecture Lecture Series aims to create and explore a discourse on topics ranging from the built environment, creative and innovative scholarship, to current issues taking place in our society. The series features lectures from architects, theorists, scholars and educators exploring, expanding and uncovering new ground for the discipline.
For more information, visit the series' website.