SFA Story: The History of Stephen F. Austin State University

The Boynton Administration: 1948-58

Founding President Birdwell Dies: Colleagues remember Birdwell

Alton Birdwell
Alton Birdwell

On October 25, 1954, Dr. A. W. Birdwell died in his home on Davis Street; he was 84. Only recently back from a visit to his daughter’s home in Indiana, the day before his death, Dr. Birdwell had even taught his Sunday school class as he had done since the college opened in 1923. His funeral was held at the First Baptist Church. A memorial service on campus was delayed, by family wishes, until the dedication of the Birdwell Building expected sometime in 1955.

Birdwell had retired as president in 1942, but he had maintained an active schedule of civic and college speaking engagements, and even taught classes. The Board gave him the title of President Emeritus. Originally, he had a salary of $3,000, probably awarded to him by Dr. Boynton because of his work in teaching history classes, but in some kind of controversy and misunderstanding, the Board revoked the salary in 1945 and refused to let Boynton compensate Birdwell for his post-retirement work for SFA. While it is true that Birdwell had not wanted to retire at age seventy, the paltry nature of his retirement and this stinginess on the part of the Board after his long service must have left him with hard feelings. There is no real evidence, however, about his reactions; he never complained openly to anyone that recorded it.

As mentioned earlier in the series, Birdwell’s retirement had came at an awkward moment for tributes. He did have a retirement banquet, but the war simply overshadowed his personal affairs in his own mind and in the minds of others. The celebrations at Homecoming in 1952 and with the Birdwell Scholarship Fund in 1953, discussed elsewhere in this issue, were timely and touching to the old man. He was genuinely moved by the flood of letters and tributes and the money for the scholarship fund. He felt the scholarship gave him “at least a little bit of immortality.”

Colleagues remember

Shortly after Birdwell’s death, four of SFA’s original faculty members talked about the president. W. F. Garner, head of the History Department, told that he and Birdwell had been friends since World War I and the days of the teacher institutes before there was an SFA. “During the first year of the school,” Garner continued, “Dr. Birdwell taught two courses of history. After the first year, he taught one course a term until about five years before he retired.” Garner remembered that Birdwell always wanted his teachers to set a good example and wanted them to go back to school on a regular basis, even though they might have a terminal degree. “Learning from a running fountain is much better than from a stagnant pool,” said Garner, “was one of his favorite expressions.”

On many occasions, Garner drove Birdwell when he went on speaking engagements. Birdwell would then tell Garner and his audiences “that he could make a better speech if he had a full professor as chauffeur.” Garner said Birdwell was “never too busy to make a speech of any kind to anygroup.”

Lois Foster Blount, the first faculty member hired by Birdwell, said she had known him since childhood. Her mother had actually even recommended Birdwell to take her job when she gave up teaching at San Marcos. Mrs. Blount continued:

“As president, he always made us feel the job you were doing was most important. ... When a person had any difficulty, he was always ready to give encouragement. Any faculty member or student who went into his office and talked with him always came out feeling better. Perhaps it was his inspiring quotations from the Bible. His tone of voice and what he had to say always made you feel as though he were a close friend of yours. He was interested in you and what you did, regardless of who you were or how small your accomplishments were.”

Coach Bob Shelton, hired in the summer of 1923, first met Dr. Birdwell as a student at Southwest Texas; Birdwell was then head of the History Department and the most popular man on the campus. “All of the members of the faculty thought very highly of him. His advice to the faculty members was an outstanding characteristic,” said Shelton. “He was a kindly man, but he was not physically afraid of anything. He made a lot of speeches, but he never made a bad one. Almost all of his speeches contained three important points.”

Dean Thomas E. Ferguson, who had worked with Birdwell at Southwest Texas for five years before coming to SFA in 1923, observed: “Dr. Birdwell’s wish was that the school open on his birthday. This wish was fulfilled on Sept. 18, 1923, when the school came into existence.”

The Birdwell Building is dedicated

The main, official tributes to Birdwell came in 1955. The Directors of the Texas Rural Communities, Inc., a group sponsored by the Farmers Home Administration of the United States Department of Agriculture, passed a resolution commending Birdwell for all the work he had done to help the farmers and their families in East Texas. The Ex-Students Association kept the tributes flowing, on the radio as well as in the newspapers, as they used the occasion of his death to collect money for the Birdwell Scholarship Fund. The fund had reached $12,000 by September of 1955. The money came from people all around East Texas, with only a small portion coming from Exes.

The Board of Regents had voted in 1954, even before his death, to name SFA’s new liberal arts classroom building the “A. W. Birdwell Building.” The building actually opened for classes in the summer term of 1955, but the official dedication took place on November 13, 1955. In an outdoor ceremony east of the building, Dr. Henry Stilwell of Texarkana Junior College, a life long friend of the Birdwells, paid tribute to his friend. He cited four major characteristics of Dr. Birdwell: “These were integrity in scholarship, politics, and religion; courage; love for his fellowman; and selflessness.” In conclusion, Dr. Stilwell said that “The College Among the Pines ... has been hallowed and dedicated by Dr. Birdwell’s life and works.” Dr. Boynton echoed this sentiment in his remarks: “The college is a perpetual memorial to the late educator.”

The Birdwell Building Dedication ceremony took place on November 13, 1955. Board of Regent member Frank White of Cleveland gave the official dedication; the President of the Board was unable to come to the ceremony. The building contained 21 classrooms and 31 offices. The architect was Shirley Simons of Tyler, and the contractor was W. W. Waton. It was considered the safest building on campus at the time, completely fireproof and containing the most modern details of any building.