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

The Coming of War and Changes

Birdwell announces retirement

On September 16, 1941, on the eve of his seventy-first birthday and the day before SFA opened it its nineteenth fall semester, President Birdwell announced his retirement to the faculty. The effective date for the retirement would not be until the end of the academic year in August, at which time he planned to resume teaching. The mandatory retirement age of seventy had been set by the Board of Regents back in May of 1926; Birdwell was the man who proposed it. When the Board of Regents in the May of 1941 agreed they would apply the rule to both Birdwell and his friend C. E. Evans at San Marcos, the reality was not exactly thrilling to him. The public announcement to the students and the press came on September 17.

In a private letter to a friend, on September 19, 1941, Birdwell wrote: “...I shall retire from the Presidency of this college with gratitude in my heart that the people of Texas have put up with me for fifty years of professional service. I hope that the service has not hurt them. It is really a great thing to live in Texas, to live in the republic of the United Sates. This society has been good to me and I want it to be available to my children and grandchildren....I shall do all I can in the present emergency to indoctrinate people in the theory and in the attainments of the American government and the American people. Our flag may in the course of a few years be the flag of humanity everywhere. This perhaps is America’s great opportunity to carry the blessings of liberty and freedom around the earth.”

While there was, no doubt, apprehension over the forthcoming changes at the helm of SFA and there was war in the world, the college was entering a glorious period. The dormitories, including the new Gibbs Halls, were filled to capacity. Fifteen new courses were being offered for the first time, including Silviculture (the production and management of forests in East Texas) and Current History and Nationalism. Plaques were given to Birdwell for his service and the Homecoming in November was totally dedicated to honoring Birdwell. He was the special guest a football game and the college’s history during his years were featured at the Homecoming weekend.

Just a few weeks later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. From that moment on, everything changed. There were private letters to Birdwell, many of which said they were “sick” that he was retiring. Colleagues from around the state responded with accolades. The staff of the 1942 Stone Fort proceed to dedicate the book to Birdwell: “To Dr. Birdwell, a man who, by living daily for his beloved “lads,” has endeared himself to all of us as our college president and friend - we dedicate this annual.” However, even the dedication pages focused on the war and not on his record. Birdwell’s own message of response was entitled “The College in War Times.”

The whole world is being tried by fire! Character, courage, endurance, religion, are being tested as never before. Those who stand the test will be the rulers of tomorrow’s world. But not only in battle will we be tested. The tasks at home will be difficult and exacting. We shall have to live in a war economy. There will be few luxuries; there will be work to do. There will be no place for slackers. In it all college men and women should take the “heavy oar.” May you have a big part in winning the war, and a decisive part in making a better world. My heart goes out to the hundreds who are in the armed forces of this country, and equally so to those who produce the material and food that make ultimate victory certain, and those who “keep the home’s burning.” Each will have a part. Do it well! Victory is coming and with it a better world. “Quit yourselves like Men!” Affectionately, A. W. Birdwell [signature in script].”

Regent William Bates, acutely aware that the war and the appointment of a new president was overshadowing Birdwell’s retirement, did what he could to offset this. He accepted an invitation to speak at a special Rotary Club banquet in Birdwell’s honor in August and organized a delegation of Board Members and Presidents to attend. “Dr. Birdwell has spent fifty years in education work in this state. ... In my opinion, no person has contributed more ... to educational development in the State.”

At the dinner on August 25, 1946, Birdwell’s close friend Thomas E. Baker delivered the tribute to the out-going president. Baker said Birdwell was a “full-fledged citizen from the moment of his arrival. ... our best advertisement..” He noted Birdwell’s scholarship, his personal conviction, his love of fishing, and the role of Mrs. Birdwell. As a banker, Baker reserved his highest remarks for Birdwell’s fiscal responsibility and caring: “Through the years many worthy demands have been made for which no funds were provided, and I have seen Dr. Birdwell dig into his own pocket and pay the bills. The total of such items would be an appreciable sum. I may be violating his confidence in saying this. But, he had a job to do, and even though it cost him money, personally, he did it.”

Newspapers around the state carried tributes to Birdwell and the Ex-Students Association at the fall Homecoming of 1942 established a scholarship in his honor. Birdwell returned to teaching in the fall of 1942 and remained an important figure on campus as President Emeritus.

The Heritage Series is not completing the story of Alton W. Birdwell’s work with SFA with this article. He appears in later editions, too.