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

The Coming of War and Changes

A change at the helm: Dr. Paul L. Boynton becomes SFA’s second president

The selection process for a new president of SFA, no doubt, started in May of 1941 when the Board of Regents determined that President Birdwell would indeed have only one more year. While the Board did receive applications for the job, they did not encourage selection of a president by putting out “a notice” in the modern understanding of the term. They authorized a sub-committee of the board to discharge the responsibility.

Colonel William B. Bates, the Houston lawyer who was from Nacogdoches and the chairperson of the Board’s local committee to oversee SFA, also argued for a small selection committee. Bates wrote on December 5, 1941, “I also believe that we will probably come nearer getting the man we are looking for if the Board will do some searching and investigation on its own initiative rather than considering only those who apply for the positions.” Bates was appointed to chair the search sub-committee. He asked for the past and present presidents of the Ex-Students Association at SFA to serve with him as non-voting members on the selection committee. He argued that the two men were honorable and “neither of them have a candidate of their own, and are only concerned in securing the best man available.” Bates, in private and confidential correspondence, was keeping President Birdwell informed in March of 1942 of his negotiations with a certain Peabody professor named Paul L. Boynton, Head of the Department of Psychology. Bates invited Boynton to Texas on his own. To an unknown question raised by Birdwell, Bates responded: “While I thoroughly agree with you that this is not the best way to go about selecting a president I do not intend for it to present us from selecting the right man for Nacogdoches. ... I am glad that your further information about Dr. Boynton confirms the impression that he made on the various members of the Board, as well as all information we have up to date concerning him.”

Boynton’s appointment or “election” by the Board of Regents took place in their meeting on May 14, 1942. The minutes gave no reasons for Boynton’s selection and appended no discussion of the decision. Earlier, in the newspaper, a J. M. Claunch of Southern Methodist University and Dr. E. H. Hereford of Hockaday School, were mentioned, but no finalists or candidates were mentioned in the Board’s minutes.

On May 16, the headlines in the Pine Log read: “NEW PRESIDENT FOR SFA CHOSEN; DR. PAUL BOYNTON IS CHOICE; NEW PRESIDENT IS PEABODY PROFESSOR; TAKES OVER SEPT. 1.” The Boyntons, including their two children, immediately made a visit to Nacogdoches to meet the staff. Boynton expressed pleasure over his appointment and was quoted as saying, “I am please with conditions as I have found them here.” He accepted the invitation by the Pine Log to write a greeting:

I come to Stephen F. Austin with no phenomenal remedies. In fact, I know of no phenomenal situations which needs to be remedied. I am fully cognizant of the magnitude of the task which anyone would have in attempting to succeed Dr. A. W. Birdwell. His imagination conceived the school; his insight has guided it; his courage has defended it. So I shall make not attempt to take his place, but, to the contrary, shall hope to carve a place for myself as the years go by.”

Birdwell asked Boynton to give the summer commencement address in August of 1942. On a theme which he would return to over and over, Boynton challenged the students and faculty to think in terms of individuals, their needs and potentialities, and what it takes to make citizens happier and more successful. The title of the address, “The Influence of Modern Philosophies on the Personality Adjustments of the Individual,” immediately set the difference between the new president’s academic background in psychology and Birdwell’s background in history. Birdwell in his closing remarks , evidently uncomfortable with the nature of the address in a time of war, immediately took the theme back to a more patriotic one; the graduates were marching off to war. Birdwell said, “I hope the men of this graduating class will make valiant soldiers in this great war.”

Again, the Pine Log’s headlines announced the new era: “NEW PRESIDENT, WAR, NO FOOTBALL, ’42 TREND.” “BIG INTRAMURAL PROGRAM PLANNED FOR EVERY MAN.” Birdwell had arranged with Coach Shelton to make the announcement on football before Boynton’s official assumption of office so as not to have that as the new president’s first act. Boynton’s inauguration, again because of the war, was planned as part of another event, Homecoming. The ceremonies began at 10:30, on November 7, 1942, with a processional of faculty, senior class representatives, and visitors in academic robes. Colonel W. B. Bates gave the installation address. Boynton’s father, the Reverend Edwin C. Boynton of Huntsville, a retired Christian minister, gave the invocation. Dr. T. E. Ferguson, Dean of the Faculty, chaired the inaugural ceremonies. Following the ceremony, a barbecue luncheon was served by the Nacogdoches Chamber of Commerce in the WRC, for all of the out of town dignitaries.

The newspaper coverage of the inauguration also gave biographical information. Boynton did his B. A. work at Sam Houston and his M. A. and Ph.D. at Peabody College in Nashville. In 1920-21, he served as a history teacher, football coach, and principal at Lufkin High School. He taught at Appalachian State Teachers College in North Carolina and then, in a quick succession of academic appointments, moved up to head the Department of Psychology at the University of Kentucky before moving back to his alma mater, Peabody. He had published many academic articles, papers, and a textbook before coming to SFA.

While prepared to be a president, Boynton was only slightly more prepared for the war crisis than Birdwell. His first memorandum to the faculty, one which was very unpleasant for him, was to notify the professors that as people were called into service, “some of you will be called upon to teach work which you have not be accustomed to teach, or ... even ... in fields where you feel that you are really not adequately prepared.” He called it deplorable, but part of the exigencies. There would be many other notices about the way.

Boynton’s first big action came in November of 1942, after the Board of Regents authorized the presidents to seek federal projects for the Teachers College during the time of war. Boynton told the Board that SFA was equipped for 1) secretarial and clerical training and could handle a unit of 600 trainees; 2) ground school for pre-flight training; 3) cooking school for the Navy; and 4) training unit for the WAACs. Boynton had previous experience in doing this; he had obtained a Naval Unit for Peabody College back in April before he was even elected as president of SFA. Boynton then immediately went to Washington.

Boynton did secure a government contract for SFA: the school was called the “Army Administration School WAAC No. 1.” The story of the WAACs at SFA will follow in next week’s edition of the Heritage Series.