Very few individuals set out to become the president of a college. Many times, it is a variety of circumstances that come together and offer the opportunity. A wife has her own sphere, and her husband's professorial position, as a teacher or researcher, usually does not alter it a great deal. However, when a husband takes on a top administrative position, the wife’s daily life merges with his; his new post makes many demands on her time as well as her privacy.
Alton William Birdwell, SFA's first president, did not set out even to be a teacher. His formal schooling was cut short when he became ill with malaria. From age twelve through nineteen, he studied at home, and when he had regained his health, took a job as a bricklayer. It was while he was engaged in this occupation that he responded to a friend’s recommendation, took the state teacher’s examination, and accepted a teaching position.
Mr. Birdwell met Maude Shipe, the lady who would become his wife, while the two were teaching at Southwest Texas Normal College in San Marcos. She had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Texas; she also earned a master’s degree there in psychology. The couple married September 1, 1915. Mr. Birdwell was 45 and his wife was 36. A year later, their only child, Anne Isabella, was born.
While active state-wide in education for years and influential in getting important legislation passed in Texas, Birdwell could not have predicted at the time of his marriage that he would become a college president. “The year after Mr. Birdwell and I were married,” she said later, “when he registered for a course entitled Normal School Administration in Peabody College, he remarked that Texas would have some more normal schools some day. Thus, it became evident that he knew in what direction the wind might blow.” In 1917, Mr. Birdwell was first selected to be the President of SFA; he was again selected later when the college was funded.
In 1922, the Birdwells moved to Nacogdoches. Together, the couple launched SFA. Mrs. Birdwell was her husband’s unpaid assistant. Fortunately, her mother and sister moved to Nacogdoches at the same time and were always available to help care for Anne. Maude Birdwell typed her husband’s dictated letters, proofread his copy for publications, collated the college’s brochures in their living room, met with prospective faculty members for orientation when he was unavailable, ordered equipment and supplies, and, at the same time, coordinated his demanding social calendar and entertained and fed his guests. As in many marriages, official business merged with private business. Thus, Mrs. Birdwell was called upon to perform an enormous number of jobs that would not face future First Ladies. A college staff handles many of these duties: presidential assistant, secretary, public relations director, events coordinator, publication’s editor and publisher, as well as, hostess.
From the beginning, the spirit of the new college depended almost as much on Mrs. Birdwell’s supporting role as it did on her husband’s professional role. She was essential in creating the family atmosphere of the early college. She entertained students, faculty, and official guests in her home. For the smaller events, Mrs. Birdwell relied on her mother, her sister, occasionally a niece, and sometimes the help of a part-time maid, to prepare and serve the food. For larger events, Patsy Swift, one of the nieces, remembered, the Home Economics Department helped out with the food preparation, that is after the college had the facilities in the Austin Building. The Birdwells paid their household help themselves.
While, admittedly SFA was a small college in the 1920s, by the late 1930s the faculty numbered over 60 and the enrollment was about a thousand. Yet, on a regular basis, at the beginning of each term and during special occasions such as the homecomings, the Birdwells welcomed the entire college into their home. Often the September and May receptions were on her lawn, but the annual New Year’s Reception was in the house. No one who has ever given such an event would underestimate the enormity of the planning and work such an undertaking entails.
Additionally, during both the Birdwell and Boynton eras, many dignitaries, when visiting on the campus, were guests in the president's home. One must remember that it was not until 1958 that the present president’s house, which is very commodious, came into service. Thus, in a house that was ill equipped for the assignment, Mrs. Birdwell, and later Mrs. Boynton, oftentimes filled the role of SFA innkeepers for visiting dignitaries
Mrs. Birdwell was never idle. Since their income was very small, she grew a garden and canned much of the produce. She also grew roses and shared these with friends. A genteel, refined, gracious, yet reserved woman, Mrs. Birdwell had a wide store of knowledge and a subtle wit. Dr. Birdwell was very appreciative of her and often gave her credit for whatever success he had. He introduced her on all occasions with the warmest affection.
Though many of the duties of a president's wife are predictable, the unexpected ones also arise. In a speech Mrs. Birdwell gave in 1958, she told of her surprise at SFA's first commencement when her husband suddenly set an infant in her lap with the instructions, "Keep this baby quiet." The baby was the granddaughter of the elderly minister who was giving the invocation. He wanted to hold the baby during the commencement and was afraid if he yielded it to its mother he would not get it back. Mrs. Birdwell was able to keep the infant quiet, a task that evidently took all her concentration, for Mrs. Birdwell told the minister afterward, "I do not know what you said, but I'm sure it was proper."
While student editors did dedicate two Stone Fort yearbooks to Dr. Birdwell, 1924 and 1942 (the year he retired), it was to Mrs. Birdwell that they threw their tributes during the Depression. Mrs. Birdwell housed nieces and other relatives in their home during the hard times so that the young people could get an education. One of these nieces, Patsy Swift, said, "They never raised their voices in the home, and it was obvious to all that the Birdwells had a wonderful marriage and companionship." The dedication to Mrs. Birdwell in the 1935 Stone Fort reads:
To one who has made the students’ interests her interests and who has, through her service and her influence, endeared herself to those who know her.
To the wife of our President: a native of our State, and a rightful heir to true Southern hospitality.
To Mrs. A. W. Birdwell, scholar, educator, and friend to the students, this edition of The Stone Fort is respectfully dedicated.
Dr. Birdwell, a deacon at the First Baptist Church, taught an adult men's Sunday School class there for many years. Many men from other denominations, their ages ranging from 25 to 85, attended his classes sometimes in numbers as high as 200. Mrs. Birdwell also taught Sunday School, but she was a member of First Methodist Church. The Birdwells were very understanding of the other’s deep beliefs. While Mrs. Birdwell supported her husband’s interests by joining the Rotary Anns, she was also a charter member of the Nacogdoches chapters of Delta Kappa Gamma, the D.A.R., and The University Women's Club.
Anne Birdwell, the product of a loving home, had a happy and unselfish disposition. She was very outgoing, and though she had dolls when she came to Nacogdoches, she soon put them aside and happily participated in the favorite activities of her new little friends -playing baseball, skating, and riding bikes. Anne, like the nieces, felt the pressure of living in the presidential limelight. She wanted, for instance, to attend the public school, but she bowed to the pressure to keep up the family’s obligations by attending the Demonstration School at SFA. She enjoyed being the darling of the students, especially when one of the literary societies named their organization after her: the Anne Birdwell Club.
Anne was as scholarly in her leanings as her parents. She had talent as a writer. In the tenth grade, she had a memorable disappointment. She wrote a short story that her teacher would not accept, believing that she must have copied it from a publication. As the president’s daughter, Anne did not feel she could appeal the teacher’s ruling. For this reason and others, her father sent her off to Stephens and later to the University of Texas for her education. Anne came home, however, during the summers in the mid-1930s. It was then she joined a writer’s group call, “The Die-Hards.” The group was open to anyone in the community who could produce a rejection slip from a publication. Mildred Wyatt, a long-time SFA librarian and a member of the group, said that the idea behind the name was that "all the members wanted to write and their dreams died hard." Some of Anne's poetry and at least one short story were published in The Pulp, a "literary" magazine put out by The Diehards. Anne married Jethro Meeks in 1944 and moved to Greensburg, Indiana, where they took over his family's business.
In writing on Mrs. Birdwell, I interviewed the following friends and relatives of hers: her grandson, Jethro Meeks; the Birdwells’ niece, Patsy Swift; Dr. Birdwell’s secretary, Sugene Spears; and friends, such as Daisy Orton, Carolyn Barham, and Sarah Taylor.
After her husband died in October of 1954, Mrs. Birdwell went to live in Indiana with Anne, and she died there in October of 1961. She was buried, however, in Nacogdoches beside her husband and near to the college she help to shape and nurture.