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

The Coming of War and Changes

Faculty, staff and students deal with possibility of war

As the students and faculty of SFA returned to campus in the fall of 1939 to begin the college’s seventeenth year, they faced an unsettled world. Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, and the British and French declaration of war several days later was very troubling to thinking people. Isolation, however, still seemed a viable alternative to many Americans including most at SFA. Earlier, in April of 1939, a national poll of college students showed that a majority opposed a draft. The signs of trouble were not obvious enough in East Texas to cause alarm, yet.

SFA appeared to be on the brink of a golden era. The Lumberjack Band, the largest in history, was busily touring East Texas with the support of the Booster Club, thrilling each little town and helping to recruit students for the college. The dormitories were full, there were new courses in the curriculum, the graduate school was getting under way, there was a new “publicity department” to help to promote the school, and the Homecoming in 1939 was the biggest ever. For the first time, a Queen was elected, and the girls in the new Gibbs Hall proved the power of a live-in electorate by placing freshman Judy King on the throne. This perfectly legal action horrified the seniors, and after Miss King’s reign, the school limited the regal honor to a senior. In 1939, a long standing Nacogdoches County event, the Melon Festival, received a modern SFA update: the Watermelon Festival at SFA.

SFA was getting more influence in the Board of Regents, too. The first significant appointee in SFA’s favor came when Governor Allred appointed Colonel William B. Bates from Nat, a former resident of Nacogdoches and district attorney here, to the state body in 1937. Although not an alumni, Bates had other members of his family who were distinguished SFA graduates, such as his nephew Harold Bates who later served as a Regent. SFA had to wait until 1943 to have its first alumni, S. A. Kerr, appointed to the State Board.

One of the best traditions at SFA, the April Fool’s Pine Log, was particularly funny in 1939. The headlines read: “Bob Shelton Fired as College Coach: Miss Ida Pritchett Will Take Over Duties of Head Basketball Coach; Ruth Mays to Assist Miss Pritchett in Giving College “New Deal” in Athletics” Miss Pritchett was Head of the Music Department, and Ruth Mays was SFA’s legendary first Dean of Women. An additional headline on Mays read: “Miss Mays Will Have Charge of Next “Fite Nite” Here: Prominent Local Sportswoman Will Referee Bouts.” Miss Mays had refereed many bouts on campus, but usually it was between men and women and the university rules!

Behind the facade of normalcy, however, the war was everywhere. A glance at the headlines in the Pine Log in 1939-1941 indicates an increasing stream of campus speeches, assembly programs, new organizations, new courses, and civic involvments which related to the war. Men were beginning to volunteer for the service. The questions of isolationism and preparedness occupied the debaters. Professor Harling of the History Department discussed at one Booster’s meeting how difficult it would be for the United States to keep out of a widened world war. In one column called the “Editor’s Mailbag,” there was a huge flap when a preacher wrote to the Pine Log defending Nazism as the lesser of two evils with communism; the writer’s thinly cloaked anti-semitism caused a row.

There was a huge and persistent series of polls of college students across the nation concerning the war. The students revealed that they were solidly anti-German attitude, but not ready to get into a fighting war. Birdwell himself puzzled over what the pact between Stalin and Hitler meant: “Whether it means that communism in Russia is turning to the right or whether National Socialism is turning to the left, is a question that time alone can answer.” He concluded: “One thing seems to me to be rather sure, America will not be drawn into the European conflict.” The hit of the fall parade at SFA was Freshman Joe Upton, son of Dr. R. G. Upton in Biology, who appeared in a Charley Chaplain-inspired mock of Adolf Hitler.

One of the highlights of the 1940 spring on campus was the visit of track sensation and Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens. Displaying his athletic prowess “to hundreds of local sporting fans, ... Owens gave two exhibitions here.” In competition with SFA tracksters, Owens ran the low hurdles, demonstrated correct techniques, and concluded “with a lecture in which he praised Coach Bob Shelton.” Owens, of course, was a symbol of America’s best as opposed to the closed racist system of the Nazis. Coach Shelton was having a good year; the 1940 annual came out dedicated to this “premier basketball coach in the Long Star Conference.”

Birdwell, shaken by the fall of France and the Battle of Britain, urged a new serious thinking. Flying courses were introduced in July of 1940. As Birdwell talked to them more and more about the war, a new bond of unity seemed to emerge between him and the students. A delegation drafted him to speak to the summer commencement in 1940; this request was a first in SFA history and moved Birdwell. He warned the students about the cloudy future into which they were marching. By the fall, when the selective service law passed, SFA students indicated that they were in favor of the draft, at least as long as college students were not included! An ROTC unit was proposed for the campus. On October 12, 1940, the County Clerk authorized Birdwell to set up a Draft Board on campus. In Aikman Gym, W. F. Garner performed the role of head registrar and enrolled 125 students and 7 teachers. Birdwell had modified his stand; civilization, he said now, hung in the balance. The national polls, by February, indicated that students were increasingly convinced that staying out of the war seemed less and less possible.

By the summer of 1941, the football team was talking about the impact of the war on their numbers. Six returning lettermen were inducted. Assistant Dean of the Faculty, D. D. Giles, urged students to complete their studies, to not waste time, to prepared themselves through physical training: “I am not a pessimist, but I do believe that the hours, days, and years in the immediate future should be spent in all-out preparedness.” Birdwell himself went on a campaign of trying to awaken the public to the challenges confronting the nation; he went from community to community to get support for National Defense Day in July of 1941. Birdwell declared that the neutrality act had been a mistake; “It took the blood of heroes to establish a Democracy and it will take that to maintain it. ... We are in this war whether we concede that point or not.”

Professor Hinds of the Agriculture Department, however, did not concede that point. He challenged the notion that the nation was already in the war or had to be in the war; he felt the United States could defend itself without getting into war, through unity, preparedness, and the removal of liquor and kindred evils from bases. His position was unpopular, yet courageous in August of 1941. C. E. Ferguson thought involvement inevitable, L. C. Harling added “too quickly,” and W. R. Davis agreed with him.

After Pearl Harbor, campus arguments end

On September 16, 1941, President Birdwell announced his retirement (article, here). It looked like a fairly normal fall. After the news of the Japanese attack on December 7, Birdwell called an all-campus Assembly on the morning of December 8 to hear President Roosevelt speak before Congress. A radio was set up on the stage in the Austin Building. The Pine Log later called it “a rare opportunity to hear history in the making.” The entire student body and faculty were there. “All seats were filled, walls were lined, aisles were occupied, in fact, all available space was used in this, the largest assembly ever held in the SFA Auditorium.” (Pine Log) After the Roosevelt speech, Birdwell tried to speak, but he was really unable to find words. Joyce Bright Swearingen recounted:

“He was so touched, you know, it was really something. I get goose-pimples just thinking about it. I personally had two close friends in Pearl Harbor. We were just kids, 16, 17, and 18 year-olds, and we walked into that auditorium and listened. You know, you could hear a pin drop. Dr. Birdwell was so dramatic, too. He was upset and crying like the rest of us. When we walked out, our lives were changed forever.”

Bob Murphey, the president of the student body, called another Assembly on December 10, in which Birdwell outlined what students could do in the national emergency. He advised everyone to keep calm and keep poised, avoid half-baked rumors, to continue their activities, to attend rallies, and to help get Red Cross and Defense drives going. Above all, he urged them to stay in school until they were called to go. Murphey also asked club members to seek out talent and report back for service. Some young men left immediately at the end of the term; others joined reserve units allowing them to complete their education. The army was desperate to have college graduates to become officers and leaders. The Pine Log said in an editorial: “There is no limit what we, as college students , can do to aid our country.” While the usual items were listed, they also recommended “a little laughter;” they suggested more skits on Mussolini, Hitler, and Tojo.

The blackout on December 19, discussed in the article by John Hunt on mobilization this week, brought the war even closer to home. In January, the course scheduled for the next term emphasized defense, first aid, the completion of degrees in three years, the expansion of physical fitness classes, and conservation.

SFA was undergoing not only war-related changes, but also internal changes which were extremely important. The selection process for the new president and Dr. Paul Boynton’s appointment are discussed in a separate article.

While women had always outnumbered men at SFA, the balance between the two groups began to shift dramatically after 1941. Many men left immediately during the Christmas Holidays in 1941. In 1941, sixty percent of the students were women. This rose to ninety percent during the war; with the WAACs on campus, the idea of SFA as a female college almost became a reality. While the 1942 Stone Fort even changed its pages to honor the men in military service and included the photograph of the All-Girl Band, it was the 1943 Stone Fort that had a more serious tone about it.

In the summer of 1942, Alton W. Birdwell and the new President, Paul W. Boynton, recommended the suspension of intercollegiate football to the Board of Regents. The compelling reasons, of course, were that too many men had entered the armed services. It did not seem wise or appropriate to try to hold them out through deferred status for this purpose. In addition, they did not have the money to field teams; transportation was a serious problem as were hotel expenses. War put even football into perspective. The financial crisis, however, was larger than expenditures on athletics. As it entered its twentieth year in September of 1942, the college was about to face a period in its history as dire as the Depression. There was no time for anniversary celebrations.