How A Depression-Era Huckster’s Radio Station Brought God’s Word to Mexico – and Beyond – Via George W. Truett

This is the first installment in a special three-part blog series on the project to digitize and present online the final sermons of George W. Truett (1867-1944), noted pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas and namesake of Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary.

One of the most interesting examples of God’s ability to use anyone – or anything – to serve Him is recounted in the twenty-second chapter of the book of Numbers. It is the story of Balaam’s donkey, and if you haven’t read it, do so now, for it demonstrates God’s ability to speak through even the dumbest of beasts when it will be the most effective means of getting the message across.

Balaam’s donkey is a particularly apt comparison to the strange story of how a “border blaster” radio station founded by a convicted medical charlatan would be used to broadcast the final sermons of a powerful Baptist minister to the citizens of three North American countries.

The Strange Case of John Romulus Brinkley

Our story begins with a man named John Brinkley. His was a fascinating life filled with accusations of bigamy, failed attempts to acquire a legitimate medical license, multiple (unsuccessful) campaigns to gain public office, a rise to wealth, a stint as a pioneer in radio broadcasting, and an ignominious, penniless death.

John R. Brinkley, c. 1921. Image via Wikipedia Commons.

Brinkley’s life is spelled out in agonizing detail in his well-researched Wikipedia entry, so we won’t get too in-depth with this post. Suffice to say, Brinkley was a man with a showman’s instincts and a scalawag’s morals, willing to lie, cheat and defraud to achieve his goals. But like many larger-than-life figures, he also showed bursts of genuine goodness, such as the time he used profits from his successful radio show to purchase a municipal sewer system and other much-needed amenities for the small town of Milford, Kansas.

After telling a male patient he would have no problems with infertility if he had a pair of “goat glands” in him, Brinkley hit on the idea of transplanting the reproductive glands of goats into patients – male and female – who were suffering from various ailments, primarily sexual dysfunction or infertility but also spinal tumors, dementia and even flatulence. Brinkley touted his “cure” with the claim that it would turn previously infertile men into the “ram that am with every lamb,” despite the fact that most patients merely absorbed the glands into their bodies with little or no evidence of an improvement in their underlying condition.

Not surprisingly, his actions drew the attention of the American Medical Association and the crusading physician who would eventually be his downfall. Morris Fishbein would publish a two-part series entitled “ Modern Medical Charlatans,” wherein he exposed Brinkley as a dangerous fraud. Brinkley sued Fishbein for libel, and Fishbein won the case after a jury found that Brinkley “should be considered a charlatan and a quack in the ordinary, well-understood meaning of those words.”

In addition to losing the libel case, Brinkley also faced investigations from the IRS and the U.S. Post Office late in his life. These challenges, combined with a loss of income and deteriorating health, culminated in his death in 1942, a penniless shadow of the man who once ran for governor of Kansas with the promise of providing lower taxes, old-age pensions and a lake in every county. (He managed to gain nearly 30% of the popular vote.)

A Radio Pioneer, But Old Habits Die Hard

As his goat gland “cure” began to turn significant profits in the early 1920s, Brinkley became interested in the power of the radio as a marketing medium and started a station in Kansas under the call letters KFKB. He used this new-found reach to promote his treatments, which he espoused for hours. He interspersing his sales pitches with a diverse range of programming that included, “military bands, French lessons, astrological forecasts, storytelling and exotica such as native Hawaiian songs.”

His success in radio boosted profits through the roof, but his roots as an old-school snake oil seller ran deep. Brinkley began a segment he called the “Medical Question Box,” where listeners wrote in with their various medical concerns which he addressed over the air. Inevitably, the perfect cure for whatever ailed listeners was a patent medicine available only at a pharmacy that participated in his “Brinkley Pharmaceutical Association.” It was estimated that Brinkley made more than $10 million per year (in current value) on the sale of these “medicines.”

Before the Federal Radio Commission shut it down, Brinkley’s station made him a multimillionaire. However, he saw a new opportunity to expand his empire by constructing a 50,000-watt station in Villa Acuña, Mexico, just across the U.S-Mexico border from Del Rio, Texas. Eventually, the Mexican government allowed him to up the wattage of XER to 150,000, making his station audible to citizens of Mexico, the United States and – on nights when the conditions were perfect – as far away as Canada. He resumed his patent medicine-selling ways, taking on new advertisers hocking everything from “genuine simulated” diamonds to autographed pictures of Jesus. During this period Brinkley also purchased Mexican radio station XED; he changed its name to XEAW before selling the station in 1939. XEAW’s new owner would form the link between Brinkley, the power of radio and the Word of God.

A New Owner for XEAW

Carr Collins was another Texas-sized personality when he enters our narrative in the late 1930s. Like Brinkley, Collins had made a sizable fortune selling a “cure” for a common ailment. His approach was to use the radio to sell “Crazy Crystals,” dehydrated minerals from the springs found at Mineral Wells, Texas. When they were re-hydrated and consumed, the crystals were purported to act as a laxative. Collins had also profited from his establishing the Fidelity Union Life Insurance Company, and in his last decades he would use his fortune to support numerous philanthropic causes.

In addition to his prowess as a salesman, Collins was a devout Baptist. He became involved with the leadership of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, where he came into contact with its influential and long-serving pastor, George W. Truett. At some point in the late 1930s or early 1940s, Collins’ station made the decision to broadcast a new kind of program.

Reaching the People of “Radio Land”

By 1941, Truett had entered into the final years of his life. But despite his advanced age and failing health, he continued to deliver weekly sermons and even preside over special week-long programs focusing on prayer, revival and revitalizing the faith of the people of Dallas. At some point in the early 1940s, he entered into an agreement with Collins to broadcast recorded versions of his weekly sermons over the air on XEAW. The sermons were recorded live in the pulpit at First Baptist Dallas on 16” radio transcription discs. These discs were then shipped to the port of entry at Hidalgo, Texas for shipment into Mexico via the city of Reynosa. They would eventually air on XEAW, typically a week later than the dates of their original delivery in Truett’s Dallas pulpit.

Side two of Truett’s sermon delivered on January 19, 1941. The other two sides are presumed lost.

Notes written on the existing discs’ labels indicate that an XEAW announcer would read the following script at the end of each broadcast:

“You have been listening to a message by Dr. George W. Truett, Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas. These messages will be presented over XEAW every Sunday evening at 9:30. Tell your friends and neighbors about these.”

Thanks to the joint efforts of two major Dallas citizens – the preacher and the businessman – the people of Mexico, Texas and the entire Southwest could hear the words of one of the biggest names in Southern Baptist history delivered directly to their homes.

The Discs Find New Life in Digital

At least 68 of these broadcast discs were created by the studios of Sellers, Inc. of Dallas. These discs made their way into The Texas Collection at some point after Truett’s death, where they have been preserved along with their original album sleeves. In the fall of 2012, the discs were delivered to the Digital Projects Group to take advantage of our analogue disc migration capabilities and the skills of audio/visual engineer Stephen Bolech.

After organizing the discs into chronological order, Stephen migrates them one side at a time. Because of the original setup used to record them in the 1940s – wherein an audio engineer used two turntables to record the entire sermon over the course of three album sides – Stephen will import three sides of audio and create preservation digital files for each side. Then, he stitches the audio together and enhances it to create the high-quality access versions you will find presented in our Digital Collections.

This approach is a slight departure from our standard operating procedure in that we are presenting “enhanced” audio as opposed to the un-tweaked, “raw” version you would hear in collections like the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project. We chose to present the sermons in a listener-friendly, cleaner format both to aid in comprehension and because of the simpler nature of the audio’s original format – a single voice speaking alone, as opposed to numerous musicians and vocalists layered together.

In addition to the audio files, I am creating transcriptions of the sermons to add to the digital item. This will allow them to be keyword searchable and makes for a helpful aid for researchers interested in diving into the heart of Truett’s message.

All told, this means that each digital item includes a scanned image of all three sides of the discs, the enhanced audio of the sermon and a fully searchable transcript. In short, it is as complete a record as you will find online of any early 20th century preacher’s live, from-the-pulpit sermons.

What’s Next for the Collection?

We are working to complete phase one of the project by the end of the summer. This will mean putting all of Truett’s sermons from 1941 online by the end of August, with the sermons from 1942 and 1943 to follow shortly thereafter. The process for creating these records is a painstaking one, and we are committed to providing the highest quality resources for our users; hence, the staggered release. The first 17 sermons from the project are available now from the Truett Sermons Collection.

(Note: There are an additional 26 albums’ worth of Truett sermons available in this collection as well. These sermons were released by Word Records in the mid-1960s. We plan to create transcripts for these sermons in the future.)

Please take a few moments at your earliest convenience and head over to the collection to take a listen for yourselves. The sound of Truett’s voice, the focus of his message and the immediacy of its content cannot fail to strike a chord, and we encourage your feedback as you discover the items in this collection.

Next week’s blog post will focus on the content of the sermons themselves, from the types of subjects tackled to a brief examination of Truett’s inimitable style. Then, we’ll complete our Truett trifecta with a big announcement about another way you can engage with the collection that will combine 20th century preaching with 21st century technology. Stay tuned!

Sources Consulted:

Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford, “BORDER RADIO,” Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ebb01), accessed July 19, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

“John R. Brinkley.” Wikipedia. Retrieved on July 22, 2013 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_R._Brinkley

George N. Green, “COLLINS, CARR P.,” Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fco90), accessed July 19, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

Joan Jenkins Perez, “TRUETT, GEORGE WASHINGTON,” Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ftr16), accessed July 22, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

Announcing A Trifecta of Upcoming Truett Posts

On most Thursdays, you expect to see a piping hot post from this blog delivered to your inbox or RSS reader. But this week, we’re going to do a brief tease for an upcoming three-part blog series centered around one of our most interesting, exciting and potentially soul-saving collections yet!

George W. Truett’s name is familiar to the Baylor family, the Baptist church, the city of Dallas and the world at large, and we’re excited to announce a major expansion of an existing digital collection featuring Truett’s sermons, delivered by the man himself, just a few short months before his death in 1944. The blog series will contain these installments:

I. How A Depression-Era Huckster’s Radio Station Brought God’s Word to Mexico – and Beyond – Via George W. Truett

II. The Power Behind the Call: Examining the Rhetorical and Presentation Styles of G.W. Truett’s Sermons

III. Announcing a Feature That Just Might Save Your Soul

Intrigued? We sure hope so! Stay tuned to this space for the first of our installments, scheduled for July 25th. And to whet your whistle for these upcoming posts, click below for a brief taste of Truett’s dulcet tones, recorded live in the pulpit on April 27, 1941!

Mañana – The Devil’s Subtle Trick
 

“A University’s Reach Should Exceed Its Grasp, Or What’s An Architect’s Rendering For?” (With Apologies to Robert Browning)

The history of any institution with as storied a history as Baylor’s is bound to be marked with moments when optimism outpaces reality. For every Baylor Stadium wrought out of sheer will – and two bowl games and a Heisman Trophy – on the banks of the Brazos River there are a dozen dreams unrealized of buildings, memorials and embellishments that never went beyond the drafting table. Some died prematurely due to lack of funds while others were only partially funded, scaled back to fit the ability of others to support their lofty visions.

That’s not to cast these dreams of brick and steel in a negative light. To the contrary: these visions of a better campus are testaments to their time and place in Baylor’s history, a vision of places designed for the betterment of her student body, the broadcasting of her ideals, the fostering of her unique take on the world. From the pages of the Round Up and the Lariat, we present here a sampling of architectural renderings of Baylor’s built environment – those extant and those consigned solely to the draftsman’s table.

“The Proposed Baylor Bath House” – 1914 Round Up

Building: The Bath House (1914)
Status: Unbuilt
Fidelity to Presented Plans: N/A

From the 1914 Round Up comes this sketch for a proposed “bath house,” requested by the student body – who subscribed $1,750 for its construction – to “serve as training quarters for our athletic teams.” The students had hoped funding could come from Waco’s business community, but “the widespread money shortage resulting from the floods prevented immediate action upon this matter.” Described as a sort of multipurpose facility – with “one room … devoted to the band … a large locker-room with steel lockers and cement floors … a storage room for out-of-date uniforms … an adequate shower … and a small space fitted with rubbing tables, and medical and surgical accessories” – the bath house saw much of its vision fulfilled with the construction of Rena Marrs McLean Gymnasium in 1937-1938.

“How Waco Hall Will Look When Completed” – March 27, 1929 Lariat

Building: Waco Hall (1929)
Status: Built
Fidelity to Presented Plans: High

The story of Waco Hall has been documented elsewhere – most recently in this excellent article from Baylor Magazine – and its status as a gift from the people of Waco to the university is a wonderful part of campus lore. The photo above shows the hall it was proposed to look when “completed for the commencement exercises of the class of 1930.” Waco Hall remains an active and vital part of campus life to this day, with events ranging from Chapel to New Student Orientation.

“Alpha Omega House – Baylor University” – 1930 Round Up

Building: Alpha Omega House (1930)
Status: Unbuilt
Fidelity to Presented Plans: N/A

This image is presented from the “Ground Up” section of the 1930 Round Up, a humor supplement filled with satire, parody and – at times – borderline slander. The text accompanying this image reads,

“This is an architect’s version of the proposed Alpha Omega Clubhouse (sorority house), to be built on the campus. Why was it never built? Well, draw your own conclusions.”

Readers of this blog will have to do just that, as we were unable to dig up the story of why such a building was never built. It is interesting to note that the building’s proposed sketch is attributed to Birch D. Easterwood, one of Waco’s most prolific and best-remembered architects.

“The Browning Library” – 1944 Round Up

Building: Armstrong-Browning Library (1944)
Status: Built
Fidelity to Presented Plans: Moderate

This shrine to the memory of three people – poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Dr. A.J. Armstrong, longtime chair of the department of English – consistently awes visitors who enter through its massive bronze doors. The finished structure boasts “Italian Renaissance-style” features, but its look here more closely resembles the classical revival with its balanced symmetry, engaged columns, accented doorway and evenly spaced windows. While the two gable-end stairways were lost between this design and the finished building, the impressive front entry stairs were retained.

Baylor University Student Union Building – October 25, 1946 Lariat

Building: The Bill Daniel Student Union Building (1946)
Status: Built
Fidelity to Presented Plans: High

With its completion delayed by World War II, the SUB emerged from the strictures of wartime rationing to become the center of campus activities. This article from a 1946 issue of the Lariat shows what the SUB will look like “when Homecoming visitors see it next year [1947].”

“Baylor’s New Fountain” – 1949 Round Up

Structure: The “Mascot Fountain” from the Classes of 1948 and 1949 (1949)
Status: Unbuilt
Fidelity to Presented Plans: N/A

Sometimes it’s best to let the record speak for itself, so here is the description from the 1949 Round Up of a proposed – and never built – “Mascot Fountain,” which would have been built in front of the Student Union Building.

“Above is the architect’s conception of Baylor’s new “mascot” fountain. The proposed structure will be built directly in front of the Student Union Building and will face Rena Marrs McLean Gymnasium. Present plans include a cast figure of a bear sitting atop some boulders overlooking a pool of water. Modern circulating pumps will cast a perpetual spray over the figure. Green and Gold lights will illuminate the fountain. The base of the pool is to be constructed of Indiana limestone to harmonize with the materials used in the Union Building. The estimated cost of the complete fountain is $9,000.

The Classes of 1948 and 1949 are to be commended on the erection of this beautiful landmark on Baylor’s Campus. In years hence, it will undoubtedly become traditional to dunk the Sophomore Class President in the “Bear Bath.”

The “New Law Building” (Morrison Hall) – 1954 Round Up

Building: The “Law Building” / Morrison Constitution Hall (1954)
Status: Built
Fidelity to Presented Plans: Slight

When the time came to create a new home for Baylor’s law school, the architects dreamed up a fine example of mid-century design that draws heavily from the styles of Streamline Moderne, Prairie Style and even “New Formalism.” Low-slung and sleek, the proposed plans called for an off-center entry through stylized columns and long rows of windows.  The completed structure more closely resembles a traditional, neo-classical style, but the plans shown here were an exciting glimpse at an addition to the central campus that was not to be.

Tidwell Bible Building – 1954 Round Up

Building: The Tidwell Bible Building (1954)
Status: Built
Fidelity to Proposed Plans: High

Another campus building with an interesting history – including a lawsuit and the legend that it was intended to be taller than the clock tower at UT – the Tidwell Bible Building as built closely resembles the plans shown here.

“New Library Designed For Convenience” – October 2, 1964 Lariat

Building: Central Library Building / Moody Memorial Library (1964)
Status: Built
Fidelity to Presented Plans: Laughably Low

In the middle of the last century, perhaps new building was more necessary – and more inaccurately represented – than the building that today houses our own Digital Projects Group. As space at the existing library facilities across campus became increasingly outdated, crowded and insufficient for Baylor’s growing student population, “new library” frenzy reached a fever pitch. In an article in the October 2, 1964 Lariat, this sketch of a proposed “new library” was to include “escalators, movable book stacks [and] study tables to aid students.” When Moody Memorial Library opened in 1968, it included no escalator and only a vague resemblance to the building presented here.

Proposed Design for Poage Library – November 11, 1976 Lariat

Building: Poage Library (1976)
Status: Built
Fidelity to Presented Plans: Minor

Our last building is the W.R. Poage Legislative Library, a freestanding building located nestled in a corner between the Moody and Jesse H. Jones libraries. When former congressman W.R. “Bob” Poage donated $100,000 to the building campaign, the proposed structure rose a full story above the completed Moody Memorial Library and was also slated to house the graduate school. The structure that actually stands today is smaller and features one full-height section of windows similar to those shown here.

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What’s your favorite building on the Baylor campus? Is it one that still stands today, or one known only as a memory? Did the buildings featured here turn out the way you would have hoped, or did you prefer the unrealized visions? Give us your thoughts in the comments below!

For more fun with the “campus that might have been,” see this story from Baylor Proud that includes a neat slideshow of additional proposed plans.

“What’s Past Is Prologue” – Connecting Incoming Freshmen With Campus History at Summer Orientation

The month of June is reserved for welcoming the newest class of Freshmen into the Baylor family. For the second year in a row, the traditional Dr Pepper Hour mixer – held on the second day of orientation – was hosted by the university libraries in the Albritton Foyer of Moody Memorial Library. This year, the Digital Projects Group made our presence felt by presenting our Digital Collections website on a very large monitor. Our hook? Search our historic Baylor resources – the Round Up, the Lariat and the Baylor University Press Releases – to discover historical evidence of their ancestors who trod our verdant campus in the storied past.

And you know what? It worked.

Over the course of ten one-hour sessions, I manned our table and searched our collections for dozens of people. Admittedly, most of them were parents of incoming freshmen; after all, by this point in the process, our newest Bears have been overwhelmed with a day-and-a-half of information, so voluntarily searching an online database probably isn’t their highest priority. Mom and dad, however, were usually stoked to do something that didn’t require them to sign another form or write another check, so they were often thrilled to tell me the name of their ancestor and see what happened.

By my reckoning, what happened in 85% of the cases presented was the discovery that their ancestor – a mom, a grandmother, a great-uncle – was mentioned in one of the resources at least once. That means the system functioned exactly as we’d hoped: full-text fields were crawled quickly and efficiently, results were retrieved and displayed accurately, and a connection to a bygone Baylorite was made in seconds.

The times the system didn’t work were limited to searches for names that were extremely common and thus returned huge numbers of results – “John Smith,” across all possible dates – or there were the occasional complete misfires – a name not found in any instance across any collection. But for the most part, the system performed remarkably well, and several very interesting stories were shared from this experiment in live, no-nets searching.

The Beauty Queen

Cheryl and Penny M. pose with a photo of Penny’s mother, Ethyle Peacock – Baylor’s first “Miss Baylor”

Penny M. stopped by our setup with her daughter, incoming freshman Cheryl. Penny’s mother is Ethyle Peacock, a Baylor student of the 1960s. As the system searched for mentions of Ms. Peacock, Penny proceeded to tell me that her mother was not only a Baylor student: she happened to have been voted the first Miss Baylor in 1969. Sure enough, we found this image in the April 28th edition of the Lariat.

The Committeeman’s Granddaughter

Jen M. and her grandfather, Clyde Skidmore

 When my daughter’s preschool teacher, Jen M., happened to swing by the table one afternoon, she asked me to look up her grandfather, Clyde Skidmore. And wouldn’t you know it? Here he is posing with a group of seniors tasked with raising funds for the senior gift, class of 1954.

Bus Strike Beauty

Marilyn J. and her grandmother, Betty Rumph

Marilyn J. asked us to search for her grandmother, Betty Rumph. In this photo from the September 20, 1955 edition, Betty is photographed on the moped of Sung Ki Lee along with two other girls. Apparently taken during a bus strike in Waco, Betty won the heart of Mr. Lee – and, just as important, the use of his transportation.

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Our opportunity to showcase the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections at New Student Orientation was an unqualified success from our vantage point. Hundreds of people at each session were exposed to the collection, hundreds of flyers were distributed with our URL prominently on display, and we made dozens of new connections through our digitized resources.

But next year, if we get the same invitation, I can say with certainty that I will request a table further away from the Dr Pepper floats. I’m not sure I have the willpower to resist their sweet siren song for another stretch of ten sweltering June afternoons.