Charles Guittard, a 1964 Baylor Arts & Sciences graduate, is the grandson of legendary Baylor history chair and professor Dr. Frank Guittard (1867-1950). Charles Guittard has written two books featuring his grandfather — the latest being “A Ph.D.’s Reverie: The Letters,” published in August 2019. The book features Guittard family letters written in the 1920s between Frank Guittard and his family back in Waco while he was on sabbatical to Stanford University to obtain a doctorate in history. Frank Guittard taught at Baylor from 1902 until his death in 1950. In this interview, we talk to Charles Guittard about this book and what it reveals about his grandfather and his place in Baylor history.
Actually, I wasn’t intending to do a book of letters when I finished the first volume, which was only 36 pages long. I was intending to go back to the life and times of Frank Guittard, a work in progress, which I started researching in 1978.
So what happened?
Two things, I suppose. The original project is a very large project and to some extent I dreaded going back to it and then getting bogged down again. The second thing is that the family letters I have, maybe 350 altogether, nearly all pertain to the 1920s when Frank was working on his Ph.D., mainly in the summers. So there was a common time period and theme between the first volume and the current volume and I thought I could add a few other things to the letters including contextual editor’s notes, reprise the key parts of the first volume — the illustrated poem with historical notes — add a preface, an epilogue, an appendix, and in the end create a more satisfying and richer look at Frank’s life during the period of his Ph.D. work.
In “The Letters,” in many of the editor’s notes you tell the story of the evolution controversy at Baylor and President Brooks’ efforts to defend Baylor faculty members accused of advocating evolution. Why did you want to tell that story in the notes?
That story and the story of my grandfather’s pursuit of a Ph.D. at Stanford are both about elevating and/or preserving the stature of Baylor as a university. Brooks wanted to increase the standing of Baylor as a university by urging all his department chairs to have their doctorates. Brooks also was determined to ensure that Baylor maintained its reputation for academic freedom, which was essential to its character as a real university. I also thought that including this second story was not only important in setting the context for the family’s letters in the 1920s, but was interesting in its own right. Conflict tends to be interesting, especially when between committed adversaries and one of whom is trying to bring the other one down. I wasn’t completely sure initially that the family’s stories would by themselves hold the interest of a disinterested reader.
I know you have practiced law for decades, like your father did, and have only recently published these two books. When did you decide you wanted to write something about your grandfather, Frank Guittard?
Fairly early on actually. I first thought about writing about Frank Guittard around 1978 when I came across maybe 125 letters relating to his sabbaticals at Stanford and thought there was something there that might work into a book. Actually, I had been thinking I might like to write something of some sort for at least 10 years and then these letters came along.
What had you been thinking about for 10 years?
Oh, nothing too serious, just piddling around with the idea of writing an autobiographical play or of writing humorous essays, perhaps with illustrations of my own. Actually, I was still playing around with these ideas while I was studying for the bar exam in 1967.
So nothing really came of those early leanings?
Very little, although my writings on legal subjects were occasionally not strictly legal writings as such but written with a storytelling bent or from a creative urge.
Can you give an example?
I wrote a couple of over-the-top articles for Dallas lawyers called “The Prince of Darkness Opens up his Bag of Deposition Tricks,” and on another occasion I did a fanciful piece called “The Mediator Who Used Hats” which was printed in a British magazine.
Let’s talk about Frank Guittard, your grandfather. Were you close to him?
No. None of his grandchildren were really close to him, although some of us were perhaps closer than others, and my sister wasn’t born until four months after his death. My brother and I were brought up in Dallas and my cousins were brought up in Victoria, so we rarely saw him except at Christmas and sometimes a few days in the summer. I don’t ever remember seeing him in Dallas. He was busy with his studies and preparation for his history classes and when he died at age 83, I was only seven, so there was a tremendous age gap. I do remember on one occasion he read the Sunday funnies to me which really made an impression. I think it was the “Katzenjammer Kids,” which I didn’t really get. I just remember he read it to me. As grandkids we were much closer to our step-grandmother, Mama Josie, since she was very down-to-earth and approachable and she would spend time with us when we came to Waco to visit — take us to Cameron Park, to the movies, or to the bear pits to look at the bears.
When someone dips into The Letters, is it fair to say that those letters and the accompanying commentary will give the reader a good idea of what your grandfather was like?
Right. After I had read the original group of letters, it was like a light was gradually switched on, and from that point forward I felt like I had a pretty good understanding of his personality and characteristics, what his relationships with family and friends were like, etcetera. Of course, I gained a much greater understanding of his life by reviewing the materials at The Texas Collection at Baylor and by interviewing people who knew him intimately, including my father.
How did you decide initially to research your grandfather’s life and write a book?
After I read the letters, I decided that there was enough detail there to define his personality and make him and his story and that of his family come alive. The Letters allowed me to get under his skin. And I was working on the belief that if a writer just has enough detail about the life of anyone, particularly if those details are captured in personal letters, anyone’s story would have to be interesting. Of course, that assumes that the editor’s and writer’s skills are sufficient to identify the themes, including universal themes, the forks in the road taken, the surprises along the way, the obstacles and challenges, the disappointments, the mistakes, the strokes of good fortune and other features of a single person’s life that make him or her interesting to a disinterested reader.
Did you have any encouragement from friends or family to do a book about your grandfather?
Although my mother was the encouraging sort and my father helped me later on with his recollections of his boyhood, I never talked about doing a book with my parents or family until around 1978, when I shared the idea with my cousins Steve and Phil who helped me gather the letters they had in Victoria. I did mention the idea to two history professors of mine from my Baylor days, Ralph Lynn and Bob Reid. They were both very encouraging, and Ralph Lynn in particular said I was the one to do it and to be sure and tell the story of my grandfather, “warts and all.”
Other than following your inspiration to tell the story, did you have any other purpose in writing these books about your grandfather?
Of course — preservation of family history for one thing. Family history is not really preserved by keeping letters in a shoebox somewhere in the attic that sooner or later get tossed out in a move to another city.
Any other reason?
Yes, definitely. Although I didn’t think of my motivation this way originally, I came to believe an important purpose was to create some minimum continuing basis for family unity and solidarity in a time when families become separated over time by great distance and their communications and in-person visits are infrequent. Family unity, I think, is also enhanced when a family unites behind a common project like an endowed scholarship in which all the family members can take pride. And then I might mention that I hoped the book would support the Baylor Department of History’s relatively new Ph.D. program, its recent Ph.D.s, and the Guittard Fellows and Guittard-Verlander-Voegtle Scholars.
What has the reception of the new book been like?
Based on the reviews from Baylor and elsewhere, positive I would say so far. Reviewers say they like the illustrations, the diversity of the contents inside, the conversations in letters between the family members regarding issues in their daily lives, the controversies in the background, and numerous other things.
What do you like the most about your book?
I guess the fact that it represented the transformation of a bunch of old letters in a shoebox that would have been thrown out sooner or later, into an extended written story in hard copy, with characters, themes, subthemes, and with a least a handful of drama along the way. And the best thing really would be the opportunity to bring my grandparents alive as real people for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren who never really knew them or the difficulties, privations or even tragedies they experienced almost a century or more ago.
Yes. The process has been very satisfying, particular being able to work with an excellent co-editor Tommy DeShong and then to see an outstanding young artist Grace Daniel illustrate my grandfather’s story, but also to work with Baylor faculty members in the history department to craft the story and shape the book.
Why did you self-publish rather than work through an established publishing company, such Baylor University Press?
Really two reasons. First, as part of its mission, Baylor Press concentrates on publishing other kinds of books. Second, self-publishing allows the author much more control over the look and content of the final product. That was important to me. Of course, all the errors in the book are mine and I can’t blame them on anyone else.
Now that the book is out, what will you do next?
Well, after making a few efforts to distribute copies of the book, my plan is to return to my original project, the life and times of Frank Guittard, Volume I, that I started in 1978.
Do you know when that will be finished?
I really have no idea –– perhaps in two to three years from now. But I would like along the way to take some time to help other families decide to put their letters, diaries, etcetera, into some kind of permanent form for their descendants.
Photo of Frank Guittard courtesy of The Texas Collection at Baylor University