An existential question for you on this Flag Day: Is a flag pole still a flag pole if it’s no longer flying a flag? (Short answer: yes, it’s just not living up to its potential.)
Here’s another, related, question: What’s up with the 50-foot flag pole currently hidden by a giant oak tree on the west side of the Armstrong Browning Library? (Short answer: it started with a donation, and some trees grow really tall.)
It All Started (For Me) With A Post-presentation Walk
One sunny spring day, after attending a presentation at the beautiful Armstrong Browning Library, I walked out the building’s side door and ran smack dab into a flag pole I’d never seen before, which was weird, because it was 50 feet tall and topped with an eagle; kinda hard to miss, right? Normally, you’d be right, but allow me to set the stage with a little photographic evidence of its camouflaged-ness.
And, waaaay up top: the eagle.
Curious, I drew nearer to the mystery pole and found at its base a plaque with some intriguing – if not completely illuminating – information on it. To wit:
This of course lead to a whole series of questions: Who was Robert M. Hubbard? How was he connected to Baylor? Why would a flag pole dedicated to the “Founder of the Texas Highway System” be found outside the Armstrong Browning Library? Where the heck is New Boston, Texas? And so on.
To find the answers, I went digging into the archives at The Texas Collection, the Armstrong Browning Library and – of course – Google. The story has ties to former Texas governor (and Baylor president) Pat Neff; a man obsessed with the lives of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning; and a prominent location on the (then) frontier of the campus.
Who Was Robert M. Hubbard?
Robert M. Hubbard – Rob, to his family and friends – was born in Cooper and grew up in Paris, Texas. He graduated from the University of Virginia in 1894 and went on to gain a law degree at the University of Texas, graduating in the same class as (drum roll, please) Pat Morris Neff. Later, he married Berta Lee Hart. He went on to serve two terms in the Texas state legislature from 1930-1931 and served as state highway commissioner under governors William P. Hobby and Neff. Hubbard would die on November 6, 1934.
Hubbard oversaw the transformation of the state’s roadways from a series of barely passable, poorly planned backroads and county highways to one of the most advanced, innovative state highway systems in the country, earning him the nickname – you guessed it – the Founder of the Texas Highway System.
Mrs. Hubbard’s Gift
While R.M. Hubbard was busy serving the state both in Congress and in the highway commissioner’s chair, the Baylor University campus had a monumental task of its own: creating a collection and, eventually, a library related to the lives of Victorian poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The idee fixe of English faculty member Dr. A.J. Armstrong, the development of an on-campus resource focused on Browningiana took hold in Armstrong’s mind after his participation in an auction of Browning materials held by Sotheby’s in 1913. Over the next several decades, Armstrong worked tirelessly to acquire Browning materials. In December 1951, his dream was realized with the dedication of the Armstrong Browning Library, a gala affair that drew a long list of attendees, including one Berta Hubbard.
Mrs. Hubbard and an acquaintance, a Mrs. Watley of Texarkana, attended the festivities and were greatly moved by what they saw. After some conversations with Baylor administrators, facilitated by D.K. “Dock” Martin and including Earl C. Hankamer and Dr. Armstrong, Mrs. Hubbard settled on making a gift to Baylor in her husband’s honor. In a letter to Martin dated January 23, 1952, Mrs. Hubbard wrote,
Three thousand dollars is a large gift for me at this time, but I feel that I would like to make a gift – and if the flag staff is the wise choice – I would like that. … Of course it would be in memory of Rob.”
Letter from Mrs. R.M. Hubbard to D.K. “Dock” Martin, January 23, 1952. From the W.R. White Papers at The Texas Collection. Emphases in original. $3,000 in 1953 translates to roughly $27,000 dollars in 2016.
Mrs. Hubbard’s check led to the design and manufacture of a 50-foot flag pole, topped with an eagle and featuring a memorial plaque, to be situated on the southwest side of the building. At the time, that represented the treeless boundary of the campus. In this photo from the dedication ceremony, you can see just how starkly it stood out against the 2-year-old building’s facade.
For reference, here’s what that location looks like now, thanks to Google maps.
A (Lone) Star-studded Affair: Dedication Day
Planning for the flag pole’s dedication ceremony started small, with Dock Martin proposing a gathering of some 50 of Rob Hubbard’s closest friends to be held on Founders Day (February 1, 1953). However, at the encouragement of Baylor president W.R. White, the decision was made to “make a real Baylor occasion of it,” especially when former Texas governor William P. Hobby – under whom Hubbard had served as highway commissioner, you’ll recall – agreed to attend. The date was eventually changed to May 29, and Gov. Hobby served as the guest of honor.
Photos from that day show it to be a major ceremony indeed, including music, faculty in full cap-and-gown regalia, a contingent of U.S. military members and a sizable crowd present under a clear blue sky.
The flag pole’s grand launch was a success, and its presence on the southern frontier of the ever-expanding campus was a daily reminder of the university’s inextricable link to the state it calls home. But over time, an innocuous bystander, present at the dedication, would grow to obscure and hide its legacy to all but the heartiest of campus visitors (or, as it turns out, curators out wandering the grounds after a presentation). I give you: The Obscurer!
Yes, this hopeful little sapling will grow over the next 60+ years to become a mighty oak, with massive limbs and a propensity to consume. And at the time, it seemed so insubstantial, so full of promise, a future source of respite for an outdoor-minded Victorian scholar, not the dominant shade provider it would actually become.
Though it no longer bears a flag aloft in the shimmering south campus skies, the flag pole dedicated in honor of R.M. Hubbard – the Founder of the Texas State System – is a unique, endearing lagniappe to the legacy of the stunning architectural gem sitting just a stone’s throw away. And without the vision and passion of one member of the university’s faculty, who’s to say what might have occupied this now-vibrant corner of campus? Certainly nothing as interesting as an oak tree that eats flag poles, that much is certain.
Long May She Wave?
We have it on good authority – current director and long-time faculty member Rita Patteson, at that – that at one point there was an ABL flag that flew from the pole some years ago, and while I wasn’t able to track down an image of it, I took the liberty of creating an artist’s rendition featuring Dr. Armstrong’s face and what I imagine to have been his personal motto, which may or may not have been tattooed on his left bicep (unconfirmed).
This is where the heck New Boston is.
We are thankful to Jennifer Borderud and Melvin Schuetz at the ABL for their help on this post, and to Benna Vaughan and the staff at The Texas Collection for their help with the W.R. White correspondence.