On Monday, December 16, 1946, Baylor University president Pat M. Neff delivered a speech to the students assembled for what would be the final Chapel gathering of the year. Students were scheduled to be released for the Christmas break at 5:00 PM on Thursday the 19th, and everyone was in a festive frame of mind, including President Neff. That spirit of good cheer probably accounts for why, as the needle dropped on a turntable that would record his speech for posterity, Neff chose to open his presentation with a joke.
I do not know what we’d do if we didn’t have the weather to talk about. And do you know why we talk about the weather? It’s because one person in Texas knows just as much about the weather as any other person. Therefore, we meet on a common platform and discuss the weather.
(I didn’t say it was a good joke, just that it was, technically a joke.)
And now, 70 years to the day after it was recorded live in Waco Hall, you can hear the speech in its entirety here:
Click play on the player above to listen to the entire speech in this browser window. NOTE: Due to size restrictions for MP3 files in WordPress, the quality of this audio has been reduced from the original audio.
We wanted to take the occasion of this major anniversary to examine President Neff’s message, to dive into its sentiments, to examine what was on the president’s mind at the close of what would be his penultimate year as Baylor’s chief executive … and, most importantly, to discuss something that caught all of us here a little off-guard: Pat Neff was actually pretty funny.
“Smilin'” Pat Neff
We jokingly refer to President Neff by the nickname “Smilin'” Pat Neff, mainly because we’ve never actually seen him smile. As evidence, here are his official portraits from the Round Up, our campus yearbook, from the 1940s.
And lest you think this was just a result of being a little more seasoned by life’s hardships, so to speak, observe this retrospective collage of Neff photos from the 1943 Round Up.
With all of this evidence to the contrary, you can forgive us for not expecting Neff to have much of a sense of humor. But that’s where we turned out to be very wrong.
It actually shouldn’t have been that big of a surprise, in retrospect. After all, Neff ran a successful campaign for statewide office – governor, no less – and was a successful fundraiser and member of Baylor’s Board of Trustees before assuming the BU presidency. With some notable exceptions – *coughCalvinCoolidgecough* – it’s incredibly difficult to become such a powerful person without possessing any personality at all. But you can forgive us for being surprised to find not one but numerous occasions throughout the December 16, 1946 chapel talk recording where Neff’s speech is interrupted by audience laughter. And not just polite, “Oh, our president is so humorous, let’s give him a chuckle” kind of laughter, but actual, “By gum, that’s funny!” laughter. In fact, the transcript is interrupted more than two dozen times with the phrase [audience laughter], indicating Neff not only knew his way around a desk but around a punchline as well.
The Man Speaks
When the transcription disks containing Neff’s 1946 Chapel talk were digitized earlier this year, none of our staff in the Digital Projects Group had ever heard his voice. In fact, other than recognizing his stoic visage from an item we’d digitized several years earlier, no one other than myself had had much occasion to look at or think about materials related to Baylor’s former president. But I’d always been fascinated with Neff’s life and impact on the state of Texas. (Fun fact: as a proud Texas Tech Red Raider alumnus, Neff holds a special place in my heart as the governor who signed the bill, in 1923, establishing Texas Technological College in Lubbock.) So I was particularly excited to hear Neff’s voice for the first time when I first sat down to transcribe the five album sides containing the speech.
Neff’s voice on the recordings is strong and clear, with a distinct Texas drawl and a now-familiar cadence that I recognize as being inherent to public speakers who grew up learning to speak in public at the turn of the last century. He speaks a little on the slow side and with a seasoned speaker’s ability to pace his words to his audience’s reaction. This, after all, was a man accustomed to addressing crowds of well-wishers, nay-sayers, Congressmen, rodeos, student groups and classrooms; in short, he knows what he’s doing on a speaker’s rostrum.
After opening with his “Texas weather” joke – a safe topic for anyone who’s spent more than 10 seconds in our fair state – Neff launches into the meat of his presentation: what to talk about when you head home for Christmas and you’re stuck with your parents. Neff recognizes that many of these students are going home for the first time since arriving in the summer as freshmen, and he notes that the people back home might not recognize them anymore (because the women students in particular might have on “these little lampshade things they call a hat”). In addition, he thinks they might be interested to hear more about Baylor University and the life of the campus, so his thrust for the speech is to give the student body some interesting facts with which to regale the curious during the Christmastide.
One of his biggest laugh lines – and the source of the quote in this post’s title – is when Neff encourages the students to engage with everyone they meet back home. He notes that they may be shy to speak to these strange creatures known as college students, but that the Baylor Bears are to be “calm when you go to church, or their party, or their shindig” – at which point the audience breaks into laughter. Neff, in a bit of self-effacing humor after using such an up-to-date piece of slang, notes with mock humility that he likes “to speak the lingo of the laity.” This, of course, draws additional laughter.
Neff draws another big laugh out of a riff on what a privilege it is to be at Baylor in 1946. I’ll let the transcript tell it from here:
Sure, it’s a wonderful thing to be at an institution of learning like this. Sit down and talk to your folks about it. It won’t do you any harm and it’ll do them a whole lot of good. That’s what the girl said when her mother reprimanded her for letting the boys kiss her. She says, ‘Mother, it didn’t do me any harm and it did the boys a lot of good.'” [audience laughter] I don’t see anything funny about that! [laughs, audience laughter].
The “boys kissing the girl” joke plays off smoothly and strikes me as the kind of joke Neff probably told dozens of times at dozens of events during a long career as a public figure. But that doesn’t make the students’ genuinely amused response, or Neff’s laughing retort, any less delightful.
In between all the giggles and guffaws, however, there runs a serious streak. Neff takes the occasion of his Chapel talk to remind the assembled students that while the majority of students at Baylor were reported to be of the Baptist religious affiliation, other groups on campus were growing every year. The presence of Methodists, Lutherans, Church of Christ and Christian Church members may not be surprising on a large college campus in 1946, but the note that there were a total of 26 different denominations – including Quakers and Mormons – might be. Perhaps more surprising is Neff’s encouragement that the students “touch elbows and have comradeship and fellowship with somebody outside of your circle.” He continues, “If I were in your place, I’d make the acquaintance of these Mormons, and I’d make acquaintance of these Quakers … You might try them on and see what they have with their religion. If you can’t fortify yours and stand up with it and by it, perhaps it’ll do you good to listen to some of these others.”
That sets up one of Neff’s most effective lines in the entire speech, one that does what any good university-level speech ought to do to its audience: make them think.
I’ll tell you now, if you ever tie in to a Mormon, he can tell you why he’s a Mormon. I know why you’re a Baptist: because your parents were. He can tell you why he is. The faith that’s in him. Try one of them. See if you can.
At first, this reads as much as an insult as a joke, but after letting it sit with me for a few minutes, it struck me that what Neff was doing wasn’t an attempt to tear anyone down but to encourage members of all the various faiths present on campus to truly examine their beliefs, to do some (literal) soul searching and to know, inherently, why they identified as a particular religion, and not just for a surface reason like family tradition. He is encouraging the students to truly – to borrow a phrase – “know themselves.”
After a true master class in public speaking, Neff draws his speech to a close after twenty minutes of laughs, insight and homespun wisdom with this closing passage:
We just have to to through the world our one time, we go through just once. And when you go through these coming holiday seasons, you’ll pass through them no more. When this chapel has been adjourned, you’ll not be just as you are anymore; that’ll be in the past. The mill never grinds through the water that’s passed.
It’s an introspective, somewhat bittersweet dispensation of wisdom from a man who will pass from the Earth in a mere five years to a room full of the nation’s robust youth, fresh off the end of a devastating World War and awash in the promise of a better tomorrow, and it strikes me as pitch perfect for the occasion.
In lieu of a “benediction,” Neff closes the recording by kicking off an organ-accompanied rendition of That Good Old Baylor Line, as hundreds of youthful voices unite together to close out a semester of learning, fellowship and growth.
A Worthy Challenge
The entire 22 minute recording is well worth your listen, but if you have time for only a short excerpt, I encourage you to listen to this section of audio where Neff exhorts the students to remember the high privilege of being able to attend a university in a time when so many people in the country worked at backbreaking, manual labor and would never know the dream of an advanced education.
On the b-side of the final disk of the Chapel talk recordings, an enterprising audiophile went into the clear cold morning of December 24, 1946 and recorded audio of the bells of Baylor campus playing two short Christmas songs: O Christmas Tree and Silent Night. We hope you enjoy these seasonally appropriate sounds of Baylor University as it was recorded live, 70 years ago this month.