Optimism in the Midst of War: Baylor University’s Centennial Celebration

by Sydney Shields

The spring of 1945 was a time of uncertainty and unrest for most Americans.  World War II had been taking place in Europe since September of 1939, with the United States of America officially joining the war after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  The conscription bill passed in 1940, requiring all men age 18 to 45 to register for the draft, was quickly put to use after the United States declared war (World War II, n.d.).  However, a large majority of young men volunteered on their own for military service and were deployed overseas.

With so many young men going off to war and so many young women becoming nurses, volunteers, or taking on jobs to help support their families, institutions of higher education felt the crippling effects of the war.  Student enrollment dropped, courses went unfilled or untaught, and resources were scarce due to war allocations (Englander, 1942).  Baylor University, a small, Baptist-affiliated school located in Waco, Texas, was no exception to these setbacks.  Unique to Baylor, however, was that the centennial year of its charter happened to fall in the middle if this troubling wartime, on February 1, 1945.  Morale was down due to the number of students’ loved ones being overseas, and something was needed to remind students and alumni of their love for their school.  Despite being a nation at war, Baylor University found a way to remain hopeful and optimistic through its Centennial Founders’ Day .

A Look At Baylor’s First 100 Years

Baylor University, the oldest continually operating university in the state of Texas, began with humble beginnings.  In 1841, Reverend William Milton Tryon approached District Judge R.E.B. Baylor with an idea to open a Baptist college in Texas.  Baylor fully supported Tryon’s proposal, even donating $1,000 toward the cause.  Together, they enlisted the help of 35 other delegates, including Reverend James Huckins, the first Baptist missionary and would-be prominent fundraiser for the university, to create a petition for the new school ([Radio Announcement], May 1945).  On February 1, 1845, the Republic of Texas officially chartered Baylor University, named after the modest Judge Baylor on Tryon’s insistence.  After winning a bid among three other Texas locations, university officials chose Independence to be the new home of Baylor University ([Radio Announcement], May 1945).

Campus at Independence. Courtesy of the Texas Collection.

When Baylor University opened the doors of its only building on campus to students in May of 1846, only 24 students were enrolled and one instructor was listed on the payroll ([Press Release], 1945).  The original aim of the university was to train future preachers; however, Judge Baylor, Reverend Tryon, and Reverend Huckins had a broad vision,

to found a Baptist university in Texas upon a plan so broad that the requirements of existing conditions would be fully met, and that would be susceptible of enlargement and development to meet the demands of all ages to come ([Radio Announcement], May 1945).

This vision was seen in 1886, when Baylor University followed the construction of the railroad and moved from Independence to merge with Waco University in Waco, Texas, and become Baylor University at Waco.

In its first 100 years as an institution, Baylor University has witnessed Texas join the Union, the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War I, and the majority of World War II.  Still, in spite of the many hardships it has had to endure, Baylor University continued to survive as a leading Christian institution of higher learning.  Approximately “50,000 students have walked through the halls” during this time period ([Press Release], 1945).  These students and the historical events they had to endure represent the expansion and adaptability the founders had envisioned.

World War II’s Impact on Campus

World War II commenced when Germany, under the regime of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, invaded Poland in September of 1939.  Over the span of 6 years, approximately 61 countries and more than 1.7 billion people participated in the war effort (World War II, n.d.).  The United States of America entered the war on December 8, 1941, after Japanese kamikaze pilots unexpectedly attacked the U.S. military base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  The war began to come to a close after the famous D-Day invasion at Normandy in the summer of 1944.  The war was officially over in 1945 after Germany and Japan surrendered.  World War II was by far the most destructive conflict in history with more than 60 million soldier and civilian casualties from battles, bombs, and internment camps.  To put the death toll in perspective, 60 million people made up roughly 3 percent of the 1940 world population (World War II, n.d.).

Even though the United States entered the war two years after it began, they still suffered a great deal of loss.  More than 400,000 men, women, and children lost their lives in the years America was at war (World War II, n.d.).  Many of these casualties were young men or women who were previously enrolled in universities.  After the attack on Pearl Harbor, many Baylor students opted out of spring registration to enlist in the military or to volunteer as a nurse or aid (Englander, 1942).  Even the students, faculty, and staff who remained on campus during the war felt its effects.  Friends, classmates, siblings, spouses, children, parents, and other loved ones were possibly overseas, at constant risk of losing their lives.

With student enrollment significantly down, Baylor University needed to find ways to adapt and accommodate to the demands of its students.  The university did this a number of different ways.  First, the summer quarter, which typically counted as less than a full credit, was upgraded to regular class status (Garrerr, 1945).  This meant that students could graduate in 2.5 years and get a professional job or join the war effort with a college degree under their belts.  Second, the sharp decline in male attendance forced the abrupt suspension of many classes until after the war.  Other classes offered were adjusted to allow for women to enroll, such as motor training and multiple nursing course sections (Englander, 1942).  Students on campus were also forced to acclimate to university changes caused by the war abroad.  Many organizations and events were put on hold during wartime due to lack of funding and participation.  Intercollegiate athletics between universities was cancelled.  Baylor’s annual Homecoming festivities were also cancelled due to the nature of the war and the lack of alumni and funds available to organize such events (Englander, 1942).  Some buildings on campus were reassigned for military purposes.  Students were required to change dormitories or attend class in a different building or classroom in order to accommodate for soldiers present on campus.  Buildings that were under construction had to halt their progress because there was no steel or other materials that were not already allocated to the United States military.  The most notable building that halted construction was the new Student Union Building, which was a gift from alumni intended to be open for Baylor’s centennial events in early 1945 ([Student Union Building], 1945).  World War II was causing dramatic changes to campus life and overall morale at Baylor University.  By early 1945, the end of the war was nearing, but to students, faculty, and staff on campus, it could not have seemed further out of sight.  In spite of the war and the many changes to Baylor’s campus, a handful of university officials were determined to host a memorable Centennial Founders’ Day Celebration.

Centennial Founders’ Day Celebration

February 1, 1945, marked a momentous day in the history of Baylor University.  One hundred years prior, it was awarded its charter and began teaching a handful of students in the small town of Independence, Texas.  Now, in the middle of a World War, Baylor University was faced with hardships and low student, faculty, and staff morale.  University President and former Governor of Texas, Pat M. Neff, thought it was important for the Baylor community to celebrate its first 100 years as an influential Christian institution, and insisted on hosting a grand spectacle for which students and alumni alike would be proud.  Neff appointed Lily Russell, former Dean of Women and Baylor University extraordinaire, to organize the celebration.  Russell, along with her staff and the newly formed group of ex-students known as the Baylor Centennial Foundation, planned and developed a series of 28 campus events ([Press Release], 1945).  These events were to begin with Opening Ceremonies on February 1, 1945, and to conclude with commencement ceremonies on May 26-29, 1945.

Reminiscing on the original vision of Baylor University laid out by Judge Baylor, Reverend Tryon, and Reverend Huckins, the overarching theme of the Centennial Founders’ Day Celebration was “Christian Education: Safeguard of Democracy” ([Press Release], 1945).  Just seven years earlier, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered an address for American Education Week in which he spoke to a nation on the brink of war.  He said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely.  The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education” (Roosevelt, n.d.).  Keeping the words of the President in mind, it was the hope of Baylor officials that students, faculty, staff, and alumni would “rededicate themselves to the ideals of past generations,” particularly holding fast to the ideals of freedom that motivated many soldiers during the war ([The Century], 1945).

Keeping with the theme, it was also important that the Opening Ceremonies reflect the community that Baylor strived to attain.  Every student was asked to participate in the opening processional through campus to Waco Hall.  The United States’ flag, the Christian flag, and the six flags of Texas were all represented to honor Baylor’s origin.  Baylor’s Golden Wave Band and various student choirs were present to welcome students and guests into Waco Hall.  Once everyone was seated, a prayer was offered, guest speakers, such as Dr. Kenneth Scott Latourette of Yale University, delivered powerful messages on the progress of the university, and honorary degrees were conferred upon the guest speakers (The Daily Lariat, January, 1945).  The Opening Ceremony concluded with the unveiling of two memorial pillars, dedicated to Reverend Tryon and Reverend Huckins for their devotion to Baylor University.  These pillars, located outside Waco Hall, stand next to a statue of Judge Baylor, which was erected on Founders’ Day in 1939 (The Daily Lariat, February, 1945).  In addition to the founders’ memorial statues, a Centennial Memorial was erected later in the spring semester of 1945.  This memorial was a time capsule, containing yearbooks, newspapers, course catalogs, pictures, letters, and recordings from the prior year.  The time capsule, symbolically constructed of stone from both the old Independence campus and the new Waco campus, is to be opened in 2045, at Baylor University’s bicentennial celebration (The Daily Lariat, April, 1945).  It was important for Baylor to host events that celebrated and commemorated the past and history of the university as well as encouraged the coming of the future.

Centennial Memorial
Commemoration of Baylor’s Centennial Memorial. Courtesy of the Texas Collection.


Lily Russell and Pat Neff also believed encouragement could be shown for the future by revitalizing areas of campus that had begun to wear down.  A campus-wide cleaning initiative took place, particularly with regards to lawn care (The Daily Lariat, December 1944).  Numerous live oak trees were planted along Founders’ Mall, the strip of land connecting Waco Hall, Judge Baylor and the memorial statues, and Pat Neff Hall (The Daily Lariat, December 1944).  These trees, which still stand tall today, were to represent the strong foundation that Baylor was founded on as well as the strength the university has to survive difficult times.  Additionally, 50 memorial lampposts were erected throughout campus.  These lampposts were dedicated to the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice by losing their lives in the line of duty.

They are strong, yet graceful and dignified, and thereby exemplify the qualities that were so apparent in the characters of “That Good Old Baylor Line”…These lights are not intended to sadden our hearts but rather to remind us of our responsibility to these men and women who have given their lives so that the light of freedom might shine forever on Baylor campus (The Daily Lariat, November 1944).

By revitalizing the campus, the focus was off of the hardness and sadness of war, but rather the beauty and serenity that Baylor University offered to its students.

One of the revitalization projects that ended up being interrupted due to the war was the construction of a new Student Union Building in the heart of campus.  The Baylor Centennial Foundation, comprised of ex-students, spend the few years leading up to 1945 raising money for the Union Building.  It was meant to be a gift to the university on its 100th birthday.  However, due to the needs on the war front, steel was in short supply and construction was abruptly halted.  For over a year, there only stood a hollow metal frame where the Student Union Building was meant to be.  After the war, the Union Building was completed and dedicated at the 1948 Homecoming celebration ([Student Union Building], 1945).  Nonetheless, the gifting of the Student Union Building was still a momentous event during the centennial semester, as many alumni who donated to the construction if the building also returned to Waco to share in the hopeful atmosphere of the future.

Construction of Student Union Building. Courtesy of the Texas Collection.
Construction of Student Union Building. Courtesy of the Texas Collection.


While student morale on campus was an important factor when planning the various centennial events, Lily Russell and Pat Neff also understood the importance of inviting and incorporating alumni and hefty donors into the ceremonies.  Many of the speeches, luncheons, and meetings offered throughout the semester were aimed at alumni returning to Waco after years of being away.  Board of Trustee members and their families were present at many events, and the surviving family members of the founding Board of Trustees also attended events, as they were able.  World War II made travel difficult for many, so Baylor had all of the centennial events broadcast over the radio nationally (The Daily Lariat, December 1944).  Even with the travel conditions unfavorable, a great deal of alumni and donors found a way to return home to Waco.  Many alumni needed to return to campus to regain a sense familiarity that had been shaken by two World Wars.

Conclusion and Implications

Even in the midst of chaos, confusion, and loss, Baylor University chose to celebrate its own institutional accomplishment.  World War II may have been nearing its close in the spring of 1945, but the damage it caused would take years to mend.  Baylor students withdrew to enlist in the armed forces.  Some of them were killed in action.  Students who chose to stay on campus were forced to alter their academic plans because of limited course availability.  The war had left a dark cloud over the United States, including Baylor University.  In spite of the troubling times, Baylor President Pat Neff still believed the students, faculty, staff, and alumni needed to remain optimistic.  With the special coordination of Lily Russell, Baylor’s Centennial Founders’ Day Celebration was able to honor the past, showcase the positive aspects of the present, and anticipate the future.  The erection of Tryon’s and Huckin’s memorial pillars, the revitalization of campus, and the creation of the time capsule were only a few ways Baylor’s history and culture were exhibited during the spring of 1945.  Through these and the other on-campus events, Baylor University was able to use their Centennial Celebration as a beacon of hope and community for alumni and students alike.


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