After the emotional highs of the year 1917, the crushing blow of having their prize – SFA – snatched away at the end of the year was an extreme disappointment to Nacogdoches and to East Texas. The realization of their dreams would, in The Sentinel's later words, be "long deferred." The years after 1917 were full of uncertainties. Had Nacogdoches not worked with united determination, the very difficult winters ahead would have defeated a less focused town. For the faithful, even the restoration of funding in 1921 did not end the long list of unknowns which plagued SFA. These years of uncertainties are the subject of the SFA Heritage Series this week.
In the tide of affairs, things taken at the flood are supposed to lead on to fortunes. The momentum of the year 1917 had led to dancing in the streets in Nacogdoches, but the Great War, the Texas economy, and Texas politics, all worked to make for a strong undertow in the affairs of 1917. The big questions in the minds of Nacogdoches leaders were now: how could they get the state first, to honor its pledge to fund SFA, and second, to make sure that the legislators did not go back on their promise to locate the new institution in Nacogdoches.
The plans for building SFA were extensive before retrenchment was imposed. The Board of Regents, as mentioned last week had not only selected a president, Alton W. Birdwell, but they had also selected architects, set forth specifications, and designated the order in which the schools would be opened: first, the South Texas State Normal at Kingsville in 1918; second, the Stephen F. Austin Normal College at Nacogdoches in 1920, and last, the Sul Ross State Normal College at Alpine in 1922. These plans collapsed. In their meetings with the Governor, where they were told the schools would have to be postponed and the agreements with architects and the presidents withdrawn, the Boeard did extract a promise from Governor Hobby that the locations of the schools would remain the same.
In a complicated series of political maneuvers in the next year and a half, however, the legislators were able to force the opening of Sul Ross by a separate law, against the wishes of the Board of Regents. The Board had actually found the site offered by the citizens of Alpine "objectionable and not satisfactory." Despite all protests, the politicians in 1919 ripped Sul Ross from the list of three and forced its opening through legislative means. The reasons are somewhat unclear, but the outcome is not; the opening of Sul Ross is an excellent example of the negative impact of politics on the development of higher education in the state. The Board of Regents certainly felt this way. Meanwhile, the order of the opening of the other two colleges, even if they were eventually funded, was still up the air as the people of East Texas waited for their Normal.
The first order of the interim years for SFA actually came in October of 1917; this was a disposition of the property itself which Nacogdoches citizens had given the state for the new college. At the first hint of a problem with the implementation of the charter, the Board of Regents had recommended that Mr. Eugene H. Blount be made the agent "for looking after the property of this Board at Nacogdoches...pending the construction [of SFA]." He was "to take charge of all said property and exclude all trespassers, and stop all cutting of timber, and other waste, and to lease and manage said property in such manner as he may deem to the best interest of the State." The land on which SFA sits has an interesting history and continued to have an interesting one between 1918 and 1922, as the Heritage Series explores in a separate article this week.
The 1919 session of the legislature addressed the question of SFA only in an indirect way, dealing primarily with Sul Ross Normal. The East and South Texas Normals had to wait until the spring session in April of 1921 before the legislation reestablishing funding could pass both houses. At the next meeting of the Board on May 12, 1921 following the appropriation bill's passage, the Regents unanimously selected Nacogdoches to be the first of the two normals to open. It was only unanimous on the second vote, for two members originally voted for Kingsville. On May 26, the Board ratified and confirmed their "former action" and reelected Birdwell as SFA's president. Birdwell thus became SFA's first and its second president! The applications of others were returned unopened. Of course, Birdwell had been acting as a member of the cabinet of presidents from 1917 onward; sometimes he was listed as President of SFA at Nacogdoches and sometimes as President-elect. Before Birdwell or Nacogdoches could celebrate, however, politics again reared its unwelcomed head in the summer of 1921. AGAIN, the funding legislation for SFA was threatened, this time by a pending veto from Governor Pat Neff. In August of 1921, the crowd pulling for SFA, in both Austin and Nacogdoches, had to spend some more sleepless nights. Heavy lobbying tood place. On September 6, 1921, the Minutes of the Board of Regents freflect the curtail the following passage:
"Agreement made with Governor Neff by A. C. Goeth, President, that if the Governor would allow the appropriation for the construction of the Stephen F. Austin Normal at Nacogdoches to stand as passed by the Legislature, that the Board of Regents would not let contract for the building before Aug-31-1922, and the money not be expended until the fiscal year beginning Sept-1-1922 and ending 1923."
The telegrams back to Nacogdoches were positive: "We have it!" In contrast to 1917, this time there was no dancing in the streets. The people of Nacogdoches were wiser if not sad anymore.
The announcement for the letting of contracts came on February 13, 1922. The Sentinel led the cheering: "This is glorious news for Nacogdoches and East Texas, and marks the relaxation of a hope which has been long deferred. . . .Now let us get busy on that street paving project [promised as part of the original city offer to the state]." The contract for preparing the campus and constructing the Austin Building went to the Moore Construction Company of Brownwood on May 18, 1922; they were to receive no money on their low bid of $129,590.00 before September 1, 1922. Despite the fact that money was not to be forthcoming until September, the contractor forged ahea. The Sentinel announced the arrival of Moore in Nacogdoches on June 8, 1922.
Mr. J. B. Moore, president of the Moore Construction Company of Brownwood, to whom was awarded the contract for the erection of the Stephen F. Austin Normal College buildings, arrived in the city Wednesday and is getting things in readiness for the commencement of work early next week, probably Monday [12 June 1922]. He informed the Sentinel man that part of the material had been shipped and should be here in time for an immediate beginning of actual construction. Mr. Moore said he was awaiting the arrival of the architect to lay off the ground plan for the buildings, and it is supposed this will be done before the last of this week.
Our people are gratified to know that hope long deferred is soon to end in fruition and that one of the great educational institutions of the state will be ready to open its doors here within a twelve months unless unexpected obstacles are encountered.
Mr. Moore will have personal charge of building operations."
"Unless unexpected obstacles are encountered. . . ." These words were ominous and prophetic. The articles in this edition of the Heritage Series detail problems with the title and the property, with the building contract, with the weather, with the holding of summer school, with the housing of students, and with personnel. With "fortitude and courage," however, Birdwell and the citizens of Nacogdoches made it through the years of uncertainties to the opening of SFA in September of 1923. (See coverage in the August 30, 1998 edition of The Sentinel.)
It is difficult for the current generation, when reading about the term "Normal," not to conjure in their minds many funny plays on words or puns. The term "Normal" at the turn of the Twentieth Century designated a particular type of school that trained teachers for the primary, grammar, and secondary grades. Sometimes one finds it capitalized in the newspapers or in documents, sometimes not. Of course, without the capitalization, the term becomes even more bizarre and funny to us. So, was SFA ever "Normal," leaving aside the question of whether SFA was ever "normal!" In legal, historic terms, SFA was created Normal in the chartering act of 1917. It was even funded Normal in the legislation of 1921. On the other hand, neither the creation, nor the funding, nor the opening processes for SFA were "normal." The Board of Regents of the State Normal Schools, for many reasons, had recommended as early as May 6, 1922, that the name of the schools as a group be changed to "Teachers Colleges." In the spring of 1923, the Thirty-Eight Legislature in their regular session legalized the name changes. No doubt, they recognized the difficulties which had attended SFA's founding would not qualify to have the word normal associated with the institution! From the day of its opening, SFA was never Normal.