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Southwestern University has a colorful past fraught with tales of intrigue, war and a nationally-ranked football team. SU first opened its doors in Georgetown in 1873, but its founding lies in
the histories of four "root" institutions established earlier. Here's a
It all began simply in 1835. The publisher of the New York
Christian Advocate received a letter from the faraway Mexican
colony of Texas. Written by 26-year-old Col. William B. Travis of the
volunteer Texas army, the letter called for the establishment of a
Methodist presence in the region where settlers were beginning to
revolt against the government of Mexico.
Fearing the political consequences of founding a foreign mission
before tensions in Texas were resolved, Methodist Church leaders
refrained from sending missionary preachers until 1837 when Texas
became a sovereign republic. At that time, three missionaries were
dispatched to Texas including Martin Ruter of Pennsylvania. Though
Ruter would die just six months after arriving, his ideals, work and
lobbying of the young republic's leaders certainly affected the
beginnings of higher education in Texas.
Rutersville College, 1840:
Superstition & Other Vices
Martin Ruter found Texas to be an unsettled region recovering
from the ravages of war and surviving under the danger caused by
enmity between settlers and Comanches. In a letter describing the
area and its inhabitants, he wrote, "Texas is a country where
darkness, ignorance and superstition have long held their dominie
(sic). Profaneness, gaming and intemperance are prevailing vices
against which we have to contend."
Despite the challenges, Ruter's vision of a college came to
fruition in 1840 with the founding of Rutersville College, six miles
north of La Grange. Rutersville College struggled in its infancy, yet by 1844
the first six college graduates in the Republic of Texas completed their work
But the situation would soon change. A scandal involving a
Methodist local preacher, increasing financial troubles and
resurgence of a public versus denominational debate combined to
force interest in and support for Rutersville to wane. The college
would close its doors by 1856.
Wesleyan College, 1844:
Murder & Escape to Mexico
Due to bitter theological differences between local
Presbyterians and Methodists, the East Texas town of San Augustine
was the site of two institutions of higher learning in the mid-1840s.
In 1844, area Methodists founded Wesleyan College in response to
attacks from the town's Presbyterian preacher who also happened to
be president of that denomination's San Augustine University. The
rivalry spilled over to the two competing local papers, each firmly
entrenched in opposing camps. The dispute eventually led to one
editor killing the other and then fleeing to Mexico.
Faced with financial difficulties, the Methodist Church's East
Texas Conference, which sponsored Wesleyan College, soon
discovered that the charter did not provide them with control of the
institution's property. By 1847, Wesleyan College and San Augustine
University were combined as the private University of Eastern Texas
under state control and a non-denominational governing board.
Though its three-year existence was brief and without much success,
Wesleyan College assumed a place in the lore of Texas and in the
heritage of Southwestern University.
McKenzie College, 1848:
Civil War Closes Peculiar Institution
J.W.P. McKenzie, a former preacher, founded McKenzie Institute
in the Red River County town of Clarksville in 1839. A shrewd
businessman and strong Methodist, McKenzie ran the
endeavor as a mutually dependent school and plantation, with the
latter supporting the former.
A symbol of the times in the South, the plantation was worked
by slaves, and some patrons of the school even exchanged slave labor
for their children's tuition.
More than 3,300 students ranging from young pupils to college
students attended McKenzie during its 26-year existence and at least
59 men received college degrees between the years 1845 through
McKenzie made several attempts to bring the college, officially
chartered by the state in 1848, under East Texas Conference
sponsorship once the school became well established and fiscally
sound. Although McKenzie retained financial control for another
seven years, the Civil War effectively led the school to close.
Soule University, 1856:
Yellow Fever & Mood's Arrival
In 1854, the state changed the charter of the non-
denominational Chappell Hill Male and Female College near Brenham,
allowing its trustees to transfer control "to any denomination of
Christians they may think proper."
Having lost interest in Rutersville College, the Texas Conference of
the Methodist Church was seeking such an enterprise when it met
and decided to found a new Methodist institution. The school would
be named "Soule University" after Bishop Joshua Soule of the
Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Chappell Hill was selected as the
From its opening, Soule experienced deep financial problems
which dogged it until its closing in 1887. Despite insolvency, Soule's
Board of Trustees carried out plans to open a medical department --
the first in Texas -- as soon as the war ended in 1865.
Adding to Soule's misfortune, another epidemic of yellow fever
spread across Texas. As with Southwestern's three other root
institutions, events of social and natural cataclysm stood in the way
In 1868, Francis Asbury Mood, a teacher at the South Carolina
State Normal School, agreed to a second request from Soule's board to
become the university's president. The path of higher education in
Texas would forever be changed by the ideals and actions of Mood
soon after he arrived.
Mood found an institution in disarray and the hope for a
central Methodist university in the state dying fast. He quickly
formulated a plan requesting all five Texas Methodist conferences to
sponsor and support one central institution. Securing approval from
all the conferences, Mood was elected president of the new
institution which would become Southwestern. Georgetown was
selected as the site in 1872. Two years after opening its doors as
Texas University in 1873, the institution's Union Charter was granted
by the State of Texas in 1875 under the name Southwestern
University. The original name, Texas University, was relinquished to the state.
SU's claim as "Texas' First University" is based on its February
7, 1875, Union Charter. The charter says, "That the right to confer
degrees, regular and honorary, in the arts and sciences, heretofore
conveyed through the Legislature of the State of Texas in the
charters of Rutersville College (1840), Rutersville; Wesleyan College
(1844), San Augustine; Soule University (1856), Chappell Hill; and to
McKenzie College (1848), Clarksville, Red River County; are hereby
transferred and perpetuated and retained to said Curators: and the
graduates of said colleges and University shall be entitled to all the
literary privileges and honors inuring to other graduates of
Helen Keller, Yeats & Financial Decline
SU emerged over the next several decades as the central
Methodist college in Texas. Along the way, the University saw
several firsts: it beat UT-Austin in the first college baseball game
played in the state; three of the first five Rhodes Scholars in Texas
were SU graduates; and the Southwestern Magazine, the first student
literary journal in the state, was founded. Southwestern's Medical
Department in Dallas was established in 1903. Ghost stories about the
Cullen Building (1900) and Mood-Bridwell Hall (1908) began to
spread soon after their construction. Legendary folklorist and author
J. Frank Dobie graduated in 1910 and went on to national
By 1909, cities in the state such as Dallas and Fort Worth had
grown to the point where they tried to lure SU from Georgetown.
Instead, political infighting among Methodists and civic leaders led to
the establishment of what would become Southern Methodist
University in Dallas. SU's president, Dr. Robert Stewart Hyer, resigned
to head the new university.
In 1915, Laura Kuykendall, Dean of Women, began the annual
May Fete, a springtime celebration that would attract trainloads of
visitors through the 1930s. While renowned figures such as Helen
Keller, Jacob Riis, William Jennings Bryan and William Butler Yeats
visited campus during this era, the establishment of SMU and
competition from other colleges around the state marked the
beginning of a difficult era for Southwestern. World War I soon left
very few men on campus, lowering enrollment. The original women's
residence hall burned down in 1925, forcing women to live in Mood
Hall for two years. Men found lodging in private homes around
Though SU struggled with enrollment and finances through the
1920s and 1930s, there were bright spots. During the Depression, the
campus community came together as never before: without money,
families and students wrote promissory notes for tuition and faculty
were paid with scrip. Faculty families ate their meals with students
in campus dining halls. In 1937, with its doors about to close, SU was
saved from financial ruin by Elizabeth Carothers Wiess, a Houston
Survival & Gridiron Glory
The first approved, all-school dance was held on campus in
1941. World War II brought prosperity to SU when the War
Department selected it as a site for a Navy officers training program (V-12).
Assigned among the SU midshipmen were some of the best football
players from Baylor, UT-Austin, TCU, SMU, Rice and Oklahoma. By the
fall of 1943, the "Immortal 36" -- as they became known -- terrorized
other teams with achievements such as beating UT in Austin. The
Pirates went on to win the Sun Bowl in 1944 and 1945.
In this period, the faculty included several scholars who had fled
their homes in war-torn Europe. A number remained at SU for many
Liberal Arts Focus, Growth & Revival
The 1950s marked the beginning of what would become the
modern SU campus, located around a central academic mall. It was
also a time when Southwestern began to become the liberal arts
and sciences college that it is today. The few graduate degrees it offered at
the time were dropped. Actor Jerry Wayne Hardin, Class of 1951, became the
first student to receive a Fulbright-Hays scholarship. Mandatory
chapel and assembly attendance for students became a thing of the past in
the fall of 1966.
As SU's reputation grew, so did its enrollment through the
1960s and 1970s, up to 1,000 students by 1978. The annual Brown
Symposium was established in 1977. By the early 1980s, the name
"Southwestern University" began to appear in national college
guidebooks. In 1988, US News & World Report named SU as the top
regional liberal arts college in the nation. US News & World Report has since
included Southwestern among its more competitive "National Liberal Arts College"
category. Southwestern is currently ranked as the top national liberal arts college
in Texas and the Southwest.
SU's annual London Semester Abroad started in 1985, sparking
growth in the University's study abroad offerings. In 1990, the Board
of Trustees voted to discontinue offering athletic scholarships,
moving SU to Division III of the NCAA where it competes in the
Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference.
The past decade has seen enrollment increase to 1,200,
with a student body from approximately 30 states and 20 nations.
While SU maintains its historic affiliation with The United Methodist
Church, many religious denominations are represented. In April of
1994, SU left behind its ranking among 470 regional liberal arts
colleges when the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of
Teaching promoted Southwestern to classification among 164
national liberal arts colleges. A chapter of Phi Beta Kappa was
installed in March, 1995.
To learn more about SU's past, visit the
A. Frank Smith, Jr. Library Center. Another resource is the book,
Southwestern University 1840-1961, by Ralph Wood Jones.