In late summer 1863, while in Texas to consider accepting the pastorate of the Houston Baptist Church, William Carey Crane was asked to consider instead the presidency of Baylor University. He had previously served as president of three colleges but initially turned down the offer to lead the school that had only 15 students. However, he changed his mind a few days later and accepted the proffered position at an annual salary of $3,000.
An alumnus of schools in Virginia, Maryland, and New York, Crane was a "fascinating case study in contrasts." His private diaries were filled with melancholy, self-pity, and gloom, while publicly he appeared to be a brilliant, confident leader with no misgivings as to his lot in life.
One of his first acts as president was to reclaim the buildings where Confederate soldiers had been living. They were "floorless, windowless and roofless" because the soldiers had burned everything that would ignite for cooking and warmth. Then Crane focused on increasing enrollment. He enjoyed some success, due in part to his willingness to accept bartered goods and services to pay tuition and fees.
Crane wrote prolifically and corresponded voluminously with people across Texas and the U.S. He also managed a full load of pastoral and administrative responsibilities, including teaching eight hours a day, five days a week. In addition, he did yeoman's duty as business manager and public relations director for the University. He personally repaired fences and buildings, planted crops, killed hogs, kept books, built fires, counseled students and parents, solicited funds, attended conventions, lectured on a variety of subjects, wrote numerous articles and several books (including a classic biography of Sam Houston), and was a full-time pastor. He maintained an arduous speaking schedule that included presentations to a myriad of religious, government, education, and temperance groups. He served as the first president of the Texas State Teachers Association and chaired the committee that recommended the founding of Sam Houston Normal Institute which later became Sam Houston State University.
During his two decades at the helm of Baylor, Crane made a valiant but futile attempt to develop a strong, permanent university. He used significant personal wealth in the effort. Much of his time was spent in confrontations with Rufus Burleson who, because he wanted Waco University to be the primary Baptist school in Texas, fought Crane for the public eye and the Baptist dollar. Crane's death in office on February 27, 1885, ended the controversy and opened the door for the unification of Baylor and Waco Universities the following year.
William Crane was born in Richmond, Virginia, March 17, 1816, to William and Lydia Dorset Crane. In 1838, he married Alcesta Flora Galusha who died in 1840. His second wife Jane Louise Wright died in 1842. In 1845, he married 17-year-old Catharine Jane Shepherd of Mobile, Alabama. They had nine children.