Within 24 hours of Henry L. Graves' resignation in June 1851, Baylor trustees chose 27-year-old Rufus C. Burleson, pastor of the Houston Baptist Church, to be the next president. Born near Decatur, Alabama, in 1824, Burleson was an eager learner all his life. As a youngster he was an apt student of languages, literature, philosophy, and the classics. Converted at age 16, he renounced his initial plans to study law in favor of the ministry. He graduated from Western Baptist Theological Seminary in 1846 and immediately dedicated his life to serving God in Texas.
When Burleson took over Baylor, the ink was barely dry on a letter he had written a friend about the poor prospects for the University, especially the unfavorable physical conditions of Independence. Yet, in spite of those dire predictions, Burleson undertook his responsibilities determined to change the school's image and perhaps its future. He also pastored Independence Baptist Church and baptized Sam Houston on November 19, 1854.
Almost a decade later when Burleson left to assume new responsibilities in Waco, the University was hardly recognizable as the same school. The curriculum had expanded significantly and the physical facilities were greatly improved.
In 1886, as Baptists searched for the best man to lead the consolidated Baylor and Waco Universities, under the name Baylor University at Waco, the natural choice was Rufus Burleson, who eagerly accepted the challenge.
Approximately 450 students enrolled that September with about half in the preparatory department. During his presidency, Burleson instituted general and specialized academic programs, authorized the formation of literary societies, and substantially enlarged the faculty. He also led in the construction of the first two permanent facilities - Main Hall (later known as "Old Main") and Burleson, a female dormitory named for his wife, Georgia, which was dedicated to "female education and piety."
Eventually, age and "modern ways of doing things" caught up with Burleson and in 1897 he stepped down to become the University's first President Emeritus. In the position, he promised to do all in his power to advance Baylor's glory. In spite of the loss of personal prestige, administrative authority, and teaching privileges, Burleson kept his promise and worked diligently to promote the school.
Rufus Columbus Burleson was born to Jonathan and Elizabeth Byrd Burleson on August 7, 1823. His mother was a descendant of the noted Byrd family of Virginia, and part of the state's prominent political family. President Burleson married Georgiana Jenkins, daughter of Judge and Mrs. P.C. Jenkins, on January 3, 1853, with Henry Graves officiating. They had five children, only two of whom survived - Hallie Byrd and Richard Adair. Burleson died on May 14, 1901, after having asked that his bed be turned to "view the spires of Main and Burleson Hall."