Baylor Mourns Death of History Professor Ralph Lynn

  • News Photo 4168
    Dr. Ralph Lynn taught at Baylor from 1952 until his retirement in 1975.
  • News Photo 4167
    Dr. Ralph Lynn
July 10, 2007

Media contact: Lori Fogleman, director of media relations, (254) 710-6275

Dr. Ralph L. Lynn, one of Baylor University's legendary professors who challenged thousands of students, including best-selling authors, politicians, business leaders and faculty colleagues, to "Bear up nobly," has died.

Lynn, professor emeritus of history, passed away July 10 in Waco at the age of 97. Funeral services were held at 11 a.m. Friday, July 13, at First Baptist Church of Waco, 500 Webster.

"Ralph Lynn was a searcher for truth," said Baylor President John M. Lilley. "As a student, I knew him in Sunday School at Waco First Baptist, where he inspired me and many others to question and to believe. He had a remarkable gift to make us laugh, mostly at all of the things and situations that we hadn't previously considered funny. Sadly, another icon in Baylor history has left us this year. Thankfully, our memories are rich and vivid."

"Dr. Lynn's positive impact on Baylor University students and faculty would be almost impossible to exaggerate," said Dr. Wallace L. Daniel Jr., The Ralph L. and Bessie Mae Lynn Professor of History. "He was truly a giant in so many ways: in setting the very highest standards of excellence, in expecting his students to perform at the very highest levels of which they were capable, in not suffering fools gladly. But to me, what he best represented - what he stood for every day - was the very highest ethical standards, both in word and in deed. And in that sense, to me, he represents what Baylor is, at its very finest, what it aspires to be."

Lynn was born Sept. 20, 1909, in Oglesby, Texas. At age 14, he began working at Von Blon Book Store on Franklin Avenue in Waco and graduated from Waco High School in 1927. He earned his bachelor's degree in religion with honors from Baylor in 1932.

During the Great Depression, he worked at dry cleaners in Waco and Fort Worth, and after marrying his wife, Bessie Mae Royals, in 1933, operated Lynn's Cleaning in Waco for the next nine years.

In 1941, Lynn taught briefly in Reagan, Texas. The Lynns sold their business in 1942, when Ralph began working on a master's degree in education at Baylor. In August 1942, he joined the U.S. Army and served in London. After the war, he returned to Baylor to complete his master's degree.

"While in England, occupied as a censor of G.I. mail, Ralph had time to read many books, especially on history," wrote Dr. Paul T. Armitstead, professor emeritus of history at Baylor, in the essay, "Conscience of the Faculty," in What a World! Collected Essays of Ralph Lynn. "He developed a great habit (how many of us could wish we had) of writing a review of each book. When he came back to Waco, and Baylor, he was told to organize his reviews according to courses in the catalogues, take some tests, take three additional courses in the summer of 1946, and start teaching that fall."

Lynn earned his master's degree from Baylor in 1946 and his doctorate in European history from the University of Wisconsin in 1951. He resumed teaching in the history department at Baylor in 1952 and retired in 1975.

In the late 1990s, Baylor faculty members Robert Darden and Steve Sadler began the process of publishing Lynn's essays in book form, included soliciting comments from his former students. Among those noted Baylor alumni who enthusiastically responded in honor of their former professor were best-selling author Robert Fulghum and former Texas Gov. Ann Richards.

"He is an example of the educator who changes lives: a paradigm of the once-in-a-lifetime teacher," Fulghum wrote of Lynn in the book's foreword. "The wise, witty and passionate character of his activities and essays addressing contemporary social issues continues to inspire my own writing and my own life. Best of all, because of Ralph Lynn, I will remain an active student as long as I live."

"Dr. Lynn offered us a window to the world. His lectures were magical tours into the great minds and movements of history, and his ability to expand the scope and horizon of our understanding is a cherished and lasting gift," Richards wrote in the book's introduction.

At Baylor, Lynn was the recipient of the Herbert H. Reynolds Exemplary Service Award and the Retired Faculty and Staff Award in 1986. He was a member of the James Huckins Society of the Medallion Fellowship (cumulative gifts to Baylor greater than $250,000), a charter member of the Old Main Society and a lifetime member of Baylor Alumni Association.

Lynn supported numerous areas across the university, including an endowed professorship, the Baylor Libraries, Bear Foundation, Baylor/Waco Foundation, Alumni Association, History Excellence Fund and various academic scholarship funds.

Lynn was a member of First Baptist Church of Waco, where he taught a college men's Sunday School class for about 30 years. He also sponsored the service organization Circle K at Baylor from 1954-69, conducted tours of Europe, the Middle East and Russia from 1961-67, and was a fixture at Baylor Homecoming, hosting a reunion for hundreds of former students and friends at his home every year since 1952.

"I knew Dr. Lynn since my college days at Baylor and saw his love and support of the university over the years," said Bill Dube, director of Baylor's Endowed Scholarship Program. "He consistently reached out to students both inside and outside of the classroom through his sponsorship of Baylor clubs, his coordination of student travel programs and his homecoming open house which he began in 1952. Challenging the mind was Dr. Lynn's great passion, which he did long after his retirement from the classroom and right up until his death. Former students and friends will not soon forget his traditional admonition: 'Bear up nobly.'"

Lynn also contributed columns to The Waco Tribune-Herald for more than 40 years.

In the collection of Lynn's essays, Armitstead wrote briefly of an appreciation dinner held for Lynn in 1984, by Waco businessman Bernard Rapoport and the Baylor history department. The featured speaker that evening was Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

"At the beginning of his remarks, Sen. Leahy said that some of us on the committee had sent him some of Ralph's columns and one of them was on the separation of church and state, and he went on to say, 'That column on separation of church and state is the finest and most succinct statement I've seen anywhere and I carry it around with me all the time,'" recalled Armitstead of Leahy, who now serves as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Lynn was preceded in death by his wife, Bessie Mae, who died in 1992, and by wife, Barbara, who died in 2000.

He is survived by his wife, Dorothy.

Memorials may be made to The Ralph L. and Bessie Mae Lynn Endowed Chair in History at Baylor University.


Below are comments from former students and colleagues in tribute to the memory of Dr. Ralph Lynn:

Dr. Wallace L. Daniel Jr., The Ralph L. and Bessie Mae Lynn Professor of History: "Dr. Lynn's positive impact on Baylor University students and faculty would be almost impossible to exaggerate. He was truly a giant in so many ways: in setting the very highest standards of excellence, in expecting his students to perform at the very highest levels of which they were capable, in not suffering fools gladly. But to me, what he best represented -- what he stood for every day -- was the very highest ethical standards, both in word and in deed. And in that sense, to me, he represents what Baylor is, at its very finest, what it aspires to be.

"I know of no one who could better, more effectively, than Dr. Lynn shake students out of their lethargy and out of their ordinary, unexamined views of the world. Whether banging his hand of the table, hitting his head against the wall, or sighing with his familiar phrase, 'I give up!' at human foibles, he always forced us to reexamine ourselves. But behind everything was a tremendous sense of hospitality and of love of learning. And they were exemplified in so many ways: his open house on Ninth Street, the homecoming receptions every year, his care for students, the light in his study which burned until late into the night, his voracious reading that he kept up until the end of his life, and his encouragement of so many people. Few people fit the giant influence on a university or a community. To me, Dr. Lynn was one of these few."

Dr. Rufus Spain, professor emeritus of history and director of the Retired Professor's Center at Baylor, from his essay "A Teacher Extraordinaire" in What a World! Collected Essays of Ralph Lynn: "Ralph's legacy is not to be found in his scholarly research nor in the books he has written. His immortality lies rather in the lives of his students and in their students, a legacy which I suspect will perpetuate itself long after the name Ralph Lynn has been forgotten. Is that not the dream of every teacher?

"Good teaching cannot be experienced apart from the person of the master teacher. Nothing in print can convey the weight of Ralph's hallmark gesture - slapping his thigh - followed by his sardonic laugh and 'What a world!...I give up.'"

Robert Darden, associate professor of journalism at Baylor and editor of What a World! Collected Essays of Ralph Lynn: "The losses of Herbert Reynolds [Baylor president emeritus] and Ralph Lynn in a matter of weeks is a staggering body blow to the Baylor community, one that we won't recover from for years, perhaps decades. A wholly unique voice has been stilled."

Dr. Steve Sadler, senior lecturer in religion: "Bob Darden, Skip Londos and I endeavored a project to put into print the essays of Ralph Lynn so that they could be kept for posterity, and for the purpose of raising funds for the scholarship fund in his name in the history department. Once we got the volume pressed, we put a note on it that as a non-profit publisher, we would accept a $20 donation to the scholarship fund in exchange for a volume of What a World! Collected Essays of Ralph Lynn.

"Ralph was honored and humbled that someone would think his essays merited publishing. And he delighted in personalizing as many 'sold' copies as I would bring by his home, and then later pick up to mail out to the recipients. Even more, he enjoyed giving the books as personal gifts. When I would take him a box of books for his personal use, he always insisted on paying me the full $20 per copy (even though most of the expense of the printing had been donated by former students). When I would tell him it made absolutely no sense for him to pay for a volume raising money in his honor, and that he could have as many copies as he wanted FREE, since they were already paid for, he would stop me at the door of his home and say, 'Listen young man, [young? I'm 55 years old!], you just do as I tell you to do, OKAY? Then he'd slap his thigh and say 'What a World! that someone would want to read what I write.'

"His words had a kind of firm grace to them that let me know not to argue. To take his check, and to enjoy the few minutes of intellectual and spiritual epiphanies that would always come in the few minutes I was there.

"As a student at Baylor, I never had him in class, but only through this book project got to know him as the humble giant of a man I had heard him described to be. The first time I met him, by his graciousness, we became good friends. By his graciousness, we remained on a first-name good friendship basis - until this morning's receipt of his death.

"Grace to a great, great mind who kept the Baylor world from tilting too far out of intellectual and spiritual balance."

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