The complexion of Baylor University was pale in June 1932 when 61-year-old Pat Neff was called upon by the trustees to apply his brand of presidential cosmetics. The institution's face was lined with Depression-induced stress, and a pallor of doubt regarding its future masked the school's heritage-enriched potential.
Many people feared that the loss of Samuel Palmer Brooks, although lightened by the load carried by acting president W. S. Allen for more than a year, was too much to be hefted onto the shoulders of any man, even if he were a former Texas governor who had been the chairman of the Baylor trustees for more than two decades. Those who wore such skeptic wardrobes saw only a decreasing student enrollment, a $400,000 indebtedness and an endowment that was producing no income for operational purposes. Even the campus had become dingy and unkempt as an unabashed invasion of dandelions and thistles had taken over some of the spots that had previously been the most beautiful.
On assuming his responsibilities Neff knew it would take broad strokes of hope to cover the undercoat of despair that was evident everywhere on the canvas that was Baylor, and he was determined to try to paint the colors necessary to make the days ahead the very brightest possible.
It was a task for which seemingly he had been especially prepared. Born six years after the conclusion of the Civil War, Neff grew up on his family's farm, a few miles southwest of McGregor. He entered Baylor in 1889 and during his five years at the university he gained prominence as a highly talented and successful debater, participating in 1893 in the first intercollegiate debate between Baylor and the University of Texas.
Following graduation Neff taught school in Arkansas for two years, then returned to Texas to earn a law degree from the state university and a master's degree from Baylor. Opening a law practice in Waco, he was elected to three successive terms in the state House of Representatives. In 1904 he put his full energies into his private law practice. With the exception of two two-year stints as governor of Texas from 1920-24 and brief periods in Washington as a member of the United States Board of Mediation and Conciliation, he resided in Waco. He was serving the second year of a six-year term on the Texas Railroad Commission when he accepted the helm of Baylor.
As president, Neff felt little different about the University than he had felt for almost twenty-five years as trustee chairman, except now his role had advanced from advisor and policy maker to chief administrator with full responsibility for the day-to-day operation of the school. To equip himself with adequate authority to meet the anticipated challenges, Neff asked for and received from the trustees almost dictatorial powers. It was an armor which would be greatly needed in the years ahead and one that Neff would wear sublimely.
When Neff began his administration, enrollment on both the Waco and Dallas campuses was about 2,500, nearly 500 less than the last full year of Brooks' presidency. Although enrollment had dropped, interest in a Baylor education was apparently still widespread as 29 states and six foreign countries were represented in the student body, which included more than three hundred freshmen. Average cost was $200 per quarter and those studying for the ministry were not required to pay tuition.
During the first few years Neff constantly borrowed to pay bills, often making a loan at one bank in order to pay another one that was due at a different bank. Neff also rented dormitory rooms to faculty and staff and deducted from their monthly compensations appropriate amounts for this privilege. In addition, he put a two-year freeze on library book purchases, abolished the paid workers in the alumni office, and eliminated salaries required for contract doctors and nurses by using the services of voluntary medical personnel.
Envisioning better times for the University, Neff began making plans for a Bible Building, a Student Center, a permanent gymnasium, and an administration building. Fund raising committees were established for all of these facilities and each project was successfully concluded, though in some cases it took more years to complete than originally planned, due in part to economic conditions brought on by the onslaught of World War II. In addition to adding new facilities, Neff was also successful in renovating several smaller structures.
Following the war enrollment rapidly increased, due in large part to the number of returning veterans. In late 1947 with enrollment at an all-time high of 4,506, more than 4,000 of which were on the Waco campus, Neff announced his resignation to "do some writing of a semi-public character in the form of a book which I have been wanting to do for some years, but have found no time for it." Thus concluded for Pat Morris Neff 45 years of direct and intimate association with the University -- beginning as a student, then a trustee, and finally as president. His imprint was firmly placed on the pages of Baylor's history, and the impact of his leadership would never be forgotten.