A Gem of a Party
As Baylor observes its 175th birthday this year, it might be instructive to look back and see how the University kicked out all the stops to celebrate its 75th birthday a century ago in 1920.
Baylor’s 75th birthday took the name Diamond Jubilee, and was possibly the first time the University had invested a lot of time and money to celebrate an anniversary. In 1870, when Baylor turned 25, the small school was in Independence, Texas, and was fighting a continuing battle for higher enrollment and adequate operating funds. By the time of Baylor’s 50th birthday in 1895, the University had moved to Waco and was a much stronger institution, but both Baylor and the nation were in the midst of a four-year economic depression that began with the Panic of 1893.
The time was right
By 1920, things were looking up in the United States following the Allied victory in World War I, and Baylor had many reasons for optimism. The campus was expanding, with a new men’s dormitory (Brooks Hall) under construction, and a modern heating plant ready to be built. Plans were well underway to reactivate Baylor’s law school in the fall quarter of 1920, while the University’s medical and dental schools, as well as its nursing program, were experiencing growth.
Financially, Baylor had just received generous endowment funds from the New York General Educational Board, and the University stood to get at least $1 million dollars (almost $13 million in today’s money) as their share of a national fundraising campaign undertaken by the Southern Baptist Convention. To top it all off, Baylor trustees chair Pat Neff was running his first race for Texas governor (which he would win in November 1920), new Bears football coach Frank Bridges had promised that a Southwest Conference Championship was on the horizon (it was — in 1922 and 1924), and in the spring of 1920, Baylor was anticipating the largest graduating class in its history. These were exciting times.
So, much as they did back in 1909 when Baylor put on its first Homecoming celebration, University officials worked to make sure that alumni across the nation would return to Waco for the big event.
One of the first tasks was to spruce up campus. Buildings were cleaned, repaired and painted. On the lawn of Burleson Quadrangle, hundreds of green and gold flowers were planted to form two large dates — “1845” and “1920.” Officials even drew up a “Diamond Jubilee campus plan,” which envisioned how the campus would grow and change over the coming years. The plan — which called for demolishing Old Main and Burleson Hall and building an administration building twice the size of Pat Neff Hall — was never realized.
Something for everyone
While the Diamond Jubilee would officially take place over six days in mid-June 1920, special events were scheduled during the first six months of the year to attract guests.
A number of nationally known speakers came to Baylor in the spring of 1920 to give lectures, but two stand out. While Nobel Prize-winning writer Rudyard Kipling had regretfully turned down an invitation to come to the Jubilee, a future Nobel Prize winner — Irish poet William Butler Yeats — said yes, and spoke to a capacity crowd in Carroll Chapel on April 16.
Four days later in Carroll Chapel, former U.S. President William Howard Taft gave his famous talk on “Labor, Capital and the Soviet” before more than 2,000 people. Taft — who accepted honorary memberships in both the Baylor Pre-Law Club and Baylor’s Philomathesian literary society, as well as an honorary doctorate from the University — became the first former U.S. President to visit campus.
The Diamond Jubilee also offered music and theater. On May 17, about 300 students played parts on Carroll Field in the production of “Baylor, the Deliverer,” a historical pageant displaying how in 75 years the University had delivered Texas “from the throes of ignorance.” In June, hundreds of Baylor vocalists and instrumentalists performed both Bach’s “The Passion According to St. Matthew” and Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore.”
The official Diamond Jubilee celebration began on June 11, 1920, with a concert by the U.S. Marine Band. After other concerts, a debate put on by Baylor students and a lecture by famous American poet Amy Lowell to a small group on June 12, Baylor alumnus Rev. George W. Truett provided the sermon at a baccalaureate service on June 13.
A special event took place on June 14, at a benefit for Baylor’s Browning Collection, when nationally renowned poets such as Edwin Markham and Vachel Lindsay read from their works. At the close of the program, Baylor President Samuel Palmer Brooks accepted a bronze cast of the clasped hands of poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which had recently been donated to the University.
On June 15 — “Alumni Day” — Baylor unveiled two memorials, one in memory of beloved former professor John S. Tanner, and the other a bronze tablet honoring the Baylor men who died in the world war.
A special commencement
The Diamond Jubilee concluded on Wednesday, June 16, with Baylor’s spring commencement, which took place inside a huge, tent-like “tabernacle” erected in Minglewood Park. Representatives of 23 American colleges and universities, including Harvard, Yale and Brown, were among those who heard addresses by Albert Sidney Burleson, a Baylor graduate then serving on President Wilson’s Cabinet as Postmaster General, and Rev. Truett.
President Brooks handed out a record 299 undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees — as well as 56 honorary degrees awarded for outstanding achievement and service. And then the Diamond Jubilee was over — the satisfying end of what commencement speaker George Truett had called “an occasion to awaken emotion in all our hearts too deep for words.”