Our Back Pages: Campus Trailblazers in Arts & Sciences
In the 102 years since the Baylor University College of Arts & Sciences was organized as an academic unit, a number of its students and faculty have recorded historic firsts on campus — in academics, athletics and in student life. The following account of these Arts & Sciences trailblazers is not exhaustive by any means, and reflects the fact that a number of Baylor milestones were reached by representatives of other University academic units, or were achieved by students or faculty before the College of Arts & Sciences was created in 1919.
The first two Black graduates of Baylor University were both from the College Arts & Sciences and graduated on the same day — June 2, 1967. Rev. Robert Gilbert (BA ’67), a history major, went on to pastor churches in Waco, was a local civil rights leader and became the first African American to serve on the Waco Independent School District Board. Minutes after Rev. Gilbert received his diploma that historic day, Barbara Ann Walker (BS ’67), a sociology major, became Baylor’s first Black female graduate. Baylor is preparing to have statues honoring Gilbert and Walker created and placed in front of Tidwell Bible Building.
During commencement May 28, 1954, native Wacoan Joe Walter Johnson (BS ’50, PhD ’54) received the first PhD degree ever awarded by Baylor. Johnson’s PhD was in chemistry, and the degree came 100 years after the conferring of Baylor’s first bachelor’s degree to Stephen Decatur Rowe in 1854.
At commencement May 27, 1955, June Marshall of New Orleans (PhD ’55), who had been doing biological research in the Wadley Graduate Research Institute, a Baylor branch in Dallas, became the first female to be awarded a PhD degree in the University’s history.
In 1941, Arts & Sciences alumna Margaret Amsler (BA ’29, JD ’37), who had graduated from Baylor with undergraduate degrees in both English and French, became the first tenure-track female professor at Baylor Law School. She was only the third woman in the nation to hold a tenure-track position at a law school, and in 1946, she became the first woman to hold the position of acting dean of Baylor Law School.
In November 1974, Arts & Sciences alumnus Michael Heiskell (BA ’72, JD ’74) became the first African American to graduate from Baylor Law School.
Baylor’s first full-time Black faculty member, the late Dr. Vivienne Malone-Mayes, taught mathematics in the College of Arts & Sciences from 1966 to 1994. She was honored by Baylor in 2019 with the installation a large bronze bust and a display featuring her life and career outside the mathematics department offices in the Sid Richardson Building.
On Sept. 13, 1982, Baylor administrators named Arts & Sciences professors Ann Miller (English) and Robert Reid (history) as the University’s first two Master Teachers.
When biology major Julius Reed of Houston (BS ’72) was elected president of Baylor’s freshman class on Oct. 8, 1968, he became the first African American elected to student office at the University.
On April 20, 1968, Martha Smiley (BA ’69), a junior from Mission, Texas, and the current student body vice president, was elected president of Student Congress by a 3-1 majority. She became the first woman chosen as the leader of Baylor’s student body, the first of many female presidents to follow.
Ade Ifelayo (BS ’03), a Nigerian native from New Orleans, was elected Baylor Student Body President in April 2002. As a result, he scored two milestones at the University — becoming not only the first Black president of the student body but the first international student elected as president.
Mildred Adams (BA ’41), a senior from Brownfield, Texas, was elected editor of the Baylor Lariat by the Board of Publications on Feb. 7, 1941–– becoming the first woman to hold the post since the newspaper was established in 1900. She had previously served as the newspaper’s managing editor and society editor.
On May 6, 1970, Willie White (BA ’72), a sophomore religion major from Livingston, Texas, became the Baylor Lariat’s first Black editor in a vote by the University’s Board of Publications. White, an Army veteran, was serving as associate minister of Waco’s Second Baptist Church while attending Baylor.
On Sept. 10, 1966, Baylor halfback John Westbrook of Elgin (BA ’69) became the first Black athlete to compete in a Southwest Conference sporting event. During a game in Waco against Syracuse, Westbrook entered during the fourth quarter in the Bears’ 35-12 upset victory. The game was nationally televised to an audience of 60 million viewers. Westbrook, a gifted poet, became president of Baylor’s English honor society.
When sophomore Lisa Stone (BA ’89) won the 5,000-meter run at the Southwest Conference Indoor Championships in Fort Worth on Feb. 19, 1989, she became the first Baylor woman to win an NCAA conference title in sports.
At Diadeloso on April 12, 1972, Gayle Beverly (BS ’74) was the first African American elected by her fellow students as a Baylor Yell Leader.
Finally, after Baylor men had cared for the University’s bear mascots for more than 50 years, Houston freshman Claire Cordell (BA ’75) became the first female chosen by the Baylor Chamber of Commerce as a Baylor bear mascot trainer. She began work in April 1972.