When confronted with challenging times like ours, it is easy to lose heart, appreciation, gratefulness and admiration—in a word, thanksgiving—for the people and places we call home. Our University has been fortunate to have many distinguished leaders. One of those luminaries is President J. A. Hill, who began a 30-year legacy of leadership in September 1918 after President R. B. Cousins resigned. While numerous factors led to Hill’s successful tenure as president, I believe that one of his most salient strengths was his career as a historian. Understanding history allows us to understand our past, situate our present and chart a course forward to benefit students, institution and region alike. While many of Hill’s ideas seem antiquated, his intentionality in moving the institution forward, and indeed his success, is something for which we should all be thankful.
In a speech on November 24, 1932 to the Texas State Teachers Association in Fort Worth, Texas, Hill situated the times with prescience only available to a skillful historian. Please remember with me the times and the state of our nation. In the vice grip on the thirties, one jaw of which was World War I, and the second jaw of which was World War II, and the pressures of these wars squeezed this seemingly endless Great Depression into our national consciousness. Challenges unlike any previously endured. Beyond the cultural context of the day, relentless want and need was a testing, tempering epoch in our nation’s history. In that speech, he said, “That we are living in an era of criticism – that all institutions, especially public ones, are under fire and must justify themselves anew – it is a commonplace observation.” Who said “history repeats itself?” I am thankful that President Hill could situate the University in its present and future. Who knew then what we, nearly a century later, now know—Bob Dylan was wrong when he chirruped, “For the times, they are a changin’.” What we see, we have seen before. Little has changed save the nuances of circumstance.
In a pre-Christmas address to the students of West Texas State Teachers College on December 15, 1923, Hill recognized the power and importance of dealing with students individually and distinctively. In this chapel speech, he reflected:
I pray that each of you will feel that I am talking directly to you in a very intimate and personal sort of way. I know that as the days have passed and I have come to know you better; as I have watched your devotion to the welfare of your best selves; as I have seen you struggle with stubborn adversity, like heroes in the strife; as I have witnessed your bounding enthusiasm for life and have observed the origin and growth of your useful aspiration; as I have seen your joy in triumph and your disappointment in defeat; as I have watched the process of your readjustment to your environment and have studied your reaction to strange stimuli; in short as I have seen you in the process of becoming the men and women God intended you should be, my heart was swelled with pride and I have reverently thanked him who orders our lives that my lines have fallen in pleasant places.
I am thankful that Hill, a passionate leader, valued people. Each person was respected for their uniqueness and individuality, which held sway over this place we call home. He set a pace, followed by many others. He did not see people in groups. He saw individuals with passionate aspirations, capacities, interests and capabilities. This kind of attention to personal distinctiveness is indeed something to be thankful for.
Personally, the most powerful crystallization of Thanksgiving is recorded by T.S. Eliot in his final poem of his Four Quartets, “The Little Gidding:” “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” This is the ultimate goal of any University, and we should be very thankful if we value thankfulness. That an educational organization might produce new technology, new ways of doing things, and new insights is fine. And, good. But, most importantly, it brings us to know ourselves. It allows us to know who we are in relationship to the many others to whom we are connected. This quite possibly is what Hill meant when in his address delivered to the Northwest Texas Conference for Education in Amarillo in March 1942 at the height of his second great war, “Every page of human history reveals the aspiration of man to be free – the aspiration to release his physical, intellectual and spiritual resources for self-development, for service to others, and for collaboration with divinity.”
Is this the end of our exploration, or is it the beginning? To know ourselves is the ultimate educational experience—journeys end. I am thankful that President J. A. Hill, in all of his frailty, with the stain of human nature upon him, in the prison of his own experience, was able to go beyond: from, past and outside of it and project it into a future he knew not, for generations to come. A true historian at work.
We are grateful and full of thanksgiving.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at https://walterwendler.com/