Reflections of Founding President Dr. William K. Weaver Jr.
"To be the founding president of a new college is an awesome responsibility."
Dr. William K. Weaver Jr.
How do you start a college from scratch?
Dr. William K. Weaver Jr. wasn't sure.
"It was just a tremendous challenge," he recalled recently. "There was nobody you could talk to about starting a college. You just knew what all had to be done, and I wasn't sure I could measure up to it."
With wife Annie Boyd Parker "B" Weaver at his side, the founding president of Mobile College/University of Mobile accepted the challenge. He led the college from 1961 to his retirement in 1984, when he was named chancellor. Mrs. Weaver started the Mobile College Auxiliary, which hosted fundraising events and provided support to the school and students until the 1990s. She died in 2008, and Dr. Weaver lives in Daphne, AL, near daughter Anne and son-in-law Tom Davis.
In 2003 and 2004 he wrote a series of articles for the Ram Report campus newsletter that told the story of the early years of Mobile College. It was a story he loved to tell, and tell again. It is a great story, and one worth repeating as the University of Mobile celebrates its 50th anniversary.
"I see a great future ahead," he said then, adding that the growth and achievement of the school has been more than he could have hoped for.
"In many ways, it has even surpassed our earlier dreams and expectations. The thing about dreams is, when one is fulfilled, two others come up in its place. So I'm still seeing some of my earlier dreams fulfilled today, and I still have a lot of dreams for this school," he said.
Here is how the story began, in the words of the man who made so much of it happen:
January 20, 2003
How do you start a new college? That question kept going through my mind in April 1961 when I became president of a college that had no campus, no buildings, no library, no faculty, no students - no problems. (They were all to come later, especially the problems.) I was told that there had not been a new four-year college charted in Alabama in more than 50 years, and I knew that Alabama Baptists had not started a college in more than 100 years.
For many years some of the Baptist leaders in Mobile dreamed of having a Baptist college in Mobile, I do not know just when that dream was born, but in 1946 the State Baptist Convention was considering combining Howard and Judson Colleges with the possibility of locating the new school in some city other than Marion or Birmingham. The long-time dream then became a vision, and a beautiful site was offered along with some other considerations if the school would locate in Mobile. Later, the Convention determined to leave the two schools in Marion and Birmingham. But the dream of a college in Mobile did not die!
On June 3, 1952, a motion was approved by the Mobile Baptist Association to establish a junior college in Mobile, and a little later trustees were elected and studies went forward. Soon it was realized that assistance from the State Convention would be necessary if an accredited college was to be founded. On July 15, 1957 a committee of nine was appointed to study the possibility of establishing a college in Mobile, and I was asked to serve as chairman. The committee secured the services of an outstanding educator, Dr. Orin Cornett, to make a feasibility study. When his final report was issued, he was on the staff of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In this report he stated, "There are few, if any, metropolitan areas of the size and importance of Mobile in the United States in which there is so limited an opportunity for higher education." The report also expressed the opinion that the State Convention could well support such an undertaking.
At the annual meeting of the Convention in 1950 a recommendation was adopted which stated that the Convention would "establish and operate in the Mobile area co-educational college (initially a junior college) which, in order to assure accreditation, shall be an affiliate of one of its existing accredited institutions - and which might bear the name Mobile College." This was contingent upon the people of the Mobile area raising $1.5 million in cash and/or in three-year pledges. At the 1960 Convention it was reported that a little more than $2 million had been pledged. The Convention voted to establish a school to be named "Mobile College" which would probably be separate from either of the other schools.
This is only the beginning...
March 10, 2003
When the Alabama Baptist State Convention during its 1960 Convention approved the founding of Mobile College, a Steering Committe of nine was named and given the responsibility of choosing a president, selecting a campus site and developing plans for its development. Two sub-committees were appointed: one, a presidential search committee and the other, a site selection committee. As chairman of the Steering Committee, I made numerous visits to Mobile and, on one occasion, was asked to come to Mobile to look at several sites which the Committee had under consideration. We were to meet at the Battle House Hotel early one morning. When I arrived, I was met by Mr. J.L. Bedsole who asked me to meet with the Presidential Search Committee to be brought up to date on their work rather than tour the sites that day.
As soon as the Committee assembled, Mr. Bedsole began to outline qualifications and other considerations the Committee had set for their search and stated that they had considered a number of men for that position. He then gave me a great shock when he said, "The Committee is in full agreement that you are the man to be the first president of Mobile College." It took a few moments for that to sink in. From my boyhood days I had dreamed of many different things I thought I would do, but never in those dreams, or nightmares, did the idea of being college president appear. For more than 10 years I had been pastor of a great church in Sylacauga, and my family and I were extremely happy there. I responded by expressing gratitude for the confidence shown by the Committee, but told them I now needed time to pray about this and to talk with my family and a few friends as I sought God's leadership. They agreed that I could take whatever time necessary, for they also wanted to be sure of God's leadership.
This was not going to be an easy decision. My family and I had developed deep roots in Sylacauga, and it was the only home our daughter Anne had known. After much prayer and discussion, we felt this was God's will for our lives, so I gave an affirmative answer. On April 1, 1961, I officially became president of what was to become Mobile College. During my years as president, I would sometimes say to students, "If you want to be a college president, do what I did - start one."
George F. Wood, a prominent Mobile attorney, who was serving on the Steering Committee and later served for many years as a trustee, prepared the charter. On Nov. 14, 1961, the Convention formally approved the establishment of Mobile College, adopted its charter and elected a Board of Trustees of 21 persons.
We learned that Gov. John Patterson was to be in Mobile on Dec. 12, 1961 so arrangements were made for him to sign the charter at that time. George Wood, my 10-year-old daughter Anne and I met with Gov. Patterson in his motel room for this very significant event. Thus, on that day, the State gave official recognition to the founding of Mobile College.
The trustees held their first meeting on Jan. 19, 1962 at which time J.L. Bedsole was elected chairman and T.T. Martin vice chairman. Several very important actions were taken at that meeting including the adoption of a campus plan which anticipated more than 20 buildings and an eventual enrollment of two to three thousand students. The birth of the college was drawing nearer day by day.
April 7, 2003
God's leadership and His blessing upon the founding of Mobile College have always been evident. This was especially true in regard to securing land for the campus.
Over a period of several months the Selection Committee visited many sites in Mobile and Baldwin counties. The first one selected was across the street from the present location of the University of South Alabama. Since that site was not as large as the committee desired, an approach was made to the Mobile County School Board to see if they would lease acreage across the street where athletic fields could be built. They not only agreed to do so, but indicated they would give a 99-year lease, at a very reasonable charge, on as many acres as desired so that the entire campus could be built on their land. This idea was accepted until someone raised the question of the "separation of church and state." Then it was rejected. Several years later that property became the location for the University of South Alabama.
The search continued. Jay Altmayer, a very public-spirited friend, offered to give the college any 200 acres of land he owned in the Eight Mile area and to sell additional acreage for much less than the then-appraised price. This was to be the largest gift the college had received up to that time.
We discovered that beautiful Chickasabogue Creek flowed south of this site, and we felt it would be desirable to have the campus border on that creek. Scott Paper Co. owned the acreage we desired and agreed to sell us 200 acres at the appraised price of $200,000. We simply did not have the funds to make such a purchase at that time. Fortunately, someone in studying a land map noted that the creek also flowed west of our site. To our surprise and pleasure we learned that the land belonged to Loper Lumber Co. A short time before, Mr. Loper had told me that if we located in the Eight Mile area, he would give us any 50 acres of his land we might choose, and would also give us an additional 50 acres in another area. We bought 75 acres of Almayer land to connect with the Loper tract which gave us creek frontage. Other land was given and a few more acres were purchased increasing the size of the campus to 400 acres.
Several years later I received a call from an official at Scott Paper Co. who asked, "Are you still interested in the land you talked to us about some time ago?"
I replied. "Interested, yes - able, no."
He then said, "How would you like it as a gift?" I almost fainted! Not only did they give us the 200 acres but added 65 more to their gift.
Following the advice of a forester, we sold some timber off our land at a very good price. A right-of-way was also sold to allow a gas line to be brought across our property. In selling the right-of-way, I suggested they could show that they would be good neighbors by making a generous gift to the college. Some days later the representatives returned with two checks - one to purchase, one a gift.
Land given to use which was not a part of our campus was also sold, and those funds were credited to campus purchase. Our campus then consisted of 665 acres with a net cost of a little less than $25,000. Additional land has since been added so today the campus consists of approximately 800 acres.
Through all of this, I continued to see God at work.
April 21, 2003
After the site for a campus was selected, there were still problems to be faced. The first major problem was access to the land. Again we continued to see the hand of God at work. Mobile County officials agreed to build a new road, College Parkway, which would border our land. Even with that it was still difficult to get to the campus since the interstate had not been complete and Industrial Parkway was just a line on a planning map. There was also the need for water, and the Mobile Water and Sewer Board met this need to by agreeing to build a sub-station nearby to provide water for the school and others in the area.
Basic plans for the campus were adopted and an architect was employed to design a building which initially would house everything necessary for a college program. The first floor would house administrative offices. The library would be located in the north wing, a small auditorium in the south wing and a snack shop just behind the auditorium.
(In showing the plans to one of the few employees we had at that time, I referred to the location of a snack bar. Immediately he responded, "This is a Christian institution. We can't have a bar on this campus." Immediately the name was changed to "snack shop." I used to remind students that we did not even have bars of soap in our restrooms!)
The second and third floors contained classrooms, faculty offices, rooms for teaching music, science labs and an area designated for teaching physical education.
It is impossible to convey the excitement of people in this area over the founding of this new school. A dedication service was held on Friday, Sept. 6, 1963 with approximately 2,000 people present, and it was estimated that 5,000 visited during an "open house" held the following Sunday. Another evidence of the pleasure of the community over the opening of our school was a 14-page Mobile College section in the Mobile Press-Register on Sept. 1, 1963, which contained 81 congratulatory ads by business, churches and institutions.
In preparation for the opening of the school, a college seal was designed. It was developed from one designed for use in the initial financial campaign which featured a torch extending above and below a round seal. Those features were retained along with the joined hands in the center of the seal which were to represent a denomination and a community working together to establish and support the school. This also was to denote the spirit of friendship and concern which was to be a vital part of campus life. The words "Mobile College" were inscribed above and below the hands, and encircling the seal were the words of the Psalmist, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." (Psalm 111:10) Two stars were placed in the circle to represent aspiration and guidance, and the torch was to represent the truth. The words "Chartered in 1961" appear in the block on the lowest part of the torch. Unique in design, the seal has since been refined for the University of Mobile, but still carries the same basic design.
Sept. 9, 1963 was the day on which dreams of thousands were realized when 181 students were admitted as members of the Charter Class. They were greeted by six administrative officers and 12 full-time, well-qualified faculty members. Although no housing was available on campus, eight Alabama counties and five states were represented in the student body. Thus a college was born, and only God knew what blessing would be ahead.
The University of Mobile is further evidence of how God works in order that "great oaks from little acorns grow."
September 8, 2003
Forty years ago (Sept. 9, 1963) Mobile College admitted its charger class of 181 students. This was the realization of the dreams, prayers and support of thousands of people in the Mobile area as well as those of many thousand Baptists throughout the state of Alabama. The following statement was taken from my report to the Alabama Baptist State Convention that year. "September 9, 1963 has become one of the great dates in Alabama Baptist history. It will also be an important date in the history of higher education in this state. This was the day on which students were admitted to the first new college established by Alabama Baptists in more than 120 years, and the first four-year college to be charged in the State of Alabama in 57 years."
While the campus consisted of 400 acres, only one building, known as the Administration-Classroom Building (now Weaver Hall), had been erected at that time. The building stood at the top of a red mud hill on which very little grass was growing, and there wwere no trees along the drives or on the large area cleared for buildings. Only freshmen-level courses were offered that year, taught by an outstanding faculty of 12 men and women. Dr. Gene Perkins is the only member of that first faculty still teaching here today. (Editor's note: Dr. Perkins retired in 2011.) Additional faculty members and courses were added each year so that in 1967 a full four-year program was offered.
The students that first year were among the brightest and most innovative students to be found on any college campus. They took very seriously the responsibilities given to them in establishing various student activities and traditions. Early in the year a student government association was formed. Thomas Strong of Bay Minette (who became Dean of Students at the University of Alabama) was elected as the first president and was the only freshman to hold that position. Maroon and white were chosen as the school colors. Students elected the ram to be mascot. When this became known, a friend of the college gave the student a beautiful yough ram which they named Ramses I. He quickly became a campus pet and was often brought to the front of the building so that students could see him and pet him.
Although the student body was comparatively small, the students decided to publish a newspaper and wanted a name for it to be suggestive of the Mobile area. A committee recommended that it be called THE JUBILEE, since this is the name given to the strange phenomemon of nature which takes place in Mobile Bay when thousands of fish and other sea creatures move on shore. However, the name did not become final until a study of the word was made which revealed that it derived from the Hebrew word "yobel" meaning "ram's horn." It was a perfect name for the paper of a school with a ram as its mascot. "Rampage" was the name given to the annual. Volume I was published at the end of the first year.
The students wanted to start a tradition of having a Thanksgiving Feast on campus and, since the only food service on campus that year was a snack shop, students brought "covered dishes" from home. Tables were placed down the main hall of the administration building. The food was served in the snack shop which was located at the south end of the building. This practice was followed for many years with commuting students bringing food from home and campus food service providing food representing the boarding students. After a few years the tables reached from one of the hall to the entrance of the library area at the north end of the building. It soon became necessary to move the Thanksgiving Feast to the gymnasium, where it was held for several year before being discontinued.
Our students have always been very creative, and many different activities continue to become traditional because of their efforts. As has been true since the opening of our school, visitors to our campus still remark about the quality of students who attend here, especially mentioning their attractiveness and friendliness.
November 3, 2003
Mobile College began its second year (1964) with an enrollment of 291 students. This was most gratifying since that was very near the projected enrollment goal of 300. Another encouraging fact was that 284 of the 291 students were registered as full-time students. In order to meet the needs of our second-year students, the curriculum was enlarged and the faculty increased to 21 full-time and two part-time members.
Two dormitories and a dining hall were completed prior to the opening of school that fall. Now there were four permanent buildings on campus. With dormitories available, more students from outside the Mobile area were able to attend our school. In addition to students from other areas of Alabama, nine states were represented in the student body.
Providing grants and loan funds for deserving students has always been a priority. The first privately funded endowment was established by his mother in memory of Frank F. Smith Jr., a young man who had planned to enter the first class but was killed in an automobile accident prior to the opening of school. The family has continued to contribute to this fund, and it is now an endowed scholarship fund in his name. Today (2003) there are approximately 125 endowed scholarships held by the university. There is still a great need for additional endowed scholarships.
During the first year a "major crisis" arose in the library area. A separate thermostat had been installed for the library wing. The librarian was cold-natured, so she would turn the thermostat up, but very soon thereafter a student would turn it down. This continued to be a problem until I learned about it. I contacted the company which had installed the system and asked that they set the temperature at a comfortable setting and then disconnect the thermostat. This they did, and from that time forward everything was great. The librarian continued to turn it up and the students continued to turn it down. Though nothing actually changed, everyone seemed to be happy!
January 12, 2004
Under the leadership of Mrs. Weaver and with the valuable assistance of several other ladies, the Mobile College Auziliary was organized and held its first meeting on April 10, 1964. Just prior to open of school that Fall, the Auxiliary gave a welcome dinner for the faculty and staff at historic Oakleigh Mansion.
The first project of the Auxiliary was to provide robes for the 40-member college choir that year (1964-65). During the next 10 years, more than 1,200 ladies had held membership, and for the next 30 years the Auxiliary made many significant contributions to the College and its students.
Also, early in the history of our school a number of leading business and professional men of the community were invited to become members of the "Honorary Fellows of Mobile College." For many years these men played an important role in the development and support of the school. One of their most enjoyable activities was the annual luncheon they gave honoring the male graduates. This made it possible for the students to meet many community leaders and enabled the men to view firsthand some results from their support.
In recognition of his important leadership role in the establishment of Mobile College, and of his service as their first chairman, the trustees vote to name the Administration-Classroom Building for Mr. J.L. Bedsole. After being informed of this action, Mr. Bedsole requested that it not be done. When the trustees stated that they had already acted, he responded by saying that if they did not name the building for him, he would give $200,000 toward the construction of a library building which could bear his name. The vote to change the name of the building was unanimous!
A major landscaping program was begun which continues today. At that time there were no trees and very few shrubs had been planted. Gifts of azaleas, camellias, and other shrubs greatly assisted in this effort. Many beautiful dogwood trees were growing naturally along both sides of the entrance road. All of this helped as we sought to meet our goal of "Building the Campus Beautiful in the Deep South."
April 19, 2004
Probably nothing is as meaningful or as exciting to a college student as graduation. This was especially true in 1967 when the charter class of our school was to be graduated. Beginning that year and for a number of years thereafter, graduation exercises were held in the evening in front of the Administration Building. One of our greatest concerns was that the weather would be good, so I called the ministerial students together and told them that their major final exam was to pray for good weather!
The weather was beautiful on May 12, 1967 when 66 members of the charter class gathered in the cafeteria and from there began the processional across campus. It was about dusk when the march began, and it was a sight which no one present would ever forget. A baccalaureate service had been held on the previous Saturday, and for many years this service was a part of our graduation program.
From its founding, one of our major goals was to receive accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. A tremendous amount of work on the part of faculty and staff had been put forth in this effort. In December 1968, I attended the annual meeting of the association where an announcement would be made regarding our accreditation. The interest on campus was so great that an amplified telephone system was set up in the auditorium so I could call back and immediately inform the college family of the decision. When I announced the good news, I could hear shouts and applause from those who were listening. This action meant that members of the first class, which graduated the year before, would also be considered as having graduated from an accredited school. It was a great day!
In November of that year the H. Austill Pharr Gymnasium was dedicated. The building was designed to provide facilities for the physical education program of the college and for intramural sports. The building was made possible by funds provided by the Baptist State Convention and by funds raised by the honorary Fellows Organization of the college and named in memory of one of our founding trustees. Later, with some necessary renovations, it became the home of The Rams.
The net increase of 60 students in 1968 was the largest increase since the opening of the school. Construction of new buildings continued, library holdings were increasing and students that year came from 26 counties in Alabama, nine other states and two other countries. It could truly be said that "Mobile College was on the 'grow.'"
September 7, 2004
Early in the life of our school a number of students became concerned because there was not a flagpole on campus. Certainly this had been on our "want list" for some time, but there were so many needs that took priority over the flagpole. However, those students were not to be deterred. They went into the woods, cut a tall, slender tree, erected it in front of the cafeteria and hung a flag on it.
I did get the "message," but funds were still not available for the flag center we all desired.
Their next approach was to tell me they had found a man who would give them enough pipe to make a tall pole on which a flag could be hung. I could not approve that since it was not eh quality I felt we needed. However, we did ask the architect who designed our first building to design a flag center which could be built when funds were available.
Mr. Ben Copeland, principal of Satsuma High School, came to talk to me about a possible memorial to his wife. Since I was off campus, he talked to Dean Eugene Keebler who suggested several possibilities before showing him a sketch for a flag center. Mr. Copeland liked that idea and agreed to fund this project.
The flag center was designed with three poles. The center pole was to fly the American flag, one would fly the state flag and third would fly the newly designed Mobile College flag.
When I returned to campus, I was greatly pleased to have this news. It had a special meaning for me since Mr. Copeland had been superintendent of the Talladega City School System when I was a student and had signed my high school diploma. Soon after I came to Mobile he invited me to address the graduating class at Satsuma High School, which was the first of a number of times I would have that privilege at other schools.
Once again, a dream of some of our very alert students became a reality!