Letters Relived

By Kevin Tankersley

Baylor professor’s century-old letters frame storyline of new book

In the mid-1920s, Baylor University President Samuel Brooks was under fire. He was being accused in some circles of allowing evolution to be taught at his university. There was also a movement afoot to move Baylor from Waco to Dallas.

About this same time, Frank Guittard, the chairman of the history department at Baylor was working on obtaining his doctorate at Stanford University. Since he was only able to travel to the Stanford campus during the summer, it took Guittard eight years to finish his degree, which he did in 1931, at the age of 64. Guittard taught at Baylor from 1902 until his death in 1950, when he was 83.

These two timelines are explored simultaneously in the book “A Ph.D.’s Reverie: The Letters” by Charles Francis Guittard, Frank Guittard’s grandson. The bulk of the book — from pages 49 to 320 — consists of more than 200 letters between Frank and his family, most of them written during his time at Stanford, the “Palo Alto years,” Charles Guittard calls them. The first letters, from January to April 1920, record the courtship of Frank and Josie Glenn, who would eventually marry. Frank’s first wife, Mamie, died of tuberculosis in 1917, leaving Frank with two young sons. He and Josie, a schoolteacher in Houston, met in December 1919, and Frank began courting her soon thereafter. In a letter dated January 14, 1920, Josie wrote to Frank: “I like you and would like to be a good friend to you and would like for you to be a good friend to me, but beyond that I cannot see.”

Though Frank continued pursuing her, Josie’s attitude remained the same until the spring. On April 8, she wrote: “I like and admire you, but I don’t think I want to get married. … I have thought and thought about what you have said to me, and I am still thinking.”

Frank visited Josie in Houston in mid-April, and on April 28, she wrote to him: “It will be my pleasure and happiness … with you and your boys to make our home a real home.” Frank and Josie were married on June 10, 1920. They raised Frank’s sons — Francis Jr. and Clarence, both of whom became attorneys — and remained together until Frank’s death in Dallas in 1950.

Guittard enhances the family correspondence with many editor’s notes throughout the text, either explaining details of the letters or commenting on what was going on back in Waco, especially emphasizing Brooks’ struggles as president of Baylor.

“A Ph.D.’s Reverie” is actually the second edition Guittard has published about his grandfather. The first, in 2018, was a 36-page volume that consisted of a poem he wrote that was enhanced by illustrations by Grace Daniel, a former Baylor art student who is now a professional artist in Paris.

Guittard said he read the poem at the 2017 House of Poetry, a Baylor event each spring in which local and regional poets share their work.

“I got pretty good reception on that [poem], maybe more than it deserved,” he said, “and I thought, ‘Gee, if they like it, maybe I can just keep repeating myself in some kind of way but add something to it.’”

That led to the publication of the illustrated poem in 2018, which sparked the idea of the most recent book.

“I thought, ‘I have all these letters and notebooks back at the house, and they’re fairly interesting. I’ll just excerpt them and really have something to show for my time.’ So I just added all that to it,” he said.

After putting all his grandfather’s letters in chronological order, Guittard, armed with colored markers, began reading, highlighting the excerpts he would type up later. What interested him most, he said, was his grandfather’s story and what was happening with Baylor’s President Brooks “and his struggle with the fundamentalist right.”

The battles began, Guittard wrote in his book, in 1920, when Baylor published a sociology textbook written by Grove Samuel Dow, chair of the sociology department. The book contained two paragraphs “regarding the age and first appearance of the human species that were at odds in the minds of some Christians with the first chapter of Genesis,” Guittard wrote. The controversy it sparked lasted for more than a decade and prompted several Baylor faculty members to leave.

Brooks, Guittard said, “neither said yes nor no to evolution. He just says he rather thought it was a process. He was very cagey.”

In addition to weathering the controversy, Brooks was interested in growing Baylor’s academic reputation and made the decision that all department chairs must have their Ph.D. That’s what led Frank Guittard, who was chair of the history department, to pursue his doctorate at Stanford.

Brooks, the eighth president in Baylor’s history, died shortly after Frank received his degree from Stanford. Frank worked under President Pat Neff from 1932 until 1947 and then for William R. White for the rest of his time at Baylor.

Brooks, Guittard said, was a “genial, excellent school man. He could teach lots of different subjects, and he was all about teaching and difference of opinion, democracy and student participation. He was a very likable guy and generated loyalty from his people.”

Neff, on the other hand, was a former prosecutor who was a “master of the attack,” not afraid to use sarcasm and a bit authoritarian. After some students had written a piece comparing Neff’s style with that of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, Neff called the students out, by name, during a chapel service and promptly expelled them.

Upon compiling all the information for the book, Guittard sent the project to many history and English faculty members at Baylor and other universities and received a great deal of praise, much of which is shared in the opening pages of the book.

“This is the story in family correspondence and verse of one of the seminal figures in the history of the Department of History at Baylor University. And what a story it is.” said Barry Hankins, current chair of the history department, in his review of the book.

Nicholas Pruitt, assistant professor of history at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Massachusetts, is quoted as saying “Charles Francis Guittard has produced a work that reminds us of the human element of history. The Guittard letters include family, love, grief, humor and recollection.”

Guittard shrunk down his grandfather’s story for this book but has enough information that he’s planned a third volume about his grandfather. “The Life & Times of Frank Guittard” is a work in progress, he said, and will include lessons that Frank taught his history students at Baylor, recreated through interviews with students as well as Frank’s writings.

Charles Guittard graduated from Baylor in 1961, attended law school at Southern Methodist University, then worked as a lawyer, a mediator and a consultant, reviewing legal documents.

The Guittard family and Baylor have connections dating back to 1890, when Frank enrolled as a student. In their wills, Frank and Josie provided funds for the history department’s graduate program, and the family has continued to support the department since then. The Guittard Family Legacy Project has provided undergraduate and graduate scholarships to history students; has recently started the Guittard Book Award for a “distinguished work of original scholarship” in history written by a Baylor history faculty member or Baylor history graduate; sponsors the Guittard Fellows Society; and has sponsored numerous special events in the history department.

Join the Conversation