January 20, 2006

The Presidential Tradition: A. W. McGaha, 1893-1896

"... Coeducation was already reshaping the culture of other Alabama colleges. Some Alabamians opposed this trend, but McGaha and his supporters persisted and prevailed..."

A. W. McGahaB. F. Riley, in his brief years as president of Howard College, managed to keep the institution open and supplied with students. A published letter of the period heaped praise on Riley and set overly optimistic expectations for his successor. "It seemed to have been necessary from unavoidable environments and the decree of a benignant Providence," B. H. Crumpton wrote of Riley, "that he should have commanded the ship and planned the voyage, until his youthful, symmetrical and brilliant successor, A.W. McGaha, D.D., one of the grandest sons of his honored Alma Mater, like some luminous star, arose in the wane of departing night, to herald the advance of day."

Arthur Watkins McGaha, the son of a Marshall County, Alabama, farmer, was the first alumnus president of Howard College. After earning his Howard degree in 1881, he attended Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, pastored two churches and accepted the call to lead Ruhama Baptist Church shortly after Howard College relocated to property adjacent to the church. This was a critically important time in the lives of both Howard and Ruhama, and the institutions bound together their fortunes. The church provided a spiritual home for the college as well as a deep well of leadership from which to draw staff, faculty and students. Likewise, Howard College brought to East Lake scholars who served Ruhama Baptist Church as well as they served the college.

Upon taking office in June 1893, McGaha took up perhaps the greatest burden his friend B. F. Riley had carried--recruiting enough students (in the midst of a nationwide economic crisis) to allow the college to operate. McGaha failed, but the college opened on-schedule that fall, albeit slipping further into debt.

The college's financial picture was so grim that the board of trustees openly castigated themselves for their failure to improve it, even going so far as to suggest that the Alabama Baptist Convention replace the entire board. The board remained but, acting on suggestions made by Riley, the Convention and Howard alumni, hired a full-time vice-president/financial agent to travel the state raising funds and recruiting students. The agent's success allowed Howard to make needed building repairs and improvements while the students, working voluntarily, also made great improvements to the campus grounds.

By the spring of 1894 Howard was physically much improved. Its fiscal health was another matter, although the new financial agent had secured promising new pledges of support. The year's decreased enrollment, indicative of a dangerous downward trend, was of special concern. This problem may have played some role in Howard's first experimentation with coeducation, led by McGaha.

Coeducation was already reshaping the culture of other Alabama colleges. Some Alabamians opposed this trend, but McGaha and his supporters persisted and prevailed. College records of the period suggest no great disruption resulting from the admission of two East Lake women, Annie Judge and Eugenia Weatherly, for the 1894-95 school year. In fact, some male students who looked forward to a soothing feminine influence on the toughest members of the faculty lamented the lack of change in their professors. The women proved to be excellent students, and they were followed by three more female students in the 1895-96 school year. Unfortunately, the addition of these few women was not sufficient to help the college out of its growing debt.

By the end of that academic year, the college had defaulted on its mortgage payments and for the second time in a little more than a decade faced the humiliation of a forced public auction of the campus. At the annual trustee meeting in June 1896, just weeks before the scheduled auction, McGaha noted that the college lacked the funds to pay its employees and proposed a radical, if temporary, solution. "The college can ill afford to stand the salary list as it is now paying," he told the trustees. "The institution can dispense with the president more easily than any professor," he added. He offered his resignation and the trustees immediately appointed professor A. D. Smith "chairman of the faculty and manager of the college."

Like Howard president Samuel R. Freeman, McGaha returned to full-time ministry. Like Freeman, he eventually resettled in Texas. As pastor of the First Baptist Church of Waco, he led the largest congregation in the Southwest. But, like Freeman, McGaha died not long after leaving the college. Upon his death in 1901 he was recalled with great respect by his predecessor, B. F. Riley. McGaha, he wrote, "possessed a combination of qualities rarely found in a man because of his boldness and tenderness, frankness and sympathy, courage and gentleness--all these were called into exercise and expressed as occasions demanded--these enabled him to reach a far larger class of people than are ordinarily reached by any one man."

Coeducation at Howard faltered after McGaha's departure, but another pastor/president helped realize that bold vision a little over a decade later. But what of the financial catastrophe threatening Howard College at the time of McGaha's resignation? Rather than leaving the college without leadership at a moment of crisis, McGaha's decision may have helped save Howard. His successor, though understood to be merely a caretaker president, arranged for a financial rescue almost as dramatic and improbable as that of 1884.

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