March 3, 2006

The Presidential Tradition: Andrew P. Montague, 1902-1912

"...'no professor has the right to force his infidel beliefs on a student, and if I should learn of an instructor in this (Howard) college, who was an infidel, I would immediately call a meeting with the view of having him dismissed'..."

Andrew P. MontagueWell-known Alabama Baptist leader L. O. Dawson declined the offer of Howard's presidency after Frank Roof's departure in 1902, as did Furman University president Andrew Phillip Montague, initially. But former president A. D. Smith pressed Montague and finally persuaded him to accept Howard's offer.

Montague, a native Virginian, was by that time a respected classics scholar who had translated, edited and published letters of Cicero and Pliny. He also was a champion fundraiser, and preferred to leave to Howard's faculty much of the policymaking and daily operation of the college so he could travel the state on behalf of the college. This he did enthusiastically and with tremendous success.

Montague seems to have had an uncanny ability to not only envision large new projects, but also to quickly find money to complete them. When he recognized the need for a new library and a building to house it, he simply went out and raised the needed funds. Given the goal of raising $75,000 (equivalent to seven buildings the size of the new library) for Howard's endowment, he found the money seven months ahead of deadline.

Montague's success was due in part to the statewide enthusiasm for Howard nurtured by his immediate predecessors. In particular, Montague found a powerful fundraising ally among the Baptist women of the state. The Howard College Cooperative Society, founded by prominent Baptist women in the Birmingham area, contributed to key Howard goals, including the library and endowment, a new dormitory and curricular expansion.

Although state Baptists can take credit for much of Howard's prosperity during Montague's administration, the president's contemporaries recognized that he was a uniquely energetic leader. One Baptist leader of the day recalled that in order to fund the building of the new dormitory, Renfroe Hall, Montague "literally walked that money down in this district, tramping the streets of Birmingham and the surrounding towns, and came near to walking himself into his grave." In fact, Howard's "invincible president," as The Birmingham News once called him, traveled more than 11,000 miles in Alabama in a single year at one point, gathering both money and students in record-breaking amounts.

Montague's great professional success was tempered with personal tragedy near the end of the 1905-1906 school year, when his wife, May Christian Montague, died of cancer. It was said that she was his inspiration and aid in all his work for Howard, so it was fitting that two weeks after her death, Howard's trustees voted to give her name to the newly completed library building. Montague married a Woodlawn native (Emma Florence Wood) a year later.

Manly Sports
Montague continued Howard's recent emphasis on exercise as part of a well-rounded education. "Go in for baseball, and tennis, and other clean, manly sports," he advised the Howard students, and they seem to have followed that advice. The new sport of football attracted greatest interest and enthusiasm. Howard formed its first official football team in the fall of 1902 and played its first intercollegiate football game (a win) against Marion Military Institute, which had literally taken Howard's place in Marion.

The familiar accoutrements of college athletics soon followed. In 1904, Howard's faculty required student athletes to meet a minimum standard of 80 percent in each course of study (or 85 percent if they wished to join more than one team). In 1906, Howard added a playing field behind the college's main building. Howard first offered full athletic scholarships in 1907.

Howard's cadet corps continued to hold an honored position at the college, and the organizers of the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair imported a contingent of Howard cadets to perform military drill exhibitions at the fair. By coincidence, Birmingham's other representative at the fair--sculptor Giuseppe Moretti's statue of Vulcan, the ancient Roman god of fire--today stands only a few miles from Samford's Homewood campus.

Judging from the number of discipline cases and tightened campus rules, Howard students seem to have been increasingly inclined to venture into Birmingham, notorious in those days for its bars and brothels. Those students unlucky enough to be caught drinking alcohol in town were placed under "campus arrest" for months at a stretch, or even permanently.

Howard junior Albert Lee Smith made the best of the official anxiety over the students' city excursions, proposing that he be allowed to operate the first Howard college bookstore beneath the stairs of Renfroe Hall, thus eliminating the need for students to venture into Birmingham for school supplies. Smith, a trusted officer of the cadet corps, took orders for a variety of goods, purchased them himself in Birmingham and sold them for a profit on campus. Howard officials knew a good idea when they saw one, but had the good manners not to take over Smith's operation until after he graduated.

Howard's relative prosperity during this time, its athletics boom, the 1902 repeal of the ban on student fraternal organizations and the subsequent blossoming of fraternities and clubs inspired a new student publication, Entre Nous ("between us"). This annual publication was a rich and unprecedented record of student life at Howard (see A Leaf From a Student's Diary in this issue of The Belltower).

Hard Times and Infidels
So great were Baptist hopes for Howard's future during Montague's time that at the 1906 meeting of the Alabama Baptist Convention future Howard president T. V. Neal proposed that the college's trustees develop a 20-year plan to create a comprehensive "ten-million dollar university," to be called the University of Birmingham, with Howard College remaining at its core. Neal's vision was well-received but wildly optimistic and ill-timed.

Howard's finances became strained again after an economic depression in 1908. In 1910, seeing that Howard's coffers were empty and large debts were outstanding, the faculty reminded Montague that their already meager salaries had often been overdue in recent years. Cash-flow problems, they said, had negatively affected their credit and, by implication, the reputation of the college.

A 1909 policy of collecting fees from students who had to repeat exams served the twin purpose of supplementing Howard's income and encouraging students to pass exams on the first attempt. In 1910 the faculty made more serious recommendations to relieve the financial strain, including calling in all outstanding student debt and requiring almost immediate payment of tuition upon a student's matriculation.

The faculty also required Montague to pass along to the trustees and the state Baptist convention a report of the college's funds and increasing debt. Upon hearing that report, the trustees emphasized that the president and faculty should adjust their work to "the limitation of our income," and as a result Montague made deep cuts in the faculty budget. The endowment, on the other hand, was more than $80,000 and Montague remained optimistic enough about Howard's future to propose construction of a new gymnasium.

Although Montague was tirelessly forward-thinking in terms of the growth of Howard College, he was very much a traditionalist and critic of what he viewed as the secularization of education. In a 1909 sermon at Ruhama Baptist Church, Montague excoriated the faculty of other colleges who, he said, scorned tradition, criticized the national government, disdained religion and either revised the Bible "to suit latter-day scholarship" or discarded it altogether. Two years later he declared that "no professor has the right to force his infidel beliefs on a student, and if I should learn of an instructor in this [Howard] college, who was an infidel, I would immediately call a meeting with the view of having him dismissed." In spite of such strident beliefs, Montague led Howard into partnership with the University of Alabama to create the Alabama Association of Colleges, which promoted improvement of Alabama's schools according to national standards.

Under A. P. Montague, Howard College enjoyed the greatest success of its history, but a decade in one place was enough for the president. Montague resigned his office at the end of the 1911-1912 school year and departed to lead Columbia College in Florida. Howard's next president served only half as long as Montague, but he immediately, radically and permanently changed the culture of the college.

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