May 26, 2006

The Presidential Tradition: Harwell Goodwin Davis, 1939-1958

"... Ironically, World War II, the greatest challenge Davis faced, made possible his two great accomplishments on behalf of Howard..."

Former Samford President Harwell Goodwin "Major" DavisIt seems especially fitting that in 1939 Harwell Goodwin "Major" Davis took on leadership of a college named for Christian prison reformer John Howard. As Alabama Attorney General earlier in the century, Davis helped expose and end the state's convict lease system, which amounted to a government-sponsored slave trade. In that service to the state, and in his service in combat during WWI, Davis had proven himself a gifted leader. After the cultural debacle of the Neal presidency, Davis must have seemed a safe and steadying figure. But who could have foreseen just how well he would lead Howard College through the dramatic changes to come?

Ironically, World War II, the greatest challenge Davis faced, made possible his two great accomplishments on behalf of Howard--helping the college thrive in wartime and relocate to a campus large enough to accommodate the tenacious, decades-old vision of a greater Howard.

Howard's fiscal health seemed to be steadily improving from the depths of the depression. With the considerable guidance of prominent businessman Frank Park Samford, newly-elected Chairman of the Board of Trustees, the college continued to chip away at its debt and maintain financial stability. The freshman class of 1940 was 10 percent larger than the previous year's, and a Howard centennial fundraising campaign aimed to eliminate all of Howard's debt and add campus facilities to accommodate the increasing number of students. But as the college prepared to celebrate its founding, war once again threatened its survival. Even before the U.S. entered the war against the Axis, enrollment slumped and some faculty departed for military service.

How could the college survive with its young men and faculty at war? Davis answered that question not by trying to remove the college from the path of the mobilizing national war machine, but by making the college a valuable part of its mechanism. First, Howard agreed to host a Civilian Pilot Training Program whose cadets would study alongside the college's other students. A Navy Air Corp program followed soon after and in 1943 the Navy awarded Howard a contract to host one of its large V-12 training programs. This brought the college the money and male students it needed to survive.

In fact, the college thrived. So valuable was the V-12 contract that in 1944 Howard enjoyed its best fiscal health in a decade. By 1945, Howard was out of debt, thanks not only to the V-12 program but also to continued support from state Baptists. The Navy program ended in fall 1945, and although Howard had to return some of the V-12 funds, Davis set aside much of the remaining wartime windfall in the hope that it would allow Howard to relocate.

Relocation of Howard College from East Lake had been discussed openly almost since the college relocated from Marion in 1887. Although advocacy for relocation had typically run afoul of alumni, it was clear by the 1940s that Howard must either have more room to grow or simply stop growing. The problems of the East Lake campus became even more acute as Howard reaped the rewards of the GI Bill, which gave returning veterans the opportunity to continue disrupted educations or afford education that would otherwise have been beyond their reach, financially.

In early 1947 Howard made official overtures for land in Birmingham's Lane Park and Roebuck communities, but by the summer they had purchased 225 acres on Lakeshore Drive. The idea was to not only relocate Howard to the new site, but also to relocate and incorporate Judson College as well. Little could be done to derail Howard's relocation, but opposition to relocating Judson prevented the creation of a Judson-Howard College.

Although the GI Bill effect declined by the early 1950s and war again unsettled the college, Howard pressed ahead with relocation to Lakeshore Drive. Only a handful of its planned facilities were complete at the time of the move in 1957, but the college's distinctive architectural unity was already evident. Davis rejected advice to select modern designs for the buildings, preferring instead the Georgian Colonial style that became a key attraction of the new campus.

Davis saw the college through its first year on the new campus, then stepped aside. He had saved the college during wartime, given it the means to reach its full potential and expanded its academic programs without abandoning its distinctive cultural mission. For these reasons his presidency, the longest to that date, was the only one to leave an impression of completion, even though the new campus was mostly incomplete. To realize Davis' full vision for the campus, Howard turned to Leslie S. Wright.

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