85th Anniversary Year
The College Moves to the North Street Campus
SFA's First Star: Karle Wilson Baker
Karle Wilson Baker as Poet and Teacher
Sarah R. Jackson
Department of English
Mr. and Mrs. Thomas E. Baker were personal friends with President and Mrs. Birdwell, and Dr. Birdwell recognized the value Baker would add to the faculty. She was sought after to lecture as a visiting speaker at most of the other universities in the state and at some across the nation. When the visiting Board of Regents came to dedicate Stephen F. Austin State Teachers College on April 30, 1924, they were honored at a luncheon sponsored by the Rotary Club. Dr. Birdwell chose Karle Wilson Baker to be one of the major speakers on the program. She read her newly created ballad, " Within the Alamo" and the poem she had written the year before honoring the new college, "The Pine Tree Hymn."
Karle Wilson Baker was "featured" in the school's summer catalogue in 1924; hers was the only faculty photograph in the brochure. The school administration definitely thought of her as a "drawing card" for the school and used her in its publicity. The inaugural issue of The Pine Log featured a large picture of Mrs. Baker with the heading, "Will Teach In The Summer School." Baker was further honored in June 1924, when Southern Methodist University awarded her an Honorary Doctor of Letters because of her literary achievements. Karle Wilson Baker intended to teach only one summer at SFASTC--she stayed ten years!
Karle Wilson Baker first came to Nacogdoches in September 1900, where her parents, the W.T.Wilsons, lived. She taught school in Little Rock from October 1902 until June 1906, when she moved to Nacogdoches permanently. She had spent most of her summers at her parents' home and had fallen in love with the natural beauty of the surroundings, its fascinating history, and with one of its citizens, Thomas Ellis Baker. The Bakers married in 1907. Prior to this time, much of her life had been spent in larger towns or cities, first in Little Rock and later as a student at the University of Chicago. Throughout her life, Mrs. Baker enjoyed visiting cities and participating in the cultural and educational benefits a city could offer. The urbanity and poise Mrs. Baker brought to the young college was obvious to all who knew her--townspeople and students alike.
Three of her most important books were published or written during her tenure at SFASTC. She published her last book of collected poems, Dreamers on Horseback; a book of essays on birdlife in Nacogdoches, The Birds of Tanglewood; and wrote a novel, Family Style, about the newly discovered East Texas oil field (published 1937). She was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Dreamers on Horseback. Mrs. Baker wrote another novel, The Star of the Wilderness, after the SFA years. Nacogdoches became further immortalized in the state through these works.
Karle Wilson Baker grew to appreciate the students she taught and felt they could teach her even as she taught them. "In teaching literature to these young people I was making a vital and illuminating sort of contact with a whole new world. . . these boys and girls were the sons and daughters of the little farms and the red hills and in the sandy flats under the pines; and in studying poetry with them I came to know that little world as it presented itself to the wistfulness and eagerness of youth."
In a recent survey, the author contacted over two hundred SFA Alumni who attended the college during the years Mrs. Baker was a teacher (1924-34). To date, about seventy former students have replied. An overwhelming majority refer to the excellent quality of the courses they had with Mrs. Baker. Grateful students have vivid memories of Mrs. Baker even though almost sixty-five years have intervened. One student recalls an early incident:
"When Mrs. Baker first began teaching English in SFA, a man trying to register noticed that the English he must take was taught by her. Of course, he didn't know her, but he did think that he knew he didn't want a woman teacher, so he went to Dr. Birdwell to try to have something done about it, but Dr. Birdwell advised him to go ahead and take the course, telling him that he was sure he would enjoy it. When the term was over, this man went to Dr. Birdwell and told him how much he enjoyed the course; he also told Dr. Birdwell that he thought that it should be compulsory for everyone to take a course in English from Mrs. Baker!"
Dr. Birdwell understood the prestige Karle Wilson Baker brought to the faculty. Allowances were made, and she had the distinction of being the only married woman in any department. Also, Dr. Birdwell had great respect for KWB as a writer as well as a teacher. After he read her novel written during the SFA years, Dr. Birdwell commented, "Family Style will be more popular a quarter of a century from now than now. It would not surprise me to see English teachers putting it on the required reading list as an example of realistic and yet beautiful English."
In July 1924, about a month after Mrs. Baker started teaching, she received a letter from Professor J. B. Hubbell at Southern Methodist University . Hubbell was assuming the editorship of the Texas Review which was moving from the University of Texas to S.M.U. He asked her to serve as an advisory editor and asked her to send him ideas about what the "new" Review should be like. He wanted to pattern his review after the Yale Review, which he considered to be the best in the country. Mrs. Baker was the logical choice since she knew more about the Yale Review than anyone in Texas. Between 1914 and 1920, she had been the most frequently published poet in the Yale Review with twenty-six publications. In her reply accepting the advisory position, she also referred to her classes in summer school. These are her earliest recorded reactions to the new job: "I have been having a fascinating time--especially with the work in contemporary poetry. I hope to be able to repeat the course this fall, for I have really spent the time this summer learning how to teach it. They [students] have the scantiest of backgrounds to build against, for the most part, but they have been delightfully responsive, and the work has been a joy."
Many students surveyed remarked that they were only sixteen years old at the time they were in Mrs. Baker's class. A typical response would describe Mrs. Baker as "a gracious, stately, dignified person, and a wonderful teacher." Some students included a well-loved Karle Wilson Baker poem in the reply. Some recalled Mrs. Baker's bringing the poet Robert Frost to the campus to speak. Most students surveyed who were not English majors remember Mrs. Baker either because she wrote the poem that became the school song, "The Pine Tree Hymn," or because of the Karle Wilson Baker Dramatic Club named in her honor.
One student recollected the day of a test: "I remember one occasion, an important blue book exam. Mrs. Baker was ill. She sent the printed test and left us to our honor--no supervision. One outspoken student asked the group if we should share answers, or be honest. We voted 100 percent that we had too much respect for Mrs. Baker, and we would not violate her trust. Not a single student cheated."
Another student, Victor Fain, testified about student awareness of Mrs. Baker's fame : "All of us seemed to be fully aware and appreciative of Mrs. Baker's talent and contributions. I know I felt it an honor to be in her class, and as young and naive as I was, I realized what an enhancement she was to our college."
Some of the former students interviewed recalled the Winter Term, 1929, when Baker's English 216 class presented a program on the "new poetry" (contemporary and experimental) to an assembly of students. A student on the program remarked that earlier she had known "practically nothing about the modern movement or present day poets. . .My entire view of poetry has changed. . . I made the surprising discovery that poets are people. . . Poetry is life in words." At the assembly, Mrs. Baker's students read poems by contemporary American poets. Frances Rudisill was the Mistress of Ceremonies. Two poems were presented as dance interpretations by Denard Haden. One student who was present at the event, recalls, "When Dr. Birdwell introduced Mrs. Baker as speaker in Special Assembly, the entire student body waved, clapped hands, and called for 'more'."
Mrs. Dale Herrington of Garrison retains in her memory an unfaded portrait of Mrs Baker:
Let me grow lovely, growing old,
So many fine things do:
Trees, and ivory, and gold,
And silks need not be new.
"Her own poem described her. Mrs. Baker walked with dignity and poise. Even before she entered the classroom, I thought of lavender perfune. Her lovely gray hair was puffed up on the sides and brought to a bun on the top of her head. She had a natural charm and a very droll sense of humor. I visited in her home. There she sat in a high-backed chair with the same dignity she carried everywhere. The little things she cared about most were around her--a few books, a new magazine, a writing pad, and I think, either a kitten or a dog. In teaching, she brought out the beauty in all literature, never raising her voice above its normal pitch. Her students had to listen intently to follow her thoughts."
Throughout her life, Karle Wilson Baker saw herself as a student. She attended the University of Chicago, Columbia University, and the University of California at Berkeley. (She took a leave of absence from teaching at SFA while she was at Berkeley.) An amusing anecdote has come down from the Berkeley days that must have been often repeated by her in class since so many of the former students interviewed referred to it: Mrs. Baker was a student in a contemporary poetry class. The professor read a poem and then proceeded to explain to the class what the poet intended; he did not realize that Karle Wilson Baker, his student, was the author because he thought the poet was a male. After he spoke at some length about the poem, Mrs. Baker hesitatingly raised her hand, identified herself as the poet, and gave the real meaning she had intended in the poem!
Some students surveyed reported that they did not have Mrs. Baker in class but that they knew her "through her poetry." Several students interviewed remembered hearing Karle Wilson Baker read poetry in her garden at home. One student who was in the Contemporary Poetry class, Inez Washburn Gilmore, recalls Mrs. Baker's melodious speaking voice as she read her own poetry as well as the works of other modern poets to the class. She also recalls the poet's natural modesty. Mrs. Gilmore said the class preferred Mrs. Baker's poetry above all others and that they often pled with her to read to them. On one occasion, the class of thirty-six members signed a petition and presented it to her: "Mrs. Baker, The class would be glad to have you read some of your own poetry to us."
The "former-student" survey has been humbling. Many of the letters were obviously written with great effort. Some of the students are now in their late eighties and early nineties. Several mentioned serious illnesses they are suffering from now, but various infirmities did not stop them from responding. Most impressive is the sense of devotion that these students still feel toward Mrs. Baker. The adjectives used to describe Mrs. Baker were not "famous" or "important" (which, of course, she was), but rather the terms used to describe her were "inspirational," "kind," "gentle," "encouraging," and "respected." For those of us who have not had the privilege of knowing Karle Wilson Baker, perhaps we too can know her through one of her poems:
My life is a tree,
Yoke-fellow of the earth;
By roots too deep for remembrance,
To stand hard against the storm,
To fill my Place.
(But high in the branches of my green tree there is a wild
Wind-free are the wings of my bird: she hath built no mortal nest.)
Contact: Dr. Jere L. Jackson