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Founders Day To Celebrate SHSU's History, Future

April 4, 2014
SHSU Media Contact: Jennifer Gauntt
Story By: Amy Barnett

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Horticulture and crop science major Ali Ullrich has been working to make the inaugural Founders Day special. In honoring SHSU's past and future, Ullrich planted seeds from the Houston family's Catalpa trees, which, as saplings, will be distributed to guests during the April 26 celebration. —Photos by Brian Blalock

 

Horticulture and crop science major Ali Ullrich makes daily trips to the Interstate 45 greenhouse to ensure 137 young Catalpa trees receive the water and attention they need to remain healthy before they make their spring debut.

These trees aren’t just any trees, but are part of a legacy at Sam Houston State University.

Founders Day 2014

Monday, April 21
* Founders Day Panoramic Photo
2 p.m. at Intramural Field No. 2

Friday, April 25
*Samuel Houston Society Dinner
6:30 p.m. in the LSC Ballroom

Saturday, April 26
*Registration (**)
9 a.m. in the Smith-Hutson Building

*Panel Discussions I and II
10 a.m. in the Smith-Hutson Building

*Panel Discussions III and IV
11:30 a.m. in the Smith-Hutson Building

*Lunch and Keynote Address
1 p.m. in Bearkat Plaza

*Tree Dedication Ceremony
2:45 p.m. by Austin Hall

**Register by April 21

While the heart-shaped leaves of a Catalpa tree provide dark shade and a safe habitat for birds seeking shelter from rain and wind, for SHSU alumni and students, they provide a peek at history, an inside look at the love story between the university’s namesake and his wife, Margaret Houston.

Legend tells us that Margaret planted two Catalpa trees on the property of the Woodland Home, their family’s house in Huntsville—one symbolizing her, and the other representing her husband.

While Houston spent much of his time in Washington, the couple would send letters to each other professing their love and devotion. Margaret would often fold a Catalpa leaf and place it in the letter she would send her husband, as if she were sending him a heart-shaped Valentine.

Several of these love letters are now on display at the Sam Houston Memorial Museum.

“I think they are a vital part of the history of Huntsville,” said Mac Woodward, museum director and mayor of Huntsville. “We talk a lot about the history of Sam Houston’s accomplishments as a public figure, but I think the letters show the private side and his relationship with Margaret Houston, which is so appropriate since the museum is located on their home site.”

Although the original trees are no longer standing on the grounds of the Sam Houston Memorial Museum, the second generation of the Houstons’ trees is growing strong. From those trees, Ullrich recovered seedlings, which she is now growing in the I-45 greenhouse.

“Catalpa trees are really tall, about 20 feet high,” she said. “We had to climb ladders and use scissors to cut the bean pods from the trees in order to get the seeds.

“If we would have waited until after winter to start growing the Catalpas, they would only be about 3-inches tall now, so we got the seeds in the fall and brought them to the greenhouse to get a jumpstart on the growing season.”

The Catalpas are now each about a foot tall and are just about ready to be the center of attention as SHSU chooses one tree to be planted on the grounds near Peabody Library and Austin Hall. The university will present the remaining trees to alumni and friends during a ceremony commemorating SHSU’s inaugural Founders Day on April 26, hosted by the Alumni Association.

Legend says that Margaret Houston would fold a heart-shaped leaf from one of the family's Catalpa trees and send it in her letters to Gen. Sam Houston in Washington, D.C., as a "Valentine."

“We feel like the founders of the university include past presidents,” said Charlie Vienne, director of Alumni Relations at SHSU. “Every president played a fundamental part in the growth of the university and making it what it is today.”

While Founders Day honors the presidents of SHSU, this new tradition also acknowledges the academic contributions being made today by its faculty.

“When Sam Houston State University was first established as Sam Houston Normal Institute, there were only five professors on campus. We now have more than 1,000 professors who teach at Sam Houston, many of whom do research on campus every day,” said current SHSU President Dana Gibson. “We wanted to create an event that also highlights our prominent faculty and experts on campus.”

The Founders Day celebration will begin with registration at 9 a.m. in the Smith-Hutson Business Building. The day will include panel discussions, lunch, a keynote address and will conclude with the tree planting ceremony.

In honor of 135 years of learning at SHSU, panel discussions will offer alumni the opportunity to sit in a classroom as SHSU faculty discuss “Building Bridges Between Town and Gown,” “How SHSU is Preparing Students for the Workforce,” “The Role of Arts and Media in Texas,” and “How SHSU Is Serving the Needs of the State.”

Four to five professors will tackle each subject, explaining research projects, community service endeavors and the efforts of SHSU to place new graduates in the workforce.

“In many ways the individual research projects and classroom/teaching efforts of current faculty represent the heartbeat of the university,” said Jeff Wozniak, assistant professor of biological sciences and Founders Day panelist. “I think it is critical for all alumni—especially those who wish to continue to be engaged in shaping the culture of SHSU—to have a connection to what faculty are currently doing in the classroom and in the field. Hopefully all in attendance can walk away invigorated by some aspect of the current efforts of our faculty.

“I hope to discuss my efforts in teaching my undergraduate ‘Environmental Science’ course, which is classified as an ACE class (Academic Community Engagement), as well as the wide range of community engagement projects my students have participated in as part of this ACE class,” Wozniak said. “It is my hope that alumni in attendance will not only leave the discussion with a better idea of what ACE is, but also become interested in learning how they might be able to support ACE both in the classroom and in the community.”

Approximately 50 students composed the first class at Sam Houston Normal Institute in the spring of 1880 (pictured above with SHNI's five faculty members). SHSU will recreate the student body photo on April 21, when all of SHSU's almost 20,000 students and 1,000 faculty (as well as staff) are invited to be a part of the panoramic picture. —Photo from 'Sam Houston State University—An Institutional Memory: 1879-2004

Alumni taking part in Founders Day will enjoy an outdoor lunch in the plaza outside the Lowman Student Center, where they will hear from Gibson and keynote speaker Woodward.

Woodward will discuss “Sam Houston State University—Then and Now,” a topic he knows well, as he has strong family roots in Huntsville and at SHSU.

“My great, great grandfather was Sanford Gibbs, who was one of the organizers who helped make old Austin Hall and the property available for use; he and a group of citizens persuaded then governor of Texas, Oran Roberts, to meet the challenge to establish a normal or teaching institution here,” Woodward said.

Woodward, SHSU class of 1970, will discuss the ways many of SHSU’s founders left their mark on the university.

“The idea of Founders Day is a great way to celebrate the university, remember why it is here, what the challenges have been throughout the years, and to celebrate how much we have accomplished and what we’ll do in the future,” he said.

Prior to Founders Day activities, alumni are invited to take part in the Samuel Houston Society Dinner on April 25.

“This event has been exclusive to alumni and friends who make annual contributions to the university of $2,500 or more, but since the event is being held in conjunction with Founders Day, we are opening it up to any alumni and friends who would like to attend,” Vienne said. “We will then recognize all Samuel Houston Society members during the dinner.”

Founders Day and all of its events will provide a chance to reunite with old friends, visit with faculty and take a trip back in time, according to Vienne.

Many alumni and friends will leave Founders Day with a young Catalpa tree, a memento of the day, a reminder of the university’s rich past and sign of its promising future.

Tickets for Founders Day are $25. Registration and complete schedule of events are available at shsu.edu/foundersday. The deadline for Founders Day reservations is April 21.

For more information, contact the Alumni Association at alu_kat@shsu.edu or 800.238.7478, and to register for the Samuel Houston Society Dinner, contact the Office of University Advancement at 936.294.3625.

 

 

 

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