The Early Warner Years, 1912-1920

by Dr. James D. Long
(From Biology Department Newsletter, 1992)


In previous newsletters contributions of the first four faculty to teach biology at Sam Houston - I. R. Dean, Walter M. Coleman, Robert Marquis, and Carl Hartman - were described. When Carl Hartman left Sam Houston Normal Institute in 1912 to complete a graduate program at the University of Texas, his position was filled by Selden Richard Warner. Warner was born January 27, 1985, at Dunnsville, a small community near Tappahannock on the Rappohannak River in Virginia, and was teaching biology at a high school in Richmond in 1912. He had completed the bachelor of science degree at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg,Virginia, in 1910 where he graduated with honors and was initiated as a member of the Alpha Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. Dr. Estill, who had become SHNI principal (president) in 1908, was also a native of Virginia and was there visiting family when he learned of Hartman's resignation. When he observed Warner in his classroom at Richmond, he was so impressed by the innovative teaching he saw, he offered Warner a position at Sam Houston on the spot. As Warner later recalled, "Being single and somewhat adventurous, I accepted Estill's offer to go west to seek my fortune." Thus began his long adventure with our institution that was to last in one capacity or another for the next seven decades.

On arriving in Huntsville in 1912, Warner found a Sam Houston Normal quite different from what it had been at its beginning in 1879. Enrollment, which was a meager 190 students in 1879, had grown to more than 500 by 1900 and was soon to reach the 1000 mark. The Austin College Building housed the entire Normal program in 1879 including classrooms for "natural science and physiology" although a third floor to this structure was soon added to provide more instructional space. By 1912, the Main Building (not yet Old), Peabody Memorial Library, and Industrial Arts Building had been added to the physical plant. The initial grounds, limited to the immediate area around Austin College, now extended to 20th Street on the south, providing space for the new Industrial Arts Building and a large temporary wooden building serving as a gymnasium. A lot across Avenue "J" to the east had been acquired as a site for a newly completed "State Residence" for the Estill family and later college presidents during the next fifty years. Other land acquisitions included parcels along the west edge of the campus for eight tennis courts (later, the Halley Building) and the Sam Houston home and museum sites, used at the time as field and pasture lands for the new agriculture program.

After the Main Building was completed in 1890, most of the Normal's instructional program moved into this new facility. The science program, however, remained in Austin College Building. Professor Halley's physical science laboratory, described in Bulletins at that time as being "modern and spacious," occupied the third floor of this structure. Biology classes were held on the second floor during the Coleman, Marquis, Hartman and early Warner years. Some old photos of this era show a biology laboratory in session in the second floor assembly room, used today for meetings of the University Faculty Senate and other functions. Interestingly, some of the fixtures seen in this picture can be recognized and include a few items that were used by our program until we moved to our present facilities in 1985! Science programs remained in these quarters until a new Science Building was constructed in 1915 to house physics, chemistry, and biology programs and offices for President Estill and other Normal administrators.

Today, with sciences occupying other facilities, this structure has become the Administration Building.

Courses taught in the sciences at Sam Houston by 1912 reflect changing times. I. R. Dean is cited as the instructor of Normal Science-Matter and Methods in 1881 and as teaching Natural Science later during the mid-1880's. Gray's Botany is among texts cited in Bulletins of the era. Although Mr. Dean received $500.00 from the Texas Legislature in 1880 to equip science laboratories, supplies remained in short supply and SHNI Bulletins at that time requested students to bring their own specimens and materials for study.

Professors R. B. Halley and W. M. Coleman, who replaced Mr. Dean in 1889, reorganized science classes along somewhat more modern lines. Coleman began to teach courses in Physiology, Natural History, and Geology. Topics under the Natural History included Botany and Zoology. Courses taught by Halley and Coleman were later grouped under the heading Science and included as new entries were Geography, Chemistry, Physics and Physiology, and Hygiene. The earlier appeal for specimens seems to have been effective for Bulletins published beginning in 1890 boasted of a SHNI Museum of Natural History and Geology. The museum had many instructional uses and continued to be a part of the program until the early 1960's when the space it occupied was converted to other purposes.  Without a permanent site and display cabinets for storage, specimens began to be scattered and lost, although a few items are still with the department. Most alumni will remember the whale vertebra that dates from that period and still graces the comparative anatomy laboratory.

The original Normal program entailed two years of study to acquire a permanent Texas teaching certificate. An additional year of instruction was introduced during the 1880's or 90's, providing stem work to those needing to qualify for the Normal program. Later, post-graduate courses were offered which eventually constituted a third year of college level study. A fourth year was added soon after Warner arrived in 1912 and baccalaureate degree programs began to be offered by the First World War. Sam Houston Normal Institute, sometimes called a Normal College by then, began awarding degrees in 1919. Texas Senate Bill 176 authorized changing State Normals to State Teachers Colleges in 1923.

The biology curriculum, developed during the Coleman period, continued with only a few modifications through the first years of the present century. It was this program Warner came to teach in 1912. He soon began introducing new features to the program, however, to reflect subject matter and teaching approaches current for the times. By 1918, four years of study in biology was possible within a Biology Department and degrees in the subject became available. The curriculum Warner introduced has been updated many times since these early days as new specialized courses and new faculty have entered the scene, but his biology rather than zoology/botany approach to subject matter remains as a major contribution to our program.

Miss Mary Estill, in her book Vision Realized, A History of Sam Houston State University, describes Warner as a scholar concerned with the scholarship of his students and as having a personality that combined courtly manner, absent mindedness, a keen sense of humor, and an enjoyment of friends. His knowledge of animals and plants was so diverse he was recognized as a naturalist, a highly respected title of the era. His interest, however, was not limited to his teaching field. With a lifetime interest in athletics, he organized, officiated, and coached the first football squad on campus and later constructed Huntsville's first golf course on property which was to ultimately become the Warner housing subdivision. In 1915, he married Grace Miller who was a teacher of domestic art at SHNI for several years. This marriage continued for sixty-one years until their deaths in 1976.

With enrollments increasing and an expanding curriculum, a need for additional biology faculty to teach soon developed after Warner arrived at Sam Houston. Faculty members of other departments (agriculture and physical education) who had science backgrounds in a suitable area often taught a biology course when needed. Sharing teaching loads among departments in this fashion continued for a number of years. In 1917, Benjamin Carroll Tharp became a second member of the biology faculty. Born November 16, 1885, at Pankey, Texas, he was a 1909 SHNI graduate who had obtained an M.A. degree in botany at the University of Texas in 1915. After teaching with Warner until 1919, he returned to the University of Texas, earning the Ph.D. degree in botany in 1925. He joined the botany faculty at UT, remaining there until his retirement in 1959. Dr. Tharp's major professional contribution was establishing the University of Texas Herbarium which has become one of the largest plant collections of the world.  Dr. Tharp's interest in plants undoubtedly was influenced by his experience with Warner, another botanist. Tharp and Warner utilized ecological data in explaining the distribution of Texas plants, a practice continued today.

(Next Issue, Sam's First Ph.D.)