Samford University

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John C. Dawson, 1921-1931

John C. DawsonJohn C. Dawson was a native of Huntsville, Alabama, but lived there only a short time. His family relocated to Kentucky after his father died, the year after Dawson's birth. Dawson returned to Alabama as an educator, first in Scottsboro and, starting in 1903, at Howard College.

By 1921 Dawson had given notable service to Howard as a professor of modern languages, college dean and acting president. He also had taken significant leaves of absence--first to supervise the education of American troops in France and then to complete a doctoral degree at Columbia University.

Charles Bray Williams resigned abruptly in 1921, leaving hard feelings and ruptured relationships at the college. Needing first and foremost to heal the wounds of recent years and create a stable administration, Howard's trustees turned to the trusted and well-liked Dawson, who had received his Ph.D. the day after his predecessor's official resignation.

In return, Dawson provided a decade of stable leadership and steady institutional growth. But where Williams and J. M. Shelburne had worked toward big, bold visions of Howard's future, Dawson seems to have focused on progress by small increments.

One of Dawson's most innovative and farsighted policies allowed faculty to take leaves of absence, at half-pay, to complete doctorates and thus boost the college's reputation as they added value to their teaching. Dawson also presided over the addition of a science building, gymnasium, residence hall for women and a state-of-the-art athletic field; a surge in postwar enrollment (a 40 percent increase in 1921); a boom in academic societies; expansion of the Crimson; a first attempt at creating a pharmacy program; and creation of an academic journal dedicated to the scholarship of Howard faculty.

Dawson's longest-lived policy was his prohibition of dancing on the grounds that it was "not good for efficiency in class work" and because "the Baptists of Alabama are opposed to dancing." That policy, which survived for over 60 years, was part of a general crackdown (or revival, depending on one's perspective) at the college. Dawson also required students to memorize and recite a special Student's Prayer in convocation. And although Birmingham officially was considered a friend of the college, Dawson prohibited unnecessary visits. "A student who keeps continually running to town can be assured of a private interview," he warned.

Like most presidential wives before and since, Dawson's wife, Fletcher Stinson, was an active participant in the life of the college. In fact, she officially served as Howard's social director from 1921 until her death in 1927. Within a few years of her death John C. Dawson decided that almost three decades of service to the college, including a decade as president, was long enough.

A summer abroad in 1930 reminded the president of his love for teaching romance languages and literature. He announced his resignation that fall and departed from the office in February 1931 for an extended European tour before joining the faculty of the University of Alabama as head of the Department of Romance Languages. To the great surprise of the Howard community, the trip also served as a honeymoon for Dawson and Avis Marshall, Howard's recently-hired librarian.

Between 1921 and 1931, Howard increased enrollment by approximately 1,000 students and more than doubled its endowment, but also accumulated $100,000 in debt. As the Great Depression advanced, Dawson stepped aside in the hope that Howard would find a new president with the enthusiasm and ingenuity to save the college. Howard found such a president by the end of the decade, but not before suffering a bitter and chaotic period that brought charges of communist conspiracy at the college and an aggressive campaign by students, faculty and alumni to remove the president.

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