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The Lasting Legacy (and Long Life) of Dr. John Belew

John Belew had so many identities. He was a war veteran, chemistry scholar, senior administrator, internationalist, civic leader, patron of the arts, and, most of all, a dedicated friend and family member

From the moment of his birth, John Seymour Belew was destined to devote much of his life to Baylor. Born in Waco in 1920 to a pair of Baylor graduates, his maternal grandmother was a student at the original Independence campus in 1885.

John’s father, George Haggard Belew, served as Baylor’s business manager during the 1920s, working closely with President Samuel Palmer Brooks, and later served as a trustee and as president of the alumni association. Even as a child, John spent much time on the Baylor campus, and at age nine he traveled by train with the Baylor football team to Lafayette, Indiana, to witness their bruising contest with Purdue.

Despite the family’s Baylor legacy, John’s father assured him that he could attend any college the family could afford. “I did not feel any pressure; I really wanted to come here,” John later said. Foreshadowing his later leadership of Baylor’s international programs, he recalled in an interview that he was impressed by the broad experience of the faculty:

Baylor faculty’s pedigree was well known to me because as a child I enjoyed looking at old Baylor Round Ups… I couldn’t get over the fact that a number of Baylor faculty members had studied abroad. And that was where I learned that it was the thing to do, particularly to go to Germany for either graduate studies or postgraduate studies.

So John entered Baylor in 1938, majoring in chemistry, but he also took German language courses, and one of his organic chemistry textbooks was written entirely in German. Completing his BA in 1941, John entered an MA program at UT Austin, but it was quickly interrupted by military service as an aircraft maintenance supervisor, posted in Illinois, Texas, New York, Hawaii, Guam, Okinawa, and the Philippines. Later, John would reflect on the influence of his overseas service:

The wartime experiences just increased the appetite for wanting to know more about people, different peoples everywhere. Even though I was frustrated—going into the Air Force I assumed we’d go to Europe, [but we] went the other direction, which is fine because I would have never experienced at least an introduction to Asia.

During a three-day rail journey from Waco to New York in 1943, John embarked on a relationship with Ruth McAtee, a Waco native and graduate of UT Austin in modern dance who was studying in the northeast, and that journey led to a seventy-year marriage.
After completion of military service in 1946, John earned MS and PhD degrees in chemistry at Wichita State University and the University of Wisconsin, and then served as a research associate at Brown University and an assistant professor at the University of Virginia.

In the summer of 1956, John and Ruth returned to Waco with two young children, James and Janet, and John joined the Baylor chemistry faculty. By all accounts, he was a strong contributor in both teaching and research. Dr. Harry “Buddy” Powell, who was a pre-med student at Baylor in the early 1970s, told me that John was “the best science teacher I ever had; he could somehow turn chemistry into a story that just made sense.” On the research side, at a time when Baylor had no staff support for grant applications, John was able to win support from the National Institutes of Health, the Research Corporation of America, the Robert A. Welch Foundation, and other funding agencies. He was active in publishing and his family traveled with him to conferences in the U.S. and abroad.

Based on his strong record, President Abner V. McCall elevated John through a series of leadership positions between 1973 and 1983, rising from associate dean of Arts and Sciences to dean, and then from vice president for academic affairs to senior vice president and provost. In all of these positions, John served with effectiveness, humility, and grace. Laura Davalos Lind, who ran a Baylor biological research station in Mexico, recalled, “When I talked to Dr. Belew about our programs in Mexico, his response was uncommon among administrators – he always asked, ‘How can I help?’” These were the years when many campus buildings, such as Burleson and Old Main, were being renovated, and Robert Collmer reported that “Belew is a key man” who made it possible for the English Department to gather from scattered quarters in Carroll Library and the basement of Armstrong Browning into a beautifully renovated Carroll Science Building.

Although John was a natural scientist, he was also a consistent advocate of the arts and humanities at Baylor. Dean Robert Blocker reported that John provided “enormous support” to the School of Music, and Michael Haithcock, director of bands, reported that “Dr. Belew, to me, was the quintessential academic in that he had a great deal of knowledge and interest in a broad variety of fields.” In 1991, after John stepped down as provost, the Art Department expressed its appreciation for his contributions by establishing a John S. Belew Collection in the Martin Museum of Art. In 1995, John and Ruth, together with John’s sister, Katherine Belew Gorham, honored the memory of their parents by underwriting the Belew Scholar’s Room in Armstrong Browning Library.

Elizabeth “Betsy” Vardaman, who served for many years as associate dean of Arts and Sciences, visited John at The Delaney retirement center a few months ago:

Dr. Belew looked at me with a serious nod of his head and began what he termed “a confession” – those were his words. He explained, “In retirement I’ve had opportunity to read and think about many things—and one of them is Walt Whitman. I have recently read three books on him.” He took a breath and shook his head, then went on, “I never really understood his poetry when I was young, but maybe I had just not tried hard enough. Certainly, I had not appreciated his commitment to helping hold the United States together during the Civil War.” Then he added with feeling, “He was important! And he has things to teach us!” Then he began to speak about how much he looked forward to re-reading Leaves of Grass and he thanked me for having listened to him “go on” about Whitman.

“We exchanged good wishes,” Betsy said, “and I left with Dr. Belew’s enthusiasm still reverberating in my ears. After meeting with Dr. Belew, I wanted my remaining days to be as fully awake and open to new ideas as Dr. Belew’s life so richly exemplified.”

• • •

I joined the Baylor faculty in 1978, and was soon irrationally elected, as an untenured assistant professor, to chair the Graduate Curriculum Committee – a post that placed me in frequent conflict with faculty and administrators whose proposals were rejected by the committee. John Belew was the kind and wise mentor who helped me to navigate and survive those fearful crises.

I grew closer to John when he stepped out of the provost’s office in 1990 to become the Jo Murphy Chairholder in International Education, leading the university-wide Center for International Education. I assumed a similar position in the Hankamer School of Business, and we worked happily together to host international students and scholars, to work with faculty on new study-abroad and exchange programs, and to forge new relationships with foreign universities and institutions.

During the last month of his life, I had the privilege of meeting with John several times for about twenty hours of conversation. We retraced our steps through China, Russia, Thailand, Europe, and Latin America. At age 102, his detailed memory of events, dates, programs, and personalities was astounding. We also discussed the challenges and successes of his work in Baylor’s senior administration. For example, he recounted his frustration when a few trustees opposed granting an honorary degree to Rep. Claude Pepper of Florida – a Baptist Democrat who supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and programs that cared for the elderly. Intervention from Abner McCall, serving as Chancellor, quelled the opposition, and Pepper spoke at the August 1983 commencement ceremony.

John Belew had so many identities. He was a war veteran, chemistry scholar, senior administrator, internationalist, civic leader, patron of the arts, and, most of all, a dedicated friend and family member who penned more than four hundred handwritten letters to his grandchildren. Thank you, John, for 102 years of life, love, and service.

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