On a fall Friday in 1963 I was walking on the Baylor campus toward the then-new science building, heading for my freshman chemistry class with Dr. McAtee. Suddenly physics professor Dr. Robert Packard burst from the building on a run.
“Wow! Where are you going in such a hurry?” I asked.
His shocking answer was that some students had reported that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. Dr. Packard was going to his office to get a radio. Of course we gathered around to hear the stunning news. Classes were cancelled for the rest of the day, and we were glued to any available TV set to hear the horrible details.
It was decades later when my father, Abner McCall, who was president of Baylor 1961-1981, revealed to me that he – and Baylor – were peripherally involved in that fateful day. In the fall of 1963 President Kennedy was preparing to run for re-election in November 1964 against Republican Barry Goldwater. His campaign directors were concerned that a liberal Catholic hadn’t fared very well in Texas in the 1960 election, and they were trying to drum up support for Kennedy in the south, especially among Baptists.
The involvement of Baylor is recorded in Judge McCall’s own words in a journal he kept at the time. (We, his children, only learned of the existence of these journals after his death.) In July of the 1964 “edition” he recorded speaking to the Dallas Rotary Club and remarked then that Dallas was about as responsible for Kennedy’s death as Waco was for the tornado which killed 113 Wacoans in 1953.
He then writes:
“Frances [Mrs. McCall] remarked afterward that Dallas was not as responsible for Kennedy’s death as I was. This was an application of the legal theory of causation known as the “but for” rule . . . She was referring to the fact that Governor John Connally had called Harlon Fentress [Baylor trustee and owner of the Waco Tribune Herald] on the morning our Board of Trustees met in the fall of 1963, the day before Homecoming. [Connally] told Fentress he was planning President Kennedy’s itinerary through Texas for his planned visit in November and requested that Baylor schedule a speech at Baylor on November 22nd about 10:00 AM and hold a special convocation to bestow an honorary degree upon President Kennedy. Fentress told me Connally said he would make a major address which would attract national publicity for Baylor. I told [Fentress] I would have to consult the trustees, who would have to approve the degree.”
“Ben H. Wooten [Baylor trustee and chairman of the board of Dallas Federal Savings and Loan Association] was in my office when the call came in from Fentress and I asked him about the matter. He said the Kennedy trip was purely political and the Baylor speech was merely an effort to use Baylor for political purposes. He declared that he would publicly oppose the granting of such a degree to President Kennedy. I went over to the trustee meeting and talked informally to about ten more trustees individually. One . . . favored the granting of the degree, one . . . agreed to go along if I recommended it. The others were all opposed.”
“I then asked Joe Albritton [Baylor trustee; lawyer, banker, media mogul] to pass the word to Fentress . . . to tell John Connally not to make a request of me as I would have to say no. (I had discovered that there was a telephone call from the Governor’s office waiting for me.) Joe called Lyndon Johnson in California to tell him of the situation . . . Johnson told Joe that he would see that the request for Kennedy to get a degree from Baylor was dropped.”
“Since Kennedy was assassinated on the morning of November 22nd in Dallas he might have been in Waco if the request had been granted. So “but for” our refusal to grant the request Kennedy would not have been assassinated in Dallas.”
“This was the meeting of the Baylor Board which made the decision to integrate Baylor . . . I doubt if the request would have been granted even if it had been made on a day other than the one on which the Board had the bitter debate over integration. Over half of those who told me that they would oppose the degree voted for integration of Baylor.”
Part of Judge McCall’s reluctance to bring the Kennedy request before the Board was his determination to gain a favorable outcome for the trustees’ vote to integrate Baylor – a project he had been working on for several months. Believing that a Christian school should lead the way, he wanted Baylor, in whose students, faculty, and staff he had total confidence, to set an example of peaceful integration for the other schools of the Southwest Conference.
If all the above had been known soon after the assassination, Baylor might have received some criticism for denying the request to host Kennedy. Out of fear that Baylor would somehow be blamed, Judge McCall and the trustees whom he had consulted kept the deliberations under wraps. Who knows whether Lee Harvey Oswald might have traveled from Dallas to Waco to fulfill his mission? The shadow of the assassination that fell for many years over Dallas might then have fallen over Waco – and Baylor.
Bette McCall Miller
BA Baylor University 1967