Hyer, Robert Stewart, 1860-1929.Alternative names
Robert Stewart Hyer served as Southern Methodist University’s first president, from 1911 until 1920. Prior to his arrival in Dallas to direct the construction and opening of the new Methodist university, Hyer devoted himself to teaching and research as a science professor at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. He played a major role in how SMU was built, choosing the architectural style and geographic orientation of the university’s first building, Dallas Hall. It has been said that the real monument to Robert Hyer is indeed SMU itself.
Hyer was born October 18, 1860 in Oxford, Georgia. His father, William L. Hyer, was a locomotive engineer; his mother, Laura Stewart Hyer, was the daughter of a Methodist minister. The Civil War was the dominant event in American history during his early years, and despite being only four years old in 1864, the burning of Atlanta by the Union army that year was an event Hyer would remember for the rest of his life.
Hyer and his younger sister, Annie, were schooled in Atlanta until 1874, when his mother, Laura, died on his 14th birthday. Robert and Annie were taken to Oxford, Georgia to be raised by their Aunt Ray Stewart and Uncle Joe S. Stewart. The latter was a major influence in Hyer's life, and guided him through his education at Emory. Hyer was an excellent student, never receiving a grade below 97, and graduated first in his class in 1881. He received a Masters Degree in physics the following year.
A friend from Emory had begun teaching English at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. That professor and friend of Hyer’s, Dr. Morgan Callaway, persuaded Hyer to come to Southwestern to teach, and the future president of the university arrived there in 1882. During his time at Southwestern, Hyer taught physics, geology, chemistry, and biology. He remained a devoted teacher and researcher all his life, preferring those pursuits to the administrative duties he later took up, first as president of SU, and then of SMU.
Hyer was first married to Madge Jordan, of Savannah, Georgia. They wed in 1881, but she died two years later in childbirth. It was during his teaching career at Southwestern that Hyer met his second wife. Maggie Hudgins (Margaret Lee Hudgins Hyer, 8/15/1867-6/26/1934) was a student at SU, and took one of Dr. Hyer’s physics classes (although it was rather unusual for a girl at the time to take physics). She was, like Hyer at Emory, the first in her class (graduating in 1886), and they were married on February 24, 1887.
Hyer’s scientific interests included X-ray technology and wireless radio. He built his own X-ray machine, which he demonstrated to the faculty of Southwestern in 1896. He also experimented with wireless radio, possibly beating Guglielmo Marconi by a year in successfully transmitting a wireless message in 1894. Hyer sent a message from SU to the city jail in Georgetown a mile away.
Southwestern was faced with the task of selecting a new regent (president) in 1897, and when the university’s Board of Curators offered the job to Dr. Hyer, he declined. His refusal, and later reluctance to take the position when it was offered a second time, stemmed more from his genuine desire to remain in the classroom. The next year, during which SU was led by an interim president, Hyer was again asked to accept the presidency-and this time, he agreed.
Hyer served as president of Southwestern University from 1898 until 1911. During his tenure, he developed plans for the construction of new campus buildings, a greater endowment, improvement of the curriculum to make it comparable to other first-class colleges, and improvement of the school’s library. Faculty size and student enrollment increased, a (short-lived) medical college overseen by Southwestern was established in Dallas, and the overall physical plan of the school improved, with Hyer designing one of the new buildings (Mood Hall, currently Mood-Bridwell Hall).
In addition, President Hyer oversaw the completion of SU’s new main building (currently the Cullen Building). The massive new building was finished in 1900, and Hyer located his office-as well as the departments of physics and chemistry-on the first floor.
The problem for SU at the turn of the century, was its location. Some, including Hyer, thought the fact that the university was located in a small town instead of a larger city would ultimately undermine efforts to attract more students and greater funding. Especially with the University of Texas nearby, Hyer thought that the future of SU could be assured if it was moved to a better location. The direct cause of efforts by Fort Worth, and later Dallas, to move SU was the drawing up of plans by the university for a new Memorial Hall (one proposed design was quite similar to the later design of SMU’s Dallas Hall).
Hyer expressed interest in moving Southwestern, and he was not the only one. President Hiram A. Boaz, of Polytechnic College in Fort Worth (currently Texas Wesleyan University), contacted Hyer and proposed that SU be relocated to Fort Worth and merged with Polytechnic. That encouraged Dallasites to make their own counteroffer to the university, and the Dallas Chamber of Commerce set up a committee charged with raising money to improve the city’s offer to support the relocation.
Hyer ended up supporting the idea of relocating to Dallas. He had initially appeared to oppose moving, writing to President Boaz that Southwestern was not interested in going to Fort Worth. But Hyer’s release of a letter to the Trustees of the university, asking if they were in favor of accepting Dallas’ offer to move, convinced some that Hyer was in fact actively working to move the school. The Trustees later adopted a resolution stating that Southwestern would remain in Georgetown, and ordered all faculty and administration (including Hyer) to stop any efforts to move the university.
Such opposition convinced advocates of a major Methodist university in the North Texas region to continue efforts to build such an institution, but to leave Southwestern where it was. A commission established by the Methodist Annual Conference decided on that course of action, and after serious competition from Ft. Worth, Dallas was chosen for the new university.
Hyer was unanimously elected as the first president of SMU on April 13, 1911. Shortly thereafter, he resigned as president of SU, although he completed the academic year there, and was on hand for that year’s Commencement ceremony.
Hyer and his family moved to Dallas in May 1911 to begin preparations to build a new university. The new president developed a very ambitious plan for the future layout of the campus. The site where SMU is located today was nothing but farmland, on the distant edges of the city in 1911, but Hyer’s vision was of a campus with 30 buildings (although SMU at the time had nowhere near the amount of money needed to finance such a plan). But his plan, grandiose as it may have seemed at the time, was faithfully followed in later decades, and his original selection of a Georgian, red-brick design for Dallas Hall has been copied for the vast majority of the major campus buildings constructed since then-giving the entire university a distinctive architectural unity.
The opening of SMU for its first academic year was supposed to take place in 1913, but construction of Dallas Hall took longer than anticipated, and the opening was delayed until 1914, and then until 1915. His work on behalf of the new university also included, as it did at Southwestern, establishing a library and developing curriculum. His role as SMU’s president did not stop him from continuing to teach science, and he helped acquire laboratory equipment for the school.
In addition, President Hyer also chose the colors of SMU (Harvard red and Yale blue, some indication of where he thought the new institution would eventually stand in the ranks of higher education). The motto of SMU, taken from the New Testament, "Veritas liberabit vos," was also chosen by Hyer.
SMU opened for its first academic year in the fall of 1915. 706 students were enrolled for its first year, and at the end of Hyer’s presidency in 1920, SMU’s student body had grown to 1,118.
Hyer served as president until 1920, when he was suddenly asked to resign. As could be expected for a recently-established university, the financial situation of SMU was tenuous, and Hyer was accused of neglecting the important duty of attracting greater sources of funding for the school.
Although Hyer retired from the presidency (and was succeeded by Hiram A. Boaz), his resignation does not appear to have been unduly bitter or divisive, as he was designated President Emeritus of SMU, and continued as professor of physics. He also taught Bible classes. A new physics building named in his honor (the Hyer Hall of Physics, next to Fondren Library) was dedicated in 1925. Hyer continued teaching until his death in May, 1929.
Robert Hyer was rightfully proud of what he had done in helping to create the university, but he also challenged others not to be content with the present. The present should be used, he argued, to build the future; as he said, "While we rejoice over our success, we must remember that the task to which we have set ourselves has only begun…and make claims to victory only to encourage ourselves to press on to greater things."
Robert S. Hyer, "Biographical Information," Box 1, Folder 1 in collection.
William B. Jones, To Survive and Excel: The Story of Southwestern University, 1840-2000 . Georgetown: Southwestern University, 2006.
Ray Hyer Brown, Robert Stewart Hyer: The Man I Knew . Salado, Texas: Anson Jones Press, 1957.
From the guide to the Robert S. Hyer papers SMU 1994. 0203 and SMU 1994. 0203x., 1899-2001, 1911-1916, (Southern Methodist University Archives, DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University)
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