Woodcut from Jonathan Swift's Battle of the Books
Woodcut from Jonathan Swift’s Battle of the Books

To all those suffering through exams this week:

Take comfort in the words of those who have gone before you.  A Howard College student wrote the following reflection on the anguish of examinations, both real and imagined, for a January 1859 article in the Howard College Magazine.  Our thanks to Dr. Todd in Classics for his help on the translations; this particular student, still very enthusiastic about his newfound knowledge of French and Latin referenced Seneca’s Moral Epistles, Julius Caesar, and the Rubicon.  However, some sentiments do not fully translate so with your post-exam ego SUM, sign up for a Greek or Latin course!

The intermediate examinations have, many of them, just passed like whirlwinds over our heads, and whoever has survived one of these “soul grinders” can form a very correct estimate of the manner in which things are carried on.  Books (our pen smilingly records the fact,) have been horribly mutilated, and have suffered the keen edge of the hasty couteau (French: ‘knife’) till naught remains to tell of a quondam (Latin: ‘former’) text book but its back; and all to subserve the wicked purpose of lazy students.  Any one who has passed through one of these can also appreciate the peculiar defaillance (French: ‘fainting feeling’) with which one enters the endroit (French: ‘place’) upon these occasions when “obstinate questionings of sense and outward things” are propounded for the student’s entertainment (?)

We can testify ourselves from honorable experience, that there is no fun in being bored from two to four hours a day sub judice (Latin: ‘under the judge’) during one of these entertainments, sustaining at the same time an “out side pressure,” equal to the enormous weight of a “prospective fizz.”  But after all, there is not generally as much harm done as is anticipated before entering.  When the smoke of the battle clears away so that we can see ourselves again, we are forcibly struck with the truth of the remark, “Plura sunt quae nos terrent, quam quae premunt et saepius opinione quam re laboramus.” (Latin: “There are more things which mentally terrorize us than which physically oppress us and we suffer more in anticipation than in the experience itself.”)

It is quite amusing, however, to witness the dignified appearance of those who have stood the fiery trial and come out sound.  From the most illustrious Senior down to the shabbiest Freshman you can see the ego SUM distinctly marked on every countenance.  Notice that gentlemanly fellow smoking his “stogy” with an air of nonchalance that would do honor to a Turkish Sultan!  He has stood his last examination, (minus one or two) and feels himself to be “like Caesar’s wife, above suspicion!”  What “crowns of glory,” “fields of happiness,” and “temples of fame” does he behold around the corner of five more months, as he forgets the tight place out of which he has just come, and is transported into the future.  But what deep expression of joy upon that countenance!  He is thinking of home and friends, and imagines he is talking to her under the “kind parental roof.”  Who blames him if he does feel a little all-overish when he holds up these bright prospects in contrast with the fading memories of the past.  He is now tired of college life, and would rather seek a “lodge in some vast wilderness,” “some boundless contiguity of shade,” where he will no longer be “cabin’d,” “crib’d,” “confin’d” but free as air, to blow on whom he listeth; and why should he not?  He has struggled manfully to obtain his independence.  We certainly can have no objection, but hope he will wait until he “gets through,” for we have heard of these “constant quantities” disappearing.  Poor Sophs and Juniors how we pity you!  But if you would be true to yourselves, having already “passed the Rubicon,” you must now dash into the “battle of books,” with a “soul in arms eager for the fray,” and you, too, may soon be raised to the degree of gentlemen of the “first order.”


Felix Wood and Burghard Steiner

Photograph courtesy of The Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (isjl.org)
Photograph courtesy of The Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (isjl.org)

No need to send notes or promises; it will take money to save the college. –The Alabama Baptist May 7, 1896

We all know the sacrificial gifts of Ralph W. Beeson, William W. Wilkerson, Jesse B. Lovelace, and Julia Barron; but have you heard of Felix Wood or Burghard Steiner?  In times of great need, one bet his mortgage, the other his reputation, on the success of Howard College.  During this holiday season, the Bull Pup thought it fitting to tell the stories of Wood and Steiner and their selfless efforts to save Howard College.

When the Howard College trustees decided to move from Marion to Birmingham in 1887, no one imagined the difficulties of relocating a college.  Once the excitement of removal that swept over the Alabama Baptist State Convention dissipated, the reality remained that buildings on the new campus were non-existent.  When promised funds for building adequate facilities did not come, the school opened the fall 1887 session in little more than two unpainted frame buildings found in a forest of second growth pine. In the midst of laying the foundation for what would become Old Main, funds ran so low that the trustees were forced to consider ending the endeavor and selling the property to pay for materials and labor.  Finding it difficult to rally the Baptists in the wake of the move and a severe economic downturn, prospects were bleak. But a Birmingham native intervened.

Felix Wood, a benefactor and member of Ruhama Baptist Church, took a keen interest in the school.  Perhaps Wood adopted concern for Howard in October 1886 when he married Eliza Lee, a relative of board of trustee member and fundraiser J. J. D. Renfroe.  Wood succeeded in his many business endeavors, especially his drug store at Fifty-fifth and Second Avenue South in Birmingham.  When Wood learned of the school’s financial dilemma, he mortgaged all his property to pay off Howard’s debt.  In his book on the history of Birmingham, George M. Cruikshank credits Wood with singlehandedly saving the school and concludes that this selfless act was what “really made it possible for Birmingham to have Howard College.”  After construction resumed on the East Lake campus, Wood served as a trustee and supervised the building of Old Main and a few dormitories.

Unfortunately, Wood’s generous act did not keep Howard out of debt.  In 1890, Old Main was still under construction and attempts to secure funding from Baptists proved futile.  The college turned to the Union Trust Company of Philadelphia for a $40,000 mortgage, offering the East Lake property as collateral.  Despite a generous extension, Howard was unable to make payments and defaulted on the loan in 1896 — much to the embarrassment of the Baptist Convention and Howard College, The Union Trust Company of Philadelphia ran a mortgage sale ad in the Birmingham News.  When the trustees appointed Professor A. D. Smith as President that same year, Smith focused on ending the financial crisis.  In turn, Smith contacted Burghard Steiner for help.  A friend from Howard’s Marion days, Steiner and his brother were immigrants from Bohemia – both of whom found success in the banking business in the small Alabama town of Hamburg.  They later relocated to Birmingham and established the Steiner Bank.  Smith urged Steiner, who was an agent of the Union Trust Company of Philadelphia, to persuade the company to halt the foreclosure with the promise of a significant loan payment within a year.  Steiner contacted Union Trust and personally guaranteed the mortgage payment.  The company agreed and Smith fulfilled his promise to Steiner and paid off the loan in its entirety in 1899.

Thanks to the actions of these men, Howard College survived during those pivotal first years in Birmingham.  The Birmingham Age Herald captured the growing pains that the college experienced in an article on September 24, 1890, “The Howard is a great college. . . It is in baby clothes now, but soon the stately building will have risen, and it will be dressed as becomes a strong and vigorous man.”  In spite of inadequate facilities, Howard’s enrollment continued to increase during those years, but men such as Felix Wood and Burghard Steiner ensured the school’s continued success.

Historian Website 1.13

Adapted from:

A History of Birmingham and its Environs: A narrative Account of their Historical Progress, Their People, and Their Principal Interests by George M. Cruikshank, Lewis Publishing Co; 1920

A Memorial History of the Baptists of Alabama by B. F. Riley, The Judson Press; 1923

Birmingham Age Herald, September 24, 1890

“In the Shadows of Foreclosure: Three Financial Crises that Threatened the Existence of Howard College” by Chriss H. Doss, published in the The Alabama Baptist Historian Vol. 28, no. 1, Jan. 1992