“The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness
has not overcome it.”
(John 11: 5)
Whatever drove the Scotch and Irish across an ocean to Virginia drove Dr. Jefferson Davis Sandefer’s grandfather to Bartholomew County, South Indiana, drove him further south through Missouri to North Arkansas, Sharp County, a community of small farms and large families, where his son and namesake Samuel Butner Sandefer would be one of the first from this community to join the Confederacy to fight and most likely die as was expected of men lined up walking, then running, bayonets fixed, pointing the way over fertile ground exploding in their faces, men they knew only by first names falling like wheat and grass cut down in season, a shout climbing from their throats, that old Scotch and Irish cry rising from a well of genetic discontent deeper than causes, than hope for a future. And Samuel Butner Sandefer was one of the fallen at Wilson Creek, as good a place to die as any in Missouri, but his companions would not leave him where he fell though he begged to be left, too severely wounded to be more than dead weight for the men carrying him to the sawbones, specter with blunt instruments and blood-wrung hands, Samuel telling them to save themselves, but they refused and somehow made it back behind their lines and attended to their friend who harrowed death and won and later fought in other battles, four years of memories fusing into one continuous day and night before he returned, more or less whole, to Sharp County, Arkansas, 1865, and married Miss Mary Lucretia Leverton.
J. D. (Dave) Sandefer was born to this union March 13, 1868, the second of nine children. His father was the guardian of his family, a man other men trusted and followed, but it was Dave’s mother who guided her son, the first to survive infancy, toward the values of temperance and education, toward making a name for himself that did not require Colts and Winchesters. While President of Hardin-Simmons University, Dr. Sandefer said of his mother: “‘I followed her precepts and her spiritually wholesome example with such conscience that I have never used tobacco, beer, nor liquor in any form, and it is with pardonable [pride] that I can say that I kept faith with my mother’” (24).* Dave’s father demonstrated other values.
When Dave was ten, his father loaded his wife and children into two covered wagons and headed for more favorable conditions—“Texas or Bust.” They met a steady flow of skeletal faces and ragged children heading back—“Busted, By Gosh.” The Promised Land was 160 acres twenty miles northwest of Weatherford, a two-room log house for the time being, for shelter until times got better, Parker County: Indian raids, scalped neighbors, stolen children, horse thieves working out of Indian Territory, crossing the Red River to prey on sodbusters, dirt farmers with nothing worth taking but the work horse, easy pickings. How could these rustlers know Samuel Sandefer had fought and lived through four years of carnage and knew how to bring peace with Winchester and noose? He organized his neighbors into the “Minute Men Club” (13) who came when summoned from plowing to hitch the horse and ride down Bill Blake, a horse thief “marksman of the first order” (14); to overtake a nameless horse thief between Jacksboro and Red River and leave a warning—his body hanging from a tree; to surround Jim Duck’s house, Duck and his “wayward brother” (15) desperados given to stealing cattle, and when Duck mounted his already saddled horse and rushed the men, thinking they would scatter, they did not and fired shots, and Duck fell, a bullet through his right shoulder and one through his right leg. When Samuel Sandefer ordered him to throw up his hands, Duck replied, “Damn it, I can’t, you have broken my arms” (15). Duck lived and was taken to Jacksboro to jail and then to prison where he later tried to escape and was killed by the guards.
The night Duck was wounded by Samuel Sandefer and the other Minute Men, the horse thief was left in a bed with some towsacks and rags under his wounds. The men rigged a couple of buckets with a small hole in each and filled the buckets with well water and hung them over Duck’s wounds. If he survived, Duck could be taken to jail. Word was that Duck’s pals might try to rescue him in the night. Samuel Sandefer and his companions were exhausted, so they stationed about eight of the neighboring boys, fourteen to eighteen years of age, to guard the house. One of these boys was Samuel Sandefer’s son Dave. Dr. J. D. Sandefer recalled that night:
I well remember I was given a shotgun to help the other boys guard the house and prevent any of Duck’s pals, who might hear of his ill luck, from coming and stealing him out and taking him away. About twelve o’clock several men rode up at full speed and we were sure that a group of horse thieves had arrived to take our prisoner. However, the men soon notified us that they were neighbors and that they had come to get their horses, which Duck and Russell [a boy from Weatherford] had stolen the night before. It was a great relief to know they were friends, because I remember I had concealed myself behind the house, with both chimney and the house for protection. (16-17)
Two years after this event, Dave and his brother accompanied their father and Bob Sistrunk, one of the Minute Men, on a trip into what is now Jones County. They stopped to visit one of Samuel’s friends living on a little ranch on California Creek, just north of Stamford. Dave and his brother and Bob Sistrunk were in the corral out back when they saw a man riding up. It was Joe Tate, notorious member of a horse thief gang. Tate and Bob Sistrunk had each threatened to kill the other “on sight” (18). Bob had left his pistol and Winchester in the house. He turned and ran for the back door, fifty yards away. Tate began cursing Sistrunk and had no intention of waiting for Bob to retrieve his weapons. Tate slid the Winchester from its saddle scabbard, aimed and snapped off several rounds. Joe Tate could “hit a squirrel’s head a hundred yards away” (18), but Providence intervened. The rifle misfired. Bob Sistrunk was spared. Tate cursed the rifle, then spurred his horse and lit out.
Samuel Sandefer and the Minute Men “exterminated” (17) horse thieves from the territory, and Samuel soon prospered. He hauled in lumber from Weatherford and built for his family “the finest house in that part of the county” (12). Then he built a one-room school and hired as the teacher an old man with eight daughters. Even though “education was not a necessity” (20) to Samuel Sandefer, his wife must have convinced him there was value in it for his son Dave.
The brighter half of J. D. Sandefer’s heritage came from his mother, Miss Lucretia, who, though having attended school only six weeks, made herself into a “splendid reader, an accurate speller, one of the most versatile Bible students of her day” (6). Lacking the services of a doctor, she read all the medical books available and became an efficient physician for her family and for the “poor in the community” (6). Mrs. Sandefer organized a Sunday school, religious training being known as “mother’s problem” (21), where Dave studied the Bible, on occasion reciting numerous chapters. His mother took him, when ten or twelve, to hear an old Methodist circuit rider preach temperance, and for one dollar, Dave could sign the Temperance Society pledge never to touch intoxicating beverages except for medicinal purposes (23). His mother was prepared and gave Dave the dollar. She had sold twenty-four dozen eggs to secure the price for a lifetime of temperance for her son (23-24).
In the middle of July 1909, forty-one-year-old Dr. J. D. Sandefer received a letter informing him he had been unanimously elected president of Simmons College, Abilene, Texas. At the time, Dr. Sandefer was president of John Tarleton College, Stephenville, Texas. He had no desire to be president of Simmons, but as an act of courtesy to the board of trustees, he paid a visit to Simmons (83-85). He turned them down. They persisted. He relented, years later admitting he did not know why he came to Simmons College (96). He “had little to encourage him to great accomplishments as he took his position” (97), but he believed that the “divine hand” of God “unerringly guided his destiny”—his “vision of a mighty empire of the West, with a great university to guide the destinies of the thousands of young lives who might come the Simmons way” (97).
He had shown himself to be a fighter, no matter what the cause, so long as he was on the right side. Simmons College was a Baptist school and it needed this man—a dreamer—yet an intensely practical man. He was a man who met everyone on a common democratic level, and who carried himself with the bearing of an aristocrat. (83)
Dr. J. D. Sandefer, President of Hardin-Simmons University for thirty years, died on Good Friday, March 22, 1940. Arguably no other HSU president was so loved by Abilenians, students, and faculty. Especially by the faculty. Dr. Julius Olsen said J. D. Sandefer strove to “select a faculty of scholarship, religious training, and ideals” (328). Dr. Sandefer said this about the faculty with whom he had served during his thirty years: “I pay tribute to all of them gladly; and cheerfully admit that much of the seeming progress that has characterized the institution’s growth and development is due to them” (305).
No president ever had in his administrative career a more loyal faculty. During the depression, the faculty agreed with the president to take from a twenty to forty per cent reduction in their salaries and even then, they agreed to take such additional cuts as were necessary to prevent any further increase in the school’s indebtedness.
One year the president and each of the teachers contributed five monthly salaries. Another year they contributed four monthly salaries, another three, another one.
These supplementary contributions on the part of the faculty, the bursar’s office shows, exceeded during these years eighty thousand dollars. There was probably no other school in the Southern Association of Colleges where similar sacrifices were made for the school and where they were accompanied with a greater unanimity of Christian spirit and loyalty. (305-06)
The faculty’s love for, and loyalty to Dr. Sandefer was due in large part to his leadership style that never asked of others what he was not willing to do himself. His father accompanied his companions across Civil War fields of carnage, shot it out with horse and cattle thieves, desperadoes. President Sandefer led his followers in the fight against the loss of hope, loss of jobs, loss of Simmons University, odds that would have seemed impossible for most other Depression Era college presidents. J. D. Sandefer was never one to lose faith in the triumph of light over darkness.
At the start of the Great Depression, the chairman of the Simmons board of trustees told Dr. Sandefer the board could not undertake the construction of a much-needed chapel hall and a cafeteria building, and, knowing J. D. Sandefer, the board advised him: “‘you must not do it yourself’” (178). President Sandefer answered: “‘The Lord and I will undertake it and relieve the board of any financial responsibility’” (178). He set out to “do it,” contacting friends, collecting money, letting out contracts. Construction began. When the contractors had to be paid in order to pay their workmen’s weekly wages, Dr. Sandefer “went to the Citizens National Bank and borrowed ten thousand dollars on his personal note to meet this emergency” (179).
He was still $2,000 short. He did not sleep much that night, walking the floor and praying. He offered his personal note for one thousand of the two thousand dollars needed (179). When asked by Mr. E. N. McClusky, a Methodist friend, how J. D. knew he would secure by 3:00 p.m. the remaining thousand, President Sandefer laughed and said, “‘I cannot explain that to a Methodist. It takes more faith in God and one’s friends than most Methodists and Baptists know anything about’” (180). Mr. McClusky handed his friend a check for the last thousand.
A fighter, yes, but also a “‘dreamer at heart’” (181), J. D. Sandefer worked for sixteen years to get Simmons University accepted as a member of the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools” (181). On January 31, 1928, Dr. Sandefer announced that Simmons had been granted admission to the Southern Association. He was in his nineteenth year as president; he had won the good fight, but now with the Great Depression looming one year away, he would have to fight, not only to keep Simmons in the Southern Association, but to keep the college. No surprise he needed money—more money “to carry on” the high calling of Simmons, more money to “pay her teachers salaries commensurate with the standards set by other older and richer institutions, included in the membership of these associations” (182).
The president, during these years, had to use every ounce of energy and diplomacy at his command to hold the institution’s membership in the Southern Association. The Southern Association is the highest accrediting agency in the South, and this recognition means that Hardin-Simmons University students are admitted into any of the institutions of higher learning both in this nation and abroad on as high a level as those coming from institutions, often times much older, much larger, and more highly endowed; and where faculty members receive salaries far larger than those paid here. (306)
Simmons had “never looked to the denomination proper for help” (236). It had looked to “the First Baptist Church of Abilene, its mother church, but sometimes the aid that could be given was small. In fact, the contributions of the First Baptist Church to the university during and after the depression were cut to twenty-five dollars a month, and it would be difficult for an individual to subsist on that, much less a university” (236).
Hardin-Simmons University was forced to fall back on her own resources to tide her over. The faculty cut their salaries to the very lowest minimum. All the money the school had to live on was the money that came in from students’ fees, interest on endowment funds invested at a low rate of interest, and the few gifts that the president could secure and people donated, of their own accord, from time to time. (236)
Fortunately for Dr. Sandefer and Hardin-Simmons, and especially for the faculty, in the spring of 1928, Mr. H. C. Coleman, from Philadelphia, was traveling by train on a vacation trip to California. He stopped off in Abilene, was introduced to President Sandefer by Mr. George L. Paxton, president of the Citizens National Bank, and this serendipitous introduction led to a friendship between Mr. Coleman and Dr. Sandefer that greatly benefited the university. Mr. Coleman was “one of the few large contributors to the school who ever gave the president money to use for salaries and current expenses” (237). Most large donors apparently expected to see their names engraved on the façade of buildings; whereas Mr. Coleman could be counted on for donations to pay faculty salaries, and President Sandefer never hesitated to ask. I’m certain Mr. Coleman’s name was engraved on the lintels of faculty residences. And the wolf at the door passed by. At least for another month.
During his thirty years serving Hardin-Simmons, Dr. Sandefer brought to the university “an average of seventy thousand dollars a year. He has led most of his projects with an impressive personal donation” (260).
On the night of April 17, 1930, the Abilene Civic Clubs and the Chamber of Commerce honored Dr. Sandefer’s twentieth anniversary with Simmons. Mr. Dallas Scarborough, Simmons’ alumnus, said this of Dr. Sandefer, “The difference between this country today and what it was when the Indians were here is due to men like this man Sandefer” (191). President Sandefer then spoke of the crisis facing all denominational schools: “‘The standards are being set by the schools of the East which have millions upon millions of dollars. There is only one thing for our local institutions to do and that is come up to the standards, we must stay up or quit’” (191-92).
There was no quit in J. D. Sandefer. In him shown the light of his father Samuel Butner Sandefer, the light of his mother Lucretia Leverton Sandefer. In his book Famous Are Thy Halls: Hardin-Simmons As I Have Known It, Dr. Rupert N. Richardson says of President Sandefer:
For those of us who had grown up under his tutelage there was no one to replace him. His courage and innate optimism never failed. No matter how difficult the way became he always looked forward to smoother paths ahead and went on with unfailing energy. So many times, I recall, when I grew discouraged, he would say, ‘Rupert, you must have faith.’ And his own faith was a strong sure light for those who traveled with him. (Richardson 175)
That light still shines against the darkness.
Works Cited & Notes
* Page numbers following quoted statements are to Ms. Inez Woodward Sandefer’s biography Jefferson Davis Sandefer: Christian Educator. This biography is my source for the selected facts of Dr. J. D. Sandefer’s heritage and life. Mrs. Inez Woodward Sandefer (wife of Gilbert Bryan Sandefer) was Dr. Sandefer’s daughter-in-law.
Richardson, Rupert N. Famous Are Thy Halls: Hardin-Simmons As I Have Known It. Abilene Printing & Stationery, 1964.
Sandefer, Inez Woodward. Jefferson Davis Sandefer: Christian Educator. Broadman, no date given on this first edition, but the date is listed in bibliographies as 1940, the year Dr. Sandefer died.