Recalling My Years at SFA, As It Turns 100

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One of my college alma maters recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. A highlight of the celebration was the unveiling of a giant class ring that is bound to become an Instagram must-do moment for anyone connected to Stephen F. Austin State University. I have not had the opportunity to view it firsthand but am planning a trip soon to Nacogdoches, where I lived a total of 18 years in two different stints.

After graduating from high school in May of 1973, I spent a year attending night school at Kilgore College while working at the Made-Rite Bottling company during the day. The intent was to transfer to The University of Texas after that first year. But a trip to Nacogdoches on a rainy day in the fall of 1973 to visit my friend Frank (still my friend, more than a half century after we first met) changed my mind.

I fell in love with the campus, filled with stately pine trees — then and now. The following summer I began taking classes at SFA while living in a campus apartment. I had scored high enough on my ACT to qualify for what the university called its Select Student program, patterned after UT’s vaunted Plan II program. This allowed me to craft my own course sequence, with the exception of taking the state-required courses. I had either already taken these or placed out of them.

As a result, I took every philosophy course offered at SFA, primarily from Jim Magruder and Dick Lower, both of whom have since passed. They both were remarkable professors who taught me a great deal — some of which I still remember. I also gobbled up history and English courses while studiously avoiding any science or math classes. I encountered Fred Rodewald in a creative writing class. He marked up my first paper, gave me a 60 if memory serves, and bluntly told me I could do better. He was right. I learned more about writing from Fred than anyone before or since.

As a result of my narrow academic focus, I ended up majoring in philosophy, history and English, with a minor in anthropology. I was married and on our own financially. So I worked full-time while attending SFA with a number of typical and not-so-typical jobs. I delivered pizzas for a time, then worked as a dishwasher at Bonanza steak house, eventually becoming a line cook. I was the last film projectionist at downtown’s Main Theater, later a janitor at the Twin Cinema. For a miserable six months, I was an animal control officer for the city of Nacogdoches. Eventually, as recounted before, I became a photographer for the Daily Sentinel.

I loved my years attending SFA, with a circle of friends who remain so today, nearly 50 years later. We played flag football on the weekends, attended raucous parties (often with a scattering of our professors, something unlikely to happen today), argued about philosophy and politics until the wee hours, drank generic beer — the dregs of Lone Star that came in a white can with “Beer” printed on it. Seems like it was about $2 a six pack. Our running joke was that it wasn’t half bad after the first six pack.

In my time at SFA as a student, I learned a lot — little of which would turn into a job in the way majoring in, say, accounting would have. I was paying for all of my college expenses with grants and a small amount of loans, so I figured I would take the courses that interested me. The plan was to go to law school at UT, to which I was accepted. (They weren’t as picky back then.) But at nearly the last moment, I decided to attend graduate school in photojournalism at the University of Missouri. Financial challenges compelled me to transfer to UT, also in photojournalism. UT became my second college alma mater when I completed my master’s degree there.

I returned to Nacogdoches about a decade after my stint at UT and worked at the paper for 13 years. It is hard to believe that job ended 20 years ago, even harder to believe I fell in love with SFA’s campus in the pines 50 years ago. I still take joy in visiting, though so much of it has changed — mainly for the good, with new dorms and buildings.

I will go visit that huge class ring soon, maybe take a selfie. Happy 100th anniversary, SFA!

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