Local family leaves lasting legacy on Baylor publications

By Ashley Yeaman

Sepia-tinted photographs and yellowed newspaper clippings are not only part of one Wacoan’s personal history, but also that of the journalism, public relations and new media department.

The family of Alice Baird is directly linked to the newspaper you hold in your hands (or read online) and the department in which it was created.

Baird’s grandfather, Dr. J.M. Dawson, was the founder and first editor of The Baylor Lariat and the Round Up. Her father, Dr. David Cheavens, served as a journalism department chair.

From a young age, Dawson was exposed to journalism though the newspaper subscriptions his father kept at home, including the Dallas News.

“He had a passion for reading and writing, and he loved learning,” Baird said.

Dawson began writing at age 15, as a correspondent representing Italy, Texas, for the Dallas News.

Dawson struggled financially to stay at Baylor. Dr. Samuel Palmer Brooks, former Baylor president and professor, came to him about doing publicity work for the university.

Dawson then began writing articles that appeared in major newspapers throughout the state and was paid by Baylor in return for this work.

Shortly after, Brooks recommended the establishment of a student newspaper, of which Dawson was named editor.

In an article Baird saved, her grandfather describes how the newspaper and yearbook came to be named.

“I said that I had been thinking of calling [the newspaper] the Lariat, and it’s significant because it means roping all the news, no matter how wild or fleeting it may be,” Dawson said.

Dawson thought that the “Round Up” suited the yearbook because such a book “rounded up the year’s happenings.”

The first issue of the Lariat was published on Nov. 8, 1900. It was a four-page paper published once a week on slick paper.

Dawson wrote in this inaugural issue that the newspaper was the result of “a fortuitous concourse of ideas” and that it would “strive to be a true exponent of Baylor life.”

Although he is perhaps best known for preaching at First Baptist Church from 1915 to 1947, Dawson continued writing for Baptist publications, such as the Baptist Standard.

Dawson’s life would cross with his future son-in-law when he visited El Paso, staying with former missionaries who had worked in Mexico.

“At the time, my father was just a little toddler, and so my grandfather always remembered that – that he had met my father when he was just a boy,” Baird said. “Of course he had no notion that eventually he would grow up to marry his daughter.”

Cheavens, like his father-in-law, had a passion for reading and writing from a young age. His newspaper career began when he worked as a copy boy and cub reporter at 13 at the El Paso Herald.

“They probably just gave him little minor stories to write. But it was pretty remarkable for somebody that young to start writing for a real newspaper,” Baird said. “From the time I think he was a little boy, he wanted to be a newspaper man. That was his ambition.”

Cheavens pursued a journalism degree at Baylor after graduating from high school in El Paso. He alternated between attending Baylor for a semester or year and working at various jobs.

“He would tell us many stories about how hard up he was when he was going to Baylor, and he would always work when he was at Baylor, too,” Baird said. “One time he worked at a café where they gave him his breakfast, and I guess he washed dishes or something. But then the rest of the day, he would get by on apples. So it was tough. But again, it was during the depression, and it was tough for everybody.”

Other jobs he held were more glamorous, such as working in Argentina for a wire service and writing reviews of concerts and operas for a newspaper in New York City.

At Baylor, Cheavens worked for the Lariat, traveling with various sports teams to cover their games.

On Jan. 22, 1927, he was riding with the basketball team’s “Immortal Ten” who died in a bus crash in Round Rock.

“He survived it, but he [was] thrown out of the bus, and so therefore was not in the part of the bus that was crushed by the train. But he went immediately to the phone and called the story in,” Baird said. “That was such a painful, traumatic experience for him that we children knew he had been in that wreck but he never gave us any details of it. It was just so horrifying – boys that he knew well dying before his eyes. It was a terrible, terrible event.”

After graduation, Cheavens worked for the United Press and the Marshall News newspaper before the Associated Press hired him, working in Dallas for eight years and then as chief of the capitol bureau for 20.

“He gradually became quite renowned as a political reporter. For my entire childhood he would travel to the Republican convention and the Democratic convention and cover those conventions,” Baird said. “And he was personally acquainted with famous people. He knew Lyndon Johnson very well. He loved politics and he loved being a political reporter, and so he was very happy with that position.”

He returned to Baylor, where he worked from 1961 until his death in 1970.

“I think he was a demanding teacher and held high standards for his students, but I think they knew they could go to him with any troubles or problems they had,” Baird said. “It was very open – I think his colleagues loved him and his students loved him. He was really a very charismatic person.”

One of his students, Mike Blackman, the Fred Hartman Distinguished Professor in the journalism, public relations and new media department, recalls having Cheavens as a professor.

“I only had him for one class, the beginning reporting class, but I learned a lot,” Blackman said. “I think I made a B in his class, and I remember being very proud of that.”

Dawson and Cheavens are two important names within the greater history of the journalism department.

This history will be honored today and tomorrow, Oct. 20-21, as part of the journalism department’s Legacy of Excellence in Journalism Education series of events.

The events will place emphasis on the graduating classes of 1958 to 1976, also known as the Cheavens-McHam Era.