By Daniel C. Houston
Being Baylor’s first lady can be a serious job, but at times it can also mean dealing with unexpected, and in retrospect, comical, events.
Last month, a group of women in the Baylor community brought together four wives of Baylor presidents, past and present, to give a candid take on their husbands’ administrations and the role of a first lady in university life.
The Baylor Round Table, which is composed of female faculty and administrators and wives of faculty and administrators, invited Alice Starr, Diana Garland, Sue Sloan and Mary McCall to speak March 21 at its spring luncheon titled “Through the Years with Baylor’s First Ladies.”
The speakers were the current first lady (wife of President Ken Starr) and the first ladies during the presidencies of interim president Dr. David Garland (2008 to 2010), Dr. Robert Sloan (1995 to 2005) and Abner McCall (1961 to 1981), respectively.
Although the speakers spent much of their time telling humorous anecdotes and sharing favorite moments, the discussion also put on display changes in university culture over time and shed light on the role of the first lady in university life.
“My primary role [as first lady] was to get up every morning and to say to myself, ‘Behave!’ and to do so all day long,” Garland said, prompting laughter from the audience. “It was hard work, and it took a lot out of me.”
Starr said she sees her role as being supportive of various university organizations and activities.
“I feel like the No. 1 cheerleader,” Starr said. “I love cheering Baylor sports, but also the music department, and the plays and the theater and the culture, and I try to attend all the lectures, too. … There’s so much to do, and I’m an advocate and a cheerleader for all of that.”
At one point, Sloan provided a glimpse into her husband’s decision to end Baylor’s 151-year ban on dancing. They were asked during his interview to become president whether they would allow dancing on campus, she said. Robert Sloan replied he would allow dancing and he and his wife would have the first official dance in university history.
There was only one snag in his plan.
“When all that happened, we were like, ‘We don’t really dance,’” Sue Sloan said. “So we called the theater department, and they really tried to teach us. Oh, bless their hearts.”
Although she said they did not completely master the dancing part, Sue Sloan said everyone who attended the first dance at a campus-wide event on Fifth Street seemed to have a great time.
Though McCall was not able to attend the Baylor Round Table event because of health issues prior to the forum, she prepared statements to be read by event moderator and former regent Donell Teaff, wife of former head football coach Grant Teaff.
When asked about her favorite memory, McCall offered a story she said had never been shared before, in which an individual attempted a single-handed coup to overthrow the president.
“Abner’s secretary called and said, ‘We have a real problem this morning because there is a rather large lady sitting in Abner’s office in his chair,’” McCall wrote. “[The woman] announced that she had come to become the president of Baylor University, and that God had called her.”
Although Abner McCall’s staff tried to persuade the woman to leave, they were not successful until he arrived at the office. He informed the would-be president that God does not directly appoint Baylor’s president; that was the board of trustees’ job.
Ultimately, security escorted the woman out of the president’s office. The woman also tried to crash a party the McCalls threw that same evening at the Albritton House before being escorted away by security once again, McCall wrote. They later learned she had been released that morning from a mental hospital by mistake, McCall wrote.
Sloan also had a humorous moment to share from her time as the president’s wife.
“I enjoyed going out on the back balcony in the mornings, and sometimes those doors would lock,” Sloan said. “There was a day that I remember being out in my gown — thank goodness I had a robe on — and [the doors] locked, and there’s no way down that balcony. So you were just looking over the fence saying, ‘Hello! I’m up here!’”
Sloan said she was able to wave down a student passing behind the fence, and ask him or her to stop by the police department and alert them she needed the spare key. Afterward, she made sure to have a staircase installed leading down from the balcony.
McCall, who married Abner while he was the sitting Baylor president, summarized the pleasures and difficulties of being a Baylor first lady.
“When Abner proposed to me,” McCall wrote, “he said, ‘Mary, I can’t promise you will be happy because people sometimes chew on me, but I can promise that you will never have a dull moment.’ These words sum up the life of a university president’s wife: not always happy, but never dull.”