As a distinguished educator arriving to his new destination, David Ross Boyd could not have been happy. He would later claim to have been motivated and inspired by the possibility of what could be possible on this stretch of burnt prairie but for now it was just that, burnt prairie. This desolate stretch of Indian Territory was so barren that you could look for miles in almost any direction without seeing a tree, but this first President of what would become Oklahoma University was not discouraged. He was ready to make his mark as an educator in America.
Boyd’s 1892 arrival in Norman was about 22 years after Abner E. Norman surveyed the area for the United States Land Office, the young surveyor’s crew etched his name on a tree to signify his role with the crew. Part of the initial optimism for Boyd was the fact that the Santa Fe Railroad stopped right in Norman where the University was started, meaning it was easily accessible to most anybody by way of this convenient transportation. Boyd’s arrival in Norman was almost as wild as the start of the state itself.
A.F. Pentecost was given an opportunity by Boyd when he was in Arkansas City to become a teacher and was now in town to check out the heater at the university Boyd ran. Pentecost saw the system then asked Boyd for a recommendation, which he gave, and then he headed back to Norman. Boyd was on his way through Oklahoma and stopped by to speak to the Oklahoma Regents to give a testimonial for the Smead Company’s heater, but stood outside the room waiting and overheard the conversation about the school’s first President.
Pentecost spoke to his fellow regents about the trip as David W. Levy recounts in The University of Oklahoma: A History, Volume I, 1890-1917, “We went to Arkansas City on a certain date and spent a night and a whole day making investigations. We were very favorably impressed with what we learned….We are, therefore, ready to report recommending the election of Prof. David R. Boyd, Superintendent of Schools of Arkansas City, Kansas to be the first president of the University of Oklahoma.”
Boyd’s jaw dropped as he stood overhearing the proceedings, after all, he thought his friend, Mr. Pentecost, had stopped by Arkansas City to see the heating system and get a recommendation for the position of president. He didn’t expect to be the recommended. David R. Boyd accepted the position after a two week deliberation for a yearly fee of $2,400. Boyd couldn’t resist the challenge of building a University, despite having never stepped in Norman.
Harold Keith recalled an exciting and impressive man in his book, Oklahoma Kickoff:
Boyd, who dressed well, wore a neat VanDyke beard and was then forty-two years old, was the perfect president for those times. He had a keen mind, extraordinary vision and a genuine affection for scholarship. He was a fine-looking gentleman who symbolized education when you saw him walking down the street. He made friends easily, knew the farmers and their problems, and without any attempt at patronization possessed the art of being able to converse intelligently with them about the necessity of sending their sons and daughters to school. Boyd had graduated from the University of Wooster, a small Presbyterian college in Ohio, and later, from 1888 to 1892, he was superintendent of schools at Arkansas City, Kansas, where he launched a tree-planting crusade. He transplanted this zeal to his new position at Norman, sowing the new prairie campus and the street sides leading to it with tiny elms. To this work he gave such close personal attention, succoring the thirsty little sprouts with water purchased at fifteen cents per barrel.
Each September, President Boyd insisted upon personally enrolling all the university students. He did this so he could meet them face to face and better know them and their problems. Because of this personal touch, he built a great spirit of loyalty at the school.
Being the only institute of higher learning in this region gave Oklahoma University hope and by 1895 the school was home to four professors and over 100 students. In this same year the University fielded its first football team in a one game season ending in utter disappointment 34-0 to an Oklahoma City Town Team.
The 1896 team scheduled two games, played both without an official head coach, and defeated Norman High School twice (12-0 and 16-4). Ross Hume would later become the University of Oklahoma’s first graduate, but he was first the quarterback of the second game in school history. Hume promptly returned to being the official scorekeeper for game three. He remembered, in Keith’s Kickoff, a play in the game he quarterbacked where the players had to cross a frozen road that if they’d fallen on, “their bodies might have been grooved like a washboard.”
Hume wasn’t a coward by any means; this wasn’t the football we watch so adoringly today. No, this was a semi-organized brawl, this was a blood sport. Homer Burson of Yukon grabbed most of the glory with this ’96 team, carrying most of the time and consequently scoring most of the points. Most of the talent from the ’95 squad that Harts put together opted not to play in ’96; the luster seemed to be gone. That is, until David Ross Boyd made a remarkable hire for the English Department.
1. Oklahoma Kickoff by Harold Keith
2. The Daily Oklahoman Archives
3. Rites of Autumn: The Story of College Football by Richard Whittingham