Perspective Magazine Summer 2019

An Era Like No Other

By Sam Hodges

When the 1969 entering class of Perkins gathered for a group photo, the men wore coats and ties. Most of the women did, too. Still a small minority, they had been left out of the administration’s one-page mimeographed instructions for how to dress for the photo. So, to get a laugh and make a point, they wore coats and ties over their skirts. Some added contrast by carrying handbags.

Copies of the photo still get circulated, and there’s one in the Bridwell Library archives.

“That picture is about visibility,” said retired United Methodist Bishop Janice Riggle Huie, who helped organize the coat-and-tie rebellion. “We wanted the administration to know we were there. We wanted to be seen and heard, and not be invisible.”

She added: “The dean was not happy.”

There’s a hippy-tinged witticism that goes: If you remember the 1960s, you weren’t there. But Perkins students of 1968 and 1969 vividly recall how the school changed them, and how they, influenced by a supercharged atmosphere of current events and social movements, pressed the school to change. Personal growth and pushing the envelope — actions that characterized the era.

“It was a time of ferment, and it was a time of learning,” Huie said. “It was an exciting time in many ways.”

Fifty years ago, the U.S. still reeled from the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy. The country had seen urban riots and the counterculture extravaganza of Woodstock. The Vietnam War had altered presidential politics and prompted campus demonstrations nationwide.

The Perkins administration specified “coats and ties” as the dress code for a group photo of the entering class in 1969, failing to give any instruction to women students. Most of them donned coats and ties, too, as a protest of the slight. Bridwell Library photo.

Perkins was no Berkeley, and the faculty was still all male, and all white. But the Baby Boomers who had come to the seminary were restive about the war, civil rights, women’s rights and more.

The Rev. Lovett Weems, who would go on to a long, distinguished career in seminary education, helped lead a 16-mile march against a proposed anti-ballistic missile system while still a student at Perkins. The Dallas Morning News covered the April 27, 1969, protest.

Weems said Vietnam loomed as a matter of discussion and deep concern for him and many other Perkins students. (The school would, as part of a nationwide event, postpone classes on Oct. 15, 1969, in favor of “consideration and evaluation” of the Vietnam War.)

But in talking about his Perkins days, Weems also underscores how much certain courses and encounters with professors meant to him. He still recalls the prayer Professor John Deschner offered in class after the death of theologian Karl Barth, Deschner’s mentor.

Weems said faculty would invite students to their homes, and he remained in touch with some professors after finishing at Perkins. One was Albert Outler.

“Outler read just about everything I wrote on Wesley,” Weems said. “My philosophy, when he’d objected to something I’d written, was to edit by deletion.”

The Rev. John Holbert came to Perkins from Grinnell College, where activism against the Vietnam War was intense. He spent some of his early time at the seminary registering Hispanic voters in west Dallas, hoping for election results that would help end the war.

His interest in politics didn’t flag, but Holbert fell in love with Hebrew and the Old Testament at Perkins, finding a mentor in Professor Bill Power.

“I took Hebrew because it looked funny,” said Holbert, who would earn a Ph.D. at SMU and teach for 33 years at Perkins. “My whole life changed. Suddenly, I became very interested in biblical things, and I took every bit of Hebrew I could.”

Retired United Methodist Bishop Robert Hayes, Jr., and the Rev. J.D. Phillips were among a small group of African-American students at Perkins in the late 1960s.

“I bought an Army jacket and grew an Afro. I was all about the (civil rights) movement,” Hayes said.

Hayes and Phillips had come to Perkins from small, predominantly African-American Huston-Tillotson College in Austin. Suddenly they found themselves on the SMU campus with thousands of students, the overwhelming majority of them white.

“It was really leaving one culture and going to another,” Phillips said. “There were a lot of adjustments that I don’t think a person could understand — except someone like me, who was going through it.”

Phillips and Hayes found Perkins to be a welcoming enclave at SMU. But not always.

“I remember one class where the professor said something we thought was derogatory,” Hayes said. “The next time we met, we sort of commandeered the class to have a rebuttal. Everything was supercharged at that time.”

Hayes and Phillips remember joining other black students in pushing Perkins to hire a black professor. Meanwhile, Phillips began to read James Cone’s black liberation theology, and Hayes became comprehensively more serious about his studies in his second or “middler” year, challenged by the strong faculty Perkins had.

“You had all these names who are legendary in Methodist theological education,” Hayes said. “They sent us out into the world to do ministry.”

Concern for civil rights was hardly limited to African-American students. The Rev. Robert Huie, Janice Huie’s husband, was on the Student Social Action Committee at Perkins, which raised legal defense funds for two Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) workers facing prosecution in Dallas.

The Rev. Lovett Weems (front of column, right side) led a protest march of a proposed anti-ballistic missile system in 1969 while a student at Perkins. Photo courtesy Lovett Weems.

Bob Huie remembers his activism, but also his exposure to Barth – particularly Against the Stream, a collection of the theologian’s post-World War II writings.

“That fit right into the way we saw theology’s role in the late ’60s,” he said.

Janice Huie discovered female theologians while at Perkins and read and discussed their books with other female students. Those students made their own push, this time for Perkins to hire a female faculty member.

But Huie gratefully describes support she got from the men, including Ron Sleeth, professor of her homiletics course.

“He taught me not to copy men, but to find my own voice,” she said of studying preaching with Sleeth.

“His permission-giving was hugely helpful.”

The Rev. Donna Lindberg worked her way through Perkins in that period, at one point taking an overnight shift as a telephone switchboard operator at Baylor Medical Center. Lindberg, too, experienced the visibility struggle. She heard professors say, “Gentlemen, take your seats,” at the beginning of class, with no acknowledgement she was there.

But for Lindberg, who went on to be a United Methodist district superintendent, the quality of instruction was beyond dispute. She recalled a theology course taught by Deschner and Schubert Ogden.

“A marvelous team,” Lindberg said. “They really gave us a broad perspective, from two polar opposite perspectives, in teaching systematics.”

Bridwell Library contains student publications of the era, and they are something of a time capsule. They reflect all the social concerns, but also students’ efforts at poetry (one anonymously submitted an obscene poem and caused a campus flap), short stories and their reviews of books by Sartre, Bellow and edgy movies such as “Midnight Cowboy.” Student Caroline Brewer contributed a powerful essay, “Cool Reflections on a Hot Summer,” about her experience doing interracial ministry in the Mississippi Delta.

Perkins had been changing all along, but the students of ’68-’69 had an accelerating effect, said the Rev. Joseph L. Allen, a retired faculty member and author of a history of the seminary. Students served on committees for a major self-study that led to curriculum and governance innovations.

In 1970, Perkins hired its first African-American faculty member, Nathaniel Lacy, and that same year broke ground by hiring Alfredo Nañez, an early Hispanic alumnus, as professor of practical theology and Mexican American studies. Two years later, Phyllis Bird became the school’s first female faculty member.

For the Rev. Charles Millikan, vice president of spiritual care and values integration at Houston Methodist Hospital, attending Perkins in the late 1960s was a “tremendous” experience. He felt himself stretched by the faculty and by fellow students.

“As much as we talk about world changers at SMU, they were world changers in their day,” he said.

And, as the need arose, the female students wore coats and ties.