Meet Baylor’s first professor — a 30-year-old Episcopalian from Connecticut
On Jan. 12, 1846, the original Baylor University Trustees met for the second time, just six months after Republic of Texas President Anson Jones had signed the university’s charter. The Trustees had already chosen Baylor’s first president, Henry Lee Graves; their next task was to determine who would have the honor of being the university’s first teacher. One name came to the mind of many trustees: Henry Flavel Gillette.
Gillette was an active Episcopalian — interestingly, not Baptist — who had taught for years in Texas and was well respected by both educational and religious leaders. Born in Connecticut, Gillette had attended Trinity College in Hartford, taught in Washington County, Texas, and served as superintendent at an academy in Houston. By 1846, he was friends with such prominent Texans as Anson Jones, Sam Houston, and Baylor co-founder William M. Tryon, who had officiated Gillette’s wedding. With that kind of resume and such high-placed references, Baylor’s Trustees believed he would bring prestige to the young school. When named Baylor’s first teacher, he was just 30 years old.
Four months later — May 18, 1846 — Baylor’s first bell rang out as 24 students filed into a two-story frame building for preparatory classes. Gillette taught reading, writing and spelling, geography, grammar, philosophy, rhetoric, chemistry, mathematics, and Latin and Greek — and for the first nine months of Baylor’s operation, he also oversaw the school’s day-to-day functions, until President Graves was able to make his way to Independence.
Semesters lasted five to six months, from June to November. Each course cost between $8 and $15, and a year’s tuition was a mere $46. The school’s attendance policy was as strict as ever; in a time when doctors were few and yellow fever was rampant, illness was the only excusable absence. By the end of the year, 70 students had enrolled, and Graves had begun to split teaching responsibilities with Gillette.
After two years of teaching Baylor’s first students, Gillette’s contract with Baylor was up, and he decided he was ready to move on. In some of his letters, he noted a variety of reasons for leaving: the young university’s inability to collect enough tuition to afford him a raise; a hurricane that had destroyed his newly built home; the death of his wife’s mother; a longing for his old friends outside of Texas; and a general sense that he was ready to resign from teaching the youth of Texas and “let others endure the hardships that I have endured.”
Saddened to part ways with such an impactful man, the Board of Trustees passed a resolution thanking Gillette for his “wise and faithful service to our cherished institution during its infancy.” They credited much of their initial success to his knowledge, judgment and tact as a teacher.
Gillette never did leave Texas; after resigning from Baylor, he taught for a few years in East Texas, then oversaw an orphanage in Houston for 15 years before retiring near Galveston, where he passed away in 1896. His time at Baylor may have been brief — but it has not been forgotten, and today, when we note that Baylor is the oldest continually operating university in Texas, it’s worth honoring his contributions that helped get us started.
Sic ’em, Henry F. Gillette!