Rising Stars: Alma Mater

University’s Alma Mater dates
to original faculty member

By David King

Of all the traditions on campus, few date as far back as the school song, known simply as Alma Mater.

Jessie Sayers, from the first Pedagog yearbook.

The words for Alma Mater were written by Jessie Alison Sayers, a member of the original faculty at Southwest Texas State Normal and the younger sister of Joseph Draper Sayers, who was governor when the Texas Legislature authorized the Normal in 1899.

Miss Sayers — she never married, as was the custom with many teachers of the era — was an instructor of mathematics at the Normal, and she served as a faculty advisor to campus groups, including the women’s intramural sports program. She also had an interest in history; a newspaper report in 1911 listed her as one of the founding members of the Texas Folk Lore Society, organized by college professors and instructors from across the state.

Sayers, from the 1920 yearbook.

Born in Bastrop, she received her secondary education at the Virginia Female Institute in Staunton, Va. She came back to Texas and took the year of normal school training at the University of Texas, earning a job as a math teacher at Austin High School.

She also stayed close to her brother, a Civil War veteran who was significantly older, to the point of filling in for his ill wife as his escort to the inaugural ball that launched his second term as governor.

Miss Sayers had been at Austin High for 16 years when she was named one of the original 17 faculty members  at the Normal in 1903. And she added to her education through the years, eventually earning a bachelor of science degree at New York’s Columbia University in the fall of 1915, when she was in her 50s.

From the few mentions of her in the Pedagog yearbooks, she had a reputation as a no-nonsense teacher. She was not an instructor who was universally loved; for most of her time at the school, the Pedagog each year was dedicated to a member of the faculty or administration. She never was included. A poem dedicated to faculty members in the 1911 yearbook included this stanza:

Sayers, from the 1915 yearbook.

Miss Sayers has a rough old frown
When the “exam” papers come around.
Says she does hate to grade them so;
But she likes her “math” more and more.

But for all her tough exterior, she had a poet’s heart. Sometime in the Normal’s first decade, she composed Alma Mater, a five-stanza poem that showed her abiding affection for the place that was more than just an employer. Since she never married, the faculty and students at Southwest Texas were her family, and the preparation of those students was her love.

At some point in Texas State’s history, the decision was made to perform only the first and last verses of Alma Mater, and those are the words that are most familiar to students and alumni. The first makes reference to both the school’s location and the distinctive outlines of the Main Building, now known as Old Main:

O, Alma Mater, set upon the green hills,
With turrets pointing upward to the sky;
We yield to thee our love and our devotion;
Mother of hopes and aspirations high.

The second verse notes two features of the university that are still distinctive today — the San Marcos River and the Texas Hill Country — as well the symbolic elements of oak and laurel wreaths in the university’s seal:

Thy feet are laved by pure and limpid waters,
Fair river flowing gently to the sea;
Thy hills are crowned with ancient oak and laurel
Fit emblems they of strength and victory.

Ever the teacher, Sayers mentions in the third verse that attending college isn’t supposed to be easy, but that it should be a life-changing experience:

Thy walls call tell of struggles and temptations,
Hard honest toil, and eager restless strife;
Hopes, smiles and tears, and radiant youthful friendships,
And all that makes for brave and earnest life.

The fourth verse is a reminder to former students, no matter how far they go in life, to remember Alma Mater (which is Latin for “dear mother”):

Dear mother, ours, should effort be successful,
Ambitions crowned with glory or renown,
We turn to thee with reverence and affection,
Thine is the conquest, thine the victor’s crown.

The final verse is a charge to students to go forth and make a difference in the world, but to always remember where they came from:

Thy spirit urges us to deeds of valor,
Raising the fallen, cheering the oppressed;
Thy call will echo clearly down the ages.
Dear Alma Mater, mother loved and blessed.

Alma Mater is set to the tune of an Episcopal hymn known as both Albany and Ancient of Days. The hymn was composed in Albany, N.Y., by the Episcopal bishop and the organist at the Episcopal cathedral, originally as part of the celebration of Albany’s bicentennial in 1886.

The bishop, William C. Doane, and the organist, John Albert Jeffrey, adapted it for worship, and it was published in the Episcopal church’s standardized hymnals as early as 1892. Sayers was an Episcopalian, so it’s possible she heard the hymn while attending services at St. Mark’s in San Marcos.

Alma Mater first appeared in the Pedagog yearbook in 1917.

The words to Alma Mater first appeared in the Pedagog in 1917, with all five verses, and it became a staple of the school’s yearbook for years. Some even paid tribute to it with photo essays.
Sayers wound up teaching at the school for 30 years, seeing it grow from the Normal to a full-fledged college. In 1936, the board of trustees named a new women’s dormitory after her. Sayers Hall, constructed by the federal Works Progress Administration, was one of the first buildings on campus put up under new fire safety codes. Today, the ASB sits where Sayers Hall was located.
The author of Alma Mater died in a San Marcos hospital on March 25, 1939. She was buried in the family plot in Bastrop, near her brother’s grave. Her words live on.
See a slide show of campus photos and the words to Alma Mater from the 1928 Pedagog yearbook.
Alma Mater played by the Texas State Bobcat Band
Alma Mater on YouTube, with words and campus scenes
Ancient of Days, which is a reference to a phrase in the book of Daniel, sung a capella, on YouTube
Ancient of Days lyrics and played on the organ

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