Big things have been happening at Sam Houston State University and the Sam Houston Memorial Museum. Longtime Museum Director Mac Woodward retired and has been succeeded by new Museum Director Derrick Birdsall. But even that news pales in comparison to an evolving project transitioning from planning to reality, the establishment of the Sam Houston Republic of Texas Presidential Library. Postcards Magazine recently visited with Woodward and Birdsall to learn more about how this designation came about and what it means for the University, the Museum, and the community.
Woodward: I actually co-opted an idea from the from the 1993 bicentennial of Sam Houston State, which was the creation of a “Sam Center,” a place to identify everything related to Sam Houston. As we have evolved here at the Museum with our mission to educate and inform about Sam Houston and to carry his memory on, two other things have developed as additional priorities.
First, we want to work to integrate the Museum into the University. We are a department, but we want to integrate into academics, social, the student population, and into campus life.
The other thing we want to do is raise the recognition of Sam Houston as a national figure. He IS a national figure. Everybody knows about Texas and the Revolution, but he was the President of a nation, serving two separate times. And when he was here after that, he also served as a United States Senator. So, he was on a national stage, and he deserves to have his place in history enhanced.
Another factor is “The measure of a life is its service” is the University motto. Who better to exemplify that for this University than Sam Houston’s life? He had 50 years of serving his country as a military leader, a politician, a statesman, and a family man—all those things. We hope to educate and inspire graduates of this school to have some of the characteristics Sam Houston has and to go on to a life of service.
Woodward: First, we got the blessing of then University President Hoyt and the state university system. Then we went to State Representative Ernest Bailes. He introduced a bill in the 85th Legislature, co-sponsored by other SHSU grads in the Legislature, and it passed unanimously.
Woodward: Because of technology and our ability to digitize, our initial plan is to begin accumulating and digitizing EVERYTHING related to Sam Houston.
Birdsall: While we have the largest single collection of Sam Houston information and artifacts, there is Sam Houston info and artifacts everywhere, spread out all over the United States, and there’s no one central place where you can go to access it. Rice University has some, Austin has some, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, the National Archives… Our goal is going to be to tie that together, and in the words of Michael Sproat, our Curator of Collections, become the “be-all, end-all” location to research all things Sam Houston.
The most in-depth biography of Sam Houston was written by James Haley is over 2 decades old. And new information has come to light. Things have been found, discovered, re-discovered that had been tucked away.
Woodward: James Haley says, “The history of Texas is still in the attics of people all over the state.” We plan to work with all sources. We don’t have to physically have what’s in their possession. We can scan and maintain a copy. A lot of what we have are Sam Houston’s letters to people. We don’t have the other side of the correspondence, their letters to him, which is another part to the story.
Birdsall: The Library of Congress has collections in boxes—and nobody knows what all is in the boxes. For example, they have a box of documents related to Abraham Lincoln. There might be correspondence in the box between Lincoln and Houston. Literally, someone could research this the rest of their life and not get caught up.
Birdsall: Our collections department, which is Mike Sproat and Rebecca Lewis [(936)-294-4895].
Woodward: That’s to be determined and will evolve. At this point, the Presidential Library is a part of Sam Houston State University that’s housed at the Museum. At the outset, we looked at other presidential libraries, the Hermitage, Monticello, etc. to see what all they have. We have it all. We have the infrastructure, the facilities, 15 acres, an auditorium, a conference center, this museum, the homes…so we have everything, already in place.
Birdsall: Acquisition of items may lead to new exhibits, which will initially be in the Museum.
Birdsall: The way I wrap my head around this project is that you have to establish phases. We are in phase one. It gives us some impetus to reach out to people and institutions to share copies of what is in their possession.
We need to do a roadmap. We know where we are. We have an idea of where we want to go. So how do we get there? We need to iron that out and figure out a process. Then, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. I would like to firm up a general plan in early 2022.
Woodward: We probably will put together a steering committee of people who can help us, both within the University and outside the University in other places that can benefit.
Woodward: They can be resources for information sources initially. We will create a website for information sharing and updates.
Birdsall: As we gain momentum and get farther down the road, there will be aspects that will have a cost: time, effort, and money. If people want to get involved in any of those three, we will definitely use them.
Woodward: Imagine a place to research public service and make it something to aspire to. Public service is a wonderful thing—to give back, whether it’s politically, or to your community, clubs, your church…
You know, in today’s times, we might need a Sam Houston—at least people like him—statesmen, people who keep their word and you know where they stand, and they do things for the right reasons.