Selecman, Charles Claude (1874–1958)

By: Darwin Payne

Type: Biography

Published: July 1, 2021

Updated: July 8, 2021


Charles Claude Selecman, third president of Southern Methodist University, held that position from 1923 to 1938 and resigned after his election as a bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Once describing himself as a “clod hopper,” he was born on a farm near Savannah, Missouri, on October 13, 1874, to Isaac Henry Selecman and Josephine Euphemia (Smith) Selecman. After attending country schools, Selecman enrolled at Central College (now Central Methodist University) in Fayette, Missouri, in 1892 but dropped out after two years to teach school because of financial needs. After two years, he returned to Central and remained there until he withdrew two months before his scheduled graduation in 1898. During his years as an undergraduate, he experienced success at Central College as quarterback on the football team and as a star sprinter on the track team. He was also a superb debater who entered and won many debating contests, including the Missouri state oratory championship.

Selecman’s premature departure from Central College was prompted by an offer to be pastor of a small Methodist church in Pattonsburg, Missouri. There he met Bess Kyle Beckner, whom he married on April 27, 1899. They subsequently became parents of two children, Frank and Josephine. Meanwhile, Selecman excelled as a Methodist pastor of a series of small churches in Missouri, and he did missionary work that carried him from Missouri to Louisiana. He went to Europe for an extended stay in 1907. He made other trips to Europe during his lifetime, working there for the YMCA in World War I and twice serving as a delegate to the World Conference on Faith and Order.

In 1913 Selecman and his family moved to Los Angeles, where he became pastor of the new Trinity Methodist Church, founded as part of the multi-purpose, nine-story, Beaux-Arts style Trinity Auditorium, a historic downtown building. His successful tenure there led to his move to Dallas in 1920 when he was hired to be pastor of the First Methodist Church’s new downtown church. In March 1923, having become immersed as a civic and church leader in this growing city, he was hired by Southern Methodist University as its third president, succeeding Hiram Boaz, who had been elected a bishop. Despite his failure to have an undergraduate degree, which alarmed some trustees, he had already been awarded honorary doctorates from the University of Southern California and Central College.

His years at SMU, half of them during the Great Depression, were marked by an expansion program that enlarged the campus from two permanent buildings to eleven, including McFarlin Memorial Auditorium, Fred F. Florence Hall (originally Kirby Hall), Ownby Stadium, Hyer Hall, and the first floor of Perkins Hall of Administration. Under his leadership, the curriculum of the liberal arts university was broadened to include, among others, law and engineering schools. Endowment climbed from $883,000 to $2,300,000, and overall enrollment those years grew from 2,016 students to nearly 4,000. “We shall make our largest contribution to civilization by training men and women who will be leaders in Christian thought,” he once said, summing up his vision for the university.

SMU had been founded in 1911 by the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and during Selecman’s tenure, the Church’s control of the university was clear. It was understood that its presidents would be Methodists. With Selecman’s previous background as a Methodist minister and his rigorous self-assurance on moral and Biblical standards, he at times entered into conflicts with students and faculty members. As tenure for faculty members was not a policy at the time, even stalwarts of the university risked dismissal if they crossed the president.

As the Great Depression brought economic problems, Selecman reduced the staff and cut salaries. To help with the shortfall for the 1930–31 academic year, he asked the faculty and staff to make personal contributions, even as his own salary had been raised. Controversy over this prompted forty-one of the university’s ninety-five faculty members to sign a petition seeking a meeting with the trustees to discuss their grievances with Selecman. The trustees declined. This ended “The Faculty Rebellion of 1931,” or, as popular professor Herbert Gambrell termed it, the “Great Revolution.” Selecman thereafter softened his approach to dealing with the faculty. Another publicized conflict occurred in 1936 when, in defiance of Selecman’s refusal to permit dances on campus, some 500 students danced in the gymnasium for about forty-five minutes before police stopped the music.

Some conflict also stemmed from questions of freedom of speech. Aside from such matters, Selecman had forward-thinking views concerning race relations. In 1930 Channing Tobias became the first Black speaker to speak on campus.

Selecman’s resignation in 1938 occurred after he was elected to be a bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in charge of the Oklahoma Conference. He thus moved to Oklahoma City, headquarters of the Oklahoma Conference. In 1944 Selecman returned to Dallas to head the denomination’s North Texas Conference. In 1945 he was elected president of the Council of Bishops of the Methodist Church, the church’s highest office. He retired from the council in 1948. In 1951 he was elected to the Methodist Hall of Fame for his philanthropy. Selecman wrote several books, including Christ or Chaos (1923), The Challenge of Citizenship (1933), and The Methodist Primer (1944).      

     The veteran churchman and university president’s first wife, Bess, died in December 1943.On July 7, 1945, he married Jackie Mason in Los Angeles. In Dallas they resided across the street from SMU.

On March 27, 1958, Charles Claude Selecman died at the age of eighty-three. Services were held at the First Methodist Church, Dallas, and he was entombed at the Hillcrest Mausoleum.

Peter W. Agnew, “C. C. Selecman and SMU: The ‘Perils’ of Methodist Higher Education, 1923–1938,” Legacies 17 (Fall 2005). Dallas Morning News, March 22, 1923; March 28, 1958. Darwin Payne, One Hundred Years on the Hilltop: The Centennial History of Southern Methodist University (Dallas: DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University, 2016). Charles C. Selecman Papers, Southern Methodist University Archives, DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University.

Categories:

  • Education
  • University Presidents and School Administrators
  • Religion
  • Methodist

Time Periods:

  • Great Depression
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • Texas Post World War II

Places:

  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Darwin Payne, “Selecman, Charles Claude,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed January 24, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/selecman-charles-claude.

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July 1, 2021
July 8, 2021

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