Tate, Willis McDonald (1911–1989)

By: Walter N. Vernon

Type: Biography

Published: August 1, 1995

Willis McDonald Tate, president of Southern Methodist University, was born in Denver, Colorado, on May 18, 1911. He grew up in Texas and graduated from Southern Methodist University with a B.A. in 1932 and an M.A. in 1935 and did further work at the University of Texas and the University of Chicago. He received eight honorary degrees at five universities. As a student he played football on SMU's championship team in 1931. Tate became a teacher, coach, principal, and lay minister in the years following his graduation. He taught school for several years in San Antonio and then became assistant to the pastor of First Methodist Church in Houston. He married Joel Estes of Cleburne in 1932; they had two children. In 1945 he became assistant dean of students at SMU. In 1948 he was chosen as dean of students and later became vice president in charge of development and public relations. He was elected president of SMU in 1954, succeeding Dr. Umphrey Lee. Tate served as president until 1971, when he was made chancellor. For a sixteen-month period beginning in June 1974 he acted as both president and chancellor; after his retirement from the later position in 1976 he was made president emeritus. Tate was active in church and public affairs, as president of the Council of Protestant Colleges and Universities; a lay delegate to the Methodist General Conference in 1952, 1956, 1964, and 1966; a member of the National Methodist General Board of Education; board chairman of the Association of American Colleges; and a member of the Southern University Conference. In 1965 he received the Alexander Meiklejohn Award of the American Association of University Professors for academic freedom. He was a member of the Dallas Council of World Affairs and president of the Council of Colleges and Universities. With two other professors he was author of the textbook, Human Behavior in Industry (1954). Tate was president of Southern Methodist University longer than any other president. He was perhaps best known for his defense of academic freedom, as illustrated by his refusals to ban books on communism in the school's library in the 1950s or to cancel a speech given on campus by Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1960s. After his first wife died in 1987, he married his former assistant, Marian Cleary. She and his children survived him after his death on October 1, 1989, while vacationing in Colorado. He was buried in Dallas.

Dallas Morning News, October 3, 1989. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.


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


  • 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.

Walter N. Vernon, “Tate, Willis McDonald,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed January 24, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/tate-willis-mcdonald.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

August 1, 1995

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: