WILLIAM HARDIN ADAMSON: An Institution in Himself
"I would rather live in Oak Cliff than in any other spot on the globe . . . and I would rather be principal of the Oak Cliff High School than the Governor of Texas." So said Professor William Hardin Adamson at the formal opening of Sunset High School in November, 1925. He, along with several other school officials, spoke shortly after the opening of Sunset at a reception introducing Mr. J. A. Wilson, the new principal.
These words reflected the attitude of the long-time school man in Oak Cliff who began his career there in 1901 as the Superintendent of Schools for the town of Oak Cliff, Texas. The system enrolled 700 pupils in all grades in the central building at Tenth and St. George (now Patton Street). After the town’s annexation to Dallas in 1903, Adamson became the Principal of Oak Cliff Central School, later named Oak Cliff High School when the grades were divided into elementary and high school buildings by the Dallas School Board. The school's name was changed to W. H. Adamson High School in 1935, to honor this "Grand Old Man of Oak Cliff" who devoted his professional life to the school and to Oak Cliff, after his death in May 1935. He is buried at Laureland Cemetery in Oak Cliff. The Alumni Association continues to honor him by recognizing the tradition of Flower Day, placing flowers on his grave following the All Class Reunion. This annual reunion is held the last weekend in April, on or near Mr. Adamson's birthday.
The tall, slender Adamson was born a mile-and-a-half from Collinsville, Grayson County, Texas on April 26, 1864. When he was nine years old, the family moved to Collinsville “with a team of sixteen horses, the lumber for their home having been brought from Jefferson with a team of oxen.” He apparently began his teaching career in Collinsville then moved to Alvord and Decatur, where he served as superintendent. One of the first mentions of him in the newspaper is an article in 1887 when he was appointed to the State Summer Normal Board of Examiners, examining and grading papers along with J. T. Hand, who was soon to become Dallas Superintendent. The Normal schools examined persons who desired to teach in the schools of the day prior to degrees being required.
In March of 1901 Adamson was at Decatur, but by June 27 was listed as W. H. Adamson of Oak Cliff, Texas. In May of 1902 he presided over his first graduation of students from Oak Cliff, awarding 18 diplomas at the Methodist Church. The Dallas Morning News noted that in 1902 Professor Adamson and his wife had acquired a lot in front of the high school building and were contemplating building a home “at an early date.” However, in 1903 when his brother J. C. Adamson visited, they still resided at 199 Jefferson Street. That same year he was unanimously re-elected as Superintendent at a salary of $1,300 per year. “His pupils of those early days remembered the superintendent as a tall man in a frock-tail coat, high silk hat, having a long red beard and driving a sulky.” A sulky for horses is a lightweight two-wheeled, single-seat racing cart, although in later years he described it as a surrey.
Room assignments for 1903 listed 15 teachers at the Central building--two in the high school and 13 in grades 1-8, including Mrs. W. H. Adamson, who taught second grade. In December of 1903, Mr. Adamson submitted enrollment figures to the school board of 819, comprised of 386 boys and 433 girls; in the “colored school” of that day there were 105 enrolled, 43 boys and 62 girls.
Professor Adamson also took time to be involved in community endeavors. In 1903 he was elected as a member of the Texas Historical Association in its meeting in Waco.
By 1904 Oak Cliff's annexation to Dallas was complete, and Dallas Superintendent J. L. Long assigned Adamson as principal, with 13 teachers in grades 1-11 in the Oak Cliff school. By 1906 the Dallas system had grown to 10,000 students with 1,000 in Oak Cliff. There were 14 schools city wide and 200 teachers that year. Oak Cliff students attended high school grades at Central, then went to Dallas High School downtown, where they graduated. John H. Reagan School enrolled some 200 elementary students that year. In 1908, J. L. Long left and W. H. Adamson was one of 25 applicants for the position of Dallas Superintendent, losing the post to Arthur LeFevre.
In addition to his professional duties, Mr. Adamson apparently kept cows as well as serving as principal, since in 1910 a city petition was referred from J. C. Evans of Oak Cliff, “for the abating of nuisance of bawling of cows of W. H. Adamson.” Oak Cliff had continued to grow, and by 1912 Mr. Adamson said that rooms in the basement of Central were soon to be removed due to the opening of a new school, J. S. Hogg. Pressure was building for a new high school in the area, and the Oak Cliff Educational Alliance was formed, “the immediate object of which is to secure a modern high school with up-to-date equipment.” The Alliance was successful in its objective, since in 1913 Professor Adamson made a speech to the Oak Cliff Improvement Society entitled “Our Central High School When Completed.” By 1915 the site had been selected and architect William B. Ittner was working on plans for the new building.
Following the move to the new building, Mr. Adamson remained the chief figure in the traditions that grew up around the school. Over the years he became known, according to the Dallas Morning News, as “The Grand Old Man of the Dallas public school system.” According to the newspaper, “When classes were over and the student body moved to the football field, the beloved principal was in the midst of the rooting section.” He was often in the huddle during the half, meting out praise or suggestions to the team.
Flower Day derived from a tradition centered around Mr. Adamson's birthday, which found his office filled with flowers and the school giving the appearance of the setting for a floral exhibit. The bouquets, which he prized, came from the homes of his pupils and ex-pupils. His stories of those flowers, of who sent them, of the places to which he distributed them after the day’s work was done, were many.
In 1925 Mr. Adamson was elected to the Board of the Jefferson Bank & Trust at 111 W. Jefferson. He was one of the original members of the bank board when the institution was formed. That same year he and Mrs. Adamson toured Europe for several weeks. According to the Dallas Morning News article of June 30, 1925, he and his spouse returned to their home at 127 Montclair after touring eleven European countries.
It was said that Mr. Adamson “was idolized by the hundreds of boys and girls who have attended the Oak Cliff schools, with which he was connected for thirty-four years.” In 1930 the Dad’s Club of Oak Cliff named Adamson Field for him on the occasion of his 30th anniversary with the school and his birthday. The arch erected at the southeast corner of the expanded campus read, “Adamson Field, Class of June 1931.”
Adamson was also known to be a stern disciplinarian. The story was often told of his long index finger which all students dreaded to be pointed in their direction. One former student related how he jumped on the back of another boy going down the stairs, fell, and when he looked up that long digit was pointed in his face. He knew bad things were to come—and soon!
Professor Adamson fell ill in late 1934 and was on a leave of absence from December until his death at home at 127 N. Montclair on Sunday, May 26, 1935. At the commencement ceremony for Oak Cliff High School the following Friday in the school auditorium, Dr. David W. Carter, Jr., school board president, announced the re-naming of the school in honor of Mr. Adamson noting he was “a good friend and a wise counselor” for hundreds of pupils and acquaintances.
An editorial in the Dallas Morning News said of him: “A man may grow into his job without fossilizing in it. That was what W. H. Adamson did. The youngsters were the hobby of the tall man with the tremendous energy who wanted to know intimately every Oak Cliff boy and girl who came under his charge . . . every heart skipped a beat . . . when death called W. H. Adamson home.”