Hyer's Personality and Character

The following material is taken from To Survive and Excel: The Story of Southwestern University, 1840-2000 (Southwestern University, Georgetown, Texas, 2006), by William B. Jones, Professor Emeritus of History and University Historian.

Hyer was a many-sided person, a first-class scientist but also a dedicated churchman, friendly to everyone but also somewhat “aloof and reticent,” a leader because of his natural talents but an unwilling one, a theoretical thinker who turned out beautiful woodcarvings with his hands.  Like Mood, he was somewhat formal in his contacts with other people, though his careful attention to everyone in conversation and his unfailing desire to be helpful dispelled any notion that he was proud.  When once asked why he listened to other people so intently, he replied:  “No one can know all sides of a subject, and often you can learn something new by just listening to very simple people.”[1]  He was “a Southern gentleman of the ‘old school,’” says his daughter, “dignified . . . in both manner of speech and dress.”  Nevertheless, he had a subtle but very keen sense of humor.[2]  Though the students in private called him “King Bob,” he was popular with them.  When he and his wife returned home from the Ecumenical Conference in London in 1901, where he was a delegate, they gathered at the depot at 11:30 p.m. to shout, “Welcome home, King Bob!”[3] 

In spite of the fact that Hyer was a skilled writer, he disliked writing letters and did not leave the wealth of intimate information about himself available today on Mood and Cody from their letters.  One of the first things he did as Regent was to purchase a typewriter and to employ Alec Mood, Dr. Mood’s youngest son, as secretary to use it.  Thereafter he dictated most of his letters.  He liked all of the new inventions except the telephone.  He liked to talk to people face-to-face.[4] 

His reserved manner was in part the result of a fractured upbringing, making him somewhat reticent to expose himself too quickly or too openly.  Though he spent his early years at home with his family in Charleston, South Carolina, he had been born in Oxford, Georgia, the home of his mother, who returned there to give birth to her son.  The daughter of a Methodist minister, Laura Stewart Hyer taught him early that the two most important things in life were religion and education.[5]  He joined the two in his professional life.  At Southwestern he would receive many offers to leave his ill-paid professor’s position for one more lucrative elsewhere, twice being courted by the University of Texas.  He refused both times, “his reason being that he believed his place in education was through the church—rather than the state.”[6] 

A major turning point in his life was the death of his mother on his 14th birthday, October 18, 1874.  During her long illness, his grandmother Hyer in Atlanta cared for him and his sister.  He received his elementary education while with her.  After his mother’s death, his father, a railroad engineer, apprenticed him to a watchmaker and engraver in Atlanta.  He learned to engrave and to do lettering in gold and silver.  His Uncle Joe, however, his mother’s brother, felt that his intelligence called for him to be more than a tradesman and made it possible for him to leave the apprenticeship.  He took him into his home at Oxford, where he was a professor at Emory College.  Young Bob entered Emory and lived for five years with his uncle’s family.[7]    

At Emory he became an outstanding student.  He graduated with first honors in the class of 1881.  The records show that out of seventy grades, none was below 97, and forty-three were 100.  He became an assistant in physics and received his master's degree in that field after two summer sessions.  Though he and his father saw little of each other, William Hyer was proud of his son and gave him a railroad watch as a graduation present—closed face, yellow gold, very thick, with a gold chain.  Bob was proud of the gift and carried it the rest of his life. 

Though he had been reared under the strict religious influence of the Stewart family, he did not feel converted according to the Methodist understanding of his era until his senior year in college.  He joined the church one spring evening during “a protracted meeting.”  The text of the preacher on that occasion, “The harvest is past; the summer is ended and we are not saved,” was one of his favorites for the rest of his life.  He taught a Sunday School class most of his life and asked to teach two classes in Bible at SMU. in addition to his physics classes after his resignation there as President.[8]  

Hyer’s Intellectual Formation

Hyer had decided long before he graduated from Emory that he would pursue a scientific career and followed a path leading to it in his studies.  Nevertheless, he was unique in one particular.  In a day when many Christians anathematized Darwin, he was a devoted Darwinist.  Ray Hyer Brown says that she heard him remark several times that “he considered it [Origin of Species] the greatest scientific work in English.”  She quotes a passage from Dr. Herbert Gambrell, an SMU. professor, about it.

As a boy he [Hyer] had displayed unusual mechanical ability, but it was in college that he chanced upon the book that was to fix his determination.  The book was Darwin's “Origin of Species,” which was published in England some twenty years before.  It had created a great furor in Great Britain, and it was destined to bring about terrific struggles between dogmatic theologians and scientists on both sides of the Atlantic.  To young Hyer it was a door leading into another world.  He read the book and re-read it.  He once told me that there was a time when he could have substantially reproduced the entire work from memory.  His mind was made up.  He would be a professor of science.  He would apply the method of Darwin to the teaching of science, but not in a great university.  His life was to be spent among the people of the South, and in colleges of his own denomination.[9]

Mrs. Brown says that she has been told that while Regent McLean used to preach against evolution in chapel, Dr. Hyer would be explaining it in his geology classes.  Some of the preachers over the state became agitated about his teaching of evolution, and, after his election as Regent, one of them circulated a petition to have him discharged from the University and from the Church on grounds of heresy.  Whether or not it was ever presented is unknown, but the Board of Curators, taking note of the disturbance, addressed the issue at its midyear meeting in 1900.  The following resolution was unanimously adopted.

Whereas rumors have been circulated in certain sections of our state concerning instruction given in the department of Natural Science and

Whereas we have heard the fullest and frankest statement on the part of the professor [Hyer] of that department concerning his methods and substance of teaching showing the harmony between God's two books, Nature and Revelation,

Therefore be it Resolved that in the opinion of this Board of Curators the method of instruction in the department of Science is reverential towards the Bible as the revealed will and word of God and not in conflict with the fundamental teachings of our holy religion, and constantly recognizes the Scriptures as the only and sufficient rule of our faith and practice.[10]

One of his former students, says Mrs. Brown, told her that the greatest sermon she ever heard was one delivered by Hyer entitled “Why I as a Scientist, believe in God.”[11]

[1] Ray Hyer Brown, Robert Stewart Hyer:  The Man I Knew (Salado: The Anson Jones Press, 1957), p. 24.

[2] Brown, Hyer:  The Man I Knew, pp. 179-180.

[3] Brown, Hyer:  The Man I Knew, p. 94.  Mrs. Brown, working from memory rather than records, dates this incident to 1903.  Records do not indicate such a trip in 1903, and it must have occurred after their return from the trip to the Ecumenical Conference in London, as indicated by Ralph Wood Jones, Southwestern University 1840-1961 (Austin: Jenkins Publishing Co., 1973), p. 218.

[4] Brown, Hyer:  The Man I Knew, pp. 65, 89.

[5] Brown, Hyer:  The Man I Knew, p. 18.

[6] Brown, Hyer:  The Man I Knew, p. 44.

[7] Brown, Hyer:  The Man I Knew, pp. 19-21.

[8] Brown, Hyer:  The Man I Knew, pp. 22-24.

[9] Brown, Hyer:  The Man I Knew, pp. 42-43.  Ray Hyer Brown, Regent Hyer’s daughter, received a Diploma in Expression from Southwestern in 1910.

[10] SU Curators-Trustees 1869-1912. May 25-28, 1900, p. 358.

[11] Brown, Hyer:  The Man I Knew, p. 43.