By all accounts, H. Austill Pharr Sr. was a likeable, friendly fellow.
“Austill was easy to know. He had a warm, outgoing, engaging personality and attracted friendships. I doubt that any person in the history of Mobile ever had more friends than he,” said J. Finley McRae, chairman of the board of Merchants National Bank in Mobile at the dedication ceremony for then-Mobile College’s new H. Austill Pharr Gymnasium, held Nov. 17, 1968.
It was a ceremony Pharr wouldn’t live to see. He died at age 76, exactly one year to the day before members of the Association of Honorary Fellows – an organization he helped create – gathered to dedicate Pharr Gym.
Mobile College President William K. Weaver Jr. described the First Baptist Church of Mobile deacon, Mason and Kiwannian by quoting from Rudyard Kipling’s “If –.”
“I believe that Mr. Pharr knew truly how to ‘walk with kings, nor lose the common touch.’ The development of Mobile College is made possible by the vision and dedication of its founders, among whom Mr. Pharr stood very, very tall,” said Weaver.
A bronze plaque in the gym bears the inscription: “Dedicated in Memory of H. Austill Pharr, Christian Gentleman, Civic and Business Leader, Friend and Trustee of Mobile College.”
Today, the H. Austill Pharr Endowed Scholarship provides scholarships for deserving students who show “promise of future leadership.”
Who was H. Austill Pharr?
Pharr was born in Buena Vista, Alabama, an unincorporated community in Monroe County. He graduated in 1910 from Marion Military Institute and started his career in banking as a runner at the Bank of Mobile. He worked his way up the ladder, becoming chairman of the board of First National Bank of Mobile. A city leader in industrial development, city planning and education, in 1958 Pharr was named “Mobilian of the Year” in honor of his many civic, cultural and charitable activities.
In 1961 he became a founding trustee of Mobile College and served as chairman of the finance committee. As this friendly, successful, civic-minded business leader took an interest in the new college that Alabama Baptists were creating, so did his extended circle of friends and business associates.
At the suggestion of college president William K. Weaver Jr. and A. Garrett Hill, the college’s first chemistry professor, Pharr invited a group of like-minded male business leaders of Mobile to a luncheon meeting in the First National Bank board room. On Dec. 7, 1966, the Association of Honorary Fellows of Mobile College was born.
The Honorary Fellows
For a young college that had yet to graduate its first class of alumni and therefore lacked the support an alumni base generally provides a school, the Honorary Fellows filled the gap. Their prime objective was not so much to raise money as it was to raise community awareness of the new Mobile College.
Like the Mobile College Auxiliary, the women’s group of supporters started a few years earlier by the college’s First Lady, Annie Boyd Parker “B” Weaver, the Honorary Fellows developed a variety of ways to support the school. Among their early initiatives was the custom of inviting male members of the graduating class for a luncheon at the International Trade Club. (In later years, the Honorary Fellows would expand its membership to include women. Throughout the years of its existence, the organization’s goal remained the same – to advance the well-being of the University of Mobile.)
When Pharr passed away in 1967, the Honorary Fellows launched a campaign to raise $200,000 to build a gym at the new college. Another $175,000 of capital funds was provided by The Alabama Baptist State Convention.
Boar’s Head and Beyond
When the first students enrolled in 1963, one building housed everything the new college would need for the first few years. The three floors of what is now William K. Weaver Hall included classrooms, offices, library, cafeteria, auditorium and – on the top floor – the college’s gym.
The construction of Pharr Gym gave the young college room to grow.
Just as Weaver Hall served multiple purposes in those early years, so did Pharr Gym. In addition to housing intramural and, later, intercollegiate athletic programs, the gym was the first home of the college’s Boar’s Head Festival. The musical celebration of a medieval Christmas feast was started in 1971 by beloved music professor Dr. Kenneth Bergdolt and continued for almost 30 years.
It was also home to one of the more unusual faculty stories in the school’s history.
The Acrobatic Professor
An old black-and-white photo taken in front of the administration building in 1963 pictures the first faculty, staff and administrators of Mobile College. On the first row, 3rd from the left, is Dr. Gene Perkins.
For most of the 48 years he taught health and physical education at UM, Perkins had an office in Pharr Gym. By the time he retired in 2011 as the last remaining charter faculty member, Perkins left behind some of the most unusual stories of any UM professor and a life that illustrated the benefits of physical fitness.
The professor had walked up three flights of stairs on his hands to get to class. Before a crowd of students, he balanced upside down on one finger jammed into a Coca-Cola bottle. The day before his 80th birthday, he challenged students to a physical stamina test – and won. A photo in his Pharr Gym office pictured one of his most amazing feats – balancing upside down by one finger on a block of wood.
A graduate of Murphy High School in Mobile, Perkins had served as a physical training instructor in the U.S. Navy, performed acrobatic stunts at USO show and in circus stage acts, and coached gymnastics at Baylor before joining the Mobile College faculty.
Pharr Gym Today
Today, the University of Mobile has one of the largest NAIA programs in the nation with 21 competitive sports, seven NAIA national championships, and over 350 student-athletes. Pharr Gym has undergone many updates throughout the years – recent additions include new bleachers, sound system, locker rooms and more. The men’s and women’s basketball programs and women’s volleyball program call Pharr Gym “home” as UM cheerleaders and Spirit Squad lead the crowd in shouts of “Go Rams!”
Pharr Trivia Question
One question remains about H. Austill Pharr – what does the “H” stand for?
A deep dive into the university’s archives reveals the answer. H. Austill Pharr’s first name was a family name, handed down through generations: “Hurieosco.”
UM Legacy: People of the Halls
The UM Legacy story collection celebrates the rich history of the University of Mobile by sharing the stories of people past and present who helped make UM what it is today. This story is part of the “People of the Halls” series spotlighting the people behind the names of the buildings and sports facilities at the University of Mobile. Read more UM Legacy stories at umobile.edu/umlegacy.