SFA Centennial Concert premieres work set to poems of celebrated poet Baker

NACOGDOCHES, Texas – The first public performance in Stephen F. Austin State University’s newly renovated Turner Auditorium will be a concert that honors the university’s past and present and features a grandiose work inspired by the poems of  Nacogdoches’ own Karle Wilson Baker, one of Texas’ most celebrated poets in the first half of the 20th century.

The Centennial Concert is one highlight of SFA’s four-day Centennial Celebration, along with the grand opening Sunday, Sept. 17, of the newly renovated and expanded Griffith Fine Arts Building. An open house at 1:30 p.m. includes a ribbon-cutting and unveiling ceremonies in the second-floor lobby.

The ceremony is followed by the 4 p.m. choral and orchestral premiere performance of an original composition by Dr. Stephen Lias, SFA professor of composition, using Baker’s poems as the text for “How Proud the Pines,” a work that honors SFA’s 100 years of educational contributions and service.

Dr. Gary Wurtz, dean of the Micky Elliott College of Fine Arts, said the combination of Baker’s eloquence and Lias’ musical artistry and reputation as a composer provides a perfect match for the centennial piece.

“It is particularly fitting that we are bringing together Karle Wilson Baker’s words and Stephen Lias’ music in this centennial commission,” Wurtz said. “Like Baker, Stephen’s music has garnered international acclaim and is widely published and performed; and as an SFA graduate and long-time faculty member, he was a logical choice.”

Karle Wilson Baker

Baker, an award-winning author, loved to write about the beauty of East Texas and penned “The Pine Tree Hymn,” which became SFA’s first school song. When Lias was approached about the possibility of writing a large musical work to celebrate SFA’s centennial, he said his thoughts turned immediately toward Baker’s works … “both for their beauty, and their deep connection to the history of SFA.”

Lias’ summary of the piece references the day in 1923 that classes began at Stephen F. Austin State Teachers College: “At the inauguration ceremony, celebrated poet Karle Wilson Baker read her newly written poem ‘The Pine Tree Hymn,’ which was subsequently set to music and used as the SFA song for over 20 years. This new composition, commissioned by SFA for the Centennial Celebration, incorporates that poem (with new music) and three others by Baker to pay tribute to the school, town and state.”

According humanitiestexas.org, Baker was born in Arkansas in 1878. She followed her parents to Nacogdoches in her early 20s and soon fell under the spell of her adopted state, writing about the role of Texans in the American drama, and fell in love with one of Nacogdoches’ citizens, Thomas Ellis Baker. They married in 1907.

Though she also wrote novels, Baker was best known for her poetry. Her collection of poems “Dreamers on Horseback” was nominated for the 1931 Pulitzer Prize. She was a popular professor at SFA from 1924 to 1934, and she played an important role in the formation of the Texas Institute of Letters.

In 1938, she was elected the first woman president of TIL, and in 1952 was named a Fellow of the organization. Baker died in 1960. A statue of Karle Wilson Baker stands on the corner of Mound and Hughes streets, in front of Baker’s family home, in Nacogdoches.

Her grandson, Jerry Baker, who has resided in Nacogdoches for most of his life, has fond memories of his grandmother and family life growing up in the state’s oldest town.

“When my brother, Tom, and I were young, we would go three doors down North Street every Sunday for supper with Karle and T. E.,” Jerry recalls. “Then she would read some of her works to us, or ‘The Little Engine that Could,’ or we would watch ‘Meet the Press’ with Lawrence Spivak, or ‘The Ghost and Mrs. Muir’ with Leo G. Carroll.”

“Karle, her brother, Ben T. Wilson, their half-sister, Bess, and their mother, Floy, all played string instruments,” he added. “Karle’s husband also played the violin, as well as the baritone in the Rotary Club Band, the Elks Club Band and the Who-Who Band (a forestry club). A musical celebration in Karle’s name is quite relevant.”

Baker said his grandmother, who was named Karl after an uncle, added an “e” to her name while she was a teenager in an attempt to effeminize her name. “The unintended consequence was most people who did not know her pronounced her name as Karlie,” he said.

SFA’s first president, Dr. A. W. Birdwell, and his wife were friends of the Bakers, and Birdwell was aware of the credibility Baker’s association with the new college could bring. He also knew she could teach. Nacogdoches author Sarah Ragland Jackson recounted in her biography of Karle, “Texas Woman of Letters, Karle Wilson Baker,” that a male student asked Birdwell (to no avail) to excuse him from taking a required English course because it was to be taught by a woman. At the end of the semester, the student told Birdwell that he actually enjoyed the course and thought all students should be required to take an English course from her.

Lias said that, as a composer, he has often drawn upon nature for inspiration in his works. “I have always been drawn to the beautifully crafted poems of Karle Wilson Baker, whose most famous quote is undoubtedly ‘Today I have grown taller from walking with the trees.’”

In “The Pine Tree Hymn,” Baker likens the deep roots of the pines to a community’s collective anchoring in truth. The poem celebrates both the strength of the individual and the importance of community, Lias explained.

Centennial Composition

The new composition is a celebratory piece in four movements, each using a different poem as setting, for choir and orchestra. Lias read through hundreds of Baker’s poems and selected three others that he thought would work well along with “The Pine Tree Hymn.”

“The first movement, ‘Nacogdoches Speaks,’ reminds us how our town served as the launching point for the exploration of this vast territory,” Lias said. “It refers to Nacogdoches as ‘the gateway’ and describes the early explorers as ‘homespun centaurs’ with ‘arms of steel and taut heartstrings.’ The second movement, ‘Winter Dusk,’ captures the fragile beauty of a remote pond at twilight and reminds us how pain can become healing.

“The third movement, ‘Song of the Forerunners,’ is a rousing celebration of the bravery of the men and women who settled Texas and speaks of how their work is yet undone. The final movement, ‘The Pine Tree Hymn,’ is a solemn and majestic anthem to constancy, personal growth and community.”

“As a poet who loved the outdoors, it is fitting that Baker’s metaphor for these qualities is the tall pines of East Texas,” Lias added. “The composition ends with her words ‘So may we in their shadows, in linked freedom stand, each soul alone to seek its own, each comrade hand in hand.’ These words are particularly fitting for a celebration of SFA’s centennial.”

The concert is a collaboration between SFA’s orchestra, choirs and composition program with  music “that is both beautiful and exciting,” according to Dr. Gregory Grabowski, director of orchestral activity at SFA and the concert conductor. SFA choral conductors Dr. Michael Murphy and Dr. Tod Fish prepared the student choirs for the performance.

“I’m excited to be putting together such a great collaboration with the different areas of the School of Music,” Grabowski said. “The orchestra highlights some of the finest musicians in our strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion areas, and I get to work with and feature excellent string faculty members. And that’s before we get to the grand finale.”

“My hope is that, by creating a grand new musical setting for these wonderful poems, we can celebrate both what SFA was then – when these poems were written – and what it is now,” Lias said, “through our beautiful new facilities, our exceptional performing ensembles, our new partnership with The University of Texas System and our strong supportive community.”

Read more about Baker’s relationship to SFA at sfasu.edu/KWB. Read more about “The Pine Tree Hymn” at sfasu.edu/PineTreeHymn.

The free concert is a ticketed event due to limited seating. Complimentary tickets, available while they last, can be obtained by contacting the Fine Arts Box Office at (936) 468-6407 or boxoffice@sfasu.edu.

Cutline: Karle Wilson Baker

Cutline: Stephen Lias

Cutline: Gregory Grabowski


Robbie Goodrich

(936) 468-5820


Sept. 8, 2023