The Dallas Baptist University Liberty Bell
They say everything’s bigger in Texas. So it should come as no surprise that while every state has a Liberty Bell, the Lone Star State has nine. A bank in the aptly named town of Liberty has one. Three can be found in plazas and parks throughout the state. Another five Liberty Bells currently reside on Texas college campuses.
But the claim to The Texas Liberty Bell belongs to Texas A&M.
In 1950, the U.S. Treasury commissioned at least 57 Liberty Bell replicas — most of which were used as promotional tools for their Savings Bond drive that summer. The bells were gifted to their respective states and territories upon completion of the drive. While most ended up at State Capitols, the Texas bell went to College Station.
The story of how A&M earned the Texas Liberty Bell is the story of patriotism in practice — in times of war and in between. It’s the story of the entire 1917 senior class trading textbooks for rifles to join the Great War. In many respects, it’s the story of America in the 20th century.
But this is not that story. This is the story of the Dallas Baptist University Liberty Bell. And this story begins in the waning summer days of 1988.
American teenagers are lining up around the block to see the blockbuster Die Hard. Voters face the choice between George Herbert Walker Bush and Michael Dukakis to navigate the country into the 1990s. A new street drug, crack cocaine, is selling like hotcakes.
In a small corner of a large Texas town, the prosperity of the 1980s has yet to trickle down. Dallas Baptist University is so down on its luck it could be a Springsteen song. Campus buildings are crumbling. Average SAT scores are in the dumper. The historically white college is massively in debt. Desperate, DBU throws a Hail Mary pass.
Their prayers are answered by an unlikely hero, thirty-seven-year-old Dr. Gary Cook. He’ll become the school’s new president and carry the fate of the 90-year-old institution in his hands.
God takes care of those who take care of business, and Dr. Cook has a lot of business to attend to. Short on experience and long on faith, he turns to the heavens for inspiration.
The hand of God touches Cook in the strangest of places: Philadelphia.
While touring the Old City historic district, a vision of the new DBU emerges. As he rounds the corner of 6th and Chestnut, Cook is not just in the birthplace of the nation; he’s staring directly into America’s womb.
Looking up with amazement, the young doctor mutters to himself with the kind of confidence that comes with knowing God is on your side, “I’m going to build an exact replica of Independence Hall.”
Cook will save the school by building a campus unlike any other in the world — an architectural masterpiece. But how will he pay for it?
Here too, God and the doctor have a plan. To hell with the crippling debt. They’ll make money the old-fashioned way: spend a ton of money, solicit alumni donations, sell naming rights and raise tuition.
His street vendor soft pretzel perfectly seasoned with the metallic tang of carbon monoxide, Cook nibbles patiently as he waits in the 45-minute Liberty Bell line. As the hot August sun beats down upon him and a bored busload of kids from Baltimore, the next burst of divine inspiration hits him like Ben Franklin’s lightning bolt: “I’m going to buy a replica of the Liberty Bell.”
Doctor Cook isn’t building a building. He’s building a brand. It’s not enough for the new DBU to simply look like Old City. His campus will need to capture the sights, the sounds, the patriotism of Philadelphia in 1776. Everything but the smallpox.
At this point, Cook was ready to head back to Texas. When you know how you want to spend the rest of your career, you want the rest of your career to start as soon as possible. But there was one more piece of divine providence yet to reveal itself.
This time the inspiration came from somewhere south of heaven. South Philly, to be precise.
Fuzzy, fat and pants-less, larger than life and more popular than his own team, the Phillie Phanatic had something to teach the greenhorn president.
In 1978 the Philadelphia Phillies baseball club and their hometown were both down on their luck — lovable losers who could never quite make it to the dance. When the Phanatic hatched that spring, he wasn’t the savior the city had been praying for, but he was exactly what the city needed.
Soon the young mascot wasn’t just entertaining crowds; he was drawing them — and the city’s malaise gave way to mania.
As the new decade dawned, the first light of morning in America shone down brightly upon the City of Brotherly Love. By October 1980, the Phanatic was popping wheelies on his ATV, leading a triumphal march down Broad Street. The mascot, and his team, and his city, were the champions of the world.
So how exactly did this 300-pound, flightless bird from the Galapagos Islands help the young Texas doctor save his school from the wrecking ball?
The Phanatic works in mysterious ways.
Cook knew there was something not-quite-right with the school’s current mascot, the Indian. A young, white theatre kid running around baseball games in warpaint and oversized headdress seemed entertaining enough. But was it the right image for his new Philly-themed university?
The new DBU would boast a campus full of patriots, not patriots and Indians. The Indians had to go. But the university could rest assured indigenous peoples would still be well-represented by 75 other American colleges. The Braves, the Chiefs, the Redmen, the Savages and the Rainbow Warriors would carry the torch.
Cook needed to think big. What if there had been a mascot cheering on the Second Continental Congress? What if you could combine the wholesome mayhem of the Phanatic with the fealty of the founding fathers?
Blond hair, blue eyes, pale white skin, six fingers, two thumbs and a giant, tooth-filled head — Cook’s new mascot was the perfect American: the Patriot.
An immediate hit, the Patriot can be seen running around campus in his tri-corner hat and colonial garb — throwing up the double-barrel finger gun salute, just as Jefferson and Madison did in the halls of Independence Hall.
When DBU’s Independence Hall — the John G. Mahler Student Center, as it’s officially known — was completed in 1992, it set the school on an entirely new course.
Cook’s Liberty Bell became the new student center’s centerpiece, serving as a rite of passage for incoming students. You’re not officially a Patriot until you take your place in line and whack the Liberty Bell with a rubber mallet.
Under Cook’s watch, DBU became profitable, boasting a 58% graduation rate and climbing to number 30 on the list of top 50 Christian Colleges.
While building their own Independence Hall could have been DBU’s architectural capstone, the university instead saw it as a starting point.
In 2015, the Jim and Sally Nation Hall was completed, a dead ringer for Monticello.
Christened in 2009, the Patty and Bo Pilgrim Chapel is DBU’s most ambitious building to date — an architectural attempt to repair the longstanding divorce of church and state. Seen from the front, the chapel is a faithful recreation of the historic 1775 First Baptist Church in Providence, Rhode Island. Seen from behind, the chapel looks like the U.S. Supreme Court.
But when it comes to marriage, DBU agrees to disagree with the Supreme Court — instead, proclaiming the school “upholds a biblical sexual ethic that promotes consenting intimate sexual expression only within a marriage between one biological man and one biological woman.”
DBU seamlessly weaves this definition of marriage into their Title IX policy. In addition to making college softball a thing, Title IX withholds federal funding to any school shown to discriminate on the basis of sex. It does not require schools to define marriage or set policy for the sexual expression of consenting adults.
While there’s nothing discriminatory about forcing all students to abstain from any kind of sexual expression, DBU takes it a step further, declaring the sexuality of their LGBTQ students unethical — forever. In doing so, the school runs the risk of violating its Title IX policy with its Title IX policy.
The campus Gender & Sexuality Alliance couldn’t be reached for comment because DBU’s Title IX policy forbids its existence.
Once again, Dallas Baptist University finds itself staring down the double barrel of an existential crisis. Once again, the establishment is prooftexting the bible to justify discrimination. Once again, the school needs to look to the heavens for inspiration and to the ground for a champion.
Who will follow in Dr. Cook’s footsteps and lead their school into the twentieth century? The prophecy might just be laid out in DBU’s brand positioning.
The university defines a Patriot as a seeker of justice — fair, moderate and not afraid to change.
Will students rise up as an inspiring presence to bring out the best in their elders? Will the Patriot meet Gritty at a mascot convention and learn how much fun it is to march in a Pride parade?
History is watching.
Resources: DBU — Title IX, DBU — Dr. Gary Cook, Dallas Morning News — Soulforce Equality Ride, Dallas Morning News — Kitsch Dallas, Christian Universities Online, SCOTUS Blog, Texas Baptist History.
Note: The last few stories I wrote veered unexpectedly into heavy territory. So when I came across videos of a toothy mascot and fresh-faced freshmen bonging the Liberty Bell, I planned on keeping it sweet and lighthearted. Silly me.
When I read about The Soulforce Equality Ride’s 2008 visit to DBU and saw how seamlessly and confidently DBU declares the identity of their LGBTQ students unethical — as part of the policy where they promise not to discriminate on the basis of sex — the only place I could take this article without screaming for 3,000 words was satire.
In the spirit of satire, I took some liberties. I know Dallas wasn’t struggling in the 1980s. They made a show about how rich they were. Beyond the story DBU tells, I don’t know what was in Dr. Cook’s mind, or if he really ate a soft pretzel, or if he shares my affinity for the Phillie Phanatic.
Sadly, DBU is far from alone in failing to protect its most vulnerable students. They are not the shittiest school in Texas. Southwestern Assemblies of God University has that on lock. They’re not even the shittiest school with a Liberty Bell. Liberty University decisively holds that title.
I love the thinking behind how DBU uses the Liberty Bell as part of their identity. I’d love to visit and bong the bell myself. On that day in the not-too-distant future, when DBU’s LGBTQ patriots can freely celebrate their liberty, I’ll be there with bells on.
So everyone has liberty to express their religious beliefs as long as they agree with the current view on the street? Interesting irony indeed. Perhaps not every school is for everyone.
David, I totally agree with you that every school is not for everyone. I could have gone anywhere and I chose Temple. It’s certainly not for everyone. I will offer that the Supreme Court of the United States holds a little more sway than the “current view on the street.” I’m no legal scholar, but Title IX seems pretty clear to me that schools have a choice to either accept federal funding or discriminate on the basis of sex. I encourage DBU to pick one or the other.