Feature: Wednesday, July 13, 2005
Saxe today and (insert) as a young radical circa 1965: ‘It was a heady time ... .’ (insert photo courtesy of Allen Saxe)
‘Once we’re here, we have to do the best we can.’
Griffin: ‘Dr. Saxe transformed our college experience.”
Saxe ‘transformed our college experience by teaching us how to change our society.’
Britton: ‘We wanted to recognize him.’
Saxe: ‘I really liked the idea of my name on the street to the city dump.’ (photo by Scott Latham
Carter: ‘I’ve never known anyone who felt so guilty about having money.’
‘I want my name up there in lights,’ Saxe said. ‘I love recognition.’

UTA’s best-known professor has made a life out of giving.

By BETTY BRINK photos by Vishal Malhotra

It could be a script for a Frank Capra movie circa 1940: It’s Christmas Eve, and a curmudgeon is driving a truckload of toys. He doesn’t like Christmas, has a W. C. Fields-like attitude toward kids, and hates to drive, especially long distances. Nonetheless he has bowed to the pleas of a charity group and is taking his pickup truck loaded with toys to an orphanage 65 miles away. The director of the children’s home with the Hollywood-appropriate name of Happy Hills Farm tells the bah-humbug volunteer, “Oh, man, that’s a nice pickup you’re driving. I wish I could find one like that for the farm. Ours is broken down.”

“It’s yours,” says the owner, tossing the keys to the startled director and hitching a ride home with another volunteer.

The scene isn’t fiction.

“They needed a truck, so I just left mine there,” said Allan Saxe, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, explaining his spur-of-the-moment gift of 20 years ago as matter-of-factly as if he’d left nothing more than a pen from his pocket that someone had admired.

The story is pure Saxe, say friends of the quirky, often impulsive humanitarian who has been giving his “treasures on earth” to good causes for the better part of half a century. During that time he’s also become one of the most popular professors at UTA, an author, a columnist, a sought-after political commentator and a radio talk-show personality who trades barbs on the air with fellow columnist O. K. Carter. But “eccentric philanthropist” is the tag that defines Saxe more than anything else.

He may have given away as much as $6 million, a figure arrived at by adding the amounts of cash, pledges, and the estimated increased value of donated artworks during the last 40 years, but even he’s not sure. “I’ve forgotten some,” he said. “And I haven’t kept the best records,” like the cost of the 1983 Chevrolet pick-up that stayed behind at Happy Hills.

What makes Saxe unique in the annals of philanthropy, said Ruth Brock, a UTA business librarian and his companion of 30 years, is that almost all of the money he’s donated has come from his professor’s salary, boosted one time only by a half-million-dollar inheritance from his frugal, working-class mother. “And he got rid of that as fast as he could,” Brock said.

“I’ve never known anyone who felt so guilty about having money,” his old friend and colleague Carter said of Saxe’s windfall from his mother. “He didn’t earn it, he said, so he had to give it away fast.” No one in Arlington, Carter once wrote, “has been involved in more good causes or been harder to figure out.”

One thing is certain. All manner of needy creatures, from poor mothers and children to abandoned animals to struggling students to starving theatre groups to ordinary folks strolling in a city park or enjoying a rare artwork in a public space, have benefited from Saxe’s philanthropy.

But before anyone elevates him to sainthood, Saxe made this caveat: “I don’t do this out of pure goodness,” he said, breaking into a nervous, high-pitched laugh. “I’m not leaving children to carry on my name, by choice. This is my way of making sure I’m remembered. I’m shamelessly buying my immortality.”

In nearly all cases, Saxe’s generous gifts are accompanied by only one condition: His name must be displayed in a prominent place honoring him for his contribution.

“I’m a paradox,” he said, his elfin face lighting up with his trade-mark lopsided, toothy grin. “I want my name up there in lights. I love recognition.”

Such unabashed egotism doesn’t detract one iota from Saxe’s altruism for Dr. Bonita Jacobs, vice president for student development at the University of North Texas, or for Kimberly Britton, executive director of the John Peter Smith Hospital fund-raising foundation, Partners Together for Health. To them, Saxe sits squarely on the side of the angels. At UNT, financially struggling students are often able to stay in school because of the Allan Saxe Mean Green Loan Fund, where they can get small interest-free loans to tide them over “from paycheck to paycheck,” Jacob said. They pay it back if they can; if not, it’s forgiven. Saxe keeps the fund solvent. There are similar programs at UTA and Tarrant County College, where the fund is called the Allan Saxe Two-Bit Fund because the student pays a service charge of only 25 cents no matter the amount of the loan.

“He’s very visionary,” Jacobs said. “He wants to keep students focused on school and not on how they’re going to feed their kids or pay their electric bill.”

At JPS, where Saxe’s name graces one wall of the reflection garden at the hospital’s health center for women, Britton said she has been “floored by his generosity over the years. ...We wanted to recognize him. He’s genuinely concerned about people in need.” He was the first person to donate to the JPS foundation’s latest fund-raising effort called the “giving society,” with a pledge of $100,000. He already had given $75,000 to the hospital’s earlier building fund and for years has been a regular contributor to its Healing Wings AIDS clinic, she said. (Saxe, who lives from payday to payday like most of his students, pays his big pledges out on the installment plan, “like you and I would buy a car,” Carter said.)

But one former student said Saxe’s name on scholarships and garden walls is not enough. Fort Worth retiree Eddie Griffin is campaigning to nominate Saxe for the Nobel Peace Prize. “His lifetime of humanitarianism should be internationally recognized, as well as his courage in standing with a handful of black students during the ’60s as we protested the flying of the Confederate flag over the UTA campus,” Griffin said. “He wasn’t the most popular teacher on campus in those days.”

Forty years ago this month, an associate professor of government sporting a bushy black afro, a Groucho Marx mustache, and wire-rimmed glasses first set foot on Arlington’s college green. Looking the quintessential campus radical of that time, 26-year-old Allan Saxe showed up at what was then a small-town conservative school called Arlington State College with a doctorate from the University of Oklahoma and a passionate belief in the ideals of the civil rights, peace, and free speech movements that in 1965 were sweeping across American campuses like a prairie fire. Soon he would be a rising star among Tarrant County’s handful of liberals. He jumped into the heat of the battle over the Confederate flag and became chair of the local American Civil Liberties Union chapter and the first campus sponsor of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance.

In two years the college’s name would change, and the symbol of the Confederacy would no longer fly over the campus, but it would take another 17 years for the “raging liberal” associate professor to morph into the conservative-libertarian that he calls himself today. Friends, however, say that Saxe’s political and social philosophies are so uniquely his own that he has never fit neatly into any category. Even Saxe himself says he’s more the “court jester” of libertarianism than a true believer.

At 66, the tenured professor’s thinning gray hair is cut short, his mustache is long-gone and, to the chagrin of his old colleagues on the left, so is most — but not all — of his liberalism. Saxe’s political shift was “a slow process,” he said. “I had no great vision on the road to Mansfield or anything like that.” And, contrary to what normally happens in a university, this time it was the students who influenced the thinking of the professor. “I had some students who were Ronald Reagan Republicans, moderately conservative, some libertarian. We argued a lot, they stood their ground, gave me books by Barry Goldwater and William Buckley. I found it harder and harder to defend the liberal position on so many things, especially personal responsibility.”

Frank Colosi, an ACLU attorney in Fort Worth who worked with Saxe in Democratic Party politics in the 1980s, is not surprised at the change. “Many liberals of Saxe’s generation, the Roosevelt Democrats, are more libertarian than they were 40 years ago,” he said.

Yet Saxe is just as ardent now about civil and religious liberties and free speech as he was as a young firebrand liberal. The First Amendment stands sacrosanct. He has no love for the fervor of the religious right, but on such issues as national defense, crime, and personal responsibility, Saxe is a “conservative leaning toward libertarianism who now votes Republican more times than not.” He supports President George Bush and finds no fault with the war in Iraq. But Saxe veers off from the party line in a number of significant ways: He’s a vegetarian who hates hunting. “Why not just hang grandma’s head on the dining room wall?” he asked in one of his most controversial commentaries as a political analyst for radio station WBAP 820. “To have respect for human life,” he said, “means to have respect for all life.” He believes in the conservation of natural resources, supports stem cell research, and sees global warming as a real threat. “I love the hard sciences,” he said. But on public education, he stands firmly with the political right in favor of vouchers as a first step in the “radical restructuring of the entire educational system,” which he said is “completely broken.”

If there are any of his liberal-populist positions he wishes he had changed sooner, he said, it would have been his once “skeptical attitude” toward growth in Arlington. Years ago, for example, he probably would likely have been an opponent of the recent bond initiative that Arlington voters passed to help build a stadium for the Dallas Cowboys. Saxe, to the dismay of many of its opponents, supported the plan. “I recognize now that the tourism business, visitors, conventions, and entertainment are central to this town,” he said. “Also, I have a much greater appreciation for the marketplace than I once did, the role that business people play and the risks they take.”

Sipping iced tea at Arlington’s Whole Foods Market (one of the few places where the frugal professor occasionally eats out), Saxe explained that his political ideas were not nourished at home. That didn’t happen until he got to the great marketplace of ideas, the public university.

He was born into a “very low-middle-class” apolitical family in Oklahoma City in 1939, the only child of Dora and Max Saxe. His father worked in a hardware store, and his mother clerked and cashiered at grocery and hardware stores around town. “She was hardly ever home,” he said. “She was a good mother, but I don’t remember her cooking for me. She would bring me hamburgers and barbecue on the way home from work.” For the first years of his life, he was “a sickly kid and lonely.” But the worst times of his life were in high school when his small-boned 5-foot-4-inch frame ballooned to 238 pounds. “I didn’t dance, didn’t smoke. I went to the library and ate pizzas,” he said, laughing. Saxe lost 120 pounds through a diet he doesn’t recommend: lying on the couch for five months and eating little more than salads and drinking water. Even after the weight fell off, he said, “I had very few friends.”

Years later, Saxe is still almost childlike in his eagerness for approval. In many ways he’s still the naïve boy from Oklahoma, with the comforting confines of small-town Arlington replacing the sanctuary of his mother’s apartment. Recently when he and his fellow radio host Carter were talking about bullying in professional sports, Carter said that Saxe went into a long explanation of how the jocks beat him up in high school when he showed up on a rainy day with a battery-powered windshield wiper invention for his glasses. Carter, a friend for 20 years, said he asked him, “Why not just wear a sign that said ‘geek’?’’

But when Saxe got to OU in the late 1950s, his life began to change for the better. He soaked up the ideas of the populist professors there like a sponge. He discovered liberal rags such as the Texas Observer and The Nation. “I never knew such magazines existed,” he said. He soon found himself a member of an elite group of student intellectuals who spent long nights sharing good whiskey and political and social debate in the study of one of the college’s most liberal “Franklin Delano Roosevelt Democrats,” professor Paul Davis. “I was still very shy, having had no friends for so long, and hung back a lot in those discussions. I couldn’t believe I was really worthy of being there. I mostly listened.” When Saxe left OU, he was a liberal Democrat and a card-carrying member of the ACLU.

“It was a heady time. A different world. I loved it,” Saxe said. “Professor Davis influenced me a lot.” Then he chuckled, a grin crossing his square-jawed face. “If he knew me now, he would faint.”

But there is one side to this self-described “paradoxical man” that has remained constant since Saxe first began to expand his vision of the world through the university. The world he came to know was so full of pain and suffering that he decided he would not be responsible for “bringing a guppy into such a dreadful place, much less a child.” But he also made another promise to himself: He would give away every penny he earned that he didn’t need for the basic and simplest necessities of living, to make life better for those already here. “Once we’re here,” he’s fond of saying, “we have to do the best we can.” He made his first donation as a 20-year-old college student, giving $100 to St. Anthony’s hospital in Oklahoma City. His father had died there, and when he got a letter from one of the nuns asking for money, he gave what he could out of his meager funds. The hospital’s public acknowledgement of his gift gave him something he’d never had before — “a sense that I had been recognized as someone important.” He was addicted.

He set out then on his quest to give away every non-essential penny he earned, asking only one thing in return — that his name be prominently displayed by the recipient in some public place.

In the decades since then, an eclectic assortment of human needs has been met because of one “painfully shy” man’s desire to make the world a better place and, at the same time, to boost his own sense of self-worth.

His name graces façades from the North Texas Humane Society to the Fort Worth Zoo, from the JPS Health Center for Women to a free dental clinic for the poor he founded with Mission Arlington. His name is attached to scholarship and loan funds — such as the Mean Green Loan Fund — that he established for struggling students at universities from UTA to Notre Dame, and it can be found on bronze plaques beside art masterpieces he once owned that now hang on public walls. Both his and companion Brock’s name are found near library stacks filled with books bought with their money; their names are also on a library scholarship fund at UTA and an endowment recently established at the Fort Worth Public Library. Together, they have kicked in money to keep local live theatre doors open and fund the expansion of public parks.

In 1992, Saxe was awarded the Governor’s Humanitarian Award.

Still, in spite of his good works, his political stands have generated enmity. When he first began to write a column for the then-Arlington Citizen-Journal (now the Arlington Star-Telegram), Carter, who was the editor and had encouraged his publisher to hire Saxe to give the paper a little liberal balance, remembers that one of the Journal’s biggest advertisers boycotted the paper because he didn’t like Saxe’s politics. “Now he’s moved to the conservative moderate side, is rah-rah for Bush,” and his critics are liberals, Carter said.

One of those critics is Bruce Deramus. Saxe’s shift to the right in the interests of business has caused a split in their relationship. Deramus, an Arlington leader in the campaign to defeat the stadium proposal, said, “He used to be like we are, more for the people. Now he’s more for big business. ... It irritates me that his principles have changed.” Deramus, who praises Saxe for all the good he’s done, thinks his old friend has been co-opted over the years by business and university interests “and his wanting people to like him.” On the stadium deal, Deramus believes Saxe’s support was a cynical move to be on the right side. “I think he thought it would pass anyway, so he got on the bandwagon.”

When Saxe ran for the Arlington City Council in 1975 against the late Carolyn Snider, one of her supporters, whose name Saxe no longer remembers, told him that the only place deserving of his name was the city dump. Saxe was taken with the idea, and in the early 1980s he convinced the city council to name the road to the Arlington landfill the Allan Saxe Parkway. Saxe and the city turned the insult into black comedy. They had a dedication ceremony with dead roses and stale champagne, and Saxe drove a trash truck through an old, frayed ribbon. “I wanted it done to show ... that I really liked the idea of my name on the street to the city dump,” he said.

His obsessiveness about naming rights has given students perfect fodder for ridicule. At least one UTA classroom bears a plaque under a hand-cranked tool that reads, “The Allan Saxe Pencil Sharpener.”

Eddie Griffin has a history not unlike many black men of his generation. In 1965, he was one of a handful of black students at what was then Arlington State College who set out to force the administration to take down the Confederate flag that had flown over the campus alongside the Texas flag since the turn of the century. He also helped found the college’s chapter of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Later, drafted for Vietnam but rejected by the draft board, Griffin joined the Black Panther Party’s underground militant movement. He eventually robbed a bank for the cause, was caught and convicted, and spent 12 years in prison.

After prison, the Fort Worth native and graduate of I. M. Terrell High School came home and got a job with McDonald & Associates engineering firm. Six years later he was chief operating officer of the company, said owner Kenneth McDonald. Griffin is now retired, volunteers in the community and works as a mentor for young black entrepreneurs. But in all that time, he never forgot his first white teacher, Allan Saxe, and the role Saxe played in the fall of 1965 “as an advocate of black students’ rights and dignity.”

“We were the first black students at Arlington State College. Dr. Saxe was our government teacher, and he transformed our college experience by teaching us how to change our society,” Griffin said. Black students from that time remember Saxe “as the young college professor who joined us in a ‘Rally ’Round the Flagpole’ protest to help bring down the Confederate flag and replace it with the U.S. flag, the symbol, to us, of freedom.” When a group of white students threatened to beat up the slightly built Saxe, the black students came to his aid, Griffin remembered, “by surrounding him with our bodies.”

Saxe remembers the time as “very tumultuous.” Arlington State College “had a very Deep South motif and emblems, [and] African American students were bothered by the symbols, but it went deeper,” he said. “There were calls for black studies, more [minority] student recruitment, staff, and faculty.” There were some students and faculty members like Saxe who sided with the black students, but they were in the minority, and confrontations were frequent. In addition to being threatened, Saxe was verbally attacked by some faculty members. “I was much more rebellious than now,” he said. “It was a quite a heated moment in time.”

The Confederate flag came down, Saxe said, and UTA eventually adopted new symbols and became a model of minority recruitment and responsiveness. “But it all started 40 years ago.”

After he got back to Fort Worth in the mid-1980s, Griffin kept up with Saxe’s good works — and his changing politics. While Griffin finds many of his former mentor’s latter-day conservative positions troubling, there is nothing, he said, that can take away from his positive impact on students’ lives or the righteousness of his works. “He is an amazing man,” Griffin said. “Recently I began researching how we [his former students] might get him nominated for a Nobel Prize in 2007 for his life’s work in humanitarian education. He needs to be known internationally.”

Saxe’s response was light-hearted. “There are many more deserving people than me for such an honor,” he said. “But if my mother were alive, she would be very happy with the gesture.”

Until his mother’s death in 1982, Saxe relied on his own state-college professor’s salary to fund his projects. He had no other income, but he had large ambitions. Shortly after he began teaching at UTA, he began to buy art. “I didn’t know art from a hole in the head,” he said. But one day, he wandered into a small contemporary gallery in Dallas and struck up a friendship with the owner. Picasso etchings and lithographs were on the walls, as well as works by Matisse and Chagall, Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters of the Moulin Rouge, and John Lennon’s drawings. The prices ranged from a few thousand dollars to $10,000. Saxe couldn’t afford even the cheaper ones, he said, but the owner let him take one home anyway. “Pay me what you can, when you can,” he said. Saxe paid the first one off — a Picasso — and was hooked. He bought the Chagall, the Matisse, the Moulin Rouge posters and the entire John Lennon collection, all on the installment plan. He began to prowl other galleries, buying more French Impressionists as well as Salvador Dalis and Norman Rockwells.

Within a few years, he had a “very good collection,” he said. And he gave it all away. Saxe’s collection is now scattered from the Oklahoma Museum of Art to the Modern in Fort Worth to the Arlington Museum of Art, where the mezzanine is named after him. Paintings and sketches hang at UTA and TCU. They cover a wall at Arlington City Hall and hang in Tarrant County community centers, churches, and small galleries, all with small plaques nearby, he said, that read, “This was donated by Allan Saxe.” He has no idea of the collection’s value today.

After several years of such collecting, prices in the art market went up, and Saxe’s dabbling came to an end. He then began his commitment to projects that help poor families, struggling students, theatres, parks, and libraries. When his mother died in 1982 and left him a half million dollars, it was a bonanza that he never dreamed possible.

“I had no idea how much money she had,” he said. “She was very frugal. She didn’t drive, lived in a small apartment in Oklahoma City.” Unknown to Saxe, his mother had invested small sums in very safe stocks and bonds over a 35-year period and never sold. When she died, her accountant called Saxe and told him she had left $500,000 and “It’s all yours.” He nearly fainted. “Almost immediately I began giving it away.” Friends told him he could have put it in safe investments and doubled it or more over the years. But the institutions he gave it to needed it right then, he said. “If I had waited, many of them might have shut down.” Former grocery clerk Dora Saxe’s careful investments benefited 42 different causes or groups, including college scholarships ($70,000), River Legacy Park ($85,000), and Theatre Arlington ($50,000).

One of the donations from the inheritance that he’s most proud of, Saxe said, was the $100,000 he gave for the renovation of the UTA baseball stadium. It was named for him in the early 1990s, and it is the only naming right that he voluntarily has given up.

In 2001, Clay Gould, the 29-year-old head coach for UTA’s Maverick baseball team and a former star player, died of cancer, devastating the team, the university, and the community. Saxe immediately asked that the stadium be renamed the Clay Gould Ballpark. “It was the appropriate thing to do,” he said. “Here was a young guy dying of cancer. I’m so conscious of my own health and mortality that it hit me like a brick.”

What choked him up, he said, was when the renamed stadium was officially opened and Gould’s 3-year-old daughter threw out the first pitch. “It was very emotional.”

Brock has been in Saxe’s life for 30 years and probably knows him better than anyone, but even to her he’s “a walking contradiction.” She said he’s “very shy in some respects and a huge risk-taker in others.” Other friends say he’s a chronic complainer, filled with Woody Allen-type angst. “I sweat the big things and the little things,” Saxe readily admitted. And his phobias are well known. He’s afraid of elevators, flying, traveling anywhere, and driving even short distances.

“That’s why he could give away that pickup to the orphans,” Carter said. “He hates to drive.”

Saxe anecdotes — or as one wag called them “allandotes” — abound. Fort Worth Weekly staff writer Jeff Prince, who once worked with Saxe at the Arlington daily, remembers the first time he was exposed to Saxe’s newsroom work habits. “He was sitting at a computer behind me,” Prince said, “so I couldn’t see him, but I could hear him. It sounded like he was on the phone, talking to a dear friend, reading his column to them, laughing out loud to the point of tears, making comments about the writing, etc.” When Prince turned around, he discovered Saxe wasn’t on the phone at all. “He was reading his column out loud to himself, laughing his ass off.” Prince has been a fan ever since.

And then there are those strange birthday presents, Brock said. At the Fort Worth Zoo one year he gave a poison dart frog to the reptile collection in her name. On another birthday, he took her to River Legacy Park to show her the Ruth Brock Picnic Area, named for her after Saxe gave a donation in her name.

“There will never be any diamonds coming from this guy,” she said.

Yet Ruthie, as he calls her, seems genuinely proud of Saxe and especially of his more whimsical side. In the 1980s, she said, he became very upset because there were no comfortable chairs at the school library where students and faculty could “sit, read, reflect, or daydream.” He donated money to buy large, leather-covered chairs and couches for the periodicals room. A plaque there reads, “Allan Saxe Reading and Daydreaming Area.” And she is quick to point out that not all things that bear his name are due to donations. The Allan Saxe Park in southwest Arlington was named for him by the park board simply to honor his contribution to the city.

And of course, there’s that pencil sharpener.

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