Baxter Hobgood and Robert Frost are Two Icons in the Literary Spectrum of the County and Nation

April 8, 2019, Susan Harber

Baxter Hobgood circa 1990 (courtesy of the Al Gore, Sr. Center)

In early 1940s, on the cusp of World War II, Robert Frost, the greatest poet of the 20th century, arrived to Murfreesboro for a special reading at Middle Tennessee State College on the invitation of President Q.M. Smith.  Professor Baxter Hobgood was requested by Smith to pick up Frost from Nashville, and he gladly accommodated.  In Hobgood’s excellent book ‘Little Bits of Lore’, he states Frost, at age 66 years old, was retrieved with informal transportation from a large Belle Meade home and driven to the campus for an 8:15 a.m. reading.  Their conversation from Nashville to Murfreesboro was enlightening with two prime intellectuals in a single setting. Surprisingly, their chatter in the moving car centered on their mutual passion for tennis.

‘Little Bits of Lore’, a collection of reminiscent stories in Rutherford County, remains for sale on Amazon today.  Just a week after publication of this special book authored by Hobgood, he quietly passed away.

Hobgood and Frost both embodied an expertise on colloquial speech in their writings.  Frost’s poems consisted of human interactions conversing together, while Hobgood was a master of the written word with expression and observation.

After researching the personal and professional lives of these two gifted educators, I found fascinating similarities and differences.  Today, we will mirror these great minds, who had an ultimate quest to share wisdom, circumspection, and discernment in the wheels of history.

When I was a pre-teen, my mother Judith worked in a local library, and I would stop there from the bus each afternoon to begin my homework.  In those days, the library was a sanctuary of total quietness and great peace.  On the edge of a standing corner bookshelf sat an enormous book ‘The Poetry of Robert Frost’, and it caught my eye every time I walked in the door. At 11 years old, I read excerpts from his anthology of 600 pages and was soon immersed in poetic verse.  Surprisingly, Frost published his official first book of poems at age 40 and was just getting started on an illustrious career with his poetic skill.  In all, he scribed a dozen volumes of poetry in a lifetime.

The poet’s life was deluged with sorrow that gave birth to the personal and poignant poems he scribed over time.  Hogood’s existence was more stable and amidst less trauma.  They both did not completely retire.  Robert Frost, at age 87, read his famed poem ‘The Gift Outright’ at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.

Robert Frost (1874-1963) was born in San Francisco to a Scottish teacher Isabel Moodie and father William Prescott Frost, who was a native of Devon, England. William was both a teacher and editor for the San Francisco Evening Bulletin.  He tragically died of tuberculosis when Robert was just 11 years old; and the family struggled with no money at hand to subsist. The Frost family moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts near his grandfather William Frost, who owned a successful mill and offered support to the family. Robert published his first poem in a Lawrence High School periodical and received rave reviews for his talent.  He attended Dartmouth College, while working in a factory and at a newspaper.  An ambitious young man, he wed high school sweetheart Elinor Miriam White in 1895 and studied at Harvard.  Frost and Elinor were co-valedictorians of their 1892 high school class. While the couple lived their early years in England, he published a poetry book ‘A Boy’s Will’.  During World War I, he returned to the United States and taught at Amherst College.  Frost’ grandfather purchased a farm for Robert and Elinor in Derry, New Hampshire where many of his famous poems were composed.  Elinor and Robert were wed for 42 years.

Frost was a direct descendant of Major Charles Frost (1632-1697).  Charles was born in Devon, England and immigrated to the United States where he was the highest-ranking military leader in Maine during King William’s War.  He was killed by Indians in Berwick, Maine at age 64 and was honored with a plaque at Frost Hill in Eliot, Maine.

Tragically, four of Frost’ six children died.  Further, his mother, sister Jeanie, son Carol and wife Elinor suffered with mental issues that fueled deep-set and emotional verse into his prose. 

Frost composed 22 dialogues from 1915-1926.  His realistic poems reflected relationships of friends, parents and children and husbands and wives. His nature poems remain the most beautifully scribed in literature. Students in our county have read ‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled that made all the difference.’ 

Baxter Ertis Hobgood (1908-1995), known today through Hobgood School in Murfreesboro, entered the world as purposeful and hard working. These were traits both Hobgood and Frost shared over a lifetime.  Hobgood was living in Rutherford County in 1926 at age 18 to work with his uncle and attended public school in Murfreesboro.  His parents were John and Leslie Morris Hobgood of Person County, North Carolina.  His two sisters were Esther Ellis and Mae Owens of North Carolina.  He has strong recollections of playing basketball in a tobacco warehouse in Murfreesboro and walking four miles to his baseball field to play a game. He also recalls that his door was never locked in Murfreesboro, as he felt no harm at any time and fully safe within his youth.

Hobgood enrolled in State Teachers College and joined the Debate team and Christian Association.  At the time, there were 350 students on campus. He began his educational career as teacher and coach.  He wed Frances Allen Hobgood, who attended Central High and Tennessee Teachers College in Murfreesboro, and they lived at 214 Tyne Avenue.  They attended First Baptist Church and were active as stalwart community supporters. Hobgood was central to the restoration of Oakland Mansion and was also on the executive committee to develop Cannonsburgh in 1976. He was an MTSU Alumni President in 1934.  Baxter and Frances are buried at Evergreen Cemetery.  

Hobgood was a teacher at Central High in 1930 and later an assistant principal.  In 1939, he carried the Debate Team to California for a national championship. In 1932, his ladies’ basketball team won state championship at Central High.  He was a beloved principal at McFadden from 1930-1931; yet, he soon rose to superintendent of Murfreesboro City Schools and constantly sought progressive improvements in the system.  He initiated classroom visits and teacher meetings and was pro-active in communication among staff, students and parents.  He also supported the 1968 integration of the school system, as his super administrative skills handled this task well.  Hobgood referred to the generosity of his father, and how he never turned anyone away who asked for a place to stay or had a need, regardless of the color of their skin. 

Teachers were impressed with his one-on-one conversation and how he was always so positive and would ask about their families and what he could do to make their roles better in providing a quality education. On the contrary, Frost magnified poetry as a medium of close contact and was a proponent of indirect communication. 

Hobgood states his greatest influence was a Murfreesboro teacher (Buchanan), while Frost credits Hugo Munsterberg, a Harvard philosophy teacher, as his tremendous role model.   Munsterberg professed to Frost the attributes of thinking independently. 

In 1960, the MTSU Poetry Society of America awarded a $1000 Robert Frost Award.  Moreover, today’s future teachers can apply for the Baxter Hobgood MTSU scholarship.  Hobgood and Frost were both professors.  Frost moved on to attain 40 honorary degrees, four Pulitzers in poetry, and the 1960 Congressional Gold Medal.  Hobgood was a key player to develop Murfreesboro City Schools that reigns with paramount importance.

Hobgood worked for the Tennessee Department of Education and was a geography teacher at MTSU in later years.  He changed lives for better with his gift in academics and positive influence for all students.  Frost was a Professor of English at Amherst from 1917 -1920 and again from 1923-1925.  He also served on the faculty at Dartmouth and Princeton.

Hobgood is buried at the historical Evergreen Cemetery with luminaries from our early heritage, while Frost was laid to rest in 1963 in the Old Bennington Cemetery on the National Historic Places in Vermont.  His tombstone is engraved ‘I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.’ 

These two extraordinary men who once traveled by car to MTSU held a correlative relationship in their love of knowledge and a vision to share this wisdom with all humans for a better world.

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