Including the world-famous story of How A Lady’s Dress Influenced Mathematical History
The Walker Building on the North corner of Main and Washington reaches deep into the history of businesses once located therein and their families. The families trace to two presidents of Mississippi State (Dr. Buz M. Walker, Sr. and Dr. Ben F. Hilbun, Sr.), two attorneys (Buz M. Walker, Jr. and Ben F. Hilbun, Jr.), two doctors (Dr. C. R. Dodds and Dr. J. F. “Feddy” Eckford), and an insurance agency (Robert Brannin). In the very beginning, B. M. Walker Jr. had his attorney office in the upstairs portion and rented the downstairs to Dr. C. R. Dodds for his medical practice and later to Brannin Insurance Agency. The last person to own the building before it became Mugshots was Ben F. Hilbun, Jr., an attorney and son of Ben F. Hilbun, Sr., the president of Mississippi State University from 1953-1960. B. M. Walker Sr. and B. M. Walker Jr. also owned the four buildings east of Security State Bank (now James E. Brown Law Office) on Main Street. All of these families made major contributions to our county but this article concentrates on the Walkers from which this building is named. Mrs. Thomas (Jeanne) Wakeman is the granddaughter of Buz M. Walker, Sr. and resides in town.
The Walker family history traces back to 1836 when William Walker was one of the surveyors the government put into the region of Oktibbeha County immediately after the signing of the treaty. In the old building in which Cyrus Byington (Mayhew missionary) had trained preachers, William Walker, formerly the surveyor, was teaching school. This may have been the first school after the county was organized; certainly it was in operation as early as 1836. Judge T. B. Carroll said that he had seen the contract between Walker and the patrons. It stipulated how many pupils each patron was to send, the length of term, how much he should pay (price depending on number of children), and how many weeks of free board he should give Walker. It was general custom in those days for the teacher to board free from house to house.
When the first seven streets of Starkville were marked off, one was named Walker Street just west of Washington Street and ran through the Ward Cotton Gin in the vicinity of the First United Methodist Church. The first streets marked off east to west included Houston (Now Jackson), Lafayette, Washington, Cushman and Walker. The streets north to south included Stagg (now Jefferson), Main, and Lampkin. At least two public auctions were held to sell the lots. In the auctions only the lot on which the Walker building stands, the Methodists parsonage, and Martin’s Hardware store stood found purchasers. The lot on which the Masonic Building stood brought the highest price-$182.50 and Elijah Hogan bought it. The Walker building brought only fifty cents less.
Buz. M. Walker, Sr. helped organize Security State Bank in 1896 and served as deacon in First Baptist Church. He was the son of William Walker. Buz M. Walker, Jr. was the son of Buz M. Walker, Sr. Buz M. Walker Jr. was a practicing attorney in Starkville until his death in 1973. He served in the state legislature early in his career and later was a chancery judge. In his professional life, Buz M.Walker, Sr. served as instructor in mathematics, Mississippi A&M, 1883-884; assistant professor of mathematics, 1888-1925, dean of engineering school 1922-1925, vice president of A &M 1913-1925; when he was elected president of the college from 1925-1930. As a businessman, he was director in the Security State Bank of Starkville; director and vice-president Starkville Cotton Oil Company, West Point Cotton Oil Mill; director West Point Ice Company; a large owner of city property in Starkville, and real estate in Oktibbeha, Clay, Lowndes and Noxubee counties, MS and Catahoula Parish, LA. He was an active member and a deacon in the Starkville Baptist church. In 1905 Walker Engineering Building was built on the campus and named for Dr. Buzz Walker who had been Dean.
Buz Walker, Sr. achieved worldwide distinction in 1906 with a dissertation “On the Resolution of the Higher Singularities of Algebraic Curves Into Ordinary Nodes.” That was a classic problem in higher mathematics, one that had puzzled the heavy thinkers in Europe and in the United States for at least 200 years. Some mathematicians said it was like squaring the circle and such that it just couldn’t be done at all. Others believed it was possible of solution, but they never hit on the formula. So Buz Walker Sr. came up with the solution. And the story follows as told by Dr. Walker in 1939. He titled it, “How A Lady’s Dress Influenced Mathematical History.”
A young mathematics instructor at Mississippi A&M College was taking graduate work leading to the Ph.D. degree, in the University of Chicago during the early days of that institution. His duties at the college called for nine months of teaching each year. This delayed the young instructor for a longer period than customary, and forced him to spend several years at work on his dissertation: On the Resolution of the Higher Singularities of Algebraic Curves Into Ordinary Nodes.
When the dissertation leading to the degree of Doctor of Philosophy finally had been finished and was submitted to the department of mathematics, the distinguished professor of the University, who had been directing the research work, had made all arrangements to spend the following year in Germany and decided he would take the manuscript along with him for study and a careful investigation before passing final judgment on the merits of the paper.
On the return trip from Europe the professor, duly appreciating the value and importance of this manuscript, the only copy in existence which contained a satisfactory solution of this celebrated theorem was very careful not to put it in his suit cases, fearing it might get lost en route home. To make it perfectly safe and take no chances, he placed the manuscript, with all the detailed data accompanying it, in his wife’s trunk with her fine dresses. The valuable trunk was not trusted to an express man to be hauled alone from the hotel, so the professor got on the express wagon with the driver and accompanied the trunk, delivering it in person to the steamship officials to be put on the Bremen of the North German Lloyd Line. He then returned to his hotel to get his wife, came down to the dock in a taxi and went aboard the ship. After the Bremen had sailed for New York and had been for several hours out at sea, the wife decided she would like to have a certain fine dress out of her trunk for wear that evening. So she asked her distinguished husband to have the trunk brought up to her stateroom that she might have access to it. The professor proceeded to find the bursar and made known his wishes and then the trouble began.
The bursar searched through all the baggage and reported to the professor that he was sorry, but there was no trunk on board ship fitting his description. The professor immediately reported the matter to the Captain of the vessel, who ordered the bursar to go back with the professor and carefully go over every piece of baggage on the ship and find that trunk. The examination was most carefully made and a report went back to the Captain: that “trunk is not on board ship,” and the bursar returned to his duties.
Then the professor went into action in dead earnest with the captain and demanded that the ship turn round and go back and find that trunk. To this Captain replied that it was not possible and they were already several miles out at sea en route to New York and the vessel must continue on its voyage without interruption besides, what a commotion it would create among the passengers for the big steamship to turn around and steam back to port. He would have to make an official report of the matter to the Head Office. The professor could make out a carefully itemized statement of his losses in the trunk and a check would be issued to him to cover in full all his losses, and the ship would continue on its journey to New York.
But this decision by the Captain was not at all satisfactory to the professor, who became still more excited, and as both men were Germans there was no difficulty in speaking German to each other. The professor in no uncertain language proceeded to tell the Captain that no valuation in dollars and cents could be placed on this trunk, that it contained a piece of mathematical work, the solution of a celebrated problem in mathematics, which had engaged the attention of the mathematical world for years and the publication of it would bring great honors to the mathematician who first solved it and gave his solution to the world; that the solution had now been made; that he had gone over it in full detail and found it to be satisfactory and correct; that it had been submitted as a dissertation for the doctorate in mathematics at the University of Chicago. It was the only copy in existence and was in that trunk.
He in person had accompanied the express man in delivering the trunk to the steamship officials and brought his wife down to the steamer, and now the trunk was lost and must be found. He could take no chances that some other mathematician, who might also have been working on this problem, might rush into print and announce the discovery of the correct solution and thus get the credit and the glory, while The University of Chicago and the young instructor, who had spent years in research on this celebrated theorem, would lose out in the end. There was nothing else to do but to turn the ship round and steam back to Europe and find that trunk without fail.
This earnest and forcible plea was too much and too strong for the Captain to withstand and orders were immediately given to turn the steamship round and proceed back to port. The vessel turned round and began the trip back to Europe to the great consternation of all on board. But back to port it went in full speed and in due time pulled up at the dock.
Then the Captain had the professor go ashore and on the platform show exactly the spot where the steamship officials had placed the trunk along with other trunks for loading. The bursar explained that no baggage had been left on the platform when the steamer sailed several hours ago. The Captain reasoned that since the trunk is not on the vessel now, and if it had been put on, it could not have gotten off, then it must be in the sea.
The Captain then ordered the crew to get the drag nets and the grappling hooks and proceed to drag and grapple for that trunk. The water was deep, the trunk had been under water and down in the muck for several hours then. After considerable time and much hard work, the drag net struck something deep under water and down the grappling hooks went to bring up whatever it was. With dirty sea water streaming out, up came the trunk to the delight of the anxious professor, who exclaimed: That is my trunk, put it on deck. When safe on deck, the professor opened it up and got out the manuscript, thoroughly water soaked and all stuck together, being written in ink and in long hand. The mass certainly presented an object of despair. The professor felt sick at heart.
The Captain commented: “I am sorry but it is now evidently ruined; however, what do you want to do with it?” The professor replied: “Take it down to the drying room and have it dried out thoroughly, just as it is, but under no circumstances scorch it or burn it.” The Captain gave the orders to be carried out under the super vision of the professor. After having lost a half-day or more, the Captain gave the necessary orders for the steamship to proceed again to sea, bound on its long journey to New York. After the paper had been thoroughly dried, it was done up in a nice looking package for the trip home.
The young instructor having received a wire from the distinguished professor to meet him in Chicago on a certain day, after taking into account the time required for passage on the sea and the trip from New York to Chicago, was promptly on hand in a great state of expectancy, not knowing anything of the happenings, but anxious to get the report on his dissertation. He was delighted to receive hearty congratulations from the distinguished professor on the satisfactory solution of His theorem with all the honor and glory that went with it. But then the latter proceeded to say: “I have some bad news now.” He related the close approach to a casualty with the manuscript, in graphic terms. Further he remarked: “You are the only man in the world today, who can take that mass of manuscript and dissect it and rewrite that paper. I would not attempt it myself, and I want you to get to work on it at once so that we shall take no chances of losing the credit. In about thirty days time the paper had been rewritten. When it was published congratulations came from twenty-three countries of the world. And that is how a lady’s desire to wear a fine dress saved a valuable contribution to science.
But there is more to the Walker story. With the same wizardry with which he fathomed mathematical problems in early life, Starkville’s beloved Dr. Buz Walker adapted himself to a new career of lyrics and music. He had retired to his little home where he could see new generations of students on their way to classes and laboratories at the college, some of them sons and daughters of students he taught back when the twentieth century was young. Late in the evenings, particularly in Spring when the sap rises in the campus trees and flowers burst out and mockingbirds carol by day and night, he sees these youngsters arm in arm, repeating the old, old story that youth will tell and believe forever, and from the romances of those boys and girls, Dr. Walker is reminded of that idyllic romance that ran through his own life, and of the wife who was by his side for so many years, who encouraged him in his mathematical labors, who wrote the melodies for his first love songs, who sang the sweet ballads to their children before open windows on Spring evenings long ago.
His name was Buzz. The way he told the story is that other children in his family, long ago, called him “Buzzer” because they couldn’t say “brother.” Finally, his parents decided it was time to find a name more fitting for a growing lad. Somebody thumbed through the family Bible and found, in Genesis, a character named Buz, so they just gave that to him. Later, when he got ready to be a college boy, he thought he should have middle initial, so he adopted M, which doesn’t mean anything at all. So he is Buz M. Walker. He became doctor of philosophy at the University of Chicago in 1906, and then returned to his home campus, then Mississippi Agricultural and Mechanical College, as professor of mathematics, which post he held until he became president in 1925.
As an educator and mathematician, he ascended to the top of his profession. From a $40 a month instructor he rose to the presidency of Mississippi A&M (now Mississippi State University). His first song broadcast by the U S. Marine Band in 1935, surprised the president emeritus himself. A short time after that a leading movie studio wrote him that his music was being used in a production.
In 1938 he was part of the staff of the American Music Association and millions have heard his lyrics on the air and in the movies and others have played them from sheet music. Nearly 50 of his melodies have been published including Spanish, western and love songs such as: “Git Along Ole Mule”, “When The Pumpkin’s Turning Yellow”; “The Old Shade Tree;” “Down the Old Spanish Trail;” “Victory for Democracy”; which achieved wide circulation in World War II; and a victory song: “Forever and Forever”, used by 300 broadcasting stations during the war.
What started out as a hobby transformed the brilliant powers of his analytical mind into the ability of expressing in music and words the fleeting impression of a beautiful melody.
Dr. Walker was asked, “How is it possible to switch from mathematics to lyric writing?” “Higher mathematics is a dream world,” he replied, “and music is another. There is little transition necessary from one dream world to another. It is merely the use of words instead of figures.
Maxine Eastland Remembers...
Maxine Eastland remembers being friends with Nancy Walker, Jeanne Wakeman’s older sister. It was always easy to remember their telephone number which was 1-J and their house number which was 1-R.
Frank Jackson Remembers...
Frank Jackson remembers. Dr. Dodds delivered Frank Jackson in the beautiful home in which he lives on the corner of Highway 12 and 25. Frank has fond memories as a child walking to the Walker Building to the Dr. Dodds office. Dr. Dodds was their family physician until he retired.
Note: Mrs. Thomas (Jeanne) Wakeman contributed to this article