Last Updated: Oct 17, 2019     Views: 242

Who is Mary Couts Burnett?

Painting of Mary Couts Burnett by Emily Guthrie Smith.

The story of the library's namesake, Mary Couts Burnett, is at once tragic, poignant and heroic. Born in 1856, she was one of five daughters of Colonel James Robertson Couts, a prominent banker and rancher in Parker County. The Colonel is known to have been an admirer of Addison Clark who, with his brother Randolph, founded in Thorp Spring the school which would eventually become Texas Christian University.

Raised in Weatherford, Mary first married Claude Barradel and was widowed. After Barradel's untimely death she was wooed and won by wealthy cattleman S. Burk Burnett, himself a widower. The one child born to the couple, S. Burk Burnett, Jr., died as a young man.

By 1920 the relationship between husband and wife had grown tense and Mrs. Burnett expressed fears that her husband was trying to kill her. Burnett claimed in court that his wife was suffering from "hallucinations" and won a sanity judgement against her. He was further successful in having her committed to a limited asylum in a private Weatherford home where she was kept virtually a prisoner until she engineered her own release on the very day, in 1923, of Burk Burnett's death. With the aid of her physician she then set about to free herself and to obtain her "widow's half"—Texas being a community property state—of the estate which Burnett had actually willed almost entirely to his granddaughter, Anne Burnett. She succeeded in both these efforts.

Historic photograph of the Library and the reflecting pool that used to be in front of it (1920s).

Then, in December of 1923, she surprised and shocked TCU by informing the university it would receive nearly her entire estate in trust—something over $3 million (equivalent to about $36 million in 1991 dollars). Before this moment, Mrs. Burnett had no known ties with or interest in the university. One story has it that Burk Burnett, a notoriously rough-edged character, had plainly expressed that no church or school would ever get any of his money so that Mary's gesture may have been one of defiance towards her late husband.

Though she did not live to see it fully completed before her death, she was driven past the library building which would bear her name when construction was well advanced in 1924.

 

TCU Library milestones

1873
AddRan Male and Female College opens in Thorp Spring
1874
AddRan Literary Society develops a small collection of books
1877
Major John T. Walton donates 300 books to Walton Literary Society
1889
Name of school becomes AddRan Christian University
1892
Edwin J. Toof of New Haven, Connecticut, gives the University 1,045 books; a library is formed from these three collections
1895
AddRan Christian University relocates to Waco; library of 2,044 volumes is valued at $3,000
1898
Library is designated a U.S. government document depository
1902
Name of school is changed to Texas Christian University; Mabel Grey Crosse is named as first librarian
1904
Mrs. M.B.M. Gibbons succeeds Miss Crosse
1905
Book collection is cataloged by Dewey Decimal Classification system
1906
Mrs. E.C. Boynton becomes librarian
1908
Nell Andrew, Mrs. Boynton’s successor, becomes the first librarian of long tenure
1910
The Library Association, an organization to promote the general interest of the library, is formed on February 10; fire on March 22 destroys the Main Building housing the library of 8,000 volumes valued at $15,000; TCU moves to Fort Worth and holds classes in downtown building; students use the Fort Worth Carnegie Library
1911
TCU moves to present campus; library is 24’ x 36’ room on second floor of the Main Building
1915
Earliest annual report of the library shows 4,716 volumes
1916
Library is re-designated a U.S. government document depository due to move to move to new Congressional District
1923
The University announces the Mary Couts Burnett gift in December; $150,000 is designated for the library building
1925
Mary Couts Burnett Library is dedicated on February 27; holdings number 30,000 at the time; Nell Andrew resigns; Arthur Curry becomes fifth librarian
1932
With the Great Depression, enrollment drops dramatically and book budget is cut to $100
1938
Bertie Hall Mothershead, acting librarian since 1933, is named sixth librarian
1943
North Texas Regional Union List of Serials is published—the first library cooperative effort in the region
1949
Fine Arts Library opens in Ed Landreth Hall
1953
C. Glenn Sparks becomes seventh librarian
1955
William Luther Lewis Collection of English and American Literature, gift of the Amon G. Carter Foundation, is dedicated on May 27
1957
Construction begins on library addition
1958
First printed library handbook for students is prepared
1959
Library building first expansion is dedicated on March 5; holdings number 330,000
1963
Sunday library hours are instituted
1964
Library Committee of Inter-university Council of Dallas and Fort Worth Metropolitan Areas holds first meeting; Library holdings pass the half-million mark
1965
Paul Parham becomes University Librarian (eighth librarian)
1970
Computerized circulation operation begins on July 14, marking advent of technology in the library’s operations
1971
Pate Presidential Collection on the American presidency
1972
Friends of the TCU Libraries is organized on January 28; Committee to plan the expansion of the library is appointed in November
1973
Library’s Centennial gift to the University is the completion of reclassification of book collection by the Library of Congress system, begun in 1966
1974
Contract signed with Online Computer Library Center, Inc. (OCLC) provides access to shared cataloging database
1978
Computer database searching becomes part of reference service
1981
Froissart’s Cronycles is added as library’s millionth item in January; Ground is broken on April 11 for library addition
1983
Expanded Mary Couts Burnett Library, designed by Walter Netsch of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, is dedicated on March 25
1984
Abell Antique Map Collection given to Special Collections
1986
Pate-Newcomer Collection on the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg
1987
Dr. Fred Heath becomes University Librarian (ninth librarian)
1988
First CD-ROM databases
1989
Implementation of library’s first Integrated Library System (ILS); Speaker James C. Wright, Jr. Archives
1990
TCU registers the internet domain name “tcu.edu” and the library’s first website follows
1991
Van Cliburn International Piano Competition Archives; Library begins use of leased storage in downtown Fort Worth
1993
Library offers access to research databases on the Internet; users with modems can access databases and library catalog 24/7; Bob Seal becomes Library Dean (tenth librarian)
1997
Annual Library Staff Excellence Award funded by the Friends of the TCU Library
1997
Library begins computer support for local Cultural District Library Consortium (CDLC) museum libraries
1999
Library acquires the Amon G. Carter, Jr. Collection
2000
Bistro Burnett dedicated by Chancellor Michael R. Ferrari; Jack B. Friedman Judaic Collection
2001
Library implements Information Commons
2002
Luxembourg ambassador presents gift of Bertrand Ney’s Between Two Rings sculpture; Marvin and Jan Gearhart Reading Room dedication; W.B. “Judge” Hamilton Audio Visual Center
2005
Frog Pods with Student Government Association (SGA) funding added to the Information Commons; Library accepts electronic dissertations and theses from TCU graduate students
2006
Dr. June Koelker becomes Library Dean (eleventh librarian)
2008
Library begins 24-hour service, 5 days a week; Library makes streaming videos available
2009
First compact shelving installed
2013
Library Annex opens as a permanent off-campus, high-density storage site
2015
Dedication of the newly renovated Mary Couts Burnett Library; Sumner Academic Heritage Room

Information from Walking TCU: A Historic Perspective by Joan Hewatt Swaim. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1992; Prologue: The TCU Library to 1983 by Betsy Feagan Colquitt. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1983; and the TCU Library Dedication booklet, 2015.

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