Allan Saxe returned home from a night class several weeks ago and received no fewer than three phone calls from the campus police department.
Students had phoned officers in alarm after observing the associate professor of political science at UTA, who turned 80 on Monday, shuffling ever so slowly across an expansive parking lot to his car. The police department checked, double-checked, and triple-checked to make sure the professor was OK.
He was, and he wasn’t, and that’s why Saxe is closing the book on his 54-year teaching career. He will teach two summer classes if they make –– American Contemporary Civil Liberties and Texas State and Local Government –– but after that, he’s “out of here,” he said.
The mobility issues from when polio struck Saxe as a child have come back with a vengeance, cursing him in his old age just as the disease damned his youth. And for reasons he can’t explain, he now suffers from panic attacks and occasional bouts of head-spinning, stomach-churning vertigo. He usually manages to hide the panic attacks with the help of a Coke, but he once had a severe episode of vertigo while addressing a gathering of several hundred UTA retirees. It resulted in police, the fire department, and an ambulance being summoned. Saxe refused to be taken to a hospital, but the EMTs gave him an EKG there in the classroom.
“I said, ‘I’m OK, just get me a Coke,’ ” Saxe told me. “Two people held my hand, and then I threw up. There’s nothing like throwing up in front of 300 people, but that’s what I did, and the minute I did, I felt better.”
That feeling of well-being was short-lived, though.
“That was the beginning of a downhill spiral,” Saxe said. “After that, I fell a couple of times. I’m frail. You get frail when you get older.”
One of those falls occurred on a concrete landing in a stairwell at University Hall at 10 p.m., he said. He was alone but fortunately was able to pick himself up. The recent incident involving the campus police, though, only proves what has become increasingly clear for Saxe: It’s time to go home.
“They didn’t know what was happening to me,” Saxe said of the students who made calls on his behalf. “Sometimes when I think of what people have done for me, I just want to cry.”
Saxe is something of a local legend, and not just because he has been a fixture in UTA’s classrooms for more than half a century and a go-to expert for journalists covering politics. He is known for giving away his money. Like, half his annual salary. And his retirement savings, which he drained in bits and pieces. And hundreds of thousands he inherited from his mother. Saxe isn’t sure how much he gave away over the decades but said the total is “in the millions,” especially considering that he gifted pricey artworks to both UTA and TCU. He has no more to give and will rely mostly on Social Security in retirement.
Saxe admitted that the main motivation behind his generosity was a craving for recognition. That insatiable desire wasn’t based on ego, he insisted, but rather a deep-seated inferiority complex –– another of polio’s gifts.
“I want little things named after me because I’m so insecure,” he said. “I really mean that. Doing these things helps me a little bit because I feel I haven’t done anything. I believe life is very fleeting, short, and brutal, and I want to do some things before life is all gone.”
No children or grandchildren bear Saxe’s name, but he will leave behind plenty of non-mortal namesakes. A park on Russell Curry Road in Arlington is named after him, and the UTA Mavericks softball team plays at Allan Saxe Field. Mission Arlington has the Allan Saxe Dental Clinic, and TCU has the Allan Saxe Garden. UNT has Allan Saxe Drive, and Allan Saxe Parkway in Arlington leads to a city landfill. Saxe really milked the humor in that one. The dedication ceremony included dead flowers and the eccentric associate professor cutting the ribbon by driving a garbage truck through it.
Saxe is about to pay off an Allan Saxe waterfall at the Fort Worth campus of TCC, and he has made a stream of financial gifts to libraries, hospitals, and animal organizations. Grants, student loan programs, and charities bear his name, including the Allan Saxe Disabled Student Scholarship for physically challenged students who excel academically. The political scientist even donated money for Allan Saxe pencil sharpeners at UTA’s University Hall and has given away vans and trucks to various groups.
Saxe is so well-known and well-regarded throughout Arlington that for a time years ago the Whole Foods supermarket there sold a cookie named after him –– a fat-free ginger confection that he favored. J. Gilligan’s Bar & Grill on East Abram Street has long featured the Allan Saxe Veggie Burger on its menu, an homage to the bistro’s beloved vegetarian customer.
News of Saxe’s impending retirement has spread, even making its way onto the Rate My Professors website. The word “legend” was used by more than one student who posted there, but not every review was positive. One student from the fall semester acknowledged Saxe’s fabled reputation but griped that he spent too much class time on a soapbox. Another student, though, praised Saxe as an “amazing professor” and gave others a heads-up that they had only one semester left to take one of his classes.
Online ratings of Saxe’s classroom skills include a lot of “awesome”s and a few “awful”s, but that pretty much sums up Saxe –– and smiling emojis far outnumber the frowning ones. Saxe said he has been disliked over the years by some students to whom he showed no sympathy when they claimed that lack of childcare or some other obstacle was the cause of their classroom absences and by professors who didn’t like his style of humor.
“I’m a comedian,” Saxe said. “It’s who I am. I’m a cross between George Carlin and Jerry Lewis.”
George Carlin and Jerry Lewis were from another era, and now, so is Saxe. He cringes almost as if in pain at today’s mandatory sensitivity trainings and political correctness and women’s marches. His disdain for those things may be why some online reviewers accused him of being anti-feminist.
“You can’t [even] look at a woman,” Saxe griped to me. “I went to [sensitivity training] where they were discussing hugging. If a woman doesn’t want to be hugged, she can get away from me. They don’t need these marches.”
Back in the day, Saxe’s sarcastic, politically incorrect humor had students “on the floor,” he said, even though it sometimes angered professors who heard about the jokes he made at their expense. He never named them, he said, but students knew who he was referring to –– word always got back to the academics.
“But you’d teach them something, too,” he told me. “You were making points. You could teach things through comedy. I’ve been a different voice on campus, and a lot of professors can’t take that. For the most part, they’ve tolerated me.”
Love him or not, Saxe has left his mark. It seems he can’t go anywhere without being recognized by a former student. A few weeks ago, a nurse blurted, “I know you!” when he arrived at a clinic for cataract surgery, he said.
Some of Saxe’s students have gone on to hold elected office as state legislators, mayors, city councilmembers, or county commissioners. Former students include Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price and State Sen. Royce West, a Dallas County Democrat.
Devan Allen, the new Tarrant County commissioner for Precinct 2, said that her former professor showed up at her New Year’s Day swearing-in ceremony.
“He came in and took a seat, and after the program concluded, he came up for a picture and said, ‘I wouldn’t have missed this,’ ” she said. “It was very sweet.”
Penny Wilrich, who became the first African-American woman trial judge in Arizona and currently serves as dean and law professor at Arizona Summit Law School, said that Saxe was her “all-time favorite professor” when she was at UTA and that she tried to enroll in every class he taught. Wilrich attended the university from 1971 to 1977, earning degrees in political science and history. In 1976, she became the first black woman to be elected student body president at the university.
“Dr. Saxe was very instrumental in my career development and my pursuit of the law because he believed in me before I even believed in myself,” Wilrich said. “He has made a tremendous contribution to the lives of so many UTA students and graduates.”
When Saxe closes the door of Office 411 in University Hall for the final time in a few months, he will also shut the door on a period of UTA’s history. Ever the realist, Saxe figures he’ll quickly be forgotten, going the way of Humphrey Bogart and others who were household names in bygone eras. He has mentioned some of those celebrities in class only to be met with blank stares from students.
“That old statement ‘Out of sight, out of mind,’ ” he said, “is really true.”
Customers queued up to the order counter at The Tin Cup cafe on West Abram Street not far from the UTA campus on a Friday afternoon in late January as I waited for Saxe to arrive. Sitting at a table, I reflected on the first time I had ever heard of him. It was sometime during the 1980s at the Dallas Morning News, where I was working at the time. I remember hearing one reporter advising another that a UTA political-science guy named Saxe could be contacted to provide expert commentary on deadline during the newspaper’s upcoming election night coverage.
It is a completely meaningless memory, yet for some reason it has remained with me over the years. That’s what I was thinking about when Saxe appeared in the doorway, his eyes searching for me in the lunch crowd. It quickly became clear that he hadn’t been lying when he told me on the phone that he is now feeble and shuffles very slowly.
I offered to order, but he insisted on walking with me (slowly, very slowly) to the counter. He also at first insisted on paying (“I’m a high roller!”), but I slipped the cashier a 20 while Saxe was distracted by three young employees who appeared happy to see him. They remembered his favorite menu item (the Wyatt Veggie panini, named for Wyatt Earp) and laughed when Saxe relayed how clueless he was when someone tried to help him with a printer problem and asked if his office computer had cookies. The only cookies he understands, he said, are the ones that his sweet tooth drives him to eat too many of.
Before we could make it to our table in a quieter back room, Saxe was recognized again, this time by a table of diners.
After Saxe successfully made it across the diner (slowly, very slowly) and propped his cane against an extra chair at our table, he detailed how the polio first presented itself more than 70 years ago.
“I remember vividly when it hit,” he said. “I was waiting for a bus in Oklahoma City, the regular city bus, and all of a sudden I felt like somebody had come up behind me and hit me on the head with a block. I had a horrible headache. I struggled home. They diagnosed it as polio.”
Saxe said it was later that the disease impacted his legs.
“I spent a lot of time in hospitals, and I am a nervous wreck to this day,” he said. “I was a very introverted child and very lonely. I was also an observer of human life, not a participant. I remember little kids would come to my door in Oklahoma City and say, ‘Can Allan come out and play?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t want to come play.’ My mother wanted me to be popular, but I just wanted to read comic books or watch my tropical fish.”
After the diagnosis, the family moved to Stroud, where other relatives lived, a small town between Oklahoma City and Tulsa. As a child forced to wear cumbersome leg braces, Saxe felt the sting of isolation.
“I was always an outcast –– always,” he said. “At school, I sat in a corner. They didn’t include me for a lot of reasons. I was very little and very awkward. And still am.”
Saxe said he used to be 5’5” but is now 5’3”.
“It was almost as if I came from Mars,” Saxe continued, recalling his boyhood and those feelings of not fitting in. “I sometimes say, ‘I’m just visiting here.’ A student gave me a pin one time that said, ‘I’m only visiting.’ I loved that.”
Saxe’s father Eugene managed a hardware store for a time. He also spent years working in the Oklahoma oilfields. He was a smoker and died of a heart attack in his early 50s. Saxe’s mother Dora also worked in a hardware store, as a cashier, but Saxe doesn’t know if that’s how she met his father. Dora also occasionally cleaned houses. Saxe said his mother had friends who had children who were stockbrokers. Through the years she bought stocks in AT&T and other corporations. When she died in 1992 at the age of 84, Saxe found a stack of “brokerage papers” among her things. The value of the stocks totaled about $500,000.
“She’d accumulated all that stuff, and little Allan got it and promptly gave it away,” he said.
A thirst for recognition wasn’t Saxe’s only motive for giving away money. He said he gave this explanation when he was presented a philanthropy award in Fort Worth some years ago and was asked the reason for his generosity: “I said, ‘Well, I can’t do anything, so I give money away to people who can.”
He explained to me that he meant he couldn’t do things such as cure cancer or build a grand building.
“I can barely put gas in my car,” he said. “And now that I’m disabled, I really can’t do anything.”
Saxe arrived in Arlington in the summer of 1965, shortly after earning a master’s degree in political science from the University of Oklahoma. He was at the campus library one day when someone asked if he might be interested in teaching a summer government course at Arlington State College. That’s what UTA was called back then. The college was desperately seeking someone to fill in for another professor, just for the summer semester.
Young and single, Saxe accepted the gig, renting a modest apartment on Cooper Street for $99 a month –– furnished, all utilities paid. He was so eager to do well that he showed up at 6 a.m. only to find the doors to the building locked.
At the end of the semester, the department chair called Saxe to his office.
“His secretary was sitting there, and she looked at me and said, ‘He’s going to make you a good offer!’ ” Saxe recalled.
He said the department chair told him that reviews of his teaching had been good and that if he’d like to stay, “ ‘We’d love to have you.’ ”
Saxe stayed and took root, even though he had offers over the years from other institutions.
“I was too lazy to pick up and go,” he said. “Once I get stuck, I’m there. I’m very glad I chose this one, as I look back on it.”
He went on to earn his Ph.D. from OU while teaching in Arlington, writing his dissertation about the desegregation of Oklahoma. The civil rights era became “implanted” in his brain, Saxe said. He became vocal in demanding that rebel flags be removed from UTA’s Student Center, angering some old timers on campus and infuriating one particular history professor. After that, Saxe started noticing that more and more black students were enrolling in his courses.
“At that time, I was a radical liberal,” Saxe said. “Now I’m very conservative and very much of a libertarian but with a little bit of liberalism in the back of my brain, but my basic philosophy right now is ‘Leave me alone.’ ”
“I got married a few months ago.”
I had just taken a bite of chicken salad when Saxe made that comment, and I wondered at first if it was a joke. I knew that he and Ruthie Brock had been together for many years but had assumed, apparently incorrectly, that they had married long ago. I guess they figured they’d better test the living arrangement for a half-century or so to be sure the relationship would last.
I was not surprised that Saxe couldn’t remember the date of their unceremonious marriage ceremony, which took place at the Tarrant County Sub-Courthouse on Abram Street, across the hall from where people stood in line to renew their car tags. Saxe said he has always viewed marriage as “really strange” because it involves a license, just like hunting or fishing. He saw no need for such silliness, at least not for the first 79 years of his life. He said that one day when he and Ruthie were “sitting around at home, bored,” he suggested that they get married.
Saxe said the two were introduced by a librarian at the UTA Library, where Ruthie still works today. They went to a hamburger joint on their first date.
“She didn’t like me,” Saxe said. “Nobody likes me initially, but I wooed her.”
Not only did Ruthie not pressure him to get married, she never stood in the way when he gave away money, Saxe told me. As he took a bite of his panini with its sun-dried tomatoes and feta cheese, I thought about what an extraordinary woman Ruthie must be. After all, they easily could have had their house paid off by now and could be enjoying retirement, going on cruises and trips to exotic places. Instead, Ruthie doesn’t get home from the library until 7 or 8 p.m. every night, according to Saxe, and they still have a mortgage.
Saxe said that Ruthie walks with him to his office now and makes him carry a cell phone (which he rarely uses) in case he falls and needs help.
Ruthie has a son from a previous marriage, but Saxe said that he never wanted children of his own because he feels that the world, with its diseases and illnesses, is a cruel place.
“I think the best thing I’ve ever done is not bring any life into the world,” he said. “I wouldn’t bring a puppy in the world. Nothing. And some people hate me for it. People judge everything, and it’s primarily because they want their own life vindicated.”
Saxe said that in her youth Ruthie was a cheerleader and even appeared on Iowa’s American Bandstand.
Who would have thought that the scrawny, insecure boy with leg braces would end up with a cheerleader?
“She loves to dance, and I’ve never danced in my life,” Saxe said. “She’s not only patient with me in regard to giving away money. She’s been patient with other things, too. She’d love to go dancing. She loves a fun life. And I’m not fun.”
As the lunch crowd thinned out, I asked Saxe about death. He is, after all, 80 and, by his own admission, sickened by his advanced years and how fast they blew by.
“Are you afraid of death?” I asked.
“Yes, oh, absolutely,” he responded. “I’m like Ol’ Man River. I’m tired of living but scared of dying.”
Saxe said he is afraid of death because he knows it is drawing near and because he fears that there is nothing after this life, that he’ll simply be gone.
“Are you generally a person of faith?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I used to be.”
Saxe said that he and his parents attended a variety of churches when he was a child, everything from Unitarian to Methodist, but he was never the type to simply accept their teachings.
“I questioned everything,” he said. “Everything, I questioned. But I wasn’t very bright, and I’m not very bright. I understand my limitations, but I have something that is a curse and a blessing at the same time but mostly a curse. I feel the world. It’s not just intellectualizing. I feel the absurdity and the cruelty of it, and if I was God, would I invent humans the way they are today? No! If I’m God, I can create anything. I don’t have to invent somebody who’s going to get cancer or heart disease. I would invent man very differently, where you don’t get vertigo, you don’t have panic attacks, you don’t worry about cancer and sickness.”
I asked Saxe if he considers himself an atheist. No, he replied, but he doesn’t know what he is.
“I believe anything is possible, so I don’t forgo anything,” he said.
What about near-death experiences? I asked. People who claim to have had them tend to give similar accounts. Does that give him hope that there is something beyond this life?
“I had that when I fainted two weeks ago,” he said, referring to the bright lights often described by those who return from the brink of eternity. “I saw orange colors and blue colors, but I was fainting. I take blood pressure medication, and I got very hot, and when you get very hot, you can faint if you’re on blood pressure medication. It’s the same thing. When people think they see these things, it’s a chemical deal. They’re having a chemical reaction.”
Saxe insisted that he is not anti-religion and admitted that he still prays now and then “when things are bad” or when he just wants to make it home safely. He lives in Arlington near Mansfield and Kennedale. The drive to and from campus takes him about 45 minutes because he drives “like a little old man, which I am.”
He hopes to volunteer at a variety of places once he retires, but he will probably rely on Uber. Driving, like his mobility, is becoming more of an issue.
I asked how he wants to be remembered.
“As just a nice, kind person,” he replied. “But you don’t know how people are going to regard you. Everybody has multiple sides to them.”
The cynicism kicked in again.
“But we’re all forgotten,” he added.
A waitress came to remove the baskets that had contained our sandwiches. We realized that the restaurant was empty and that its afternoon closing time was approaching. We began wrapping up the interview, going back to the topic of Saxe’s looming retirement. He said he doesn’t want a party. He just wants to slip away very quietly.
“I think a lot of people are glad that I’m retiring, I really do,” he said. “Because I don’t know what cookies are.”