Yetta Samford: A Life Invested

Integrity, character, love of family, fairness. These are traits that students at Opelika High School in Alabama learn about through their Character Education Program.

The 2009-10 course guide profiled hometown heroes whose lives exhibit inspiring character and influence.

The man they read about is Yetta G. Samford Jr.

It’s a name familiar to the University of Mobile family. A founding trustee of Mobile College, Samford is a past chairman of the school’s Board of Trustees, named a Life Trustee in 1992, and awarded the Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in 2001.

Samford Hall, the first of three new residence halls constructed during the past eight years, is named in his family’s honor. The Mary Austill and Yetta G. Samford Endowed Scholarship expands the couple’s influence to generations of students who benefit from a UMobile education.

The Character Education Program study guide quotes Samford’s law partner and former Lee County Circuit Judge John Denson Il: “Yetta has devoted a huge amount of time and effort to the benefit of many individuals, his community, his state and country.”

Leading in Tough Times

With more than 50 years of involvement in the life of the University of Mobile, Yetta Samford’s influence is immense. His courtly southern gentleman manner and his quiet leadership helped guide the university and its presidents through smooth waters and a few rough winds.

“We’ve had some tough times,” he recalled recently. He was a member of the Board when Baptist-funded Mobile College was first opening its doors – and the state-funded University of South Alabama opened just a year later. While the competition was initially a setback for the private school, ultimately both institutions thrived.

One of his brightest moments came in 1998 as he served as chairman and the Board tapped Dr. Mark Foley to be the third president of the university.

“The best thing I ever did was to be a part of that committee. We are just so grateful to the Lord for bringing him.” Samford said.

Creating Opportunity

Samford said he welcomed the opportunity to be on the ground floor of starting Mobile College.

“I believe young people should have an opportunity to get an education. If I can help them, I love to be able to do that” he said.

He and his wife, Mary, took a personal interest in creating educational opportunities for students through the creation of the Mary Austill and Yetta G. Samford Endowed Scholarship.

” I feel it’s important for young people to have an opportunity to learn. If we can invest in their lives, it’s very rewarding to me,” Samford said.

Return on Investment

Julisa Theodore ’11 was awarded the Samford scholarship each of the four years she attended UMobile. Now a graduate student at the University of South Alabama working on a master’s degree in sociology with plans to become a sociology professor, she was involved in activities, ministries and service projects throughout her UMobile career. She teaches Zumba exercise classes at Light of the Village, a Christian ministry in the inner city of Mobile where she volunteered as a UMobile student.

None of it would have been possible without the Samfords’ help.

“Having this scholarship meant that my sister didn’t have to find a way to pay for me to go to school. She dropped out of college twice to take care of my little sister and me when our parents died, Mom in 1998 and Dad in 2004. She hasn’t been back to finish yet,” Theodore said.

“Mr. Samford, thank you so much for offering me a scholarship at UMobile. My family and I greatly appreciate your contribution to my education.” she wrote.

Serving with Distinction

From senior class president in high school to Life Trustee at UMobile and past Board chairman and trustee emeritus at the University of Alabama Dedication Ceremony where he graduated from law school, Samford has served with distinction in a variety of areas.

A native of Opelika, AL, where he served as chairman of the Opelika Board of Education, Samford’s dedication to his community was celebrated when the city’s sports complex was named after him “to reflect not only his lifelong dedication to his hometown, but also his status as one of Alabama’s most outstanding leaders,” according to his profile in the Character Education Program.

He served as a B-17 pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, earned a Bachelor of Science in 1947 from Alabama Polytechnic Institute (Auburn University) and graduated from law school at the University of Alabama in 1949. He was admitted to the Alabama Bar and U.S. District Court Middle District of Alabama in 1949, the U.S. Court of Appeals Fifth Circuit in 1961 and U.S. Court of Appeals Eleventh Circuit in 1981. He maintains an office in the law firm of Samford & Denson, LLP, in Opelika.

He served in the Alabama Senate during 1958-1962, representing Lee and Russell counties. He was a board member or director in numerous areas, including the Business Council of Alabama, Alabama State Chamber of Commerce, Alabama Board of Corrections and Alabama State Docks Advisory Board. He was a director of Torchmark Corp., West Point Pepperell Inc., chairman of the Board of Directors of Farmers National Bank of Opelika, and a member of the Alabama Academy of Honor.

Dr. Mike King, executive pastor of First Baptist Church of Opelika where Samford has been a lifelong member and influential leader, said Yetta and Mary are “the model of a godly, Christian couple.”

King said Samford has served more than 60 years as a deacon, with more than 30 years as a church trustee.

“Any time Yetta was in the room, the professionalism and wisdom was just elevated” King said. With Samford in attendance “here at church, at deacon’s meetings or trustee meetings, you just knew you would always get the best.”


When Samford Hall was dedicated April 25, 2005, UMobile President Dr. Mark Foley expressed appreciation to Yetta and Mary for the couple’s many years of dedication and support to the university.

Several Mobile-area students told the Samfords how the new residence hall impacted their decision to live on campus.

The school’s Voices of Mobile ensemble performed as students stood by with 101 pots of ivy to be planted in the courtyard, representing the 101 beds in the residence hall.

As the ceremony progressed, so did construction work on another residence hall a few hundred yards away – Karlene Farmer Faulkner Hall. Since then, another apartment-style complex has been opened for upperclassmen, The Timbers.

Samford said he is happy to be part of the school’s success.

“It’s done mighty well,” he said.

Living History: Dr. Lonnie Burnett ’79

It’s 8 a.m. on Tuesday and Dr. Lonnie Burnett is full of energy, in constant motion at the head of the classroom in Martin Hall. That’s a marked contrast to the sleepy-eyed freshmen and sophomores straggling in and plopping backpacks on the floor beside desks in History 201: U.S. History up to 1876.

“I’m a notorious morning person, and these kids at 8 a.m. are zombies,” the history professor joked later in his office down the hall.

This day, he moves from one side of the room to the other, words rapidly tumbling one after another in an excited rush to relay a story of people risking their lives for freedom. The Battle of Bunker Hill, the Olive Branch Petition, the Declaration of Independence … these are topics that students have heard before.

But never quite like this.

This is history with passion. It’s the story of painters depicting battlefield scenes so as to win the propaganda war at home and abroad. It is a group of successful men making a strategic decision to write a letter addressed to “The King’s Most Excellent Majesty” with the full expectation that King George III would ignore it and a revolution would begin.

The more Burnett reveals, the more these names become men who put their families and livelihoods at risk for harm once a signature was affixed to a page. They were people whose neighbors may see them as traitors, who didn’t have the luxury of knowing their uncertain future one day would be studied in a free nation by a group of students in Martin Hall.

The atmosphere in the classroom changes. Hands are raised, questions asked, discussion begins. History – that lifeless list of dates and names- is beginning to take shape into something more.

From the front of the room, Burnett sees history come to life in the minds of his students.

“I want them to see a connection somewhere, that the past matters and affects us still,” he reflected later. “That’s what history does – it gives us guidance for the future.”

History, he said, matters.

A Personal History

Lonnie Burnett has lived his entire life less than 15 minutes from the

University of Mobile campus. As a child, he rode his bicycle on trails in the woods, camped beneath the trees, and watched over the years as construction crews raised building after building. He taught his daughter how to drive a car in the same parking lot on campus where his father taught him.

His love of history was born in the stories his father, Robert K. Burnett, told him of World War II – earning a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, parachuting behind enemy lines in France on D-Day, and fighting in the Battle of the Bulge.

Burnett saw what he could do with that curiosity about the past through the example of high school history teacher Calvin Crist who became a role model as a teacher passionate about his subject and caring for his students.

A self-described “natural ham,” Burnett set his sights on standin in front of a history class and bringing history to life through his gift of speaking and engaging audiences. But a “C” in Dr. Hazel Petersen’s introductory education class at Mobile College caused him to question his calling.

As Dr. Petersen-Walter now remembers it, there was no question in her mind that Burnett was a born educator.

“If I saw real potential in a student, I called them in for conferences. Lonnie and I had a nice discussion. He said he didn’t know if he could do it or not. I assured him that he could, because I knew he had the potential. He set realistic goals. He worked hard. From an average student as a sophomore, he graduated receiving the divisional award in education.

“I am just so proud of what he has become,’ said Petersen-Walter, retired dean who served in a variety of academic capacities during her years at UMobile.

Burnett graduated from Mobile College with a Bachelor of Arts in 1979. His wife of 32 years, Lynne, graduated from UMobile in 1996, and daughter Lauren Burnett Wetzel graduated from UMobile in 2009.

He taught regular and honors U.S. history at the high school and middle school levels in the Mobile County Public School System from 1980 to 2004, serving as chairman of the history departments at Semmes Middle and Satsuma High schools. After earning a Master of Arts from the University of South Alabama, he taught several years as an adjunct history instructor at UMobile, retired from the public school system at the age of 46, and focused on his second career as a college professor and author.

He served as visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi in 2002, where he earned a Ph.D. Burnett came to UMobile in 2005, eventually becoming chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences and a full professor.

In 2012 he gained tenure and a new assignment – assistant vice president of Academic Affairs for planning and evaluation. While continuing to teach one history class, Burnett is charged with leading the university’s Quality Enhancement Program (QEP), a critical part of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools reaccreditation process.

His energy and intelligence, obsessive attention to detail and planning, quick wit and genuine interest in everyone he meets made him an obvious choice to head up the SACS requirement to develop a university-wide plan for improvement in an academic area that involves the entire campus.

The university has chosen to focus on improving students’ writing skills through the development of Writing Intensive Networks, or WIN. Burnett said the need to improve writing skills and critical thinking is a nationwide need in this college-age generation whose primary means of written communication is text messaging.

The WIN project is being developed now and will ultimately expand and redefine how the university teaches writing intensive courses.

Burnett is excited about the challenge of engaging students, faculty, staff, trustees, donors and university friends in the project. He’s also realistic about the stresses that come with developing such a plan, measuring its effectiveness, and implementing it across all disciplines.

Perhaps the real reason he was given this assignment, he said with a laugh, is “I think they thought I could organize this and the faculty wouldn’t kill me.”

A Passion for People

Dr. Billy Hinson, retired chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, said Burnett “gets along with everybody” and in 2006 was voted “Favorite Professor” by the student body.

Kristen Morris ’07 is part of history in the making in Washington, D.C., as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives staff. Burnett taught her at Satsuma High School as he was winding up his first career as a high school history teacher, then again in his second career as a professor at the University of Mobile.

“Dr. Burnett often says, ‘I don’t just teach history; I teach life.’ That could not be more true,” Morris said. “Dr. Burnett encouraged me to pursue my dreams of working on Capitol Hill and showed me through example that one’s chosen profession can become a source of happiness.”

Matthew Mitchell ’10 took six or seven classes under Burnett, who also served as an advisor for the social sciences major.

“I loved having him as a teacher” Mitchell said. “He was passionate about the subject matter and he brought a certain level of enthusiasm to every class, even those 8 a.m. classes when we students didn’t exactly match it.”

As a freshman, Mitchell said he thought Burnett’s 5:30 a.m. office hours were “ridiculous.”

“By my senior year, I was working full time and taking classes when ! could, so I cherished the fact that my advisor was one of the few awake o” campus at that time of day. He was always welcoming, eager to help me figure out what classes I needed to take and what forms to fill out so! could claim my diploma. He’d ask me how work was going and life in general.

“I guess during those meetings I saw Dr. Burnett more like a friend than simply an ‘advisor,”” said Mitchell, married to Lisa Mitchell and now a social service caseworker with the Alabama Department of Human Resources in Hayden, AL.

Junior English major Will Drake said Burnett is extremely knowledgeable about the classes he teaches, “but he also allows his students plenty of space to resolve answers to their own questions. He revels in the opportunity to learn alongside his students and to see them relive history with him. He is light-hearted and humorous while he teaches, and he includes the funniest stories to help us remember the content.”

Colleague Dr. Tulie Biskner, assistant professor of political science, said Burnett has a way of storytelling that harkens to the tradition of the classic Southern storyteller.

“Anything is interesting because of the way he tells about it,” she said. “Students love taking his class, specifically because he tries to find the elements of history that appeal to people, to make them see it’s not dry words on a page. He sees the funny side of life, and he shows that to them.”

Leadership in Action

Burnett has compiled an impressive scholarly research record. He has published two books with the University of Alabama Press, “Henry Hotze: Confederate Propagandist,” and “The Pen Makes a Good Sword: John Forsyth of the Mobile Register.”

He has written numerous articles, book chapters and reviews, and received the university’s Mitford Ray Megginson Research Award in 2006. He served as Faculty Council president for three years, has chaired several university committees, organized events such as Patriot’s Day, and for the past five years served as head graduation marshall. In department meetings, Burnett’s ideas were usually the ones embraced, such as establishing the annual Billy G. Hinson Lecture Series that brings nationally respected speakers to campus to present lectures on southern historical topics.

He believes community service is a vital outreach of the university. He serves on the Saraland Board of Education, is a member of the Board of Directors for the Alabama Historical Association, and is on the Board of Directors for the Alabama Men’s Hall of Fame.

A member of First Baptist North Mobile, Burnett has taught adult Sunday School classes since he was a student at the university.

‘I Love This School’

With his personal history so intimately entwined in the history of the college, it’s no wonder Burnett loves the school. 

He has his own humorous stories to tell of the university’s history – such as the time the topic in chapel was stewardship.

“Somebody got the bright idea to teach us heathens about stewardship. They passed the collection plate. The religion students were usually on the first few rows, and they were more righteous than those of us on the back. By the time it came to the back row, people were taking money out of the collection plate. That lesson lasted about two weeks,” he said.

His work is fun, he says, and so is history.

“If you can’t make history fun, you can’t make anything fun,” he said. “History is not just an old, old book. It’s your life – your family.

“I’ve never left this place,” he added. “It’s kind of a family thing.”

About the Author

Kathy Dean

Kathy Dean uses her passion for storytelling and "playing with words" to share the stories of people, place and purpose that make the University of Mobile unique. As associate vice president for university communications, she manages media relations, edits the TorchLight alumni magazine, and oversees university communications. A former award-winning journalist, she is a two-time recipient of the Baptist Communicators Association grand prize for feature writing. Kathy and her husband, Chuck, live with three extremely loud miniature schnauzers.