Music has been a part of Francis Stroup's life for almost a century.
Francis Stroup, today in DeKalb (Photo by David Barrow)
The 99-year-old composer of UNT's fight song — who figures he's written about 100 tunes so far — remembers singing for his father in Little Elm when he was 3. It was 1912, the year his father died of tuberculosis.
"He came from a large family 'notorious' for their music," Stroup ('29) says. "During Sunday singing competitions, they were a dreaded opponent."
At age 8, Stroup took piano lessons but got only as far as the bass clef.
"I dropped out and tried again several times," he says, "but it wasn't until I was a senior in high school that I started playing by ear and looked for songs with easy chord progressions. By the time I was a senior in college, I could take my turn on the piano while we waited for the dinner bell to ring."
Sports and amusements
Stroup sang with the glee club as a college freshman in 1925, but he was more interested in sports. He lettered in basketball, played some football and ran track. He also excelled in swimming and worked as a lifeguard at the pool.
He says he began writing songs when he moved to the tiny Texas town of Golden for his first teaching job after college.
"You've heard the story of the town so small they have to roll the sidewalks in at night? This town didn't have any walks," he jokes. "The lady I stayed with had a piano. Since I couldn't read music and there was no radio, I had to make up my own songs to amuse myself."
Stroup moved on to teaching jobs in the Denton area, and he worked on campus for several summers as a swim coach beginning in 1939. That was the year he entered 'Fessor Floyd Graham's contest for a marching song, adding lyrics to a melody he'd composed a few years earlier.
"By accident I happened to be in the audience when 'Fessor Graham announced the contest," Stroup says.
The song, "Fight, North Texas," was destined to become his most-often-performed composition.
Stroup doesn't recall the first song he ever wrote but says his "first fairly good song," in the '30s, was "Dreaming" — "You've made me a dreamer, now make my dreams come true."
"I didn't write it about anyone in particular," he says. "You don't write what you feel or believe. You write from a crafting standpoint. Songwriting is a craft."
His favorite song, however, is about someone special. He wrote "Autumn Days" to describe retired life with his wife, Marjory, who has since passed away:
When autumn days remind us that the summer time is gone and the shadows show the sun is on the wane,
It seems so easy to forget that life continues on as we revel in our strolls down mem'ry lane.
But then I stop to reason that living knows no season and realize our numbered days are few.
That's why I don't recall if summer skies were gray or blue but live each lovely autumn day with you.
Stroup says after the song was published in "Dear Abby" in 2002 — with the columnist referring to him as not only a lyricist, but also a poet and philosopher — he received phone calls and letters from seven states.
"One lady told me she kept the clipping on her refrigerator and her husband sang it to her every day. Another said it turned her life around. She was going to start living for the future instead of the past," he says.
More people were affected by Stroup's music this year, when a lyric he wrote for the Northern Illinois University fight song in the '60s — "forward, together forward" — became an unofficial motto after a campus shooting there in February.
"You never know how your words might help someone," he says.
Stroup, who's written about everything from "flirtin' and hurtin'" to barbed wire, says although music has been a good hobby for developing his ideas, he never considered making it a career — "not if you had to read the bass clef."
"But it's always nice when someone tells me I had some effect on their life," he says. "I've had a lot of experience. There aren't too many people to talk to about it."
Stroup left Denton in the '40s for the Army after the deaths of his mother, Mina Gist Stroup ('31), and brother, Malcolm, who also attended North Texas. He holds master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Southern California and taught at the University of Wyoming, Southern Arkansas and NIU, where he retired as a professor of physical education.
At home in DeKalb, Ill., he now keeps busy with e-mail, music and community events. He made it back to Denton in 1979 for his 50th class reunion and again in 1987 for his induction into the Athletic Hall of Fame.
He says he'd like to return next year, since '09 will mark his 100th birthday, his 80th class reunion and the 70th anniversary of the adoption of "Fight, North Texas."
"I'm a niner," he says — and it has the sound of another lyric in the making.