Dean James E. Foy and the Root of the Rivalry

Lyn Scarbrough

November 24, 2019 at 11:07 pm.


All of the elements were there.

Moist, warm air rising to mix with dryer, colder air at high altitude. Jet stream winds causing the storm system to rotate, generating tornadoes. Gathering force as they advanced through multiple counties that Wednesday afternoon in late April, 2011, the killer storms caused over $2.4 billion damage and more than 70 deaths in those Alabama areas.

Among the hardest hit places was Tuscaloosa.

As with every natural disaster, there were stories of rescue and stories of recovery, tragedies and miracles. And, there were personal stories, quirky stuff, significant things that can teach life lessons.

One of those stories involved the tree roots in Jim Foy’s yard. Actually, they were in the yard of the home where Foy, his wife Emmalu and daughters Mary Lou and Susan had lived decades earlier when he served as assistant dean of students at the University of Alabama.

The home, a small one-story wooden house with three-bedrooms and a detached garage, was on Cedar Crest – 94 Cedar Crest to be precise.

That’s where this story starts … and ends.

Foy, was born in Lexington, N.C. where his parents were visiting in 1916, but his family was from Eufaula, Ala. His affinity for Auburn (known then as Alabama Polytechnic Institute) started early when he was taught the school’s alma mater by its author, Bill Wood, who was a friend of Foy’s older brother, Simpson (better known as Simp or Bubba), who attended API at the time.

While in the ninth grade, his family moved to Tuscaloosa. He graduated from high school there where he was a tennis champion and a member of the football team. He enrolled at the University of Alabama and earned degrees in Sociology and History.

During his undergraduate years at the Capstone, Foy’s leadership traits and achievements blossomed. He earned membership in Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi, Omicron Delta Kappa, Phi Eta Sigma, Jasons and Omicron Delta Kappa, where he served as undergraduate president and later as faculty secretary.

He was a member of Sigma Nu social fraternity – initiated the same night as Paul Bryant – and winner of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award, recognizing the top graduating senior for excellence in character and service. Somehow, Foy also found time to work part-time as silver polisher at a local jewelry store, butcher at the A&P grocery store and distributor for Beechnut Chewing Gum and the Saturday Evening Post – all experiences that would serve him well later in life.

After graduation, Foy became assistant to the Dean of Men at the university, but in early 1942, less than three years after taking the position, he enlisted for military service, enrolling in Naval Aviation Flight Training. He was a fighter pilot in the Solomon Islands campaign in the Pacific, and was awarded the Air Medal for Meritorious Service. After World War II ended, the Foy family came back to Tuscaloosa where he returned to the position he had before the war. They moved to 94 Cedar Crest.

In 1950, Foy and his family moved to Auburn where he accepted the position as assistant Dean of Student Affairs. Two years later, he was named Dean of Student Affairs, a position that he held for the next 26 years until his retirement in 1978. He lived another 32 years in Auburn before his death in October, 2010.

During his six decades in Auburn, he was a community leader in diverse positions. He served as president of the Rotary Club, chairman of the Lee County Community Chest drive, and president of the American College Honor Societies and the Auburn High School PTA. He was named Citizen of the Year by the Boy Scouts of America and received the Distinguished Veteran’s Award from the City of Auburn. He was a 60-year member of Auburn United Methodist Church where he taught Sunday School and sang in the choir.

This impressive list could go on. But probably his greatest influence, his most lasting legacy, was his impact on countless thousands of students during almost 30 years in the Student Affairs Office. When Foy retired, the James E. Foy Student Union Building was named in his honor.

Dean of Student Affairs was much more than a title to Dean Foy. It was a passion, a challenge, a calling. He could be an encourager, a counselor, a friend. He was all of those things, and he could seem almost larger than life, especially to incoming freshmen.

To many, he was a leading voice for Auburn, the face of the university much like head football coach Ralph Jordan and athletic director Jeff Beard. A man that you could trust, who loved the school and cared for the students. He was the epitome of The Auburn Creed and all that it stands for.

There’s no way that Dean Foy could personally know all of the thousands of students, but somehow all students felt like they knew Dean Foy. Even now, former Auburn students from those 28 years who are reading this column can picture him crouching, circling his arm above his head, leading the Waarrrrrr Eagle cheer at a student assembly or football pep rally.

He related well to the students. He understood their challenges, mixing the classroom, the workplace, and the home front. Those undergraduate days as a silver polisher, meat butcher and gum distributor helped him relate and understand.

As an undergraduate at Auburn, I had the privilege to know Dean Foy. I first met him through Phi Eta Sigma, the freshman academic honorary for which he served as advisor. I didn’t know at the time that he also served as the organization’s national executive secretary for 39 years.

By some miracle, as a freshman from Hueytown, I qualified for Phi Eta Sigma membership. I remember when I received an unexpected phone call that went something like this:

“Lyn, this is Jim Foy. I’m calling to let you know that your grades qualified you for induction into Phi Eta Sigma. Congratulations!”

I didn’t have any idea what Phi Eta Sigma was … but I knew who Dean Foy was. He was that man that talked to our freshman orientation assembly and led the group in a looong, loud “War Eagle!” He told us that we could accomplish our goals at Auburn and that his door was always open to students. It was that Dean Foy and that call made a big impression.

Throughout my four student years, Dean Foy’s impression never faded. He was a supporter of students, a friend whose door in fact was open. And, even years after graduation, he could remember names and enjoyed sharing memories with former students.

My experience wasn’t unusual. There are countless former Auburn students that have their own personal memories about Dean Foy and the impact that he had on their lives. There are likely former Alabama students from the 1940s who feel that same way.

Which brings the story back to 94 Cedar Crest near the campus in Tuscaloosa.

On Leap Year Day, 2012, almost a year after the tornado destroyed the area, Susan … now Susan Foy Spratling, married for 40 years to Birmingham attorney Ben Spratling … went with Ben’s cousin John Plunk to the place where her family had lived in Tuscaloosa. Plunk, an Alabama graduate with Auburn family ties, was an ODK member at Alabama and serves on the University President’s Cabinet.

When they arrived, the sight was devastating. There was no evidence that her childhood home had ever been there. All that was left were the roots from a tree where she and her sister had played as children. She remembered climbing that tree as a child.

Susan got out of the vehicle and retrieved the root. Covered with dirt and debris, it stayed in Spratling’s garage at their home in Birmingham. “Too much dried mud to bring it into the house,” Susan said.

Later that year, Susan talked with Jim Carpenter, an Auburn graduate living with his wife, Gail, in Pfafftown, N.C. Jim and Gail were undergraduates on the Plains in the late 1960s, during the time when Jim and Ben were Phi Gamma Delta fraternity brothers. Jim is now a world class wood carver. (Check out his work at  This guy is really, really good.)

The Spratlings and the Carpenters talked at the fraternity’s 50th anniversary celebration. Afterward, Susan explained what had happened in Tuscaloosa … their family history, the tornado destruction and especially the unique significance of those tree roots.

Back in 1948, it had been 41 years since Alabama and Auburn had faced each other on the gridiron. That same year, Foy led the first Alabama delegation to Auburn to establish Better Relations Day, an event still held annually. The Omicron Delta Kappa leadership honorary circles at both universities established a trophy to be given annually to the winner of the football game. For many years, the trophy has been presented by the losing school to the winning school at halftime of the basketball game played on the home court of the winning team.

That tradition still continues today. The football game that will be played on Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium will determine which team will receive the trophy in early 2020.

Fittingly, when Foy retired as Auburn’s Director of Student Affairs in 1978, the trophy was named in his honor – The ODK-James E. Foy V Sportsmanship Trophy. Foy attended and participated in the trophy presentation through the 2009 football season. Since his death, Susan Foy Spratling has represented the Foy family at the presentation.

Susan had a vision regarding the roots from that tree.

“I was struck by those tree roots still being there, their unique significance,” she told me recently. “My father was there way back at the beginning of the new relationship between the schools. He was connected with both schools. You could say that he was at the ‘root of the relationship’ and then to find those roots that had survived the storm. It had to be more than a coincidence that one end of that muddy root resembled the head of an eagle.”

So, she asked Carpenter if he could carve an eagle from those tree roots in honor of her late father. He accepted the assignment and received the roots at the start of the 2013 football season. On Friday, Nov. 15, 2019, the day before Auburn’s football game with Georgia, the craftsman presented the finished piece to Susan and Ben. There was no better place for the presentation than in the Auburn Football Complex, in the room where trophies for Heisman winners and championship teams have been displayed.

And there is no better man to be honored in this way than Dean James E. Foy. A man who loved and appreciated both universities and was well-known and well-respected at both. A man who influenced so many people, young and old, who led by example, through what he said and what he did.

According to Susan, the carving will be made available for viewing alongside the ODK-James E. Foy V Sportsmanship Trophy in years when it resides in Auburn. In other years, it could be displayed at Foy Hall, the Alumni Center or another location where it can be displayed. Interest has also been expressed in having it shown at the University of Alabama.

From 94 Cedar Crest in Tuscaloosa to the Plains of Auburn, the story has come full circle now with the “root” and all that it represents.

A great story about two great universities and about a great man.