Final exams have just ended for the fall semester, and most of UT’s 52,000 students have fled the campus for an almost month-long break with family and friends. The few that remain, mostly international students who can’t afford the airfare home, will likely be invited by their American counterparts to spend the holidays with surrogate families.
Of course, this wasn’t always the norm. For most of UT’s first decade, only Christmas Day was allowed as a pause in the academic routine. But after repeated petitions from students (and a few professors), the Faculty Council al last relented, and in 1891 extended the break to a week. Most of the students used the time to return home, but there were still a few, all of them residents of B. Hall – the men’s dorm – who either lived too far away to make a round-trip train ride practical, or simply didn’t have the funds for a ticket.
To the rescue came James Benjamin Clark (photo above). A lawyer from North Texas who was appointed to the inaugural Board of Regents, Clark saw promise in the new University, and in 1885 decided upon a radical career change. He resigned as regent, closed the law office, moved his family to Austin, and took on the undefined role as “University Proctor.” For an annual salary of $2,000, Clark was, all at once, the registrar, bursar, librarian, academic counselor, secretary to the faculty and regents, groundskeeper, and morale officer and favorite uncle. A friend to everyone, Clark looked after the University as if it were his own kin. More than once he had to personally retrieve rowdy students from the city jail, and it was a part of his daily routine to visit those who were ill and had missed class. By popular demand, the University’s first football gridiron was named for him. A Clark Field is still on the campus, behind the San Jacinto Residence Hall.
The entrance to Clark Field, UT’s first football stadium, near the southeast corner of 24th and Speedway Streets.
Once he learned of the “leftovers,” as Clark dubbed the stranded students, he invited the group to his home for a Christmas banquet. “There was turkey at one end of the table and ham at the other,” recounted Clark’s daughter, Edith. “We had individual stuffed squabs, cranberries, plum pudding, and everything that goes with Christmas dinner.”
As the University’s enrollment grew, so did the number of stranded students, and within a few years, Clark’s Christmas Dinners had to be moved to the basement restaurant in B. Hall. (photo at right) By 1900, more than 50 attended, and the event would last for hours. Guests traditionally arrived at B. Hall by 2:30 in the afternoon, where a feast awaited them. After dinner, the room was filled with cigar smoke and toasts, and each guest was expected to make a speech on a topic of his choice. Usually, the talks were intended more for entertainment than substance. The group sang college songs and gave class yells before departing. While the University president sometimes attended and offered to share the cost, Clark was adamant on providing for the dinner himself.
After Clark’s death in 1908, members of the faculty, among them Harry Benedict and Thomas Taylor, pooled their resources to continue the tradition. It wasn’t until the mid-1930s, when the holiday break stretched into several weeks and attendance grew sparse, did the annual Christmas dinner finally come to an end.