The attempted abduction of the wily Winchester Kelso.
Above: A photo of Winchester Kelso, placed over his class excuse card, which reads: “Mr. Winchester Kelso has been granted leave of absence because of being kidnapped as President of the Freshman Class.” The note was initialed “H.T.P.,” by Dean (and future Plan II honors program founder) Hanson Tufts Parlin.
“Once upon a time, in Egypt, four or five thousand years ago,” joked Professor Harry Benedict, “some careless upper classmen, not knowing what they were starting, kidnapped a Freshman class president and held him out on a Nile sand bar until the grand march at the Freshman dance was over. Little did these careless Egyptians realize what they had done. Their Sophomore successors, being like sheep, were predestined to steal Freshman presidents to the end of time.” Benedict, a future UT president, was a keen observer of campus life and knew it didn’t take much to start a college tradition. “If a Sophomore does anything one year,” Benedict explained, “all other subsequent Sophomores have to do exactly the same thing with pathetic fidelity. There is no escape; “It is the custom,” is the mandatory reason.”
It was a chilly evening on Thursday, February 26, 1915, as Winchester Kelso leisurely finished his dinner at the Cozy Corner, a popular café along the Drag at the southwest corner of 24th and Guadalupe Streets. A first-year University student from San Antonio (his boyhood home still stands, remodeled as a bed and breakfast), Kelso had been elected freshman class president. Sitting at the café and chatting with friends, the discussion no doubt turned to Friday night’s Freshman Ball, the social event of the year for UT greenhorns. As the freshman chief executive, Kelso and his date had the honor of leading the Grand March, a traditional promenade around the dance floor to open the evening.
There were a few on campus, though, who wanted to prevent young Mr. Kelso from fulfilling his Freshman Ball duties. A group of sophomores, always eager to prove their class’ superiority, thought it would be a great sign of supremacy if the freshman class president were forced to miss his Grand March debut, and conspired to remove Kelso from the campus environs until the last dance had ended. Besides, this is what previous sophomore classes had done. It was the custom.
At the Cozy Corner, just as Kelso finished his evening meal, at least a dozen sophomores burst into the café, lifted Kelso from his seat, and took him outside to a waiting automobile. “The freshman showed much resistance at the beginning of the struggle,” reported The Texan student newspaper, “but was soon overpowered by his captors.” The car spirited Kelso to a campsite about five miles north of Austin, where he was to remain, in a tent and under guard, until late Friday night.
As Benedict later described it, Kelso, confined to quarters, “consulted the Book of Customs” and discovered “that while it is the custom for the Freshman president to be captured, it is not the custom for him to remain so.” Because it was nighttime, Kelso decided to create a diversion by tossing small objects out of the back of the tent, which caused enough noise in the woods that worried sophomores thought a rescue party was approaching. A few left the campground to investigate, and with the number of guards reduced, Kelso bolted out of the front of the tent and into the darkness. He managed to elude a search by frantic sophomores, who eventually gave up and went home, and left Kelso stranded in the forest.
“Effecting his escape by means of a bold ruse,” stated the Cactus yearbook, “the Freshman Prexy lost his way and wandered about for some time in the country.” It was only a few days before a full moon, but the added light didn’t help Kelso’s sense of direction. Well after midnight, he stumbled upon the tracks of Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad (popularly known as the K-T, or “Katy”) and discovered he was a dozen miles from Austin. Kelso followed the tracks through the night, and returned to the Capital City about 5 a.m. the next morning.
Wasting no time, Kelso went directly to his boarding house, gathered his suit, some food supplies for the day, and other items he’d need for the ball, told a few trusted freshmen of his plans, and then hurried downtown. Because the University didn’t yet possess any facilities suitable for a class dance, the Knights of Columbus Hall on Ninth Street had been booked for the Freshman Ball.
Ninth Street in downtown Austin. The popular Millet Opera House is center, while the Knights of Columbus Hall is two buildings to the right, on the corner. Image found in the Austin History Center.
Kelso found someone who let him in to the building. He went upstairs to the attic, found a large trunk, and in it hid himself, napping through the day. Twice searching sophomores arrived to check the premises, but left convinced Kelso was elsewhere.
Friday evening, freshmen couples arrived at the dance hall in horse-drawn carriages, only to meet a team of sophomores guarding the entrance. They searched each carriage and questioned the occupants, determined to prevent the class president from attending. As the starting time for the ball neared, the sophomores became more confident that their efforts were successful. But when the music began, the wily Winchester Kelso, none the worse for his adventure and dressed in his best suit, strolled downstairs to meet his date and lead the Grand March.