How to Impress a Mule

MuleWhat good is a college education? When asked this question, recent University graduates have a variety of answers, though the most popular by far is, of course, “to be employed.” But in 1902, one UT graduate discovered a unexpected asset to his college degree. He used it to impress a mule.

Joseph Russell Johnson was a stocky, dark-haired civil engineering student who arrived in Austin from a farm near Clarksville, Texas, in Red River County.

A freshman in 1898, the campus bore little resemblance to the familiar sights of today. Enrollment was under 600 students, and all of them had classes in the old Main Building. Victorian Gothic in style, made of gold buff brick and cream limestone trim, “Old Main” sat on top of College Hill, near the center of the University’s original Forty Acres. Its spires and pointed windows softened only by the deep green ivy that hugged its walls.

Joseph Johnson.1902 Cactus YearbookAs an engineering student, Johnson (photo at left) had classes from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with an hour break for lunch. Monday afternoons were reserved for “field practice,” where he learned to take topographic surveys of the hills around Austin and hydrographic surveys of the Colorado River. Mechanical drawing was held in an attic room of Old Main, where several broken windows permitted “a keen wind to make its presence known,” especially during the winter. Drawing desks were plentiful, but stools were “a scarcity.” All of the engineering courses were taught by Professor Thomas Taylor, then the only member of the engineering faculty. Johnson’s curriculum was rounded out with courses in English, German, Greek, physics, math, and geology.

Johnson wasn’t all that interested in extracurricular activities. He didn’t belong to a fraternity or play on a sports team, didn’t join the “Gory Goo-Roos” or “Ancient and Honorable Rusty Cusses,” and he apparently wasn’t eligible to join the “Bowlegged Club.” Instead, he was elected president of the newly-formed Engineers Club in his junior year, and helped to write one of the group’s yells:

Rah, rah, rah!

Beer, beer, beers!

Texas, Texas, Engineers!

Engineers Club.1902 Cactus.

Above: The Engineering Club poses for a yearbook photo.

As a senior, Johnson was asked to represent the engineering students when the constitution for the first Students’ Assembly (today’s Student Government) was written in 1902. He also distinguished himself academically. Johnson was first in his engineering graduating class – out of three graduates.

After commencement ceremonies in June 1902, Johnson returned home to the family farm just south of the Red River, where his proud parents were eager to see their college educated son at work, though perhaps not exactly as he had imagined. The morning after his arrival, Johnson was asked to plow the corn. It was a chore he’d performed many times, and though it was far removed from hydraulics, mechanical drawing, and the theory of bridges, Johnson was anxious to make use of his studies.

Just after sunrise, Johnson attached a double shovel plow to an old gray mule named Rebecca, and was ready to begin the day’s work. To start the mule, Johnson usually yelled, “Giddap, Beck!” but thought this to be too harsh. Instead, he remembered his experiences in freshman English, and in more gentler tones urged, “Rebecca, proceed.” The mule, unaccustomed to being handled by a university scholar, didn’t understand this new technical vocabulary, and only stood and stared. Johnson had to repeat his request several times, and with the help of a dirt clod or two, made himself understood.

On Rebecca went, though so disoriented by the human behind the plow, her step was not as sure as usual. She occasionally strayed out of the row, and began to tread on the tender corn sprouts. Johnson could correct the mule with a loud “Haw, Beck!” but instead uttered a more temperate “Rebecca, diverge.” Since the command was accompanied by a firm tug on her rein, Rebecca was a fast learner, and was soon “diverging” with the best of them.

Only one problem remained. At the end of the row, about a half-mile long, the mule had to reverse direction and begin on the next row. When the time came, Rebecca didn’t hear “Gee, Beck!” as she had in years past, but “Rebecca, revolve.”

After a few rows, Rebecca was comfortable with the new routine, though when she was returned to the stable that evening, she reportedly gave Johnson a most peculiar gaze. He never was sure whether it was a look of approval or pity. Johnson did become an engineer in north Texas, but never forgot his first experience as a college graduate.

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