How to Impersonate the UT President

UT Campus.1905 - Copy

Above: The University of Texas campus in the 1900s. The Victorian-Gothic old Main Building stood where the present Main Building and Tower are today. B. Hall, the men’s dorm, is seen on the far right. Click on an image for a larger view.

It’s that time of year! Over the next few days, the latest herd of greenhorns – the freshman class of 2019 – will stampede their way on to the Forty Acres. To help new students with the transition to college life, the University will sponsor the Longhorn Welcome. It’s two weeks of campus-wide events, from moving in to the residence halls to a grand convocation the night before classes begin, intended to help every newcomer feel at home.

Unfortunately, such a friendly hand was not always extended to the freshmen. A little over a century ago, The Daily Texan newspaper printed a stern list of freshmen rules by the upperclassmen, which was followed soon after by a law student who posed as the University president.

In  September 1908, when the University was beginning its 25th academic year, Tom Ball, 28, an older-than-average senior law student, moved back in to his old room in Brackenridge Hall, better known as “B.Hall,” the first men’s dorm. It was a gift from San Antonio Regent George Brackenridge, intended to be a no frills residence for the “poor boys” of the state who could otherwise not afford to come to Austin and attend the University.

Tom Ball.Sidney Mezes

Above: Senior law student Tom Ball (left) and UT president Sidney Mezes.

Also on campus was a new UT president. Dr. Sidney Mezes had been on the faculty since 1894, first as a philosophy professor, then as a dean, and finally appointed president by the Board of Regents. A tall, thin, often serious gentleman, Mezes sported a full Van Dyke beard and spectacles.

By coincidence,Tom Ball had grown a Van Dyke beard over the summer, and if he donned a pair of glasses, he looked so much like the University president, even Dr. Mezes took notice. So did some mischievous B. Hallers, who convinced Ball into helping them properly “welcome” the freshman class of 1908.

1909 Cactus.Freshmen.1.

Above: A few members of the 1908 freshman class who met “President” Ball.

When the day arrived to register for fall classes, Ball put on his spectacles, procured a table and two chairs, and sat down near the south entrance to the old Main Building. Here, “President” Ball kindly registered unsuspecting freshmen with bogus papers, sold them elevator tickets to Old Main for 25 cents apiece (which did not yet have an elevator), and sent them all over campus for further initiations. Ball was merciless with the male greenhorns, who were ordered to find Mrs. Carothers, the head matron of the Woman’s Building, to be fitted for gym suits. Others were directed to sorority houses believing they’d been assigned a room there. (In 1908, either deed was considered scandalous!) The ones who suffered most, though, were the unfortunates ordered to B. Hall for a medical examination.

B Hall Color Postcard 2

Above: A 1908 postcard of Brackenridge Hall, better known as “B. Hall.” The first dorm for men, it stood near the intersection of the East Mall and Inner Campus Drive.

A freshman would appear in the hall with a slip of paper, signed by the “president,” which entitled the bearer to a required health exam. He was politely escorted to an upstairs room where the usual dorm furniture had been removed and replaced with a desk and semi-circle of chairs, and told to wait there for the “doctor.” As news spread of a victim in the hall, the audience filtered into the room one-by-one, each with their own slip of paper and asking for the doctor. They were directed to sit down and wait their turn. When the chairs were full, the fun began.

The doctor entered dressed in a white jacket (likely borrowed from a chemistry class) and accompanied by an assistant. “All right, who is first?” he demanded in his best professional voice. As the one who had waited the longest, the freshman raised his hand.

First came an endless list of personal questions: name, age, date of birth, weight of birth, sleeping, and bathing habits were all duly recorded, along with the names of parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents if possible.

B Hall Residents

Above: Residents of B. Hall posed as a doctor, an assistant, and patients to help “President” Ball welcome freshmen to the Forty Acres.

Measurements were taken, from the distance between the eyes to the length of each finger. A sizeable lock of hair was cut to test for “dandruff bugs.” Next, the freshman was asked to stand with his feet spread apart as far as possible, so that the angle each leg made with the floor could be measured with a protractor. The sine, cosine and tangent of the all important angles were then computed on a slide rule and faithfully recorded.

The finale was the water test. The poor frosh stood in the middle of the room while his waist was measured. He was given a glass of water to drink, and  then his waist was measured again. Comparing the two numbers, the doctor announced the “ratio of the expansion of the diaphragm to the cubic displacement of water”. Always, the results were so astounding the test had to be repeated – and repeated again. This went on until the well ran dry or the victim ran over.

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