Operation Gopher

In the 1950s, UT engineering students dug a basement for a study lounge.

Above: UT engineers gather around Patrick “Digger” O’Dell, the live mascot of Operation Gopher. Patrick was renamed Christine when the students discovered their mistake.


W
hen Texas engineers get hungry, they go digging.

In the 1950s, the University’s College of Engineering was sprawled around the East Mall. The petroleum and chemical engineering buildings – opened in 1942 and today are the Rappaport and Schoch Buildings – were placed along either side of the mall at Speedway Street. The petroleum building (image at left) was of particular pride; UT was first in the nation to offer a petroleum engineering degree, as well as devote an entire facility to the subject.

Just to the north was Engineering Building, later named Taylor Hall for Thomas Taylor, the college’s founder and first dean. It housed the mechanical, civil, aeronautical, and architectural engineering departments, research labs, administrative offices, and a newly expanded library on the second floor.

Above: Two views of Taylor Hall. Opened in 1934 as the headquarters for the College of Engineering, it has since been replaced by the Dell-Gates Computer Sciences Complex.

While the structures were modern, they didn’t include a study lounge for students or, more important, a place to eat. The nearest dining facilities were at the Texas Union on the other side of campus. Hungry engineers, or those just looking for a cup of coffee, had to hike up the hill, go past the Tower, and then down the West Mall to the Union’s commons. When time was limited, the trek was a lengthy and inconvenient one. More than a few students opted to bring lunches and coffee from home.

Above: A 1938 image of the UT campus. Engineering students in Taylor Hall (upper right) had to walk to the Texas Union (far left) for the nearest food service.

As the fall 1952 semester began, five engineering students – Charlie Anderson, Dick Bailey, Tommy Fairey, Jerry Garrett, and Charlie Mills – approached Professors Leonardt Kreisle and Carl Eckhardt with two proposals.

The first was to establish a governing body for the engineers, one that would both represent the interests of students and bring the professional and honor societies under a single umbrella. The result was the founding of the Student Engineering Council (SEC), separately incorporated by the State of Texas. Charlie Anderson was selected as its first chair, and Kreisle and Eckhardt volunteered as faculty advisors.

The second was to create a study lounge and snack bar, which the SEC chose as its initial project. As Anderson explained to The Daily Texan, “We don’t have a place to meet. It is so bad that even our library has turned into a bull session room.”

Finding a place for a lounge was tricky, as all of the engineering buildings were well occupied. There simply wasn’t a means to shift or combine offices and classrooms to provide enough space, and there certainly weren’t funds for a separate facility. The SEC then offered a novel solution: why not create a basement underneath Taylor Hall? Kreisle and Eckhardt studied the idea and found that it was structurally possible. The support piers for the building were deep, and a basement could be safely installed with the piers left in place.

There were numerous hurdles to overcome. University monies wouldn’t be available, and the estimated cost for the project was $48,000. Alumni might help with fundraising, but what would the students contribute? Anderson suggested that the students provide the labor to excavate the basement, which would save $20,000, and that engineering alumni be asked to donate the construction cost.

Plans were drawn. Dubbed “Taylor’s T Room” in honor of the first dean, the basement would be 174 feet long by 43 feet wide, and dug to a depth of eight feet. It would include meeting spaces for student groups, a lounge and recreation area, and a small cafeteria managed by the University’s Housing and Food Service. The T Room would be available to the entire University community. “Our purpose is to bring engineering students in contact with other students,” said Anderson.

Left: Thomas Taylor, first engineering dean.

Above: The layout of Taylor’s T Room. Click on the image for a larger view. From left, meeting rooms for the SEC and other engineering groups, a study lounge with sofas, a dining area with tables, chairs, and booths (blue seats with white tables), and a kitchen (white counter tops with tan floor tile) that would provide lunches, snacks, and beverages. The black squares are support piers for the building.

With patience, the students acquired the approval of the engineering faculty building committee, Dean W. R. Woolrich, Dean of Students Arno Nowotny, the University’s Development Board, and Acting UT President James Dolley.

Initially, there was some pushback from the Texas Union, when concerns were raised over how the T Room might affect business in the Union’s commons. Director Jitter Nolan met with the SEC and was convinced that any loss of customers would be slight. He applauded the engineers for their initiative. The Union’s Board voted to support the project, and donated $75 to help with mailing costs for alumni solicitations.

Above: Dean W. R. Woolrich addresses the crowd at the groundbreaking ceremony.

G-Day, or Groundbreaking Day, or, to some, “Gopher Day,” was slated for Thursday evening, December 11, 1952. More than 500 attended the ceremony, heard talks by Dean Woolrich and Professor Emeritus Ed Bantel, saw the first shovel of dirt preserved for posterity, and sang “Hi Ho Balls”, a favorite tune among UT engineers in the 1900s . (The song’s main character, Alexander Frederic Claire, became the patron saint of College of Engineering.) “A Hole lot of time and effort went into it, but Operation Gopher is ready for groundbreaking,” announced the Texan, “Engineers won’t be able to tell their new lounge from a hole in the ground.”

The students boasted they would have the basement completed by the end of the academic year, in June 1953, but soon discovered that removing almost 60,000 cubic feet of soil, rocks, and solid Austin chalk – an estimated 600 truck loads – would require significantly more time.

Shovels, pick axes, jackhammers, wheelbarrows, and a conveyor belt were all loaned by local construction companies, while students organized themselves into work crews of 25 volunteers each. In order not to disturb classes, digging was scheduled from 7 – 10 p.m. in the evenings on weekdays, and at various times on weekends. To remove the material, an access tunnel – the “gopher hole” – was dug just outside Taylor Hall and then sideways into the basement. At least once a week, a dump truck and a loader, also donated for the cause, dropped by to pick up what the students had excavated.

To help pass the time, a transistor radio was employed to play the latest tunes by Dean Martin, Patti Page, Perry Como, and a popular new song by Hank Williams: “My Cheatin’ Heart.” The Engineering Wives Club (yes, there was one, but that’s a different story), along with UT sororities, often dropped by to boost morale with coffee and soft drinks.

Right: Members of the Chi Omega sorority bring cold drinks to engineers working on Operation Gopher.

A live gopher mascot was obtained from the zoology department. Named Patrick “Digger” O’Dell, engineers had to change the name to Christine when they discovered their error. Kept in a cage, Digger was present for every work session until she was gopher-napped in early March 1953. Law students, longtime campus rivals of the engineers, claimed responsibility, but the real culprits turned out to be some prankster zoology students. A rescue party was quickly organized, and Digger soon resumed her duties

For the next two years, until January 1955, the SEC continued to organize volunteers and slowly dig out the basement. The effort required nearly 3,000 students and faculty.

In the meantime, the UT Development Board took on the task of soliciting engineering alumni for the estimated $28,000 needed to install the floor, walls, utilities, kitchen, and furniture. The alumni responded generously, and the fundraising campaign was completed ahead of schedule. Once the basement was ready, construction began immediately.

On Monday evening, May 13, 1957, nearly five years after its inception, Taylor’s T Room was formally dedicated. Governor Price Daniel (photo at left) addressed an assembly of 350 persons, “As Governor of Texas, I offer my congratulations to you engineers for your valuable contribution,” and credited University of Texas engineering alumni for much of the technical development of the state. “Taylor’s T Room will ever have a great claim to permanence for its dedicated use as envisioned by the Student Engineering Council in 1952,” Dean Woolrich wrote later. Most of the volunteers graduated before they were able to use the lounge. “It was a gift to engineering posterity, to the student generations to come.”

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One thought on “Operation Gopher

  1. Enjoyed your piece on the Engineering Building basement. The students obviously were aware of Digby “Digger” O’Dell, the “friendly undertaker” on William Bendix’s Life of Riley radio show.

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