The University’s Guardian Angel

James Clark’s Christmas Dinners for stranded students were legendary.

He was the youngest “old man” on the campus. The genuine friendships he forged with students and faculty were to him an elixir of perennial youth. For the alumni, he was among the most cherished memories of their college years. His kindness, humor, patience, and counsel, were invaluable, as was his courage to take on a staggering array of vital responsibilities. For more than two decades, James Benjamin Clark was the indispensable guardian angel of the University.


Born in North Carolina, raised in Mississippi, and an 1885 graduate of Harvard University (photo at right), Clark settled in Bonham, Texas in 1873 with his wife, Florence, and opened a successful law practice. A decade later, Governor John Ireland asked Clark to serve on the Board of Regents for the soon-to-be-opened University of Texas. He accepted, but didn’t remain a regent for long. Ready to move again, and excited at the prospect of being involved with the initial development of a university, Clark offered to take on the duties of proctor. His fellow regents agreed. In July 1885, Clark resigned as a regent, moved his family to Austin, and at 50-years old took up the only non-teaching position on the Forty Acres.

For $2,000 a year, Clark was, in practical terms, the entire University staff. Along with his formal duties as “Secretary to the Faculty and the Board of Regents,” Clark served as registrar, bursar, academic counselor, groundskeeper, and librarian. He was also the campus financial advisor. “Parents are warned against the serious dangers connected with extravagance in the supply of money to students,” cautioned the University catalogue, “and are strongly advised to deposit the funds of their children either in the hands of a discreet friend, or with the Proctor of the University.”

From his home at the corner of 26th Street and University Avenue – where the Student Services Building stands today – Clark looked after the University community as if it were his own family. A student who missed class because of illness often received a personal visit. “After I left you the other day on the street car,” Clark wrote in 1899 to regents chair Tom Henderson, “I found the student threatened with appendicitis up, dressed, and out of danger. At the next house I found my boy with the broken leg (done in a friendly scuffle) doing well, and the other two who had fever were able to enjoy some oysters I had taken to them. I took supper with the mess [a campus eating club] and spent an hour talking with them. They live pretty hard, but are of the right metal. There are a dozen of them, and they have a short debate every night. The dear fellows seem very grateful for any attention shown them, or interest manifested in their work. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to cheer and encourage the boys who are making a brave struggle with poverty for noble ends. And they will win the fight.”


Faculty, too, occasionally fell into trouble and needed Clark’s help. One of them was the rusty-haired Thomas Taylor (photo at left), hired in September, 1888 to teach applied mathematics as well as courses in mechanical drawing. His classroom in the old Main Building was on the third floor, directly above the library, and was outfitted with drafting tables, chairs, and a faucet and sink for cleaning the drawing equipment after class. Austin’s water works, though, weren’t always reliable in the 1880s, and the water pressure was often insufficient to make it to the third floor.

On the afternoon of May 2, 1889, near the end of Taylor’s first academic year on the campus, he turned on his classroom faucet, but no water was forthcoming. Since this had happened many times before, Taylor simply went downstairs in search of a place to scrub his equipment. This time, though, he forgot to turn off the faucet before he left.

Overnight, with most of the city’s residents asleep, the water pressure returned to normal levels, and the faucet began to run. Since the basin had been plugged, the water filled the sink, overflowed, and began to flood the room. By the next morning, much of the third floor was a large puddle, and water had seeped downstairs to the University library, where many of the books were ruined.

Taylor was more than a little upset, and was certain his short career at the University was over. But Clark reassured the young professor, quietly had the water damage repaired, and replaced some of the library books at his own expense. In a report to the Board of Regents, Clark minimized the harm done as “not so great as might be expected,” and took some of the blame himself for not checking the building more thoroughly that evening. The regents were reassured that steps had been taken so that a similar incident wouldn’t happen again. In part because of Clark’s intervention, Taylor remained at UT for more than 50 years, founded and developed its engineering program, became the first Dean of Engineering, and was one of the most loved and respected professors on the campus.

Above: A 1904 engineering survey class. Professor and Dean of Engineering Thomas Taylor is back row center, with the mustache. 


Along with his duties to faculty and students, Clark had to look after the grounds. When the University opened in 1883, the square, 40-acre campus was inhabited by the west wing of the old Main Building, a set of temporary outhouses down the hill to the east, and little else. Near the close of the Civil War in 1865, most of the trees on the future campus had been hastily razed and used to build Confederate defenses for Austin. By April 1882, as the regents considered plans for a University building, the grounds were cleared of remaining tree stumps, and a mile-long, white-washed wooden plank fence was erected around the perimeter of the campus, with gaps at the corners and at the south and west entrances.

Above left: The west wing of the old Main Building in the 1880s. The planted trees and graveled pathways were added by James Clark.

Clark re-sodded the areas damaged by the construction of the west wing, laid out graveled walks, and planted live oak, mesquite, and cedar trees. At his home he grew English walnut and pecan trees from seeds, and when the saplings were tall enough, Clark transplanted them to the Forty Acres. Florence assisted by planting flower beds around Old Main.

The greening of the campus, though, brought unwanted visitors. Austin’s family-owned cows, which wandered freely about the town, found the grounds a favorite place to graze, and made a special effort to eat the tender leaves of the newly-planted trees. While Clark denounced the cows as the “most ruthless of raiders,” their appetites were also a distraction to classes. Harried professors had to regularly interrupt their lectures en masse to herd noisy cattle away from classroom windows. To stem the bovine invasion, Clark filled in the gaps of the perimeter fence with turnstiles and gates.

Surprisingly, the turnstiles weren’t very popular with the students. “They are nuisances to the stranger who is out late on a dark night, to the young ladies whose dresses are easily torn, to the tardy student whose overcoat pocket “hangs him up,” and to our regiment of absent-minded poets who commune with the stars during their evening strolls.” Besides, the cows had somehow learned how to operate the turnstiles themselves. Gates replaced the turnstiles, but were almost always left open. By 1895, the gates had been removed entirely, and the fence had fallen into disrepair, but the town cows had since found other places to graze and weren’t a concern.

Above: The Forty Acres from the southwest in 1895. The old wooden fence can still be seen along an unpaved Guadalupe Street. 


Among his many contributions to the University, Clark was perhaps best known for his Christmas Dinners. For almost a decade after the University opened, only Christmas Day was allowed as a holiday. Students repeatedly complained, argued there wasn’t enough time to travel home and return to campus before classes resumed, and petitioned the faculty for a week-long holiday. In 1891, the faculty at last acquiesced. Most of the students fled the campus for home, but there were still a few, all of them residents of B. Hall – the men’s dorm – who didn’t have the funds for a train ticket.

Clark came to the rescue and invited the “leftovers,” as he called the stranded students, to his home for dinner. “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.”

Above: B. Hall as seen from Speedway Street. The dining room was on the ground floor in the central part of the building.

As the University’s enrollment grew, so did the number of leftover students, and within a few years, Clark’s Christmas Dinners had to be moved to the ground floor dining room in B. Hall. By 1900, more than 50 students attended, and the event lasted several hours. Guests traditionally arrived by 2:30 in the afternoon, where a complete Christmas banquet awaited them. “After the feast there was a flow of soul,” reported the Texan newspaper. “It was announced beforehand that every good looking person present would be expected to respond with some toast, and so there was a great rush to secure recognition from the toastmaster. Of course everybody spoke, and everybody covered himself in glory – even the freshmen.”

“Clark,” the Texan continued, “in his inimitable way, kept the audience in convulsions with witty anecdotes and sly humor sandwiched in between the speeches. He also favored the boys with an eloquent address on the University which called forth much enthusiasm. Among other things, he pleaded strongly for a proper understanding and confidence between Regents, Faculty and Students.”

While the University president sometimes attended and offered to share the cost, Clark was adamant on providing for the dinner himself.


Above: The entrance to Clark Field, UT’s first athletic field, named for Clark in 1906.

“Editor of the Texan: I suggest the name of ‘Clark’ Field,” began an anonymous letter published in the student newspaper in the spring of 1905. “Judge Clark is a lover of sport and by his own testimony is a trained athlete. The name is easy to remember and is one we all love. If no better name can be found, I move we adopt it.” The note was authored by David Frank, The Texan’s editor, who had actually written the note to himself. Frank had been on the newspaper staff since his freshman year, and later remembered, “When I first went to the University in 1901, Alex Deussen and the editors who followed him were constantly referring to the fact that at other schools the athletic fields had definite names, whereas at the University of Texas people merely spoke of it as the athletic field.”

The field in question was a lot just east of the Forty Acres, about where the O’Donnell Building and the Gates-Dell Computer Science Complex are today. The University purchased the land in 1899 to use as an athletic field.

Frank’s idea to name the field after Clark quickly found traction on the campus. Letters from fellow students appeared, and Frank began to refer to the grounds as “Clark Field” in print. His successor continued the effort. By the fall of 1906, the Athletic Council approved the name, and the Board of Regents quickly made it official.

Above: The present day Caven Lacrosse and Sports Center at Clark Field is managed by the Division of Recreational Sports.

Through the years, Clark Field has wandered about the campus. When the original athletic field was closed in the 1920s in favor of the present DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium, the name Clark was assigned to a new baseball facility where the Bass Concert Hall now stands. Baseball moved to its present location in 1975, and the old “Freshman Field” along San Jacinto Boulevard was renamed for Clark and placed under the management of the Division of Recreational Sports.


On December 6, 1908, James and Florence Clark arrived at the auditorium of the old Main Building to hear a speech by William Jennings Bryan, the three-time presidential nominee. Clark smiled and waved to his many friends, and the couple took their usual seats on the front row. Just minutes before the start of the program, Clark’s head dropped, and his shoulders slumped forward. Florence knew immediately that something was wrong. Clark was hurried to his office while a doctor was summoned, but it was too late. At the conclusion of Bryan’s speech, Bryan himself learned, and then announced, that the University’s beloved proctor of twenty-three years had passed away.

Two days later, an enormous crowd that included UT President Sidney Mezes, the Board of Regents, the entire faculty and student body, and many alumni and friends in Austin, gathered at the Clark residence. With a horse-drawn cart to carry Clark’s coffin in front, the assemblage formed double lines and quietly followed for more than two miles to Austin’s Oakwood Cemetery, where Clark was interred.

Efforts to memorialize Clark were numerous, and among them was one written by Dean Thomas Taylor: “For nearly a quarter of a century he was the guardian angel of the University, and his life here was a benediction to the students, faculty and alumni. The night was never too dark for him to go to the help of a student or professor in need. He was the associate of the distinguished men that have shed glory on the University of Texas – Mallet, Humphreys, Roberts, Dabney, Gould and Waggener. The places of these great men have been filled with able men, but until the world produces another prophet Samuel, the place of James B. Clark will never be filled.”

Above: The senior class of 1909 donated a stained glass window in memory of James Clark. It was initially installed in a place of honor, above the south entrance of the old Main Building. In the 1930s, when Old Main was razed and replaced by the current Main Building and Tower, the window was preserved and can be seen just inside the Office of the Dean of Graduate Studies on the first floor.

The University’s First Thanksgiving

UT Campus.Mid 1890s.

Above: The University of Texas campus in the early 1890s, seen from the corner of 21st and Guadalupe Streets. An unpaved Guadalupe runs along the bottom of the image. On the campus, from left: the Chemistry Labs (where the biological ponds are today); two-thirds of the old Main Building, not completed until 1899; and old B. Hall (near the present day intersection of Inner Campus Drive and the East Mall). The campus was surrounded by a wooden fence to keep out the town cows.

Thanksgiving has always been on the University calendar. A national holiday since 1863, celebrated on the last Thursday in November, the Board of Regents has dutifully ordered a suspension of classes for the day since UT opened in 1883. At the time, the University followed the quarter system. The fall quarter usually started in mid-September and classes were held six days a week (Monday-Wednesday-Friday or Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday). Thanksgiving was the first opportunity for a break in the academic routine, though it only lasted a day. Classes resumed on Friday.

Students from Austin spent the day with their families. Out-of-towners either took the train home if it wasn’t too far, or celebrated together at their boarding houses or local restaurants. For its first seven years, UT had no residence or dining halls; the Forty Acres was a quiet, lonely place on Thanksgiving.

B Hall Original.1890On December 1, 1890, the University opened Brackenridge Hall, known on campus simply as “B. Hall.” A $17,000 gift from San Antonio Regent George Brackenridge, the building (photo at left) was intended to provide inexpensive housing for the state’s poor boys, who otherwise couldn’t afford to come to Austin and attend the University. A no frills structure, built from yellow pressed brick and limestone trim, it better resembled a pair of city slum houses adrift on the Texas prairie. Rent for a room was $2.50 per month. Expanded and improved a decade later, B. Hall became legendary. A stronghold of student leadership, the Hall was the birthplace of many UT traditions and campus organizations, including: the Longhorn Band, The Daily Texan, Student Government, The Eyes of Texas, Texas Cowboys, and the Tejas Club.

While the upper floors were student rooms, the ground floor of the hall housed a restaurant. Designed to accommodate more than 100 patrons, it was the University’s first campus-wide eatery. Outfitted with oak tables and chairs, tablecloths, heavy china plates and bowls, utensils, and glassware, each table was provided with salt and pepper shakers, sugar, cream, and a porcelain pitcher filled with water. A popular prank was to add a few minnows from Waller Creek to a pitcher. Waiters, usually B. Hall residents working their way through school, delivered meals from a fully stocked and staffed kitchen on the north side of the hall. Food was modestly priced. A student could eat well for $5.00 per month.

B. Hall.1890s

Above: B. Hall residents assemble for a group portrait in the 1890s.

AAS.1891.11.26.University Thanksgiving HeadlineThe following year, November 26, 1891, the first Thanksgiving Day meal was served in B. Hall. As most of the residents were too poor to afford a train ticket home, the hall’s steward, Harry Beck, had a feast prepared and a special menu printed on 4 ½ x 7 inch cards. Though the menu has not survived, it was published in the Austin Statesman.

B Hall.1891 Thanksgiving Menu

Above: The menu for the first Thanksgiving Day feast served on the Forty Acres, re-typed from an issue of the Austin Statesman. (The original version, found on microfilm, was difficult to read.)  Look close! B. Hall Steward Harry Beck had some fun with the listings. Do you recognize everything?

  • ConsommeA flavored, clear broth soup.
  • Oleaginous Porcine with Apple Sauce“Oleaginous” is a word for “greasy,” while “Porcine” is to resemble a pig. This is really roast pork with apple sauce.
  • Crushed Hiberian SpudsHiberia is an island off the coast of Ireland. These are mashed Irish potatoes.
  • Baked Convolvulus BatatasA botanical reference to sweet potatoes.
  • Punk-In-PiYou guessed it. Pumpkin Pie.

At 1 p.m. in the afternoon, about 55 hungry UT students, mostly B. Hall residents and a few others, enjoyed a full Thanksgiving Dinner. According to several accounts, “all spoke in praise of the excellent fare.” A round of speeches and toasts followed the feast, including a special tribute for Harry Beck. “He was warmly cheered by the boys and his sentiments of friendship were greatly appreciated by them.” The festivities continued through most of the afternoon.

The First Snow Day

Above: Snow blankets the UT campus in front of the old Main Building.

Snow days in Austin are rare. When Old Man Winter makes an infrequent visit to the capital of Texas, it usually closes down both the city and the University. But UT’s first snow day depended on some daring acts by a few students, and a University president with a sense of humor.

In February, 1899, an exceptionally strong Arctic surge abruptly disturbed an otherwise quiet winter across most of North America. Dubbed the Great Blizzard of 1899, it brought record cold to the South, including a -1ºF low temperature in Austin. More than 35 inches of snow fell in Washington, DC, and white-out conditions were experienced as far south as Tampa, Florida.

On the morning of Saturday, February 11, 1899, sleepy University of Texas students awoke to find Austin cloaked in six inches of new snow, with more falling. At a time before long-range forecasts, pinpoint Doppler radar, or the Weather Channel, the snowfall was completely unexpected. “In the old days at Varsity, snow was a rarer thing than ice cream at B. Hall,” wrote Fritz Lanham, the first editor of The Texan student newspaper who also lived in Brackenridge Hall, or “B. Hall,” the University’s first dormitory for men. “Imagine, therefore, the surprise of the students when they rose from their larks to find the earth receiving a breakfast of heavenly flakes!”

It was also a class day. For the first few decades, University classes met six days a week, either on Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. Since most of the faculty and UT’s 600 students lived on or within walking distance of the campus, and as there was no radio, television or internet to broadcast a school closure, Saturday classes began as usual, promptly at 9 a.m.

Above: A side view of Old Main and a snowy Forty Acres. The photo was taken the same day as the one at the top of the story.

Of course, the snow was a distraction. Students gazing from the windows of the newly completed Main Building (better known as “Old Main,” and since replaced by the current Main Building and Tower) couldn’t help but think that such an unusual day ought not to be spent in a classroom.

The denizens of B. Hall agreed. As the snow fell, so fell their interest in academic work. Schemes hatched in the minds of the Hall’s residents as snowballs formed in their hands, and gradually a relationship of cause and effect between the two was realized. The only piece missing was the official declaration of a holiday, which could only be granted by the University president.

After some discussion, a small band set out from B. Hall. Led by Walter “Ovey” Schreiner and Walter Monteith, both captains of the football team, they boldly made their way up the hill to Old Main, climbed the south steps, passed through the front entrance, and then immediately turned left to enter the sanctum sanctorum, the office of UT President George Winston. Their mission wasn’t a secret, and others were eager to join the cause. By the time the group reached the Main Building, it had snowballed into a crowd, and each student carried an armful of frosty white pellets to “bolster up this declaration.”

The mob of students squeezed into the president’s office, where Schreiner and Monteith, respectfully, but firmly, presented their request for a day off. Winston eyed the students, spied the arsenal of snowballs, but didn’t panic. He’d been in this situation before.

George Winston.George T. Winston (photo at left) was appointed UT’s first full-time president in 1896, succeeding Leslie Waggener, who was then both Chairman of the Faculty and President ad interim. In the spring of 1897, Winston received a request from the students who believed that March 2nd, Texas Independence Day, should be an annual University holiday.

But Winston hailed from North Carolina, had attended the Naval Academy and Cornell University, and neither understood nor shared the affinity Texans had for March 2nd. He flatly refused the petition. The only Independence Day he recognized was on July 4th.

Undaunted, the students contacted the Texas Attorney General, signed a bond to borrow one of two brass cannons then in front of the State Capitol, rolled it a mile to the campus, and on March 2nd fired it repeatedly in front of Old Main. Classrooms emptied, faculty joined the students in making patriotic speeches about their beloved Texas, and a very reluctant President Winston was brought before the assembly to say a few words. His comments were paraphrased:

“I was born in the land of liberty, rocked in the cradle of liberty, nursed on the bottle of liberty, and I’ve had liberty preached to me all my life. But Texas University students take more liberty than anyone I’ve ever come in contact with.”

Two years later, facing a legion of anxious students armed with melting snowballs, a wiser President Winston smiled. “Certainly, young gentlemen. It seldom snows at this latitude, and you are at liberty to enjoy it.”

The news wafted through the halls of Old Main, classrooms were opened, “and the prisoners liberated.” The only dissenting voice came from English Professor Mark Liddell, who was unhappy at the interruption of his lecture. Though he may have been a bit warm under the collar, his temperament was surely cooled as a volley of snowballs was fired in his direction.

The rest of the day was spent in a great snowball battle in which the residents of B. Hall held their own against the combined forces of the remaining students and faculty.

1963.West Mall Snowball Fight

Above: A snowball fight of a later day. A fierce battle breaks out on the West Mall after a snowfall in the winter of 1963. Click on image for a larger view.

The Halloween Donkey

DonkeyAll Hallow’s Eve has once again arrived in Austin. Ghosts, witches, zombies, and other ghoulish creatures will soon wander the neighborhoods, plying their trade in search of sugary treats, or gather by the thousands on Sixth Street for some late night revelry.

Such was not always the custom. “Trick or treating,” as a modern tradition, has only been around since the 1930s. A century ago, Halloween in Austin usually meant mischief, at least for those living near the University of Texas campus. A favorite practice was the mysterious disappearance of items, from yard decorations to signs to delivery wagons, which were quietly spirited away overnight, only to reappear somewhere on the Forty Acres, waiting to be reclaimed by their owners.

B Hall Color PostcardOn Halloween night 1906, about a half hour before midnight, engineering sophomore Alfred “Alf” Toombs entered the north door of B. Hall on the ground floor. B. Hall (photo at right) was the first men’s dorm on the campus, and the bottom floor housed both the kitchen and dining room. At the late hour, the room was dark, but as Toombs pulled on the door handle, there was some resistance. At first he thought he’d encountered a fellow student leaving the building at the same time.

Instead, Toombs discovered a donkey hitched to the doorknob on the inside. The animal belonged to Mrs. Carothers, head matron of the Woman’s Building (the women’s dorm), and was the pet of her two children. Evidently, the donkey had been kidnapped from his stable and was an unwilling participant of some Halloween shenanigans.

“I suppose that the parties who had left him there thought they had done their best by him,” recounted Toombs, “but I felt sure that better disposition could be made of his presence.”

B Hall Residents 1905

Above: B. Hall residents pose for a group photo.

Toombs went upstairs to consult with his fellow B. Hall residents. Among the suggestions was to place the animal in the vestibule of the Woman’s Building, where his presence would surely produce the kind of unrest intended “to remind some unfortunate that Halloween was once more with us.”

Some of Toombs’ cohorts voiced doubts that the donkey could be persuaded to climb the fourteen steps at the entrance to the building to reach the vestibule. To make sure the animal was ready, the group decided to first “rehearse” on the steps of the Engineering Building (today’s Gebauer Building), and then walk across campus for the final performance.

UT Campus 1905

The campus in 1906. B. Hall, the men’s dorm, is on the far right, while the Woman’s Building, placed as far away as possible across campus, is on the left. The Engineering Building (today’s Gebauer Building), is just to the left of B. Hall.

With plans made, a group of six B. Hallers led the donkey out of the dorm to the Engineering Building, a short walk to the northwest. With a little pulling, pushing, and half-lifting, the animal climbed the steps and demonstrated his abilities. The students led the donkey back down again, and started out for their goal.

Along the way, the group met up with Gene “Deb” Debogery, a genial fellow denizen of B. Hall who called himself the “East Texas Crow” because of his frequent, raucous “cawing” in imitation of the species. Debogery was also an avid baseball fan, though not as good a player. He was often found in front of B. Hall playing catch with someone, and at the same time either endangering the health of fellow students walking to classes, or breaking windows in the hall.

On this occasion, Debogery had been out celebrating the evening and “was fairly well organized,” according to Toombs. Deb enthusiastically volunteered to help, though the rest of the group quickly realized that any chance of quiet had been lost.

Womans Building Entrance

Unlike the rehearsal at the Engineering Building, the donkey was far more reluctant to climb the stairs of the women’s dorm (photo at left). After several attempts, the group resorted to lifting the animal’s front two legs completely off the ground and pulling on a long rope which had been passed behind the donkey’s back legs. Subtle it wasn’t, but the job was completed and the vestibule was reached.

But once on the top step, Deb discovered that the latch to the front door was unlocked, and soon insisted that their charge be taken inside and tied to a stair post. To pacify Deb, the others put him in charge of the task.

The reluctant donkey was pushed inside to the spacious front lobby of the Woman’s Building, but the clatter predictably woke some of the residents. A light appeared at the top the stairway, and the commanding voice of Mrs. Carothers soon followed. “Who’s there?!” she demanded, “And what are you doing?”  A few tousled heads poked out over the banister, and one belligerent maid let fly a hairbrush at the intruders. One of the men answered that they’d brought another boarder, to which Mrs. Carothers retorted that the dorm was full. No matter. The donkey was secured to the stair post and the group quickly decamped.

water-tank-band-hall-at-baseThe evening’s adventures were not quite complete, however. As the B. Hallers made their escape out the front door of the Woman’s Building, they were confronted by the University’s night watchman who had witnessed the whole escapade. He retrieved the donkey, led him easily down the stairs, and told the students that the animal would be secured to prevent further antics. The watchman intended to place the animal in the new band house, a makeshift structure set up under the campus water tank as a place for the University Band to rehearse.

Above right: The old water tank, placed on the north side of campus (about where the Painter Hall parking lot is today), with a temporary band hall installed at its base. The University Methodist Church and Littlefield Home can be seen behind it, with 24th Street heading downhill to the right. Click on an image for a larger view.

The donkey, by now tired of being led around, refused to enter the darkened confines of the band room outright. “We’ll help!” volunteered the B. Hall contingent. Unaware of the trap that was being set, the night watchman agreed, and pulled the animal from the front while the group pushed from behind. Of course, once the watchman and the donkey had entered the band house, the door was quickly closed and padlocked. The two spent the rest of the night together, mourning their plight and leaving the campus unprotected.

How to Borrow a Bell

or, What the Fulmore School gave to B. Hall, and vice versa.

Fulmore School Bell

The Fulmore bell safely resides in the courtyard of the school.

It was the final day of November 1911, as a chilly, peaceful, lazy Thanksgiving morning dawned on the University of Texas campus. The only holiday of the fall term, most of the residents of Brackenridge Hall – or B. Hall, as the men’s dorm was called – expected to enjoy some extra sleep. An inexpensive residence hall intended for the “poor boys” of Texas, B. Hall’s inhabitants didn’t possess many luxuries, and that included alarm clocks. For years, in order to wake everyone in time for breakfast and class, a designated bell ringer strode through the hall with a cowbell promptly at 6:45 a.m. every morning. But the University faculty took a dim view of the cowbell, thought it an unworthy instrument to rouse young college scholars, and at the start of the 1911 academic year had electronic chimes installed as a “more dignified method.” While this eliminated the need for the crude cowbell, the musical chimes turned out to be less than effective on slumbering students, who constantly had to pass up on breakfast in order to make it to their 9 a.m. lectures.

Bong! Bong! Bong! Bong! The morning quiet was abruptly interrupted at the usual 6:45 a.m., but not by a sound usually heard in the hall. A fire alarm? Startled residents rose from their beds and hustled outside to investigate. The noise came from the top of the building. As they peered up to the roof, they discovered a 30-inch brass bell, installed in a makeshift belfry in front of the community room on the fourth floor. How it arrived and who delivered it was a mystery, but the dorm’s inmates weren’t about to let such a gift go to waste. After a noontime Thanksgiving Day dinner, which was universally praised as the “best ever served in the hall,” the 120 residents gathered upstairs for a proper bell dedication. Junior law student Teddy Reese, who was also UT’s head yell leader, provided the oratory, described the history of the cowbells used in the past, dwelled on the failure of the electric chimes to serve their purpose, and expressed the “heartfelt and sincere thanks that is in the bosoms of all B. Hallers for the modest and benevolent donor of the bell, whomever it may be.” Katherine Smith, only the second woman to serve as the hall’s steward, officially christened the bell. “There not being any champagne at hand,” reported The Austin Statesman, “the ‘Belle’ christened the ‘bell’ with a bottle of good old Adam’s ale.” The bell was immediately put to use.

1911 B Hall Group Portrait

Some of the residents of B. Hall in a 1911 group portrait. Hall steward Katherine Smith is standing on the first floor, center, in the white dress.

In a remarkable coincidence, just as the unexpected bell arrived at B. Hall, a similar bell disappeared from the Fulmore School in South Austin. Opened in 1886, the Fulmore School was initially housed in a whitewashed, wooden, one-room structure just off South Congress Avenue. Austin resident Charles Newning presented the school with a bell in the early 1890s. A prized possession, the bell was rung a half hour before classes began every morning, and again as school ended for the day, so that parents knew their children would soon return home. Its familiar peal had been a part of the neighborhood culture for decades.

Early in 1911, the Austin School Board elected to build a new brick building for the Fulmore School, two blocks south of its original location. It was completed over the summer and formally dedicated on November 17, just two weeks before Thanksgiving. A short wooden bell tower, which looked something like a miniature oil rig, was constructed for the old bell, but it hadn’t yet been installed before the bell disappeared.

Fulmore Middle School.1934.

The Fulmore School in the 1930s. The building was completed in 1911, with a wooden bell tower (and brass bell) to the right.

As news of B. Hall’s good fortune spread to South Austin, the custodian of the Fulmore School began to wonder if the hall’s newly acquired bell, and the school’s missing bell, might just be one and the same. In the middle of the afternoon on Thursday, December 7, while most of the hall’s residents were in class, the custodian ventured to the UT campus and took an unwise risk. He entered B. Hall alone, quietly crept up the stairs to the belfry, and tried to examine the bell, which sported a fresh coat of red paint to disguise its former appearance. But the intruder was soon discovered, the bell rung in alarm, and B. Hallers sprinted from all parts of the campus to defend their home. According to accounts, one resident giving a speech in his law class heard the bell, abruptly stopped talking, and dashed from the classroom with no explanation. An engineering student was in the middle of a calculus problem at the chalkboard when the bell sounded. He muttered an apology to his professor – engineering dean Thomas Taylor – then jumped out of the first floor open window and hurried to the hall. Before the frightened custodian could make his exit, he was surrounded by a vocal mob of B. Hallers and doused repeatedly with so many buckets of cold water that he later remarked he’d had his bath for the week. But while the bell hadn’t been visibly identified, its familiar sound was unmistakable.

A week later, Dr. Harry Benedict, then serving as Dean of the University (what would today be called the “Provost”), received a letter from Arthur McCallum, the Austin school superintendent. “At a meeting of the school board yesterday afternoon,” wrote McCallum, “I was instructed to ask that the Bell which someone took recently from the South Austin school be replaced or put where someone can get the bell without suffering the humiliation of being watered.” McCallum explained that the bell had “summoned the children of that community to school for a long-long time, and I believe that the people of South Austin are more attached to the bell than the boys of B. Hall.” Certainly the custodian missed the bell, as he had been forced to improvise and use a cowbell of his own to call the children to school.

Benedict, himself a UT graduate and a former resident of the dorm, passed the note along to B. Hall steward Katherine Smith.

The fall ended with the bell secure in its B. Hall roost. It continued to be employed through the new year and into a chilly January, which included a rare, mid-month snowstorm. But as time wore on, the novelty of the bell waned, and “some embryonic reformer” began to urge his fellow residents that it was time to return the item to its true owner. As related in the Cactus yearbook, “So well did this Luther preach that ere long he had converted enough to make the project possible.” Since no one was willing to admit to kidnapping the bell, residents had to come up with a creative solution that would preserve B. Hall’s dignity.

On January 31, 1912, a letter was delivered to Superintendent McCallum from the “B Hall Boys.” It read, in part:

“Referring to the deplorable and regrettable loss of a bell from one of your ward schools and feeling deeply, but unresentingly, the insinuating remarks that have been made in regard to, and on account of, a certain melodious and more or less valuable bell which now swings in the B Hall belfry, we, collectively, individually, and separately, have unanimously agreed to heap coals of fire on your august heads (except the bald ones) by presenting free, gratis, and for nothing, and without trouble on your part, the same melodious, magnificent and misappropriated bell above referred to. This bell will be sent at our (or your) earliest convenience to the South Austin school which is suffering from ‘cowbellitis’ as once even B Hall did.”

B Hall Bell.Congress Avenue Bridge Crossing

Crossing the new Congress Avenue Bridge, B. Hallers return the Fulmore School bell atop a horse-drawn flat wagon on February 4, 1912.

Clangity-clang! Clangity-clang! The following Saturday afternoon of February 4, amid brief snow flurries, shoppers along Congress Avenue were amused by the ridiculous sight of a horse-drawn flat wagon loaded with about 20 residents of B. Hall, all dressed in various garb. One incessantly rang a bright red bell, and two others, one with a barrel and wooden pole, and other with a tuba, provided musical accompaniment. The sight and noise attracted nearly a hundred local school children, who followed along on foot or rode bicycles. At each street corner downtown, the wagon stopped and yell leader Teddy Reese led the group in “Fifteen Rahs” for the bell. The wagon continued across the bridge, over the Colorado River, and on to South Austin and the Fulmore School, which was three miles south of the University campus. Upon arrival, and with much fanfare, pomp, and ceremony, the bell was presented to the school’s custodian, who graciously accepted the gift.

A century later, the bell still proudly resides at the Fulmore Middle School, minus its coat of red paint.

1911.Teddy Reese Yell LeaderA few years after the incident (and, perhaps, after a statute of limitations had expired), Teddy Reese confessed to instigating the bell’s capture. In 1910, a new Congress Avenue Bridge was constructed to replace the older, unsteady pontoon bridge that once crossed the Colorado. A year later, the city’s electric trolleys extended a line across the bridge and into South Austin, and UT students began to take their dates on the trolleys to the south side for afternoon walks. The weekend before Thanksgiving, Teddy and his date spied the Fulmore School bell on the ground next to the new building, and Teddy decided that it would make an excellent alternative to the chimes used in the hall. Teddy approached his best friend in the dorm, Walter Hunnicutt (who would later compose “Texas Taps,” better known as the Texas Fight song), and together they recruited a crew of about 10 persons, all sworn to secrecy. In the late night hours before Thanksgiving, the group paid the B. Hall chef to borrow his horse and delivery wagon, went to the Fulmore School, carefully loaded the 300-pound bell so it wouldn’t ring, then returned to campus and quietly hauled the bell upstairs, where it was rung at the break of dawn.

Having returned the brass bell, the trusty cowbell was once again heard in B. Hall.