Attack of the Academs!


All hail the University of Texas professor! Tireless researcher, espouser of knowledge, valiant defender of free inquiry, appointed distributor of homework and grades, and, on occasion, “other duties as assigned.” From time to time, faculty members have been required to perform above and beyond their usual academic roles. In the early years of the University, the 40-acre campus was a magnet not only for aspiring scholars, but the town cows, which were free to wander and graze about Austin. The campus sported a wealth of wildflowers, newly-planted pecan and oak trees, and lush English ivy that tenaciously clung to the walls of the old Main Building (where the UT Tower stands today), all of which was an irresistible treat for the four-legged visitors. The munching and mooing, though, was a distraction to lectures. Professors had to regularly interrupt their classes, meet in front of Old Main, and as a group, shoo away the boisterous bovines. It was, perhaps, good practice for herding longhorn students through their degree requirements.

By 1915, the University of Texas boasted 2,300 students, most of them divided into three departments: law, engineering, and academic. The Academic Department included the “arts and sciences” curriculum offered today by the Colleges of Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences, and was contained almost exclusively in Old Main. The engineers were housed in what today is the Gebauer Building, and the old Law Building, once nestled into the southeast corner of the campus, was removed in the 1970s and replaced by the Graduate School of Business (GSB).

Two of the departments – law and engineering – have had an ongoing rivalry for more than a century. Most of the time it’s been a good-natured feud, though there have been episodes that would better be described as all out rumbles, and which required faculty intervention. The Academic students, informally called the “Academs,” typically remained neutral, and were either too busy pursuing their degrees or visiting Scholz’ Beer Garden to bother.

Texas Independence Day on March 2nd often provided an excuse for student shenanigans, and professors were always wary as the day neared. It was one of only two spring holidays and had been loudly celebrated by the University since 1897, when a group of law students borrowed a brass cannon from the Capitol, fired it repeatedly on the campus, and nearly broke out the windows of Old Main.

WaterTankFightEarly in the evening of March 1, 1915, UT President William Battle made a harried call to all faculty still on the campus. The engineers and laws were at it again at their usual spot: the old water tank. Placed on the north side of the campus, about where Painter Hall is today, the tank was installed in 1904 as a safety measure against water shortages that plagued Austin at the time. It was never used for its intended purpose, but its 120-foot perch was an instant hit with students, who dared to climb the tank’s legs and paint class initials on its walls. Almost always, the perpetrators were from the law or engineering departments.

Professors arrived at the tank to discover a full-blown scuffle in progress. The engineers held the high ground – at the top of the tank – while the laws were determined to dislodge them. The law students were having trouble, though, as the engineers had come prepared with an ample supply of eggs acquired from the University Cafeteria. Dropping the “hen fruit” from the tank’s platform discouraged any would-be climber.

The faculty immediately took control and sent the students home, though not before several professors were splattered with egg yolk, including English professor and future Plan II founder Dr. Hanson Parlin. Determined to prevent any more activity that evening, four members of the faculty remained on the grounds: Harry Benedict, who taught applied mathematics and astronomy, and was Dean of the University (what would be the Provost today); Edward Bantel, a civil engineering professor and the Assistant Dean of the Engineering Department; Hyman Ettlinger, an instructor of applied math; and Milton Gutsch, who taught Medieval History. A spotlight owned by the electrical engineering department was hastily installed on the roof of the Engineering Building and pointed north to illuminate the water tank. The foursome settled into the northwest corner room on the first floor, where they kept watch throughout the night. According to all accounts, they found a chess set to help keep them occupied. Card games, such as poker, had been specifically prohibited on the campus by the Board of Regents.

1913 Cactus Yearbook.Engineering Building.

Above: The Engineering Building, today’s Gebauer Building. With a makeshift spotlight installed on the roof, the four faculty members stayed in the room on the first floor (one floor up from the ground floor) seen on the far left corner. From there they could look north to the water tank.

At the first sign of daylight on March 2, and satisfied trouble had been averted, the four bleary-eyed instructors decided it was finally safe to return to their homes. Three of them –  Benedict, Ettlinger, and Bantel – elected to make a final pass in front of Old Main before they wandered off to the west and north campus neighborhoods where most of the faculty lived.

The Victorian-Gothic old Main Building featured a tall central tower with two shorter towers at the east and west entrances. Atop each of the towers was a short flag pole. As the three ambled to the west side of the Old Main, which was out of the line-of-sight of the Engineering Building, they discovered, much to their chagrin, a large flag hung on the western pole, with the rope flying loose in the wind. Fluttering in the pre-dawn breeze, the flag read “Academs 1915.” The Academs had struck at last!

Old Main and Water

Above: The Old Main Building, where the UT Tower stands today. Flags are flying from each of its three towers, with the west wing on the left. The water tower can be seen to the north, while the Engineering Building is out-of-sight, behind Old Main to the east. And yes, there were lots of bluebonnets on the campus in the spring. (For more on that topic and the bluebonnet chain tradition, go here.)

If the flag remained, there would be a new round of class rushes, and the all-night vigil would have been for nothing. There was but one choice: the flag had to be removed.

Resigned to the task at hand, the three ascended to the top of the central tower of Old Main, climbed out of the window onto the roof, and precariously made their way to the west wing. The flag’s untied halyards were flapping in the wind, four to six feet from the roof’s edge. What to do? The three pondered a moment, and hatched a plan to remove the flag and preserve the campus peace.


Above: Three UT faculty take a precarious early morning walk on the roof of Old Main. This drawing, along with one of the accounts of the story, was found in the Thomas Taylor papers in the Briscoe Center for American History, which houses the University Archives. Taylor was the first dean of engineering studies, and an avid recorder of UT student life.

There, on top of the west wing of the old Main Building, a little after 6am on March 2, and after having been awake all night, Benedict (a future UT president), grabbed the coattails of  Ettlinger, who in turn had a firm grip on Bantel’s right ankle. Standing on his left leg, Bantel leaned out over the roof, and after a few tries, successfully grabbed the rope and secured the offending flag from its pole.

And what of the water tank incident? Six students were brought before the Faculty Discipline Committee and were suspended and banished from the campus for two weeks, though one of the offenders was defiantly seen on the Forty Acres almost any time of day. When confronted about his trespass, he argued that there was a U. S. Post Office in the rotunda of Old Main, and as a United States citizen, he had a right to mail letters, check his post office box, and attend to any other postal matters that he desired.

The faculty, perhaps tired of shooing away belligerent cattle from the campus, took no further action.

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.