Five Things every UT Freshman should Know

In just a few weeks, the freshman class of 2021 will arrive in Austin and become a part of the University of Texas. Before the fall semester begins and schedules get busy, here are five things every UT freshman ought to know.

1. Know Your Forty Acres

Above: The UT campus at 21st Street and Guadalupe in 1899.

The city of Austin was founded in 1839 as the capital of the Republic of Texas. Surveyors laid out a series of city blocks between Waller and Shoal Creeks, set aside land at the top of a hill for a “Capitol Square,” named east-west streets for Texas trees, and north-south roads for Texas rivers.

A year later, in 1840, additional land was surveyed to the north, and a square, forty-acre plot was informally labeled “College Hill,” (photo at left) bounded today by 21st and 24th Streets, Speedway to the east, and Guadalupe on the west. At the time, there were no firm plans to establish a university, and the people of Austin made no claims to the land. They built their homes and businesses around College Hill, and used the area as a favorite spot for weekend picnics. There is, in fact, no legal deed to the plot.

The Texas Legislature created the University in 1881 and Austin, by way of a controversial state-wide vote, won the main campus. Having waited decades, College Hill was at last put to use when UT was formally opened on September 15, 1883. Though the University grounds have expanded ten-fold, the campus is still known as the Forty Acres.

Above right: The Victorian-Gothic old Main Building, UT’s first campus structure, where the Tower stands today. (Explore the early UT campus here.)

2. Know Your Colors

It was a gloomy Tuesday morning, April 21, 1885, when UT’s first baseball team, along with most of the student body, arrived at the downtown Austin train station at Third Street and Congress Avenue. The group had chartered passenger cars bound for Georgetown, thirty miles north, where UT was to play its first-ever intercollegiate baseball game against Southwestern University. Just as the train was ready to depart, Miss Gussie Brown from (of all places) Orange, Texas, urgently announced the need for some ribbon to identify everyone as from the University of Texas.

Today, college fans show support for their teams by donning t-shirts, jackets, and caps. But in the 1880s, colored ribbons were worn on lapels. An enterprising male student often sported longer ribbons so he’d have extra to share with a pretty girl who had none.

Gussie’s two friends – Venable Proctor and Clarence Miller – always eager to impress the ladies, jumped off the train and sprinted north along Congress Avenue to the nearest general store. They asked the shopkeeper for three bolts of two colors of ribbon. “Which colors?” the merchant inquired. “Anything,” the students replied. After all, the train was leaving the station, and there was no time to be particular.

The shopkeeper gave them the colors he had the most in stock: white ribbon, which was popular for weddings and parties and was always in demand, and bright orange ribbon, because few bought the color, and the store had plenty to spare.

Right: The Austin railroad station at Third Street and Congress Avenue.

Loaded with supplies, Proctor and Miller ran back and boarded the moving train as it left for Georgetown. Along the way, the ribbon was divided and distributed to everyone except for a law student named Yancey Lewis, “who had evolved a barbaric scheme of individual adornment by utilizing the remnants.”

Unfortunately, it rained in the afternoon, the pitcher’s curve ball curved not, and Texas outfielders ran weary miles in a lost cause as they fell to an experienced Southwestern squad 21–6. The colors, though, had made their debut. There would be challengers, including gold and white, royal blue, and (most popular) orange and maroon, but a 1900 vote by students, faculty, and alumni settled the matter for orange and white.

Read the full story here: Orange and White

3. Know Your Mascot

University of Texas athletic teams have been known as the “Longhorns” since 1904, but in the mid-1910s, a growing number of UT alumni wanted to see if a live longhorn mascot might be able to attend football games. In the fall of 1916, Texas law grad Stephen Pinckney, working for the U.S. Attorney General’s office, discovered what he thought would be the perfect candidate in West Texas. With $1.00 donations from 125 alumni, Pinckney arranged to purchase the steer and have it transported to Austin in time for the Thanksgiving Day football game between the University and Texas A&M.

The longhorn made its debut at halftime and was presented to the students (photo above left), then taken to a South Austin stockyard for safe keeping and a formal portrait. He was named “Bevo,” thought to be derived from the word “beeve,” the plural for beef, and a slang term for a cow or steer. (Think of the name as “Beef-o.”)

The University community, though, wasn’t entirely sure what to do with their new addition. The gift had been made, but without any formal plans for feeding, caring, or transporting the steer. Besides, UT students already claimed to have a live mascot in Pig Bellmont, (right) a dog owned by Athletic Director Theo Bellmont. Pig lived on the Forty Acres, had a daily routine of greeting students in classrooms and in the library, and went to home and away football, baseball, and basketball games.

Texas had won the football game 21-7, and some students pushed to have the steer branded with the score. Others thought it was cruel. As the campus community debated, a group of Aggie pranksters visited Austin in the wee hours of Sunday, February 12, 1917, broke in to the South Austin stockyard and branded the steer “13-0,” the score of the 1915 football bout A&M had won in College Station the year before.

Above: Bevo was branded “13-0” in February 1917. 

A few days later, amid rumors that the Aggies planned to kidnap the animal outright, Bevo was safely transported to the Tom Iglehart ranch west of Austin. Six weeks later, the United States entered World War I, and the University transformed itself to support the war effort. Out of sight and off campus, the branded steer was all but forgotten until the end of the war in November 1918.

Since Bevo’s food and care cost the University sixty cents a day, and as the steer wasn’t believed to be tame enough to remain in the football stadium, it was fattened up and became the barbecued main course for the January 1920 football banquet. A delegation from A&M was invited to attend, “and the branding iron was buried and the resumption of athletic relations, after an unhappy period… duly celebrated.”

For the full story and more photos, see Bevo.

4. Know Your Hand Sign

Above: Harley Clark (right) and the 1955 UT cheerleaders.

Harley Clark was a head cheerleader in search of an idea. It was the second week of November, 1955, and the Texas Longhorn football team was getting ready to host sixth-ranked TCU in an important contest at Memorial Stadium. A torchlight parade across the Forty Acres and football rally in Gregory Gym had been scheduled for Friday night, November 11th, but Harley was looking for something to make it extra special and rouse a little more of the University of Texas spirit.

A few days before the rally, Harley was in the Texas Union (photo at right) when he saw fellow classmate Henry “HK” Pitts, who suggested that a hand sign with the index and little fingers extended looked a bit like a longhorn, and might be fun to do at rallies and football games. The Texas Aggies had their “Gig ‘em” thumbs-up sign, inspired while playing the TCU Horned Frogs. (“Gigging” is a term used to hunt small game – including frogs – with a muti-pronged spear.) With the TCU game coming up on Saturday, why can’t Texas fans have their own hand signal?

Harley liked the idea, and decided to introduce it at the Gregory Gym rally. He demonstrated the sign to the crowd and promptly declared, “This is the official hand sign of the University of Texas, to be used whenever and wherever Longhorns gather.” The students and cheerleaders tried it out, and Harley led a simple yell, “Hook ‘em Horns!” with hands raised. (In this case, a tradition has two founders. HK Pitts was in charge of “research and development,” and Harley Clark took on “marketing and sales.”)

Above: A tradition is born. The moment in Gregory Gym when the “Hook ’em Horns” hand sign was first introduced to UT students. Click on an image for a larger view.

Immediately after the rally, Harley was confronted by a furious Arno Nowotny, the Dean of Students. “How could you say the hand sign was official?” the dean wanted to know. “Has this been approved by the University administration?” Harley admitted that the idea hadn’t been approved first, but the cat was already out of the bag – or the longhorn was already loose in the pasture. At the football game, the student section practiced what they’d learned the night before, and the alumni were quick to follow. By the end of the game, the stadium was full of “Hook ‘em Horns” hand signs.

The full story is here: Hook ’em Horns

5. Know Your Tower

The Main Building, with its 307-foot Tower, is the definitive landmark of the University. For eighty years, it’s quietly watched over the campus bustle, breaking its silence every quarter hour to remind everyone of the passing of the day. Bathed in warm orange lights to announce honors and victories, crowned in fireworks at the climax of spring commencement ceremonies, it’s been a backdrop for freshman convocations, football rallies, concerts, and demonstrations. Architect Paul Cret intended it to be the “image carried in our memory when we think of the place,” though author and UT English instructor J. Frank Dobie, incensed that a state so rich in land would build something better suited to New York City, branded it a “toothpick in a pie.”

Opened in 1937, the Main Building was created to house the University’s central library. Along the east and west sides of the building, a pair of spacious reading rooms, labeled the “Hall of Texas” and the “Hall of Noble Words,” were connected to a great central reference room. Made with liberal use of oak and marble, the room was decorated with the six seals of Texas. (A life sciences library is still housed in the Main Building, and a visit to see these great halls is highly recommended. The Hall of Noble Words is a popular study place for students.)

Above: The ceiling of the Hall of Noble Words. 

Rising twenty-seven floors above the reading rooms, the Tower contained the library’s book stacks. Made of Indiana limestone, it was financed through a grant from the Progress Works Administration, a New Deal program created during the Great Depression. As a closed-stack library, its patrons searched an immense card catalog to identify their selections, and then requested books at the front desk. Orders were forwarded upstairs to one of the Tower librarians, who sometimes wore roller skates to better navigate the rows of bookshelves. Once found, books were sent downstairs in a special elevator to be checked out.

As both enrollment and the library’s holdings grew, the waiting time for a book extended to more than half an hour. The need for an open-stack library led to the construction of the Undergraduate Library and Academic Center in 1963 (now the Flawn Academic Center), and the Perry-Castaneda Library in 1977.

Symbolically, architect Paul Cret intended the Tower to be the University’s iconic building, and sought to give it an “appropriate architectural treatment for a depository of human knowledge.” The ornamentation on the building was meant to convey its purpose as a library as well as to the mission and aspirations of the University. Names of literary giants – Plato, Shakespeare, and Mark Twain, among them –  were carved in limestone under the tall windows along the east and west sides. Displayed in gold leaf on the north side of the Tower were letters (or cartouches) from five dialects that contributed to the development of English language: Egyptian, Phoenician, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. The biblical quote inscribed above the south entrance, “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free,” was selected by the Faculty Building Committee as suitable for those who came to use the library. “The injunction to seek truth as a means to freedom is as splendid a call to youth as we can make,” explained committee chair William Battle. (See: The Inscription.)

Placed alongside the literary images were familiar Classical symbols. The lamp of learning, the face of Athena as the goddess of wisdom, and rows of scallop shells – associated with Venus as the goddess of truth and beauty – were all added to the south façade, carved in place by Italian stone masons. Learning, wisdom, truth, and beauty: values long associated with the purpose of higher education.

The most colorful decorations were hung along the east and west sides of the building, just below the broad eaves, where artful representations of a dozen university seals (above right) were meant to convey a history of higher education, as well as proclaim UT’s own aspirations to be a “University of the first class.”

At night, the Tower takes on a different symbolic meaning when it glows orange to announce an athletic victory or an academic achievement. In the case of a national championship, a number “1” is displayed in the windows – a favorite sight for every Longhorn fan.

Above: An orange Tower with a “1” on all four sides for a national championship.

For more reading and photos: How to Build a Tower, The Main Building Seals, and UT Tower Lighting Configurations

Also see: Advice for UT Freshmen

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Freshman Class President Kidnapped!

The attempted abduction of the wily Winchester Kelso.

1915 Cactus.Winchester Kelso.Class Excuse.300.

Above: A photo of  Winchester Kelso, placed over his class excuse card, which reads: “Mr. Winchester Kelso has been granted leave of absence because of being kidnapped as President of the Freshman Class.” The note was initialed “H.T.P.,” by Dean (and future Plan II honors program founder) Hanson Tufts Parlin. 

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“Once upon a time, in Egypt, four or five thousand years ago,” joked Professor Harry Benedict, “some careless upper classmen, not knowing what they were starting, kidnapped a Freshman class president and held him out on a Nile sand bar until the grand march at the Freshman dance was over. Little did these careless Egyptians realize what they had done. Their Sophomore successors, being like sheep, were predestined to steal Freshman presidents to the end of time.” Benedict, a future UT president, was a keen observer of campus life and knew it didn’t take much to start a college tradition. “If a Sophomore does anything one year,” Benedict explained, “all other subsequent Sophomores have to do exactly the same thing with pathetic fidelity. There is no escape; “It is the custom,” is the mandatory reason.”

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It was a chilly evening on Thursday, February 26, 1915, as Winchester Kelso leisurely finished his dinner at the Cozy Corner, a popular café along the Drag at the southwest corner of 24th and Guadalupe Streets. A first-year University student from San Antonio (his boyhood home still stands, remodeled as a bed and breakfast), Kelso had been elected freshman class president. Sitting at the café and chatting with friends, the discussion no doubt turned to Friday night’s Freshman Ball, the social event of the year for UT greenhorns. As the freshman chief executive, Kelso and his date had the honor of leading the Grand March, a traditional promenade around the dance floor to open the evening.

There were a few on campus, though, who wanted to prevent young Mr. Kelso from fulfilling his Freshman Ball duties. A group of sophomores, always eager to prove their class’ superiority, thought it would be a great sign of supremacy if the freshman class president were forced to miss his Grand March debut, and conspired to remove Kelso from the campus environs until the last dance had ended. Besides, this is what previous sophomore classes had done. It was the custom.

At the Cozy Corner, just as Kelso finished his evening meal, at least a dozen sophomores burst into the café, lifted Kelso from his seat, and took him outside to a waiting automobile. “The freshman showed much resistance at the beginning of the struggle,” reported The Texan student newspaper, “but was soon overpowered by his captors.” The car spirited Kelso to a campsite about five miles north of Austin, where he was to remain, in a tent and under guard, until late Friday night.

As Benedict later described it, Kelso, confined to quarters, “consulted the Book of Customs” and discovered “that while it is the custom for the Freshman president to be captured, it is not the custom for him to remain so.” Because it was nighttime, Kelso decided to create a diversion by tossing small objects out of the back of the tent, which caused enough noise in the woods that worried sophomores thought a rescue party was approaching. A few left the campground to investigate, and with the number of guards reduced, Kelso bolted out of the front of the tent and into the darkness. He managed to elude a search by frantic sophomores, who eventually gave up and went home, and left Kelso stranded in the forest.

“Effecting his escape by means of a bold ruse,” stated the Cactus yearbook, “the Freshman Prexy lost his way and wandered about for some time in the country.” It was only a few days before a full moon, but the added light didn’t help Kelso’s sense of direction. Well after midnight, he stumbled upon the tracks of Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad (popularly known as the K-T, or “Katy”) and discovered he was a dozen miles from Austin. Kelso followed the tracks through the night, and returned to the Capital City about 5 a.m. the next morning.

Wasting no time, Kelso went directly to his boarding house, gathered his suit, some food supplies for the day, and other items he’d need for the ball, told a few trusted freshmen of his plans, and then hurried downtown. Because the University didn’t yet possess any facilities suitable for a class dance, the Knights of Columbus Hall on Ninth Street had been booked for the Freshman Ball.

Millet Opera House.Knights of Columbus Hall

Ninth Street in downtown Austin. The popular Millet Opera House is center, while the Knights of Columbus Hall is two buildings to the right, on the corner. Image found in the Austin History Center.

Kelso found someone who let him in to the building. He went upstairs to the attic, found a large trunk, and in it hid himself, napping through the day. Twice searching sophomores arrived to check the premises, but left convinced Kelso was elsewhere.

Friday evening, freshmen couples arrived at the dance hall in horse-drawn carriages, only to meet a team of sophomores guarding the entrance. They searched each carriage and questioned the occupants, determined to prevent the class president from attending. As the starting time for the ball neared, the sophomores became more confident that their efforts were successful. But when the music began, the wily Winchester Kelso, none the worse for his adventure and dressed in his best suit, strolled downstairs to meet his date and lead the Grand March.