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.
Early 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.
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!
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.