“a plan of growth, enrichment, and expansion,” 1964

We recently got back to Houston after our annual July trip to Washington state. While I was up there I played a lot of golf but I also had a lot of time to think and specifically to think about Rice. The transition of presidential administrations always prompts re-evaluations of the institution’s future, especially of our mission and how to best pursue it. You always think of Dr. Lovett and his expansive vision in these circumstances but this time I found myself focused on the expansion that took place in the 1960s under the leadership of President Pitzer and Board chairman George R. Brown. I know I’ve mentioned the Ten Year Plan here before but the documents they worked from are too long and detailed for a blog post. So I dug up this 1964 press release that describes the plan, which was in my opinion a model of both clear thinking about goals and clear communication. It’s aggressive for sure, entailing major expansion of the student body, the graduate program, and the research enterprise, all revolving around the recruitment of “a faculty that will be without parallel.”

How it all played out is a long story, but it’s safe to say that this plan, with both its successes and failures, was the genesis of the modern Rice University:

Nobody asked me but I’d sure like to see something analogous happen soon.

Bonus: I was walking on campus a couple days ago and came upon a guy patching up an outside wall of Cohen House. Of course I went over to see what it was all about–turned out to be water damage.

We were standing quite close to the building and in the course of our conversation I happened to look straight up at its top. I saw something there I’d never noticed because you have to be in this somewhat odd position to get a look at it.

Zoom in and you can see this beautiful intricate carving in a place where people rarely look. This was so surprising and so moving that I teared up a little.

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“we all hunted out and shortened old dinner dresses,” 1962

This is the last part of Corinne Tsanoff’s letter to her sister about the Rice semi-centennial celebration in 1962. It’s the longest piece and also my favorite, because of the discussion of the wardrobe complications endured by the faculty wives, who had work out what to wear to three separate formal dinners in the days before people just went out and bought new clothes because they felt like it. Honestly, sitting together, sewing and talking, sounds like much more fun than a trip to the Galleria:

If you’d like to see the film on Rice’s history, The Golden Years, that was shown on the Saturday afternoon of the celebration, you can find it here on the wonderful Texas Archive of the Moving Image website. It’s about a half an hour long and if you’ve been paying attention here at all you’ll recognize all sorts of people and places that I’ve talked about over the years. You get to hear Dr. Lovett talk and see a lost world. It’s well worth your time.

I have to confess that I can’t be sure whether this review of the film in the Thresher is correct, although I suspect it is.  I stopped listening very quickly, focused intently on the images rather than the public relations happy talk. Here’s the whole page, since I know you guys like it that way:

Bonus: The ex-Media Center. (Thanks again to a loyal reader.)



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Speaking of Harold Wilson . . .

He was the first faculty member to arrive at Rice in 1912 and was allegedly “delighted with Houston.”

This came from a very early scrapbook kept by Mr. Cohn, Rice’s first business manager. Those small dots are some sort of glue and once something is stuck to them it is never coming off.

Bonus: Keep those hands clean!



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“I have never seen a philosopher have such an ovation,” 1962

The day after President Pitzer’s inauguration in October, 1962 there was a full schedule of Semi-centennial events, culminating in the awarding of the Medals of Honor. Here is Corinne Tsanoff’s touching description, highlighted (at least for me) by her gentle concern for and enjoyment of the Tsanoff’s long time friends and colleagues Harold and Marjorie Wilson, both quite elderly by this time:

Here’s Dr. Wilson, Rice’s first physics professor, receiving his medal. Bill Akers seems to be about to hand it to Pitzer and that looks like a very young Ron Sass in charge of the box. (One of the earliest posts I wrote here, by the way, was about one of Sass’s other duties at the Semi-centennial–organizing the foreign dignitaries for the inaugural procession, which was not as simple as it sounds.)

And here’s the moment Tsanoff  received his. That’s a genuine smile on Pitzer’s face, by the way:

I found the medal in the boxes that came from the storage unit in Austin:


Bonus: I’m in Washington state for our usual July trip but my friends on campus are still staying alert.

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“We felt like a platter of stewed potatoes,” 1962

Not long ago we got back the fifty-three boxes of the Tsanoff Family collection from off- site storage at Iron Mountain, where it had been housed until the recent completion of the second module of the Library Service Center:

Before they were sent to the LSC I spent several happy hours making a rough catalog of the contents of each box. Purely by accident I put my hand on a wonderful letter from Corinne Tsanoff to her sister Eva, a high school teacher in Colorado. In it she brings the events of the 1962 Rice Semi-Centennial to vivid life.  There’s so much in here that I’m taking it in a couple of pieces, this first one about the afternoon inauguration of Kenneth Pitzer. It was mid-October, so it might well have been a cool day. But it wasn’t:

Suddenly this photograph of the inaugural ceremony, which I’ve seen dozens of times, feels different. It feels, I guess, hotter. And notice all the empty chairs in the back by the camera:

They all got up and crammed together into the shade of that huge oak tree on the corner! And it wasn’t so bad on the platform, which caught the shade of Lovett Hall:

Bonus: Mech Lab stays, Abercrombie goes.

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“this slaughter of the English language,” 1928

Slang is one of those things that never fails to interest. It evolves at a dizzying rate and is  forgotten as quickly as it moves on, frustrating my desire to know what the heck people were talking about. So when I see something like this 1928 newspaper article about campus slang I sit up and pay attention. It reads like a dispatch from another universe:

There is however one happy little tidbit here that solves an old mystery: what precisely is a cush?

The issue first arose when I wrote this post back in 2018.  It involved the first iteration of what became the Rules for Slimes, written in the fall of 1916, which I found in the ARA collection. Check out rule four:

So that mystery seem solved, but I’d still like to know what you had to do to be guilty of vamping and why it was acceptable to do it in non-conspicuous places.

Bonus: So I’ve given up caring that the cypresses die but I’m still very interested in how the cypresses die.

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Van Gogh Arrives in Houston, 1951

Back in 2017 I wrote about finding at an estate sale a scrapbook that had belonged to Cal Dean Hill ’52.  It chronicled much of his life, from boyhood through his years at Rice. An enormously important part of that life was his girlfriend, later wife, Ginny Smith ’52, photographed here on campus sometime in the early 1950s:

Then a couple years ago Ginny and Cal’s family came to the Woodson and generously donated another family album, this one belonging to Ginny, one packed full of evidence of their happy and busy social life. There are images of a wide range of Rice activities and also of events at Houston’s cultural institutions. One of the most important of these was the 1951 Van Gogh exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum, which had only opened in 1948. The exhibit was held in the museum’s original building, a small A-frame designed by McKie & Kamrath. I can’t help but wonder how they pulled this off. In any event, Ginny Smith took pictures during her visit:

Anyone who’s been reading here for a while knows that one of the things I love best is when different collections overlap. In this case, the second important collection holds the records of  CAMH. My esteemed colleague Rebecca helped me find what I had hoped would be there–the catalog of the exhibition. Here’s the foreword:

Also interesting are these lists, first the lenders (Jock Whitney!) :

And the local participants, a Who’s Who of Houston society:

All of which is to say that seventy years later things have changed pretty dramatically:

Bonus: The February freeze hit the Italian cypresses hard. One’s gone and more are going. I’d feel bad about this but apparently we’ve decided we’re just going to keep planting them and watching them slowly die so I’m not spending any more emotional energy on it.

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Chandler Davidson, 1936-2021

Part of the reason I needed my recent break was that learning of the death of Chandler Davidson so soon after losing Sid Burrus just knocked the pins out from under me. I first met Chandler when I was in graduate school, working on a dissertation about the desegregation of the major private universities in the South.  He was on my dissertation committee and his excitement and enthusiasm for the project almost certainly, in all honesty, exceeded my own.

His book Race and Class in Texas Politics was foundational for me in understanding the larger context of Rice’s halting movement towards desegregation but it was his personal example that made a more profound impression. Aside from his academic and administrative obligations (which were significant) Chandler spent untold hours working for minority voting rights. He sat on panels and advisory groups, testified before Congress, wrote detailed reports, and acted as a consultant and expert witness in court challenges to dilutive voting systems under the Voting Rights Act.  What was so striking was that while I have certainly seen him angry over some of these things (and over some developments on campus as well), his general stance towards the world was overwhelmingly positive. He liked to laugh, he loved to share fun, he delighted in his students and colleagues, and he was always completely himself.  I’ve always loved the picture of him as a happy little boy that was included in the program for the 2011 Veteran’s Day celebration on campus, the year he was the honoree:

Chandler, of course, could also joyfully rabble rouse with the best of them. This seems to have begun during his undergraduate years at the University of Texas and carried all the way through his career at Rice. There are a lot of examples. I made myself smile the other day when I went looking for a 1975 Thresher article about the official naming of the engineering school after George R. Brown. I was pretty sure that Chandler had something to do with a protest on that occasion and wanted to check. It turned out that I had misremembered and that he had actually written a letter to the editor after the protestors were chased off campus and threatened with arrest. It’s a beauty, and it’s typical of his forthright and clear manner in demanding accountability.  I smiled because although I was wrong, I might have been right.


Chandler Davidson, rest in peace.

Bonus: Sometimes I get to help clean out the offices of people who are moving for one reason or another. This was the case with Chandler–we had a ball going through all his old stuff, some of which is of serious historical value. He was lugging another box to the Woodson when I caught him, grinning as usual.



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Time Capsule, 1948

You may or may not have noticed that I haven’t posted for a while. Nothing is amiss, but I just needed a real break. Now, break taken, I’m back and with a backlog of really good material to talk about. With luck I’ll return for the foreseeable future to the usual schedule of writing once or twice week. I hope someone is still here to read it.

First up, always interesting–a time capsule. I got an email from FE&P saying that they’d found one in the cornerstone of Abercrombie when they started demolition and that I could pick it up in Cantu’s office. I was thwarted that first day by heavy rain but when I finally made it in I found a square copper box that you could kind of almost see into. I took it back to the Woodson and with a couple pairs of pliers pried it open:

Inside I found this:

All that stuff was actually in there, although mysteriously the only thing wrapped in cellophane was the list itself.  The newspaper clippings are interesting particularly because they show the explosion of new building on campus after World War II, driven in large part by the philanthropy of the Abercrombies, the Wiess family, the M.D. Anderson Foundation, and the Fondrens. This generosity transformed the face of campus in a very short span of time:

I was also interested in the date on the list: November 10, 1948. The formal opening of the building took place at Homecoming that year, which was held on November 20th. It hadn’t occurred to me that you’d put the time capsule in the cornerstone when the building was already finished. Just for fun, here’s the front page of the Thresher that talks about the opening:

I’m most grateful to FE&P for saving this piece of Abercrombie history.

Bonus: With trepidation I wandered over to Abercrombie to have a look at the action. Happily, this is what I found:

The workers had painstakingly removed the heavy pieces of the sculpture on the front of the building (about which more later), saving them–and the cornerstone–for use somewhere else, I’d guess in the new building. Pretty cool.

This, though, is kind of sad, even though I know it needs to happen:


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To Sidney Burrus: Teacher, Friend, Colleague

When I heard last weekend that Sidney Burrus had died I felt simply heartsick, bogged down with grief. Sid was the person most responsible for me staying at Rice after I graduated. People are often surprised to learn that my first real job here was as a post-doc in the School of Engineering. This odd career trajectory says much more about Sidney than it does about me. His relentless curiosity and willingness to come at things from unexpected angles was one of his defining characteristics and it led him to think that having a historian around the Dean’s office might be of some value. I don’t know if that’s so but he remained always an enthusiastic supporter, friend, and resource. I won’t recite again the facts and figures of his brilliant career (you can find those here and here) but I do want to say a small bit about what he’s meant to Rice, and what Rice meant to him.

It was my great good fortune to be called on to help with the task of emptying his office in Abercrombie, itself about to meet its maker. And as soon as I was in there I began to feel better, rather cheerful again and filled with gratitude that I got to be on the Earth at the same time as Sid. Cleaning out someone’s office is always an education, no matter how well you knew the person, and this was no exception. Delightful discoveries were everywhere. There were drawers full of carefully organized files of his academic work dating back to graduate school, which beautifully revealed the evolution of his scholarly ideas. I also discovered that Sid didn’t read things online. He found things online, then printed them out and read them on paper. This paper was not so carefully organized–it seems to have just collected and the sheer scope of what he read is amazing. Yes, there was engineering and science and technology but also many pieces about the future of the American university, about religion, about social policy of all kinds. I even found some Foucault! And most unusual were his books. In the offices of retired faculty the books tend to be old and outdated, useless but dustily preserved by inertia. Sid’s books, in contrast, were quite current, a reflection of his constantly forward-looking mind.

And yet. There was single shelf’s worth of old volumes. It was there that I came upon something that seems to me very lovely. Because as deep as Sidney’s drive to move forward was even to the end of his life, he always carried something of the old Rice with him. I already knew this, gleaned from conversations over many years. But in this one object I found a tangible demonstration of the ties of respect and love that have been shared by successive generations of Rice students and faculty.

It was this book, published in 1960 by Paul Pfeiffer, ’38, who was one of Sid’s teachers here:

Inside, this note. Sidney Burrus, ’57, ’58, ’60 had only just graduated when it was written:

Then I turned the page once more to discover that Pfeiffer had dedicated the book to James Waters, ’17, professor of electrical engineering, who had been Paul Pfeiffer’s own teacher at Rice:

Sid Burrus, rest in peace.

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