Before I leave for vacation I need to tell you all how astonished I was by the reaction to my retirement. Honestly, I had no idea. The comments, emails, and facebook comments were deeply moving and I’m so very grateful for those expressions of appreciation for my work and of good wishes for the future. I’ll never be able to live up to them!
Also–don’t laugh–I’m already a little bored. So here’s a classic piece of obsolete technology to keep our spirits up until I get back. The first time I saw this I was so enchanted by the bedspread (and those tiles! certainly asbestos) that I failed to notice the slide rules:
But there’s more–zoom in and take a look at that old-time clock. It looks like you have to wind it up. And is it sitting on top of a transistor radio? There’s no date on this–I called it circa 1950 but it could well be somewhat later than that, although probably not earlier. I don’t know much about the history of radios but this kind of small radio (if that’s what it is) doesn’t start showing up in pictures until the 1950s.
Sometimes I come across something so surprising I’m simply struck dumb. This is an amazing letter from Miss Dean ’16, Rice’s acting librarian until 1946 and a generally formal and quite serious person, at least while she was at work. The final sentences here in my opinion qualify as an outburst for her:
That’s irresistible. And in fact I do join her– after almost thirty years tomorrow is my last day at Rice.
I’ve learned a lot in those years. At the beginning I spent countless hours reading thousands of memos, reports, committee minutes, and a staggering variety of strategic plans attempting to understand Rice’s “institutional history.” I was both naive and ignorant and so rather surprised to discover that this doesn’t actually get you very far. What I learned thereby is that at that level “institutional history” is largely the story of folly changing its clothes every decade or so. This is not uninteresting—those memos do in fact have a great deal of impact on the direction of the institution–but it’s undeniably dry and it leaves out the deep story almost completely. One wants something more. And it turned out that there was more. It turned out that it was the people as individuals; the scholars, the staff, the coaches, the people who cut the grass and empty our trash cans and take care of our buildings, all of them—that were truly interesting and understanding them was a critical part of understanding how Rice evolved.
There are hundreds of collections in the Woodson, thousands of photographs, millions of documents that overlap and intertwine. At some point I learned that if I just kept still and looked at absolutely everything that crossed my path—not just official correspondence but also thank you notes, address books, gin rummy score pads, condolence letters, dorm furnishings, wrought iron railings, dance cards, slide rules, match books, marginalia—I could know something not just about the evolution of say, the school of engineering, but about the humanity of the engineers who worked there. Once that happened every box I opened became a small tale out of Chekov. That will hold your attention for a good long time. It even made the interminable memos and reports spring to life—I no longer see only what someone wrote, I have some insight into the many and various reasons why they wrote it. I’ll really miss these people, my colleagues dead and alive. Getting to know them has been a profound and largely joyous education.
It’s no surprise either that there’s another side to this. It’s also allowed me to observe the folly of university life in intimate detail: the pointless and self-defeating internal arguments, power struggles where everyone loses, betrayals (both grand and petty), self-aggrandizement, thwarted ambitions, wasted energy, plans that should have worked but didn’t, and of course loads and loads of ordinary human suffering. At times this can feel like quite a heavy burden but through it I’ve learned that those I admire might sometimes disappoint and yet remain admirable. For the ways I’ve disappointed others here I beg your forgiveness.
In more mundane business I have a couple of long term projects I’m still working on that will keep me hanging around the Woodson for a while. I also still have lots of things stashed away on my laptop. So my plan is to take off the month of July for the annual trek to the Northwest. When I come back I’ll resume blogging but more like weekly rather than daily. I don’t really know how much longer I’ll do it so if you have requests, or want to donate something to the archives while I’m still around to see it, or if you just have something you need to get off your chest, do not delay. We’ll see what happens.
Bonus: In the mean time I imagine myself and Miss Dean as Thelma and Louise. What a pair we would be. That’s her on the right with no shoes on. I bet she’d make me drive.
Extra Bonus: I got a new grandson last week. This is Robert. He seems very bright.
This started as a Friday Follies post because I saw this snippet in the February, 1965 Sallyport and immediately recognized comic perfection. Everything about this story is just as it should be:
Then I started researching the stretcher-ridden patient, Dick Wesley ’65, and I discovered yet another spectacular Rice alumnus and a different kind of perfection. Wesley became a doctor after he left Rice, a pulmonologist, and spent his career in Washington state. He died of ALS in 2015. Here is a link to the memorial page assembled by the Department of Political Science at the University of Washington, where in retirement he became a beloved member of that community. These are moving tributes to a gifted and remarkable man, with contributions from childhood friends in Beaumont as well as professors whose classes he took near the end of his life. Really, you should read it.
One of the small silver linings of being stuck at home by the corona virus is that I’ve had plenty of time to troll around on eBay for good Rice stuff. This February, 1954 issue of Coach & Athlete magazine (the existence of which I had not previously suspected) was last week’s prize. We were the School of the Month!
It’s really great–pure, unadulterated public relations but a concise snapshot of a moment when it seemed that Rice would always be able to maintain academic and athletic excellence at the very highest levels. Note the picture of All-American tackle and nuclear physics major (and 2017 ARA Gold Medal recipient) Richard Chapman on the first page:
Bonus: The most arresting things in this magazine were the ads.
I ran across this in a treasurer’s office scrapbook the other day and was actually quite surprised:
I had no idea that the Rice business offices remained off campus for forty years. Originally in the Scanlan Building, they moved to the Esperson Building in 1926 where they apparently stayed for over twenty years (although it looks like at some point they moved to a different set of rooms):
Two things: First, I don’t know whether rooms 201-204 were in the north or south wing in 1948. And second, this was only a month after the Administration Building had officially been renamed Lovett Hall and a year before the library finally moved out of the building. It must have felt like a season turning.
Bonus: I saw this yesterday and my heart was gladdened. They’re going to match them for the Mech Lab renovation! To know why it makes sense to copy the lights in the Lovett Hall cloisters for the front of Mech Lab, go here. You’ve got to celebrate the small wins.
I was looking for something in the Land Deeds and Sundry Contracts collection this afternoon and look what turned up–the bill for President Lovett’s office furniture, including the table that’s now in the Woodson. We paid $195 for it and I think we got our money’s worth:
I went back and looked at the picture of his office and sure enough you can see most of the things on that list. And by the way, the shades on the window were green linen. I found the bill for those also:
Dr. Edgar Odell Lovett’s presidential office in Lovett Hall (Administration Building), Rice Institute
Bonus: The carving on the desk is even more ornate than that on the Woodson’s table. If I recall correctly this desk is now in President Leebron’s office in Allen Center.
I’ve been cleaning some stuff out of my office at home and I came across this photocopy that I made some time in the late 1990s. I vividly remember why I did this. I had come across a file copy of a letter that was significant for the research I was doing at the time. There was just one problem: I knew who wrote the letter (it was in his files) but there was nothing to indicate who he wrote it to. The only clue came at the sign off. The writer sent Christmas greetings to the recipient and his wife, who he referred to by her first name. After a bit it dawned on me that we have the records of the Faculty Wives Club and I could probably figure it out by going to their membership lists.
This was a great idea with one small flaw. Zoom in and take a look:
The reason I copied it was to take it around to some older Rice folks (now mostly dead) who helped me begin filling in some of the first names. After roughly 25 years I know most of these women in varying degrees of intimacy and can say all their names myself. I’m not sure if anyone else will be able to after I’m gone.
The funny thing is that what strikes me looking at this today is something I didn’t even notice the first time around. Why did they need a gallon of kerosene? What the heck were they doing? Probably not Molotov cocktails but who knows.
Bonus: This is what a tea party is supposed to look like. That’s Miss Sarah Lane ’19 at right and I think this may have been around the time of her retirement in 1962. No kerosene in sight.
I’m fairly sure lots of people drank beer off campus but these guys got busted:
I haven’t been able to find out whether they were allowed back in the dorms but I’d bet you they weren’t. It sounds crazy to us these days but with some gradual loosening over time this kind of rigid regulation went on for decades.
I don’t know about you guys but to me Lauterbach looks old enough to be trusted with a beer:
Bonus: I can’t resist pointing out that the Dean at the time would have been Harry Weiser, last seen here at the Colloid Chemists Convention in Chicago, 1946.
I was rifling through some 8x10s yesterday and this one caught my attention:
It was the ties, of course, which are substantial and which suggest early to mid 1980s, that I found so enchanting. But once you get past the ties the legitimate question of interest is this: the only label on the back is “Rice Center” but I have no idea what center that might be. I think I see a couple of architects in there–that looks like David Crane and (I think) a young Jack Mitchell. John Margrave from Chemistry is on the left, although he may have been here as VP of Advanced Studies and Research. I don’t quite recognize the fellow just left of Norman. So once again I’m looking for some help here. Thoughts?
Note: Thanks a million for all the suggestions about the shorthand translation. I found someone who will give it a shot. We shall see . . .
Bonus: I was surprised to see this yesterday while standing on the library’s loading dock. Over the years I’ve stood there hundreds of time and never noticed it. I have no idea what (if anything) happens if you push it.