“the idea of having a girl grade their papers”: Katherine Fischer Drew, 1923-2023

Sometimes when I don’t know where to start I just go all the way back to the beginning. This is Katherine Martha Fischer. We would know her later as Mrs. Drew but here it’s 1944 and she’s a graduating senior at Rice. She was a spectacular student, awarded the Bryan-Chapman Scholarship in 1943 and a Franklin Scholarship in 1944 by a faculty that readily celebrated her intellectual accomplishment. She was a member of the Honor Council and Phi Beta Kappa:

The world she lived in then was so profoundly different from the one we know today. A few years ago a colleague shared a letter with me that gives a sharp sense of how different things were for women at Rice back then and also a sharp sense of Katherine Drew’s character and ability even as a very young woman. It was written by Rice history professor Floyd Lear, one of her mentors, and dated July 1, 1945. (Click on it to enlarge.) In it, he describes the challenges of teaching at wartime Rice and in particular the assistance he received from Katie Fischer ’44:

Able to navigate those waters at a fairly tender age–in 1945 she would have been in her early twenties–the attention to detail (“she knew her stuff”) and no nonsense attitude (“some disciplinary traits desirable in a Chief Petty Officer”) that she displayed here served her well as a the first woman to hold a tenure track job at Rice. Her hiring was thought in some quarters to be a bit of a risk, as who could predict how a woman would work out, but her track record, now including a Cornell doctorate, was solid and the History Department needed her.

For the next four and a half decades she quietly proved that the decision was sound. She was meticulous in her work and dedicated to Rice and to her students. She chaired the History Department for a decade and over the course of so many years she was frequently the voice of reason on a variety of university committees. Ramrod straight, she seemed so formal but could also be very funny–she authored in fact the funniest memo I’ve ever come across in the Rice archives (and unlike most funny academic memos it was intentional.)

For a long time she had a two connected offices on the fifth floor of Fondren. I was still in graduate school when the time came to consolidate them into one and she asked me to help with that task. (My first office clean out, now that I think about it.) I was staggered by the file cabinets full of carefully organized note cards, which all had to be kept for future reference. I walked away, though, with a treasure–a shelf full of foreign language dictionaries and phrase books collected during her travels.

I was lucky to know her.

Katherine Fischer Drew, rest in peace.


Bonus: Mrs. Drew with Floyd Lear at his retirement celebration,.

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Pall Malls, Pizza, and Pepsi-Cola, no date

I found these, undated and otherwise unlabeled, in a packet in a box of things from Space Science. They are hard at work, building something:

Maybe working late, with pizza for dinner:

I don’t know where they are, what they’re building, or who they are, with the exception of the guy in the brown shirt who I think is Brian O’Brien, an early member of the Space Science faculty. (There’s a really interesting Rice News piece from his 2019 return to campus here.)

I would particularly like to know who this elegant young woman is:


Bonus: These were in the same packet might well be what they were building. Took two photos to get the whole thing in and the piece on the very tip looks likely.

As usual, any help would be greatly appreciated.

Extra Bonus: Where am I standing?

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Two Things That Aren’t Here Anymore

I’ve been thinking we haven’t had a good aerial in a while, then I suddenly found two. Both show things that I’m interested in and that have long since disappeared. This first one was sent to me by my friend Michael Bludworth, who writes about Houston’s aviation history on facebook:

Michael was looking for an opinion on the date–on further inspection we agreed it must have been taken in 1926. (I’ll award bonus points if you can tell me why.) It’s a nice photo, clear and taken from an angle that gives us a good look at something I’ve long been curious about–that large shed at the very bottom left. As best I can tell it housed the facilities department, such as it was in the early days, but I’ve never seen anything that would absolutely confirm that. What I have seen, though, are images that show what look like slow burning trash fires on roughly that spot. I can’t really imagine what else this could have been.

The second aerial I encountered while looking through the 1948 Campanile a couple days ago. It’s the inside of the cover and I’d never paid any attention to it before:

What an absolutely glorious view of the stables and mule sheds, just left of the corner of the old stadium! It’s the best I’ve ever seen. (If you don’t know what this is about, start here and don’t miss this.)

Bonus: This is my daughter warming up her squat on Go Texan Day.  She’s a bit of a card.


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“My Hero Is,” 1996

Sorry for the long absence–I was distracted.

But I’ve recently been trying to pull together the history of the Rice Quantum Institute, which has not proven to be an easy task. The records are spotty and scattered through several collections, really depressingly incomplete. And sadly, most of the original members of RQI, many of them my friends, are gone, which only adds to the sting. This means I’ve had to dig through a lot of boxes that I haven’t spent much time with before. And in one of them, in Bob Curl’s things, I came across a questionnaire he filled out for a Dallas Morning News story after he, Rick Smalley, and Harold Kroto were awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of buckminsterfullerene.

After more than thirty years in the Woodson I’ve come to recognize a lot of people’s handwriting, something like a hundred or so I’d guess. And sometimes catching even a glimpse of someone’s hand after they’re gone feels like they’ve just walked into the room, a pleasant little shock. It’s a strange sensation, and one that I hope won’t be entirely obliterated by computers.

Here’s Bob’s self-portrait, in his handwriting:


Extra Bonus: One of the least photographed spots on campus.

This is the only other picture of this general area that I can recall seeing:

Pretty dramatic change in vegatation!

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Things That Don’t Seem Quite Right

Thirty years on campus spent carefully noticing my surroundings have made my experience something like the movie Groundhog Day. So much stays the same that anything different pops out immediately. So a couple of days ago I nearly jumped when I came upon something so completely unexpected right in the middle of the quad:

In case you don’t immediately grasp the import, the plate that covers the National Geodetic Survey marker in the quad is upside down! For context take a look at this post about the marker and the azimuth in the front gate. If you do, you’ll see that it’s supposed to look like this:

There was no way, of course, that I could just let this be. I borrowed a screwdriver from the Woodson (they don’t know and I’ll bring it back tomorrow, I swear) and took it off. It was very muddy inside and someone had scraped the muck off the spot where the marker is embedded, so there was clearly some intent at play. If you zoom in you can see the little triangle:

Very mysterious.

I lost my nerve when I was putting the plate back–it’s heavy and it fits tightly so the possibility of catching a finger is fairly high. Net result: it’s now right side up but backwards, that is, the R is facing Fondren instead of Lovett:

I’ll go back and fix it later.

Bonus: This also doesn’t look quite right. It seems like it should be more interesting than the marker plate but somehow it isn’t. Main entrance to Lovett College, circa 1971.


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More Early Landscaping With Cute Kids, circa 1922

I have a couple more pictures from the Tsanoff collection that were clearly taken on the same day that we caught young Katherine on the path between the privet hedges. This first one caught me by surprise:

That’s little Katherine and her older sister, Nevenna, in the hedges. But . . . but . . . those aren’t our hedges. On closer inspection I think I see those strange shrubs here, in the very middle:

I dug around a little more and found an even better shot:

And there seem to be some similar plants in front of the Administration Building:

I’m no horticulturist, though. Does anyone know what they are?

The second photo isn’t mysterious at all. It’s a lovely image of one of those beautiful planters that I’ve admired for years:


And that’s one heck of a bow on Nevenna!

Bonus: Some things change and some things don’t. Here are some bricks from the construction of the Ralph S. O’Connor building that is replacing Abercrombie.

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The Field House, 1920-1950

I had a followup post to last week’s postcards all planned out but instead I’ll try to answer some questions raised by readers about the old stadium picture. First, what is the building between the open end zone and Main Street?

It’s the original field house, built in 192o. This blurry photo is from the collection of Norman Hurd Ricker, ’16, ’17, ’20:

And a great view from the other side, taken by the Flying Owls:

(In anticipation of the inevitable question, the building on the other side of Main Street is Ye Old College Inn, also built in 1920. See here and here.)

By the time the image on the postcard was taken two wings had been added to the building, as in this blurry shot from 1938:

Someone else asked if there were any pictures of the interior of the building. There are, but not many. There wasn’t any particular reason to take photos in there–it was used mostly for gym classes, intramurals, basketball practice (most games were played at the City Auditorium), and Athletic Department offices.

The only other images of the interior I’ve ever seen were taken in December of 1948 and they clearly show why both the field house (and the old stadium too) were about to be torn down. The first image is the visitor’s locker room and the second is the coaches’ office:


I found these appended to an engineering report that bluntly concluded that both structures need to be vacated as soon as possible, like immediately. They had been built so close to Harris Gully that repeated cycles of drought and flood led to serious cracking. Probably the most alarming and urgent issue was that the two wings of the field house had begun to sink and pull away from the main part of the building. This answers the question that no one has ever asked me: People still sometimes brag about how we heroically built the new stadium in less than a year, but why would we bother to do such a thing? Because there was no choice.

The new gym was built at the same time. It was a big improvement.

One other interesting note about the inside of the field house: when the Rice archives were created in 1950, lots of old papers were hauled out of there, including the papers from all the William Marsh Rice murder and estate litigations. And when the new gym was renovated in 2007 it became Tudor Field House and I dragged almost 400 boxes of stuff out of its nooks and crannies.

Bonus: The airplane is real; the birds seem to have been drawn on.

Extra Bonus: If you poke around a little you can still see bits of the field house half buried in the grass.


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Two Postcards of Rice Stadium and One Little Kid

I recently came across a beautiful postcard I’d never seen before, this one showing the old football stadium and the west end of campus. This is actually what I think of as the New Old Stadium, built in 1938 to handle the growing crowds at Owl football games. (A really good view of the Old Old Stadium, which was a significant expansion of the original stands, is here.)

Have a look:

(Note that the photo from which it was made was taken by Bob Bailey, whose archives it pains me to say are held at the Briscoe Center at the University of Texas.)

There’s a lot to look at here–the other side of Main Street is especially interesting–but what I feel like thinking about today is the long hedge that leads from the dorms, across the footbridge over Harris Gully, and to the stadium. It was a double privet hedge and as you can see it grew over to form a tunnel. It was there for a really long time, surviving the 1950 covering of the gully for at least six years. You can still see it clearly in this aerial shot taken on July 3, 1956, although it was beginning to look a bit bedraggled:

So when was it planted? It looks like just a bare path in this 1921 photo from the Flying Owls collection, but it’s not clear enough to tell for sure if there are little plants there:

The earliest image I’ve found is from just a bit later, early 1923, and they’re already thriving, as is the little kid, who would grow up to be Rice’s Dean of Undergraduates, Katherine Tsanoff Brown:

Bonus: A somewhat less interesting view, roughly contemporaneous, facing the other side.

Extra Bonus: One more postcard, this time the current stadium, undated. That’s pretty full house. Anybody have a guess?

Rice Institute football stadium aerial view postcard

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“Christmas Greetings of Peace and Goodwill,” 1930s

This beautiful hand made, hand colored card carried holiday greetings from the family of Rice architecture professor William Ward Watkin, circa early 1930s:

The house pictured is the Watkin’s home, of course, located at 5009 Caroline, in a neighborhood that was home to many of the early Rice faculty. I believe there’s an office building there today.

The reason I think the card was drawn in the early 1930s is that the original house, built in the mid-teens, underwent a major renovation and a serious remodel around that time and Watkin would have wanted to show it off. Here’s how it looked in 1915:

William Ward Watkin house 5009 Caroline original, Houston, Texas


And here it is after the remodel, I’d say sometime in the 1940s:

William Ward Watkin house 5009 Caroline after remodel, Houston, Texas


Bonus: Here’s Watkin standing on the front porch with a bust of himself done by none other than William McVey ’27, who I was just talking about the other day.

Extra Bonus: Merry Christmas everyone from the 4th floor of Allen Center! I slipped in and out before anyone spotted me.

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“functional and utilitarian without neglecting the aesthetics,” 1949

After all my talk about those Aalto tables in the library, I finally have something to say about a chair.

The other day I was looking in the file drawer called “Miscellaneous” where I found this:

It was the only thing in a folder labeled “Library Furniture” and I have to admit that this is legitimately miscellaneous. It’s hard to know where to start with a picture like this, which is almost a visual non sequitur. But on the back it says it was a gift of Miss Pender Turnbull, and that means it’s probably worth thinking about.

And sure enough, a bit of digging reveals something interesting. This photo was taken in the Music and Fine Arts Room of the brand new Fondren Library, probably just as the building was opening in 1949. Librarian William Dix talks about the furnishing of this room on the third page of this 1949 Library Journal article, noting it was meant to be an informal lounge, and in the top photo on the next page you can see two of these chairs:

As for the chair itself, like the Aalto tables it was made by a mid-century Finnish architect and designer, not Aalto this time but Eero Saarinen, who designed this chair–called the Grasshopper–in 1946. Once again I am deeply impressed by the sophisticated vision of Bill Dix and even after all this time a tiny bit surprised that the Rice administration went along with it.

Bonus: Here’s a 1963 article about Miss Turnbull. I share her zeal and hold her in the highest regard.

Extra Bonus:


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