My personal debt to Rice University . . . is quite fundamental,” 1963

F. Ellis Johnson was one of the original members of the Rice faculty. He arrived in Houston in 1912 to take up his first teaching position as an instructor in the nascent Department of Electrical Engineering and stayed until 1915. He held a bachelor’s degree in E.E. from the University of Wisconsin and came to Rice from a job with the British Columbia Electric Railway Company. Johnson never returned to industry, spending instead the rest of his career as a teacher. Here he is in a very early image, which I’ll call circa 1913, standing in front of the Mech Lab:

After the Semi-Centennial celebration in 1962 the Association of Rice Alumni awarded all the original faculty honorary alumni status, sending each a scroll with a message of gratitude. Ellis responded in a lovely and unexpected letter with gratitude of his own:

And here he is with those young men from whom he learned the joy of teaching:

Even though there have been some days when I surely did not like Rice University very much there is no question that, like Johnson, my debt is fundamental. Winding up here was truly one of the luckiest breaks of my life. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

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Friday Follies: Mechanical Malfunction

I like this guy’s style:

It turned up in Dr. Bill’s stuff, by the way, undated.

Bonus: I don’t understand this either.

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Secession, 1992

We recently received a whole bunch of Dr. Bill Wilson’s things in the Woodson and among them I found these peculiar documents:

This is, of course, a complete mystery. If anyone can explain, please do. Although I suspect no really good explanation is possible.

Bonus: The real treasures in the boxes are the hundreds of recordings of Rice events made by Dr. Bill.

Extra Bonus:

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“the first such award ever to be made,” 1937

Last week’s post about how Dr. Lovett received the scroll and the second Gold Medal from the Rice alumni in 1941 immediately raises the question of who got the first one.  My initial guess turned out to be correct–it was Will Rice (last seen here sporting at the Houston Country Club.)

All the supporting material turned up in the ARA files that I wandered into the other day:

I found the ARA president’s remarks as well:

All true, of course, and I might add that Will Rice was not yet finished with his generosity to the Institute–he left a legacy of over 2 million dollars at his death.

But the thing I found touching was this: they paid for the medal and scroll by chipping in for them. Here’s the list of contributors, many of them familiar to long time readers:

Also a bit of a surprise was the fact that they didn’t award these every year. Only eleven were given out between 1937 and 1959:

I was stumped for a moment by Mrs. Malcolm W. Perkins, then realized that’s Sallie Shepherd Perkins, who gave the gift to establish the Shepherd School.


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Lost Again, circa 1970

Poking around in my laptop I came across this image taken sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s by Bob Roosth ’70 ’71, who was a photographer for the Thresher and the Campanile. I have no idea who any of these people are but I was enjoying the fashion (especially that sweet shift dress on the young woman in the middle) when I realized that I don’t know where they are. I can’t recall what sidewalk would have had that kind of landscaping alongside.

Any thoughts?

Bonus: Another question. Why is that railing there? There isn’t one in front of any of the other Maxfield Hall basement windows.

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Maxfield Hall, Part 2

As promised, a couple of small things I noticed at Maxfield Hall the other day.

First, remember the long saga about the original light fixtures in the Mech Lab cloisters? If you missed it, the story is here and here. I really hate to leave loose ends so I went and took a close look at the new fixtures to see what they finally came up with. Well, they aren’t precisely identical to the originals –not unexpected after a hundred and ten years–but are pretty darn close and historically appropriate:

And second, even more interesting, are the basement windows, which are no longer bricked up. This was taken looking up from one of the basement meeting rooms:

I take this to mean that the Powers That Be have decided that the Cuban Missile Crisis is now over.

Bonus: I got a big box of photos today that were taken at various History Department events during the 1990s. There’s a lot of good stuff in there that I’ll study more closely when I have a minute but I can’t help but notice what good looking graduate students they had back in those days.

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Maxfield Hall: Part 1, 2021

I had some time last week to walk over and take a look at the newly renovated Mech Lab, now called Maxfield Hall in honor of Katherine and Bob Maxfield ’63, whose generous gift made the work possible. I was frankly trepidatious, as anything can happen with projects like this, but I have to say that I think this is a huge success. The architects, Bellows Construction, and our own crew at FE&P have done a remarkable job of maintaining the original character of the building while modernizing and vastly improving it as working space.

It still feels like Mech Lab, especially in the bigger public spaces. (Note the new elevator peeking out at right, which makes the whole building accessible to everyone):

But the office space looks dramatically fresher and brighter:

The transformation of the basement is especially impressive. You definitely know you’re in a basement but wow, this is way better:

And the two exterior stairways added on the back are spectacular, which is not something I thought I’d ever say about a staircase:

All in all, I really like it. My heart feels light and I’m declaring victory.

There are a couple of little tidbits that deserve a separate post so I’ll get that up tomorrow.

Bonus:  Here’s Bob Maxfield among the Phi Beta Kappa initiates in the fall of 1962. I’m pretty sure he’s the one in the front row at far right.


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It’s Homecoming weekend and I hope everyone in town for the events has as much fun as these two young gentlemen celebrating with a beverage way back in 1934:

Bonus: If you’re looking for something fun on Friday night, think about checking out the Houston Folk Music Archive video screening put on by the Woodson. Here’s the link to the description.  This is an amazing collection, well worth your time.

While we’re at it, here’s the link to the collection itself.

Extra Bonus: There have been a lot of changes on campus in recent years but they’ve made it really easy to find your way around.


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“On the occasion of the twenty-third annual homecoming,” 1941

I really hit the jackpot this week and once again completely by accident. There was a box from the Association of Rice Alumni collection sitting on a book truck in the back room of the Woodson, an irresistible attraction if there ever was one. I did in fact expect it to be interesting but I certainly didn’t expect to find the answer to one of those small questions that bounce around in my head, sometimes for years.

Here’s a photo I scanned a long time ago, taken by the both the setting and the people. It’s dated 1941:

Left to right are Ed Dupree ’16, Dr. Lovett, Hattie Lel Red ’16, and my old friend Carl Knapp ’16. What was bothering me all this time was this–what has Knapp got rolled up in his hand?

In the ARA box I found a second copy of this photo and next to it lay the answer to my question. In 1941 Dr. Lovett became the second recipient of the ARA Gold Medal and with the medal came a scroll. The language on that scroll was worked and carefully reworked by the alumni. There are several drafts in the folder and here’s the last one:

My heart skipped when I felt something heavy at the back of the folder that turned out to be a packet of negatives:

Full of hope I scanned the negative entitled “scroll” and my hope was rewarded. Here’s exactly what’s inside that rolled up paper in Carl Knapp’s hand (note how the photographer kept it flat!):

And just to show off I’ll tell you how much it cost:

Hang on to your hats, folks. We have not yet reached the end of this journey. More to come.

Bonus: Just another day on campus.

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James L. Kinsey: Colleague, Mentor, and Friend

A loyal reader sent me a link this week to the recently published National Academy of Sciences biographical memoir of Jim Kinsey ’56 ’59. I’ve read dozens of these pieces over the years and although I can’t pretend to understand the chemistry I do know that this one, written by Bob Curl ’54, Bruce Johnson, and Fleming Crim, is one of the best I’ve ever come across as a portrait of a man’s personality. I can add little to it except to say that seven years after his death I still miss Jim keenly. Just click on it to read the whole thing.



Bonus: That portrait makes him seem very stern but this is how I usually saw him. I took this on October 12, 2012, by the way, and he was very happy he didn’t have to robe for the big centennial procession.

Extra Bonus: Another loyal reader sends evidence that life goes on.

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