The other day, as is my habit, I got distracted in the archives. I like to work standing up, using a map case for my desk. On the shelves behind that case are several boxes of scrapbooks. I haven’t been very interested in the history of student life until recently so I’d never studied these particularly closely, but on this day I was tired and felt like it would be fun to look at some old pictures, dance cards, and general what-not. I pulled out a scrapbook I’d never seen before, one whose blue cover was jauntily emblazoned “William Max Nathan.”
The first thing I found in it was a copy of a long memo he’d written after serving on the Honor Council in 1914, a pretty hard-hitting critique of the honor system complete with suggestions for reforming it. Then a photograph fell out, a very unusual one, made 24 years after Nathan graduated. Taken at commencement in 1940, it shows (from left to right) Edmund M. Dupree, the first student to enroll at the Rice Institute, Captain Baker, the first chairman of the Rice board, Charles Nathan, the first child of a four-year alum to graduate from Rice, and finally his father, William Max Nathan, the first student to graduate from Rice with distinction. (Charles Nathan graduated with distinction as well.)
Curious now about Nathan, I started looking for more about him. As a student at the Institute, he was quite active. Besides his service on the Honor Council, he was a member of the Debate Society, Vice-President of his class, and as a senior he was business manager of the Campanile. After graduating he enrolled in the Harvard law school, but left to join the military during World War I. When the war was over he came back to Texas and earned his Ll.B. from the University of Texas College of Law in 1921. He seems to have spent the rest of his life in Houston, his time devoted to a successful law practice and active participation in the city’s Jewish community. (He was one of the founders of the Congregation Emanu El in 1943, and served as the first secretary of its board.)
Nathan’s son Charles was an interesting man also. Like his father he attended San Jacinto High School in Houston, where he was an outstanding student (and the state Latin champ in 1933). After he left Rice, he studied chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh, earning his Ph.D. in 1948. He served in the Navy during World War II, participating in the atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll in 1946. After the war, he worked for many years as a chemical engineer in industrial laboratories, then became a professor of petroleum engineering at New Mexico Tech. He too displayed a deep commitment to the life of the Jewish community everywhere he lived. After he retired in 1989, he returned to Houston, where he died in 2001.
One of the most surprising things about the Rice Institute is that, in an era when private colleges were overwhelmingly denominational, it was secular. William Marsh Rice seems to have picked up this idea from the charter of the Girard College in Philadelphia, which was one of his early models for the Institute and which completely banned religious observations from its campus. (Not surprisingly, this restriction was more honored in the breach.) Outside of Tulane, which was unusual in many respects because of its location in New Orleans, it’s hard to think of another private college or university in the South that enrolled Jewish students, let alone so readily admitted them into the life of the school. This produced an interesting state of affairs and a sometimes complicated set of social relations. It’s too much for a blog post, but the history of religion on campus pops up regularly in the archives and I’ll have more on it later.