Surprise of the Week: William Masterson, plus the Helicopter Finally Appears

A couple of days ago the Woodson received a box from the family of William Masterson (’35). Masterson of course taught history at Rice for many years, was the first master of Hanszen College and served in several administrative capacities here before leaving to assume the presidency of the University of Chattanooga in 1966. The announcement of his  selection as Rice president in February 1969 set off the five-day rebellion that we call “The Masterson Crisis.” This crisis ended in his resignation and I believe the story lays bare an important internal conflict that to some extent still exists. (There’s a video of me giving a talk about this a couple of years ago here, for any of you who find yourselves trapped with relatives over the long holiday weekend.)

Mastersons Bill and Orvetta May 1967 unknown location

Bill And Orvetta Masterson, 1967

In any event, the box contains some interesting correspondence about the events of that week–nothing especially surprising, but some things to think about. More important, though, it turned out to be a treasure trove of other historically significant materials: letters, newspaper clippings, administrative memos and photographs going all the way back to Masterson’s hiring in the late 1940s. I am extremely grateful to Dr. Masterson’s family for sending these things.

There’s also, I’m very happy to report, a scrapbook. It seems to have been put together by Hanszenites as a parting gift for Professor Masterson when he and his family left for Tennessee. It’s gorgeous and full of fun images that I’ll post later, maybe next week. There’s one picture, though, that caught me completely by surprise:

Masterson scrapbook greased pole with helicopter

I have heard stories about this incident–wherein the beanie was retrieved from the top of a greased pole by novel means–and people have even sent in newspaper clippings, but this is the only actual photo of it I have ever laid eyes on. It’s a good picture too.

Bonus: I just came from Costco and I have a tip for you. Don’t go to Costco the day before the Fourth of July. That is all.

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11 Responses to Surprise of the Week: William Masterson, plus the Helicopter Finally Appears

  1. It appears that the helicopter still exists. You can look it up by the tail number: N2171U. It is in Washington state now. It should be possible to track the registration info back to that period.

    It is a 1963 Brantly B-2B.

  2. almadenmike says:

    From Roger Glade’s article in the November 6, 1963, Thresher (p. 4) :

    Hanszen Frosh Defy Tradition With Copter

    by Roger Glade

    “Baptism in mud” is what it’s been called, as every year the Hanszen Frosh traditionally try to remove a beanie from atop a greased pole surrounded by mud. Traditionally, they fail and have to run off the “shack runs” accumulated under the “guidance” program.

    This year it was a Will Rice Beanie and the Freshmen shouted “We object!” and the sophomores gave ten-to-one odds that the beanie would stay on that pole.

    THEN, JUST AS the freshmen waded into the slime pit, from behind the stadium rose a Helicopter.

    It circled the field and headed straight for the pole. Sophomore Bill Jenkins grabbed up a handful of mud and tried to down the metal bird as Ken Hanson, freshman, leaned out of the cockpit and snatched the beanie.

    THE WHOLE situation arose from a diner-table discussion between “Idea-man and Astronaut”
    Hanson and “Project Coordinator” John Dunlap. Aided by Royce Brough, a kindly Junior, they investigated the feasibility of hiring a Helicopter and finally settled on one piloted by Bill Holmes of the International Helicopters Company.

    Barney McCoy, then entered the project as “Chief of Finance and Security” to oversee the collection of a dollar from each freshman. Said, McCoy, “It was most remarkable that 89 people
    kept the secret for over three weeks.” Finally , “Life,” the “Chronicle,” the “Post,” and KPRC-
    TV decided to cover the festivities.

    AT THE END of the escapade Jim Hargrove, mud-smeared Hanszen guidance coordinator,
    sputtered, “It’s plainly illegal. I made only one rule for the contest and you all had to go and
    break it.”

    Pilot Holmes exclaimed, “Look at the mud all over my ship!”

    And Bill Jenkins was pursued across the athletic field by three exultant Freshmen.

  3. Barney L. McCoy says:

    The rules made reference to prohibitions based on the assumption that the actor would be below the beanie. There was no rule about reaching down from a heliocopter with a fruit picker. However, there was an FAA reg about piloting a copter too close to a structure, and when the photo made the AP wire service, the pilot caught some flack from the feds. Incidently, the Hanszen Court ruled that we had violated the spirit of the rules, but, because of the freshmen’s ingenuity, ended guidance and cancelled all “shack runs” Barney L. McCoy, Hanszen 67

  4. marmer01 says:

    Melissa, I watched your Scientia presentation and thought it was wonderful. Had I been there, I would have asked the question “Why do you think that the presence of George R. Brown on the board would have prevented the controversy?” Do you think Brown, who as I understood it, basically hand-picked President Pitzer, would have insisted that the board consider the Faculty Committee’s input? It sounds to me like there was a cultural misunderstanding among the board, most of whom, if they had attended Rice, had been there during the Lovett presidency, when there was simply no thought given to presidential transition. To them, the board were the owners, the administration the managers, the faculty the employees, and the students the customers. As you say, they didn’t have an ulterior motive. They were genuinely surprised that the faculty and students thought they should have an important voice in the process.

  5. Melissa Kean says:

    Marty, I can’t believe you watched that presentation! Thank you very much. I truly appreciate that you would spend your time on it.

    Honestly, I think the reason it wouldn’t have happened had George Brown still been on the board is very simple: Pitzer wouldn’t have resigned. He was an extraordinarily intelligent man and he well understood that without Brown there to support him, he would not have been able to continue pursuing the goals of the Ten-Year Plan.

    • marmer01 says:

      Melissa, I loved every minute of it. I am, in my own small way, a historian and researcher of some very narrow subjects (cars and the architecture of the Brazosport area) and am working on a book about Brazosport. Presentations about that will probably follow in a limited way. It’s nice to see a good example of how to do a presentation. And the subject is fascinating.

  6. marmer01 says:

    Of course we can play what if all day long, but if Brown hadn’t been forced to retire and the Ten Year Plan comes to fruition, we still get a presidential Crisis in the mid-70s. From what I can tell, Pitzer really loved research and California and probably would have moved on if the right opportunity presented itself when the ten-year-plan was done. Brown would have been in his late seventies and ready to step down. The big question is: was the culture of Rice’s board different enough that they would have understood the need for faculty and student involvement by then?

    • Melissa Kean says:

      Short answer: probably not, although it’s impossible to know. It took quite along time for the board’s culture to evolve in a more collaborative direction, but that was under the influence of the Masterson crisis. Absent that, it might have happened sooner. At least a little sooner.

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