“I have never seen a philosopher have such an ovation,” 1962

The day after President Pitzer’s inauguration in October, 1962 there was a full schedule of Semi-centennial events, culminating in the awarding of the Medals of Honor. Here is Corinne Tsanoff’s touching description, highlighted (at least for me) by her gentle concern for and enjoyment of the Tsanoff’s long time friends and colleagues Harold and Marjorie Wilson, both quite elderly by this time:

Here’s Dr. Wilson, Rice’s first physics professor, receiving his medal. Bill Akers seems to be about to hand it to Pitzer and that looks like a very young Ron Sass in charge of the box. (One of the earliest posts I wrote here, by the way, was about one of Sass’s other duties at the Semi-centennial–organizing the foreign dignitaries for the inaugural procession, which was not as simple as it sounds.)

And here’s the moment Tsanoff  received his. That’s a genuine smile on Pitzer’s face, by the way:

I found the medal in the boxes that came from the storage unit in Austin:


Bonus: I’m in Washington state for our usual July trip but my friends on campus are still staying alert.

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“We felt like a platter of stewed potatoes,” 1962

Not long ago we got back the fifty-three boxes of the Tsanoff Family collection from off- site storage at Iron Mountain, where it had been housed until the recent completion of the second module of the Library Service Center:

Before they were sent to the LSC I spent several happy hours making a rough catalog of the contents of each box. Purely by accident I put my hand on a wonderful letter from Corinne Tsanoff to her sister Eva, a high school teacher in Colorado. In it she brings the events of the 1962 Rice Semi-Centennial to vivid life.  There’s so much in here that I’m taking it in a couple of pieces, this first one about the afternoon inauguration of Kenneth Pitzer. It was mid-October, so it might well have been a cool day. But it wasn’t:

Suddenly this photograph of the inaugural ceremony, which I’ve seen dozens of times, feels different. It feels, I guess, hotter. And notice all the empty chairs in the back by the camera:

They all got up and crammed together into the shade of that huge oak tree on the corner! And it wasn’t so bad on the platform, which caught the shade of Lovett Hall:

Bonus: Mech Lab stays, Abercrombie goes.

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“this slaughter of the English language,” 1928

Slang is one of those things that never fails to interest. It evolves at a dizzying rate and is  forgotten as quickly as it moves on, frustrating my desire to know what the heck people were talking about. So when I see something like this 1928 newspaper article about campus slang I sit up and pay attention. It reads like a dispatch from another universe:

There is however one happy little tidbit here that solves an old mystery: what precisely is a cush?

The issue first arose when I wrote this post back in 2018.  It involved the first iteration of what became the Rules for Slimes, written in the fall of 1916, which I found in the ARA collection. Check out rule four:

So that mystery seem solved, but I’d still like to know what you had to do to be guilty of vamping and why it was acceptable to do it in non-conspicuous places.

Bonus: So I’ve given up caring that the cypresses die but I’m still very interested in how the cypresses die.

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Van Gogh Arrives in Houston, 1951

Back in 2017 I wrote about finding at an estate sale a scrapbook that had belonged to Cal Dean Hill ’52.  It chronicled much of his life, from boyhood through his years at Rice. An enormously important part of that life was his girlfriend, later wife, Ginny Smith ’52, photographed here on campus sometime in the early 1950s:

Then a couple years ago Ginny and Cal’s family came to the Woodson and generously donated another family album, this one belonging to Ginny, one packed full of evidence of their happy and busy social life. There are images of a wide range of Rice activities and also of events at Houston’s cultural institutions. One of the most important of these was the 1951 Van Gogh exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum, which had only opened in 1948. The exhibit was held in the museum’s original building, a small A-frame designed by McKie & Kamrath. I can’t help but wonder how they pulled this off. In any event, Ginny Smith took pictures during her visit:

Anyone who’s been reading here for a while knows that one of the things I love best is when different collections overlap. In this case, the second important collection holds the records of  CAMH. My esteemed colleague Rebecca helped me find what I had hoped would be there–the catalog of the exhibition. Here’s the foreword:

Also interesting are these lists, first the lenders (Jock Whitney!) :

And the local participants, a Who’s Who of Houston society:

All of which is to say that seventy years later things have changed pretty dramatically:

Bonus: The February freeze hit the Italian cypresses hard. One’s gone and more are going. I’d feel bad about this but apparently we’ve decided we’re just going to keep planting them and watching them slowly die so I’m not spending any more emotional energy on it.

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Chandler Davidson, 1936-2021

Part of the reason I needed my recent break was that learning of the death of Chandler Davidson so soon after losing Sid Burrus just knocked the pins out from under me. I first met Chandler when I was in graduate school, working on a dissertation about the desegregation of the major private universities in the South.  He was on my dissertation committee and his excitement and enthusiasm for the project almost certainly, in all honesty, exceeded my own.

His book Race and Class in Texas Politics was foundational for me in understanding the larger context of Rice’s halting movement towards desegregation but it was his personal example that made a more profound impression. Aside from his academic and administrative obligations (which were significant) Chandler spent untold hours working for minority voting rights. He sat on panels and advisory groups, testified before Congress, wrote detailed reports, and acted as a consultant and expert witness in court challenges to dilutive voting systems under the Voting Rights Act.  What was so striking was that while I have certainly seen him angry over some of these things (and over some developments on campus as well), his general stance towards the world was overwhelmingly positive. He liked to laugh, he loved to share fun, he delighted in his students and colleagues, and he was always completely himself.  I’ve always loved the picture of him as a happy little boy that was included in the program for the 2011 Veteran’s Day celebration on campus, the year he was the honoree:

Chandler, of course, could also joyfully rabble rouse with the best of them. This seems to have begun during his undergraduate years at the University of Texas and carried all the way through his career at Rice. There are a lot of examples. I made myself smile the other day when I went looking for a 1975 Thresher article about the official naming of the engineering school after George R. Brown. I was pretty sure that Chandler had something to do with a protest on that occasion and wanted to check. It turned out that I had misremembered and that he had actually written a letter to the editor after the protestors were chased off campus and threatened with arrest. It’s a beauty, and it’s typical of his forthright and clear manner in demanding accountability.  I smiled because although I was wrong, I might have been right.


Chandler Davidson, rest in peace.

Bonus: Sometimes I get to help clean out the offices of people who are moving for one reason or another. This was the case with Chandler–we had a ball going through all his old stuff, some of which is of serious historical value. He was lugging another box to the Woodson when I caught him, grinning as usual.



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Time Capsule, 1948

You may or may not have noticed that I haven’t posted for a while. Nothing is amiss, but I just needed a real break. Now, break taken, I’m back and with a backlog of really good material to talk about. With luck I’ll return for the foreseeable future to the usual schedule of writing once or twice week. I hope someone is still here to read it.

First up, always interesting–a time capsule. I got an email from FE&P saying that they’d found one in the cornerstone of Abercrombie when they started demolition and that I could pick it up in Cantu’s office. I was thwarted that first day by heavy rain but when I finally made it in I found a square copper box that you could kind of almost see into. I took it back to the Woodson and with a couple pairs of pliers pried it open:

Inside I found this:

All that stuff was actually in there, although mysteriously the only thing wrapped in cellophane was the list itself.  The newspaper clippings are interesting particularly because they show the explosion of new building on campus after World War II, driven in large part by the philanthropy of the Abercrombies, the Wiess family, the M.D. Anderson Foundation, and the Fondrens. This generosity transformed the face of campus in a very short span of time:

I was also interested in the date on the list: November 10, 1948. The formal opening of the building took place at Homecoming that year, which was held on November 20th. It hadn’t occurred to me that you’d put the time capsule in the cornerstone when the building was already finished. Just for fun, here’s the front page of the Thresher that talks about the opening:

I’m most grateful to FE&P for saving this piece of Abercrombie history.

Bonus: With trepidation I wandered over to Abercrombie to have a look at the action. Happily, this is what I found:

The workers had painstakingly removed the heavy pieces of the sculpture on the front of the building (about which more later), saving them–and the cornerstone–for use somewhere else, I’d guess in the new building. Pretty cool.

This, though, is kind of sad, even though I know it needs to happen:


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To Sidney Burrus: Teacher, Friend, Colleague

When I heard last weekend that Sidney Burrus had died I felt simply heartsick, bogged down with grief. Sid was the person most responsible for me staying at Rice after I graduated. People are often surprised to learn that my first real job here was as a post-doc in the School of Engineering. This odd career trajectory says much more about Sidney than it does about me. His relentless curiosity and willingness to come at things from unexpected angles was one of his defining characteristics and it led him to think that having a historian around the Dean’s office might be of some value. I don’t know if that’s so but he remained always an enthusiastic supporter, friend, and resource. I won’t recite again the facts and figures of his brilliant career (you can find those here and here) but I do want to say a small bit about what he’s meant to Rice, and what Rice meant to him.

It was my great good fortune to be called on to help with the task of emptying his office in Abercrombie, itself about to meet its maker. And as soon as I was in there I began to feel better, rather cheerful again and filled with gratitude that I got to be on the Earth at the same time as Sid. Cleaning out someone’s office is always an education, no matter how well you knew the person, and this was no exception. Delightful discoveries were everywhere. There were drawers full of carefully organized files of his academic work dating back to graduate school, which beautifully revealed the evolution of his scholarly ideas. I also discovered that Sid didn’t read things online. He found things online, then printed them out and read them on paper. This paper was not so carefully organized–it seems to have just collected and the sheer scope of what he read is amazing. Yes, there was engineering and science and technology but also many pieces about the future of the American university, about religion, about social policy of all kinds. I even found some Foucault! And most unusual were his books. In the offices of retired faculty the books tend to be old and outdated, useless but dustily preserved by inertia. Sid’s books, in contrast, were quite current, a reflection of his constantly forward-looking mind.

And yet. There was single shelf’s worth of old volumes. It was there that I came upon something that seems to me very lovely. Because as deep as Sidney’s drive to move forward was even to the end of his life, he always carried something of the old Rice with him. I already knew this, gleaned from conversations over many years. But in this one object I found a tangible demonstration of the ties of respect and love that have been shared by successive generations of Rice students and faculty.

It was this book, published in 1960 by Paul Pfeiffer, ’38, who was one of Sid’s teachers here:

Inside, this note. Sidney Burrus, ’57, ’58, ’60 had only just graduated when it was written:

Then I turned the page once more to discover that Pfeiffer had dedicated the book to James Waters, ’17, professor of electrical engineering, who had been Paul Pfeiffer’s own teacher at Rice:

Sid Burrus, rest in peace.

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“to anticipate and plan for problems of the future” : Art Busch and The Birth of Environmental Studies at Rice

One of the more underused resources in the archives is the collection of Rice Institute Pamphlets, our own scholarly journal, which became Rice University Studies after we became Rice University in 1960. There’s a lot of miscellany in these volumes but if you read them in order you’ll wind up with a pretty good education in the intellectual history of the institution.  I’ve been doing just this over the past few weeks, rereading them without being in any particular hurry to answer some pressing question as I typically would have been in the past. One of the articles that I probably would have skipped over before was a 1967 piece by Professor Art Busch, part of a special issue on environmental studies. Busch arrived at Rice in 1955 as an assistant professor of Civil Engineering. Here he is in an undated image from around that time, which looks to have been taken in the old Engineering Annex that was replaced by Ryon Lab. Note the tantalizing but unhelpful calendar behind him:

Busch’s Rice University Studies article describes the genesis of environmental science and engineering at Rice and the shifts that had taken place in its institutional evolution up to that point. He also elucidates a pretty aggressive intellectual framework for the training of students in the field, which I find both clear and compelling. Here’s a pdf (click on it to read the whole thing):



Busch, deeply committed to the pursuit of solutions for real world environmental problems, stayed at Rice until 1971 when he was appointed a regional administrator of the EPA in Dallas. This was apparently a rather shocking development, described by one columnist as the equivalent of Ralph Nader joining the board of General Motors.

Here are a couple of items I found in his clipping file, one of the most interesting info files I’ve ever come across. He was a busy guy, and clearly a forthright one:

And the reaction from a local radio station, KXYZ (of which I had never heard–but which has a colorful history)

Here’s one more image of Busch, this one dated 1964, which I am inclined to believe. My question is, where is he? I’m guessing somewhere in Mech Lab.


Bonus: Speaking of Mech Lab, renovations are in full swing.

Extra Bonus: If a tree falls and there’s no one on campus does it make a sound?

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The Light Abruptly Dawns

A couple weekends ago I had to go to campus for a few minutes and I got Mr. Rice History Corner to drive me over there. As we were leaving through Gate 2, I blurted out “stop! back up quick!” Which he did, as he is a generally agreeable fellow. I jumped out, surprised, elated, and laughing, and took a bunch of pictures of this:

See it? It’s the definitive answer to this problem, noticed first at entrance 2 of the Main Gate in November, 2017:

What are these rectangles?

We had pretty well decided that there must have been poles in there to allow us to hang chains across the entrance but this seals it. I did have to poke around with my shoe to make sure there was concrete under the dirt at Gate 2 and indeed there is:

I leave by this gate with some frequency yet never noticed the poles before, I suppose because I was driving. It simply never occurred to me to go over there and look back in 2017.  I do note with some irony that only two weeks before I noticed the rectangles behind the Main Gate I wrote a long post about Gate 2, but I was completely focused on its front side, trying to explain this picture:

Bonus: I love this tiny little cypress, looking like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree out in the quad. I’m rooting for it! (I’m not completely sure, by the way, that it’s the same kind as the others. It looks the same but different, if you know what I mean.)



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“I am faithful only to love,” 1930

So this got started when I ran across a little snippet in the Houston Post about the 1918 Rice Institute garden party. I paid attention mostly because although I’ve seen many images of the annual garden parties given in honor of the graduating seniors I’d never before seen a detailed description of one. It’s quite interesting:

This prompted me to go look for anything else I could find about the party. My first stop was the folder holding materials on the 1918 commencement. There wasn’t anything helpful in there. I was genuinely startled, though, when this fell out from in between two programs:

Well, now. Although I am dubious about the sentiment I don’t hate this poem and have read many worse ones. There isn’t a hint of who wrote it and I don’t recognize the handwriting. My best guess is that it was someone from the class of 1918. These commencement files sometimes became repositories for odd bits and pieces, often acquired at reunions, and that might explain the 1930 date. So I think the author must have been one of these rascals–and if you’ve been paying attention you should recognize quite a few of the names. (I’ve got my eye on Camille Waggaman, for a couple of reasons. Go check the link and you’ll get an idea why I’m suspicious.)

By the way, I did find this photo that purports to have been taken at the 1918 garden party. That can’t be right, though, as the main subject, physicist Arthur Hughes, would have been doing anti-submarine work in England in June of that year. He returned to Rice in January, 1919 so it must have been taken that spring:

Hughes went on to a long, successful career at Washington University in St. Louis. Here’s a link to his biography at their Physics Department site but even better is this personal essay:



I’d say I wish we could have kept him but we probably didn’t have the resources to use him as effectively as Washington University did.

Bonus: They’re always cheerful over in Chemical Engineering.

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