“Rice Loses Marsh,” 1939

I’ve used this photo once or twice here before. (Check out this one, about the path through the empty lot across Rice Boulevard from the Mech Lab.) It came out of some papers from Jim Sims ’41 and it’s a nice, clear image of the campus–but it was undated. The best approximation I could come up with was circa late 1930s. It’s a useful image with one interesting puzzle–all that disturbed ground over on the far north side along Sunset. Probably, I thought, one of those things that’s just lost to time.

It turns out that I was right about the dating but wrong about the insolubility of the puzzle. Reading through the 1939 volume of the Thresher yesterday I came across this little tidbit:

Well, this is just delightful, isn’t it? 10,00 truckloads of dirt, from the construction of the midtown Sears building, the future home of the Rice innovation district’s Ion.

Here’s Lake Lovett sometime in the ’20s:

And of course the problem wasn’t actually solved by the fill dirt, although it did help quite a bit. The joke didn’t disappear either.

Bonus: I recently saw the second snake I’ve ever encountered on campus, roughly in the same place I saw the first.


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Harry Wiess and Rice’s First Strategic Plan, 1945

More than once I’ve heard Rice alums say that we always get the leadership we need when we need it. I never argue with them but their thesis is certainly not uniformly true (which I suspect they know but would rather not acknowledge). A chief example of  this is the tremendous blow that was dealt Rice by the early death of trustee Harry Wiess, seen here in a beautiful 1935 Vera Prasilova Scott portrait:

You wouldn’t know it from the highly visible Wiess name on campus but he was only a Rice trustee for four years. Even before he joined the board in 1944 he, along with George Brown, played a crucial role in the the Institute’s acquisition of the Rincon oil field in South Texas, arguably the most important financial event since the founding. And once a trustee he immediately brought his wide business experience to bear on the problem of how to coherently manage the school’s expansion. Under his presidency the Humble Oil Company had completed a thorough history, creating at the same time a forward-looking plan that was meant to be revised every five years. He promptly proposed a similar survey for Rice. As chairman of the survey committee he enlisted the cooperation of alumni, faculty, and the community and produced a concise 12-point program that was officially adopted by the board as it looked to post-war growth and change. When the trustees hired William Houston as Lovett’s successor it was with the expectation that Wiess would be by his side as the plan was implemented. His untimely death in August, 1948 cut that partnership short, much to the Institute’s detriment.

Here’s the plan. It was short, direct, specific and sensible, nothing wasted or extraneous, a model of good planning:

Wiess unveiled the program to the alumni at an address in November, 1945, included here  as a pdf.  Like the plan itself his speech, a clear and level-headed history and analysis of the state of Rice three decades after its opening, is a well crafted piece of work.

We really could have used this man.

Harry Wiess Speech to ARA


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“Comparable to the Great Seal of England,” 1934

You never know what you might find if you’re stuck at home with your laptop long enough. This is what I turned up today.

Back in 2013 we received a collection of materials from the family of Fred Alter ’34. I never really had a chance to study them closely because they were efficiently processed (as usual) and sent to the Library Service Center while I was occupied with something else. They were arresting enough, though, that I did take a bunch of pictures while they were still on a table in the back room of the Woodson.

Alter was quite an interesting guy, a tennis player and an early winner of the Bob Quin award. Here’s the biographical note from the collection:

Fred Cunningham Alter graduated from Rice University in 1934 and was the fourth recipient of the Robert P. Quin Award for excellence in leadership, scholarship, and athletics. Born in San Antonio, Texas, on October 8, 1913, he excelled from a young age in tennis and academics, winning the San Antonio Junior Tennis Tournament singles competition and acting as president of his senior high school class.

After graduating from Rice University, Alter earned his L.L.B. from the South Texas School of Law in 1941. He went on to serve in the U.S. Army from 1943-1946, supervising Japanese P.O.W. camps in New Caledonia, Guadalcanal, and Manila. Discharged at the rank of captain, he returned to Texas to work at Matteson-Southwest Advertising Company until 1949 when he assumed a management position at Wetmore & Company. In 1960, he became president of the Trans-State Outdoor Advertising Company until his retirement in 1985. He was a trustee for South Texas Junior College and was an active member of the Vestry of Christ Church Cathedral since 1949. He presented the Robert P. Quin award on numerous occasions before his death on March 20, 2002.


What the bio doesn’t say but is clear from even a cursory examination of the material is that Mr. Alter was a bit of a card. I don’t know if he entertained others but he certainly entertained himself (and me–I find this goofy brand of humor irresistible). Here are a couple of pages from his miraculously intact Philosophy 300 notebook that I enjoyed. Note especially number 8 on his “schedule,” which made me laugh:



And here he is himself, allegedly studying in his normal fashion. This makes me smile every time I look at it:

With tennis co-captain Wilbur Hess, out at the men’s courts on the west side of campus:

Bonus: Here he is a bit later with a bunch of rascals at Homecoming in 1984. I’d love to know what he’s got there.

Extra Bonus: I had a dim memory that there had been some kind of helmet in the collection so I went back and looked at all the pictures I took in 2013. I found it, along with   a couple hundred pictures of my granddaughter and every place I left my car in the IAH parking garage.

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Rice Honors Albert Thomas, 1961

They held a big event on November first in the Grand Hall of the RMC, thanking Albert Thomas ’20 for his service to the university during his long tenure as the representative of Texas’s 8th Congressional District. Thomas had a critical role in bringing NASA to Houston (and NASA funding to Rice) but almost as important were his behind-the-scenes efforts to ensure that Rice became one of the Navy’s V-12 program sites during World War II.

Here are Rice board chairman George Brown (Thomas’s freshman roommate) and Provost Carey Croneis presenting the scroll:

Oddly, even though that scroll is not in Thomas’s papers at the Woodson I know precisely where it is. Several years ago I came up from the parking garage under Bayou Place (the former Albert Thomas Convention Center) downtown, took a funny turn, and was stunned to find a replica of his congressional office staring at me from behind a big glass window.

The scroll is in there, hanging on the wall at left:

What you can’t see is a little sign in the window that says “For More Information Contact the Woodson Research Center.” If anyone ever had asked I don’t know what we would have said because none of us had any idea this was there.


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Friday Follies: Whatever It Is I’m Against It, 1955

This picture has to have been taken in 1955, as that is Senator J. William Fulbright in between Houston and Autry House Rector Stanley Smith. Why they’re in a coat closet, and what’s so funny, I can’t say, but it looks like a scene straight out of Horsefeathers:

Virtual commencement might not be as good as the full treatment out in the quad but it might well be better than the hot mess of graduating in the gym, which looks like what would have happened tomorrow.

Bonus: Just a small town girl livin’ in a lonely world.

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The Tsanoffs Get Ready for Commencement, circa 1921

This week is normally one of my favorite times of the year. I love both the bustle of commencement preparations and the annual downshift into summer. Commencement will be virtual this year, which is, I suppose, better than nothing but it does leave one with a bit of an empty feeling.  To cheer us all up here’s a picture of young Nevenna Tsanoff in her father’s hood and cap as he gets ready to head to campus for the graduation ceremonies:

Katherine’s mad.

The picture came off this scrapbook page below, which I find just delightful. These images capture somehow the odd mix of the serious and the ridiculous that characterizes academic regalia:

I’m not sure but I think these pictures were taken in either 1921 or 1922. Here’s a great thing: because of Corinne Tsanoff I’ll be able to date them when I get back in the Woodson. See that number 256 on the top right hand corner of  page? She numbered every page (there are hundreds) and filed them by date and location. She was a gem.

Bonus: Campus chic, 2020.


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“it was not as a teacher I was in awe of him: it was as a reader.”

One more thing about Alan McKillop, and an important thing it is.

This is a short excerpt from Larry McMurtry’s Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen:Reflections on Sixty and Beyond:

“The teacher I wasn’t outreading, and the one, consequently, whom I paid the most attention to, was the now mainly forgotten scholar of the eighteenth century Alan Dugald McKillop, a stooped and rather shuffling figure at Rice when I arrived. I never knew Alan McKillop well, but I respected him greatly. In my last year as a graduate student I took his course in the English novel–but it was not as a teacher I was in awe of him: it was as a reader. I was just glad he was there, as an embodiment of learning of the old-school, unfrivolous kind. At Harvard he had been a pupil of Kittredge, Santayana, and William James. For myself, just beginning to glimpse a few towers and turrets in the deep mist of knowledge, Alan McKillop represented a level of learning that (I came to believe) had existed only in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1910, when my father was just getting his three annual months of schooling in a one-room schoolhouse. As I listened to Alan McKillop I came to realize that if any man had read the whole of English literature, from the Anglo-Saxon fragments to Anthony Powell, it was he. (At a tea in his home, the one time I was invited there, in 1959, he showed me Powell’s books, as well as those of C.P. Snow, whose academic novels he admired.)

Though not a particularly inspiring lecturer, Alan McKillop did leave one with the sense–valuable to me then–that literature, whether one wrote it, taught it, or just read it, could be a life-long occupation; one could approach it in a leisurely way, to be sure, but one needed to approach it seriously.

With Dr. McKillop as an example I figured out that the way to find out what to read was to locate a great reader and follow in his or her tracks. There are, though, surprisingly few great readers–they are as rare now as giant pandas.”

Like McMurtry I found great reader at Rice but in a sign of the times he’s not an English professor but a staff member. If you want to read better, go here and follow my friend Patrick Kurp.

Bonus: It was a beautiful day on campus Monday. I’ve never seen this closed before.

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Alan Dugald McKillop: “He actually gets pleasure out of grading student papers!”

The women of the Semper Fidelis Club had good reason to ask that Alan McKillop be the man to choose the volumes to be added in Stockton Axson’s honor to the Rice library. McKillop came to Rice in 1920, just a few months after receiving his doctorate from Harvard. He would remain for his entire career, retiring as Trustee Distinguished Professor in 1968. His interests were largely in 18th century British prose and poetry and he was in fact the guiding intelligence behind the development of the Axson 18th Century Drama Collection. As a young faculty member he became close to Axson, sometimes taking up Axson’s administrative duties when he was slowed by ill health, and served as department chair himself for decades.

I found this letter from Axson to McKillop not in McKillop’s papers but in George Williams’. It was written in 1930 on the occasion of McKillop’s promotion to a full professorship in English:

I don’t know how this letter wound up in Williams’ papers but my best guess is that it was given to him by either McKillop or his wife. And much as McKillop lauded Axson in his memorial tribute, Williams lauded McKillop, though while he was still alive to enjoy it:

Bonus: McKillop was also the founding and long serving editor of The Flyleaf, the publication of the Friends of Fondren. The July 1972 issue was gratefully dedicated to him and contains an interesting interview of him by his English Department colleague Will Dowden. As always, the other stuff in there is pretty interesting too. I particularly enjoy the list of gifts.


Extra Bonus: I found this note from an alumnus in the ARA papers a while ago.

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Semper Fidelis Club, Part II

With the help of loyal readers Mike Ross ’70 ’74 and Marty Merritt ’85 (and a much needed  visit to the Woodson this morning!) we have a solution to last week’s Semper Fidelis mystery.  In Lovett’s files I found several pieces of correspondence from June, 1941 relating to the efforts of the club to honor Dr. Axson. This first letter was sent to Alan McKillop of the English Department who forwarded it to Dr. Lovett:

Lovett’s typical gracious response:

Note that they asked for the books to be marked in honor of Axson–hence the book plate–and that it was to be McKillop who selected the books for the library. I’ll have more to say about this tomorrow.

This club does not seem to have been affiliated with Rice. It was organized by a group of local women in the wake of Axson’s death and my best guess is simply that they had heard him speak and admired him. Axson was a frequent public speaker, both as part of the Rice Institute lecture series and in many outside venues in Houston, across Texas, and far beyond. His style would be considered ornate today but at the time it was what was expected of a sensitive and scholarly gentleman. Here’s a link to his 1925 Rice commencement address, a really interesting and for him pretty direct talk in my opinion.

Turning to the Houston Post sheds some light on the club. This article from February 15, 1939 was the first mention of them I found:


And especially interesting was this, also from the Houston Post, in the edition of March 1, 1940, on the genesis of the bookplate itself:

Nolan Barrick ’37 was a student of William Ward Watkin and later his son-in-law–he married Watkin’s daughter Rosemary. After teaching at Iowa State and Texas he joined the faculty in the school of architecture at Texas Tech in 1953, where he spent most of his career, much of it as department chair. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I own a book he wrote about the architecture of the Texas Tech campus, much of it designed by his father-in-law.

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Semper Fidelis, date unknown

Looking through my collection of Rice library bookplates this morning I noticed this unusual one:

I don’t remember scanning this and in fact it looks more like I hastily snapped a picture of it with my cell phone. Where I found it I can no longer say. I’ve certainly never seen another like it. And of course I’d also never heard of the Semper Fidelis Club. The only mention of it in the Thresher is this article from October 16, 1959:

The club also appears in the 1960 and 1961 Campaniles. But I find this impossible to square with the bookplate. First, Stockton Axson died in 1935 and second, as soon as Fondren was built the library was called Fondren Library rather than the Rice Institute Library. So I suppose there must have been a much earlier iteration of the Semper Fidelis Club about which I still know nothing. So we’ve apparently gotten nowhere today. Maybe tomorrow, though, as I now seem to have all the time in the world to track down this kind of thing. Also, on Axson here’s a pretty good post I wrote about him way back in 2011 and of course this more recent classic about his platonic lover’s contribution to the library.

Bonus: This is from the same issue of the Thresher as the Semper Fi story. At first, of course, I was interested in the dateless boys but it turns out the real star of this piece is the totally inexplicable “dead party.” I can’t see at all why this would be fun. Once I get back in the Woodson I’ll see if there’s anything about this in the EBLS scrapbooks.

Extra Bonus: Many thanks to Ellen Rein Pierce ’91 for the hot tip that led me to this great ebay score. I’m taking tomorrow off, by the way. I clearly need a break.

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