The story behind Rice traditions

The story behind Rice traditions

Rice News generic

Every university has its traditions, and Rice University is no exception. O-Week, Beer Bike and Willy Week top the list of Rice’s most well-known traditions, but in the university’s nearly 100-year history, it’s only natural for a few others to have developed along the way. From the humorous to the honored, these traditions are deeply entrenched in the life of the institution and shape the memories of students and alumni alike. In the spirt of this week’s Homecoming festivities, Rice News takes a look at some Owl traditions.

Welcoming the freshmen

From the moment Rice freshmen process through the Sallyport during their matriculation, they’ve already participated in one of the university’s longest-running traditions. For nearly 100 years, students have walked through the archway, marking the beginning of their tenure as Rice students. And in recent years, a new tradition has emerged.

“According to the tradition, you should pass one direction into the Academic Quadrangle as you matriculate, and you should not pass back through the Sallyport in the direction of Founder’s Court until your day of graduation – otherwise, you supposedly won’t graduate on time,” said Greg Marshall ’86, director of university relations in public affairs. “Of course, a great many people have proved this is not true, but almost all of the current students will not go the wrong direction through the Sallyport while they are here; instead, they’ll walk around the building.”

One practice as old as the university itself is the president standing inside the Sallyport at matriculation offering handshakes and words of welcome to each incoming freshman.

“That is still done today,” Marshall said. “It’s a nice nod to the tradition established by the first president and class of students here at Rice.”

Life in the residential colleges

Before Rice students participate in the ceremonial march through the Sallyport and shake the president’s hand, they are first sorted into one of 11 residential colleges. Rice’s first president, Edgar Odell Lovett, was very inspired by the idea of residential colleges, which promote student self-governance, said John Boles ’65, the William P. Hobby Professor of History. Lovett talked about implementing a residential college system in 1912, although things didn’t fully develop until spring 1957.

“Lovett came to Rice with the idea of a system where students of all different ages, majors and backgrounds live together,” Boles said. “I think nearly every student I’ve met calls the residential college tradition the most meaningful experience they have at Rice.”

Unsurprisingly, strong friendships are formed within the various colleges, which serve as a breeding ground for Rice traditions of a more humorous nature. Over the years, these emerging traditions have provided students with ample opportunities to target rival colleges or bond with members of their own.

Students, sneakers and shaving cream: Baker 13

If you find yourself on campus after 10 p.m. on certain evenings of the month, you might become an eyewitness to one such “bonding” activity — Baker 13. This 36-year-old tradition includes a group of enthusiastic students running around campus clad in sneakers, shaving cream and not much else.

The run is named for Baker College, which gets its name from Rice Institute’s first chairman of the board. The first recorded run was in 1975 by a group of students looking to blow off some steam on Friday the 13th.

“At the time, streaking was very popular on college campuses,” said Marshall, a Baker College alum. “Why exactly they decided to add another element to it is unclear, but they decided apparently for anonymity’s sake that they would add menthol shaving cream to the mix.”

Baker 13 has included countless participants in its history. According to the college website, Baker 13 has been a part of several historic Rice events. In 2002, as a precursor to the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, the Olympic torch passed through Houston and the Rice campus. As it passed through the campus, two Baker 13ers ran in front of it.

Boles said that traditions like Baker 13 are typical of Rice students, who are known for finding creative ways to blow off steam after devoting so much time to their studies.

“There’s a long tradition of students doing remarkably elaborate pranks,” Boles said.

Rice ‘jacks’

Over the years, the good-spirited pranks, known as “jacks” to the Rice community, have included everything from undergraduates “annexing” rival colleges to pulling one over on the national news media.

“When the board of trustees was about to name the new president of the university, a very accurate knockoff of Rice News was created by a still-unknown band of students introducing the ‘new’ president of Rice,” Marshall said. Unbeknownst to the public, the new “president” was an entirely fictitious character made up by the anonymous group of students. The national media fell for it hook, line and sinker, and the prank lives on in the annals of Rice history.

“It was quite a good jack,” Marshall said. “I’d still like to know who did that one!”

Perhaps the most memorable “jack” took place in 1988, aimed not at an individual college, but at the university as a whole. An ingenious group of students from Wiess College came up with the idea of rotating Willy’s Statute 180 degrees to face Fondren Library. The students went to the library and studied the original architectural plans and devise a system of turning the statue with a simple A-frame device.
The students practiced the jack in an off-campus parking garage by hoisting a 2,250-pound Toyota, telling a pair of police officers that the car-raising was a “senior research project.” The same police officers stopped the students as they were transporting the A-frames back to campus. Convinced it was only a school project, the unsuspecting officers gave the students an official police escort.

On the night of the prank, the 11 students disconnected lights on Anderson Hall and positioned themselves around the Quad, where they communicated via walkie-talkies. In an hour’s time, Willy sat facing the library for the first time in 58 years. Only one student, Patrick Dyson ’88, was caught. Refusing to rat out his co-conspirators, he was forced to pay the cost of turning Willy back to its proper position. Members of the student body rallied around Dyson and sold T-shirts that read “Where There’s a Willy, There’s a Way” and raised more than enough money to restore Willy to his original position.

Willy’s statue is also the location of a newer Rice tradition, the Marching Owl Band’s “Gratuitous Friday Cheer.” On Fridays at noon, MOB members gather around Willy’s statue clapping, cheering and celebrating the fact that it’s Friday.

A ‘hobbit hole’ of a bar — Valhalla

Of course, undergraduate students aren’t the only ones who like to blow off steam. One of the most cherished traditions for graduate students is gathering at Valhalla, the graduate student pub, after a long day of classes and research.

“It’s a little hobbit hole of a bar, underneath the steps of Keck Hall,” Marshall said. In its 40-year history, the bar has become known for its inexpensive beer and friendly volunteer bartenders. But despite Valhalla’s relaxed atmosphere, tie-wearers beware!

“There was a bartender at Valhalla named John Schroeder who worked there for over 20 years and imposed a very strict dress code,” Marshall said. “To this day, if you wear a tie into Valhalla, you will have it severed from your body and the remnants will be displayed on a trophy wall in the bar.”

Beer Bike

One of Rice’s unique traditions is Beer Bike, Boles said. It began as a competitive event in the spring of 1957 in conjunction with the opening of the residential colleges, but today’s Beer Bike is significantly different. Each college has a team of cyclists and a team of chuggers. A chugger has to down a drink before a cyclist can do a lap around the bike track by Rice Stadium. Despite the event’s name, none of the cyclists drink beer, and only the chuggers on the alumni team and students who are 21 or older have the option of chugging beer; most of the chuggers opt for water. The race is preceded by a huge water balloon fight between the colleges.

“For many students Beer Bike is the biggest athletic and social event on the campus,” Boles said.

More than just fun and games — Rice’s Honor Code

But Rice traditions are more than just fun and games. One of the university’s most long-standing and well-known traditions is the student-enforced Honor Code, which has been around as long as the university itself. Established in 1912, the Honor Code requires that everyone who enrolls at Rice abide by the code, which covers such matters as plagiarism and giving or receiving aid on exams.

Rice students receive unproctored exams and are trusted to take the tests in the allotted amount of time without seeking assistance from outside sources. Work completed under the Honor Code carries the pledge, “On my honor, I have neither given nor received any unauthorized aid on this (exam, quiz, paper),” followed by the student’s signature.

Boles said that Lovett talked about implementing the idea of an Honor Code from the very beginning.

“The freedom that it gives students is a wonderful part of the Rice experience, and I think that everyone who has attended Rice really treasures the fact that faculty trust them to act as honorable people and not cheat,” Boles said.