From Bevo to Burdine to the Battle Oaks, here are the real stories behind the legends you thought you knew.
They’re staples at every college, as common as all-nighters during final exam week: campus myths and legends.
Every university has them: Mischievous ghosts that haunt the oldest buildings. The residence hall that was designed by an architect who specialized in building jails. Libraries that are slowly sinking because the planners didn’t anticipate the weight of the books. Superstitions that undergrads who pass through a certain campus gate won’t graduate.
The University of Texas is no exception and has developed its own collection of myths and lore. Here’s a sampling:
Myth: When viewed at an angle, the UT Tower looks like an owl because it was designed by a Rice University graduate.
This is, perhaps, among the most widespread UT legends. If you view the top of the Tower from a corner, two of the faces of the tower clock are supposed to resemble a pair of owl’s eyes, while the corner of the observation deck suggests a beak. All of this was allegedly on purpose, as the architect of the Main Building and Tower, it’s claimed, was a graduate of Rice University.
Actually, the architect was Paul Cret, who was born in Lyon, France. He graduated from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, at the time considered the finest architecture school on the planet.
Cret emigrated to the United States and was head of the architecture program at the University of Pennsylvania when he was hired in 1930 to be the consulting architect for the University of Texas. His campus master plan included not only the Main Building and Tower, but also the South Mall and its “six pack”, the Texas Union, Goldsmith Hall, Mary Gearing Hall, and the W. C. Hogg Building, among others.
The origin of this myth might be connected to Dr. William Battle (for whom Battle Hall and the Battle Oaks are named). Battle was hired in 1893 to teach Greek and rose through the ranks to be a full professor, dean, and for a short time, as acting UT president.
He founded the University Co-op, designed the UT Seal, and was the chairman of the Faculty Building Committee for many years. The committee advised the Board of Regents on campus construction. For decades, Battle’s work on the campus was so trusted that no building was approved unless Battle agreed.
When Battle was first hired, he wound up with the office on the top (fourth) floor of the Victorian-Gothic old Main Building. He’d traded quarters with an older professor who didn’t want to walk up so many stairs, and named his new digs the “owl’s nest.” In the 1930s, when Old Main was demolished and the new Main Building and Tower were completed, Battle was again given an office on the top floor—he sometimes claimed to have the “highest office in the land”—and continued to call it the owl’s nest. It may be that persons pointing out Battle’s office added the clock faces as owl eyes. After Battle retired in the 1950s, the Tower design might have been mistakenly associated with Rice University.
Myth: The Battle Oaks were saved by Dr. Battle, who sat under the trees with a shotgun and defied the Board of Regents.
Not a chance. Using a shotgun at all would be very much out of character for the rather quiet and bookish Battle.
While Battle was chairman of the Faculty Building Committee in the early 1920s, plans emerged to place a new biological laboratories building at the northwest corner of the campus, which would have meant the destruction of the University’s oldest live oaks.
Students and faculty raised concerns with Battle, and a group of professors even signed a petition. Battle agreed that the trees should be saved, took the matter up with the Board of Regents and convinced them to move the building farther east. The oaks were later named for their champion.
As with the owl face in the UT Tower, this myth has a likely source. Among those who wrote to Battle was Judge Robert Batts, a distinguished jurist, UT law professor and later chairman of the Board of Regents. (Batts Hall on the South Mall is named for him.) When the biological labs building was being designed, Batts had been hired as general counsel for the Gulf Petroleum Company and had temporarily left Austin for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Batts’ letter was direct. He told Battle that he would “come down to Austin with a shotgun” if that’s what was needed to save the oaks.
Myth: The East Mall Fountain was named for a custodian.
The East Mall Fountain was the capstone of the University’s East Mall development project in the 1960s. During the time of the Vietnam War, UT students informally dubbed it the “Peace Fountain,” and there was a short-lived movement that tried to make the name official.
A decade later, it was a campus legend that the regents rejected the idea, and instead named the fountain for Elisha Pease, a former Texas governor who valiantly tried to establish the University in the 1850s during his term. Today the same myth persists, but instead of a governor, Pease has become a campus custodian. Regardless, the fountain has always been officially the East Mall Fountain.
Myth: When seen from above, the Perry-Castaneda Library was designed to appear in the shape of Texas.
The Perry-Castaneda Library was opened 35 years ago, August 29, 1977, as the main library for the UT campus. If you look at a campus map the right way and use your imagination, it’s possible to think of the outline of the library as similar to the shape of Texas. But this wasn’t intentional. Officially it’s called a “rhomboid shape,” and it complements the similarly designed Graduate School of Business building across the street, which was completed the same year.
Myth: Bevo was named because of a branding by A&M pranksters.
This is still one of the best-known stories on the campus. During a late night visit to Austin, a group of Texas Aggie pranksters branded the University’s first longhorn mascot “13 – 0,” the score of a football game won by Texas A & M. In order to save face, UT students altered the brand to read “Bevo” by changing the “13” to a “B,” the dash to an “E,” and inserting a “V” between the dash and the “0.” For years, the Aggies have proudly touted the stunt as the reason the steer acquired his name.
While the first Bevo was indeed branded 13 – 0, the rest of the tale isn’t true. Bevo acquired his name months before the Aggies paid their infamous visit, and the brand itself was never changed. You can find a more detailed account of Bevo’s story here.
Myth: The Eyes of Texas is the state song.
While many of us would like to think that The Eyes is the only true Texas tune, the official state song is Texas, Our Texas.
The Eyes of Texas was written in 1903 by John Lang Sinclair after endless prodding by fellow UT student Lewis Johnson. Johnson wanted a song the University could call its own, but wasn’t a composer himself. He wrote letters to alumni asking for help, but to no avail, and finally recruited Sinclair, who was then known as the campus poet.
The song was inspired by UT President William Prather, who always ended his talks to students with the encouraging words, “and always remember, the eyes of Texas are upon you.” The original manuscript of the song, scribbled on a brown piece of laundry paper, is on permanent loan to the Texas Exes and proudly hangs in the Alumni Center.
Myth: Burdine Hall looks like a punch-out computer card because it was intended to house the Department of Computer Sciences.
The window pattern on Burdine Hall is certainly unusual, and this kind of thing is ripe for a campus myth. But it’s not true.
Burdine Hall was opened in May 1970 for the Departments of Government and Sociology. It’s named for John Alton Burdine, a longtime government professor who also served as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, which later separated into the Colleges of Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences.
Read more about UT history at UT History Central.