Baylor Tragedy and the Institutional Narrative

By Taylor Balch

Every year during Homecoming Week at Baylor University, freshman students gather at the Freshman Mass Meeting to hear the story of Baylor’s Immortal Ten. The story echoes the eternal truths of Baylor University: friendship, bravery, loyalty, faithfulness, and tradition. Not told, however, is a different homecoming story, that of the Baylor-A&M game of 1926, one that doesn’t fit as well with the institutional values. Although both the Homecoming game of 1926 and the tragic 1927 accident of the Immortal Ten are stark events in the history of Baylor University, they have been woven into the institutional narratives very differently based on the university responses and values associated with each event.

Homecoming Brawl of 1926

On the brisk afternoon of October 30, 1926, a record-breaking crowd of 20,000 fans filed into Baylor’s Cotton Palace for the much-anticipated Homecoming game against Texas A&M’s Fighting Aggies. That morning’s student paper, The Daily Lariat, declared “Bruins Primed to High Pitch for Aggies” as students, alumni, and fans alike awaited the game, hoping for a win. “Rivalry of the bitterest taste” was said to exist between the two schools, and the game promised to be “a hard fight, a thrilling battle all the way” (Daily Lariat, Oct. 30, 1926).

At the end of the first half of the game, a group of Baylor women rode onto the field in a Model-T Ford, “dressed to represent different periods of Baylor’s historical pageant of the Homecoming celebration and athletic victories” (Daily Lariat, Nov 1, 1926).  As the car approached the area of the stands in which many A&M students were sitting, several cadets interpreted the costumes of the women to be mocking their military uniforms (Brooks & Walton, 1927). At that moment, an A&M student rushed onto the field, toward the car, and knocked one woman to the ground, bruising her badly (San Antonio Express, 1926). “As soon as the attack was observed by the thousands of Baylor and A&M students and supporters there was a simultaneous rush toward the girls for their protection. Almost instantly, hundreds of Baylor and A & M men were in a fierce, free-for-all fight” (Daily Lariat, Nov 1,1926), several of them grabbing clubs and chairs as they made their way onto the field (San Antonio Express, 1926). One A&M man was stuck over the head and carried off the field to a local hospital. He died the following morning from a blood clot in the brain and injuries sustained from the brawl (Daily Lariat, Nov 1, 1926).

Campus and Community Response to Tragic Incident

Although one might expect huge headlines as word of the incident, mention of Saturday’s game in the Monday morning Daily Lariat ran sparse between the articles of typical Baylor events. In fact, at first glance, one would likely not register the magnitude of what had just occurred days before.

Front page of Daily Lariat on Monday following the Baylor-Texas A&M Homecoming Brawl. Courtesy of Baylor University Archives.

On the front page with the unassuming headline of “Between Halves at the Baylor – A. and M. Annual Football Game,” the Daily Lariat featured a four-paragraph write-up explaining the details of the incident. In the lower corner of the same page, a brief obituary named the senior A&M student, C. M. Semmuns. The issue also mentioned Baylor President Samuel Palmer Brooks’s requests to students during the morning chapel, asking them to “get down to their studies” as “constant discussion will not help” (Daily Lariat, Nov 1, 1926, pg 1). The student paper itself also seemed to echo this notion in a separate article entitled “How We Stand”, claiming their role was to simply report facts, and encouraging readers to refrain from meddling in a matter that will be carefully handled by the athletic council and by the Southwestern Conference officers” (Daily Lariat, Nov 1, 1926 pg 2).

Despite President Brooks’s request, not everyone was as quiet about the incident as The Daily Lariat. In a letter President Brooks received from Missouri resident and former Baylor student, Mr. Henry Stricker, Mr. Stricker revealed his opinions on the matter, especially “since the newspapers were so quiet with the news” (Stricker, 1926). Mr. Stricker wrote the following:

I have had high hopes of entering the walls of your college in the future but after this incident I cannot enter an institution such as this and regret that I ever had anything to do with it. I don’t know what this world is coming to if such type of athletics is permitted in Texas and this incident will be a black ball for the University as well as for the city itself. My brother was a student in A & M and I guess if the Baylor boys could have reached him he would have gotten a chair post over his head too, but he didn’t and I sure am thankful.

Mr. Stricker was not the only one to speak harshly of Baylor in response to the event, and within days, Baylor and President Brooks were on the defensive. By Thursday of that week, November 4th, the Daily Lariat’s front page alone read with a dozen headlines surrounding Saturday’s event and A&M relations. Baylor students claimed they had “no apologies to offer for the defense of her women”, and “staunchly [believed] the Cadets who started the trouble and who backed the beastly action of a few hot-headed youths to be responsible for the fight and its results” (Daily Lariat, Nov 4, 1926, pg. 1.). Furthermore, Baylor students were “tired and disgusted with competing against a rival student body that regards all points of honor, attacks women, runs gang-like…and seeks to bulldoze and browbeat a smaller student body by virtue of superior numbers and the mob spirit.” With this statement, The Daily Lariat collected the signatures of 500 students in support of severing athletic relationships between Baylor and A&M.

In hopes of reaching a mutual understanding of the Baylor-A&M brawl, President Brooks met with President Walton of A&M to issue a joint statement the very same day, November 4. Hoping to speak on behalf of the Cadets’ intentions, President Walton explained that though Baylor’s intentions of the half-time performance was “only mockery of other youngsters like themselves”, but “to the A&M cadets it had the appearance of making sport of the uniforms they wear as a feature of their military training, and had a significance their rivals did not suspect” (Brooks & Walton, 1927). In addition, “the A&M yell leader states that he had requested of the Baylor yell leader that a certain Ford car used in a stunt at a former game be not brought on the field for fear trouble would result.” Furthermore, Walton claimed on behalf of his students that “they did not recognize the occupants of the car as young women, but thought them to be boys dressed as young women.” Neither Baylor nor A&M claimed responsibility for the incident, but both claimed investigations were ongoing. No comment was made on future athletic relations (Brooks, Walton, 1927).

After the release of the joint statement, Walton became aware of the shift in tone in Baylor’s Daily Lariat. In a subsequent letter from Walton to Brooks, Walton expressed his frustrations with the Daily Lariat and the statements and harsh criticisms aimed at [his] institution and its student body” (Walton, Nov 8 1926). Walton says he’d like to reconvene to discuss the future of athletic relations, but hoped that both administrations would consider the serious decision apart from the pressures of student opinion.

With the entire state of Texas, and much of the nation watching, many agreed with the Baylor student body in that a temporary severance in athletic relations between Baylor and A&M would be the best decision (Waco News Tribune, Nov 12 1926). On December 8, 1926 Brooks and Walton issued a statement canceling all standing contracts indefinitely “in consideration of the strained athletic relations between the student bodies” (Brooks and Walton, Dec 8 1926). This hiatus would last for four years (The Lariat, 1995).

Round Rock Bus and Train Collision of 1927

Just months after the dust had settled from the Baylor-A&M brawl, Baylor was once again in the national spotlight, dealing with another campus tragedy. This time, however, the pain felt in the accident’s aftermath shook Baylor to her very core.

Baylor bus crash, 1927. Courtesy of williamsoncountyhistoricalcommission.org

On January 22, 1927, a bus carrying 21 of Baylor’s own was traveling through Round Rock, Texas on the way to a basketball game against Texas University in Austin (Copeland, 2006). It was a rainy, Saturday afternoon and mud had splashed onto the windows of the bus, hindering the view of freshman driver Joe Potter. Just after noon, Potter drove the bus through downtown Round Rock along the unfamiliar roads, not knowing a dangerous railroad crossing was just ahead. Just as he caught sight of the oncoming train through the mud-sloshed passenger-side window, he jeered the bus to the left in hopes of avoiding the collision. His reaction, however, was not quite quick enough and the train barreled through the back right corner of the bus, killing several of the young men instantly. Eight bodies were recovered at the scene, and another two young men died in route to the nearest hospital. Three others were also severely injured, but recovered fully over the next few weeks (Copeland, 2006).

Campus and Community Response to Round Rock Accident

News of the accident reached Baylor within a matter of minutes, and the Daily Lariat ran a special bulletin in hopes of quickly distributing information to the student body and community (The Daily Lariat, Jan 22, 1927).

Front page of special bulletin run on afternoon of Immortal Ten bus collision. Courtesy of Baylor University Archives.

As the days went on, Baylor students were paralyzed with grief. In an article entitled “They Have Not Lived in Vain”, one student described the university’s sorrow:

Baylor University has never been thrown into such agony before. The long history stretching back to the days of the Republic of Texas can not suggest a tragedy akin to the calamitous death of ten of Baylor’s nobly stalwart sons. The dire distress in the hearts of the parents and other close relatives of these brave men can not be measured. No plumb line has length enough. The anguish is keenest in the souls of mother and father. It is terrible.

News of the calamity reached much further than the immediate Baylor community. In a letter to his sister, President Brooks described the “hundreds and hundreds of telegrams and letters from all sorts of organizations, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant” (Brooks, 1927). The January 25th Daily Lariat listed hundreds of names of those who had already sent correspondence, just three days after the tragedy (Daily Lariat, January 25 1927).

In a letter to President Brooks, the parents of Jack Castellaw, one of the deceased boys, wrote, “We do know that if the going away of the ten dear boys, including our own, our all, shall result in a greater Baylor; if the lives they touched shall be enriched; if the life of some boy or girl shall be made better, spurred on to nobler aims and higher ideals—then their sacrifice will have not been in vain” (Castellaw, 1927).

The Castellaws were not the only ones hoping the death of these boys would have not been in vain. When US Senator Earle Mayfield (Texas) heard of the efforts on Baylor’s campus to erect a Memorial Auditorium with ten white columns guarding the entrance to honor each of the ten boys, he was in total agreement (Mayfield, 1927). In addition, he saw the opportunity to honor the young men and “give expression in a practical way.” Mayfield plead for Baylor’s support in a statewide reform of railroad crossings mandating overpasses or separations at all railroad crossings at grade in Texas.   Although the Memorial Auditorium was never constructed, Mayfield’s efforts for rail-road reform led to the first rail-road overpass at the site of the accident in Round Rock, Tx (Brinkman).

As news coverage of the tragic event continued, focus turned to an emerging vignette of Abe Kelley and Weir Washam. On the morning following the accident, The Dallas Morning News ran an article entitled “Kelley Sacrificed Life to Save His Fellow Teammate”, describing an eye-witness account from surviving passenger John Kane (as cited in Copeland, 2006, p. 70). Kane’s retelling of the dramatic story included the noble, heroic act of young Abe Kelley pushing his good friend Weir Washam out the nearby rear window just moments before the collision, saving Washam’s life. According to Kane, Kelley could have jumped through the open window himself, but he instead chose to sacrifice his own life for that of a friend.

As other eyewitness accounts of the event emerged, various opinions and perspectives emerged as well. From Louis Slade’s perspective, another surviving teammate from the crash, Abe Kelley pushed Washam out and was following him through the window at the moment of impact. Others noted that Washam’s position in the bus was in Kelley’s way of direct escape, and therefore Kelley pushed Washam out in hopes of reaching his own safety as well. In addition, Washam is known to have denied the claims in private conversation, but “never publicly refuted the claim out of respect for his longtime friend” (Copeland, 2006, pg 69). Nonetheless, Kane’s telling of Kelley’s heroic and selfless act emerged as the preferred rendition of the story, and President Brooks himself officially this version.

Institutional Memory

On January 25, 1927, three days after the accident in Round Rock, The Daily Lariat quoted professor A. J. Armstrong stating, “today every student knows the names of his fellow students who on Saturday were almost instantly hurled into Eternity. Today those names are written in gold across the pages of Baylor history and today those names are enshrined in love and reverence in the hearts of sixteen hundred Baylor students.”

Eighty-five years later, those names have been enshrined in the hearts of thousands more. Only one day after the accident, the term “Immortal Ten” was coined and to this day, those boys are still referred to as such. Their story has been told year after year, and some of the deepest values of Baylor University today are attributed to these young men: bravery, friendship, and faithfulness.

Each year on the Wednesday of Baylor Homecoming week, students join in the tradition of this story through the annual Freshman Mass Meeting. During the eleven o’clock p.m. service, the names of the Immortal Ten are read and each of their stories told. Ten empty chairs and ten Baylor basketball jerseys are positioned center-stage to symbolize the boys’ eternal spirit among the Baylor student body.

Immortal Ten jerseys at the annual Freshman Mass Meeting. Photo courtesy of Baylor University.

 As the names are read and each of the empty chairs recognized, the ceremony proceeds to the tenth and final name: Abe Kelley.  The powerful story of Kelley’s heroism as first told by John Kane not only served as a positive exemplification of Baylor’s values in the aftermath of the tragedy, but remains a vital part of the institutional narrative and campus tradition today.

However, not so keen in the institutional memory is the tragedy that happened just months before the death of the Immortal Ten (and ironically not discussed during Baylor’s homecoming festivities): the Baylor-A&M Homecoming brawl of 1926. When comparing the two incidents, it is obvious which event caused more pain within the Baylor community, and rightfully so with the loss of 10 of her own good men, and it would be foolish to suggest that Baylor offer the same ceremony in remembrance of the A&M student’s death caused by the 1926 brawl.  However, it is intriguing to note the differences in not only the institutional memory of these events, but also the subtle and not-so-subtle reporting biases that occurred in the wake of these tragedies.

Compared to the institutional response of the Immortal Ten tragedy, Baylor’s response to the tragedy in 1926 was much less proactive. Rather than issuing an informational special-edition of the Daily Lariat on the day of the incident like they would do the following year, President Brooks and The Daily Lariat, remained relatively quiet and encouraged others to do the same. It wasn’t until the community began speculating on the values of Baylor students and demanding response that President Brooks and President Walton of A&M were forced to respond not only to the event, but to the public scrutiny as well.

Given the fact that Baylor had the means and volition to respond so proactively to the tragic bus accident in 1927, one has to wonder if the minimal reporting after the 1926 brawl is due to alignment with institutional values. In the case of the Immortal Ten, it was the university’s priority to properly eulogize the ten men and honor their memory by exemplifying their faithfulness and bravery, especially in the case of Abe Kelley. After the brawl of 1926, however, the university was at a loss for how to respond to an event so disparate with university goals.

Conclusion

As painfully tragic as the Immortal Ten accident was, Baylor’s response was bold and effective. From the moment news reached Baylor University, the campus responded with ample information, reinforcing the spirit of the boys and the legacy they left behind. Today, most Baylor students and alumni could recite the significance of the event and describe the powerful mark the ten boys left on Baylor University. These same students and alumni, however, probably couldn’t describe the events that occurred just a year before or the dramatic story of the Baylor—A&M game of 1926 that rocked the same campus. This tragedy is slowly fading, known only by the stained pages of university archives and few interested Baylor historians and hobbiests, and by the intense Baylor—Texas A&M rivalry that still exists today. The Immortal Ten, however, will forever be a part of the institutional narrative as Baylor continues to select for and against the stories that resonate with university values and further define what it means to be a part of the Baylor community.

 

References

Baylor University (1926, October 30). The Daily Lariat.

Baylor University (1926, November 1). The Daily Lariat.

Baylor University (1926, November 4). The Daily Lariat.

Baylor University (1927, January 22). The Daily Lariat.

Baylor University (1927, January 25). The Daily Lariat.

Baylor University (1995, February 3). One Hundred and Fifty Years of Memories. The Lariat.

Brinkman, B. (n.d.). The Immortal Ten bus crash of 1927. Williamson County Historical Commission. Retrieved from http://www.williamson-county-historical-commission.org/

Brooks, S. P. (1927). Samuel Palmer Brooks Papers. [Letter from Samuel Palmer Brooks to Sister]. (Folder 431). Texas Collection and Baylor University Archives, Waco, TX.

Brooks, S. P. & Walton, T. O. (1926) Samuel Palmer Brooks Papers. [Joint statement from Baylor and A&M Presidents]. (Folder 430). Texas Collection and Baylor University Archives, Waco, TX.

Castellaw. (1927). Samuel Palmer Brooks Papers. [Letter from Mr. and Mrs. Castellaw to Samuel Palmer Brooks]. (Folder 431). Texas Collection and Baylor University         Archives, Waco, TX.

Copeland, Todd. (2006). The immortal ten: The definitive accound ot the 1927 tragedy that stunned the state of Texas and left a lasting mark on Baylor University. Waco, TX:      Baylor University Press.

Mayfield, E. B. (1927). Samuel Palmer Brooks Papers. [Letter from senator Earle Mayfield to Samuel Palmer Brooks]. (Folder 431). Texas Collection and Baylor University Archives, Waco, TX.

Stricker, H. J. (1926) Samuel Palmer Brooks Papers. [Letter from Henry Stricker to Samuel Palmer Brooks]. (Folder 430). Texas Collection and Baylor University Archives, Waco, TX.

Walton, T. O. (1926) Samuel Palmer Brooks Papers. [Letter from A&M President Walton to Samuel Palmer Brooks]. (Folder 430). Texas Collection and Baylor University Archives, Waco, TX.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.