Student life changed following the war, and not all the changes were positive. Academic standards for acceptance continued to go up, with the result that Rice students were even more talented. Those from the Southwest, especially, were accustomed to hearing: “Oh, you go to Rice. You must be smart.” Eventually self-mocking students wore T-shirts or sported bumper stickers that proclaimed: “I go to Rice. I must be smart.” Many of the older students returning from the war were more serious about their classwork than an earlier generation had been. As the faculty increased in size and distinction and came increasingly to think in terms of publications, graduate students, and research grants, the pressure for academic achievement intensified. The combination of better, more serious students and more research-oriented faculty meant that the academic experience at Rice became extremely rigorous. Carefree days of rambling amid wild-rose bushes and breathing the sweet scent of jasmine seemed from another world as students struggled to pass the infamously difficult Math 100 and indeed the whole gamut of demanding humanities and laboratory science courses all undergraduates had to take. The rules were rigidly enforced—almost as though the officials said to students, in effect—“Look, you go here free, so don’t complain!”
At times it seemed to students that certain faculty members equated hard with good, and a standing joke even as late as the early 1960s was that getting an education at Rice was like getting a drink of water at a fire hydrant. There were wonderful courses and inspiring teachers still, such as Hubert Bray, Claude Heaps, Floyd S. Lear. For students who remembered being considered “different” in high school because they were bright and studious, Rice was often an exhilarating four years. But for many of these same students, shocked at having to compete for “C’s” because of grading curves when they had previously only made “A’s,” Rice seemed at times like a grueling survival course. Occasional student suicides suggested that perhaps Rice was simply too hard for the students’ good. One took a kind of perverse pride in sticking it out, imagining all the while how easy friends at other colleges must be having it.
These were also the years of Rice’s greatest football successes under legendary coach Jess Neely. Student pep rallies, bonfires, and the Saturday gridiron contests against hated rivals University of Texas and Texas A&M provided release from the increasing rigors of study. Perhaps the greatest football fan of all was beloved head gardener Tony Martino, who exhorted the team to victory in memorable flights of oratory at pep rallies held Friday nights in front of the library after its close. In these years Rice football teams won Southwest Conference championships in 1949, 1953, and 1957, made a trip to the Sugar Bowl as well as three Cotton Bowls, and had such All-America players as Richard Chapman, Buddy Dial, King Hill, Bill Howton, John Hudson, Kosse Johnson, Dickie Maegle, and Froggy Williams. In 1954 Maegle was illegally tackled by an Alabama player coming off the bench onto the field, producing one of the most famous plays in all of football history. Many sports fans across the nation came to know Rice in the 1950s only from its prowess on the gridiron.
Bright, creative students living together under intense pressure produced wild parties and outrageously elaborate pranks. Freshman hazing continued from the prewar days, including the “slime parade” of underwear-clad freshmen down South Main. The senior follies were vaudeville-like skits filled with inside campus jokes and double entendres. As with other campuses, a special vocabulary arose, with extremely serious students knows as “wieners” or “weenies.” To “gun” an exam was to do exceptionally well on it. Some of this language was—by today’s standards—both sexist and racist, as well as inaccurate. The Mexican-American janitors were called “Gnomes” (pronounced Guh-nome-es) and homely women students “TRGs” (Typical Rice Girls).
Not all the play was demeaning or verbal. Especially in the spring, massive water-balloon fights erupted between students of adjacent residence halls. The administration accepted these water-balloon wars as harmless ways of letting off steam, but it looked less approvingly at students who explored the underground maze of steam tunnels linking the campus buildings. Persistent efforts to prevent such dangerous adventures were in vain; Rice students daringly organized spelunking clubs for tunnel exploration. Later students wore T-shirts displaying a map of the tunnel system, emblazoned with the words “Strictly off-limits: tours available.”
President Lovett had envisioned a democratic residential college system in 1912, but no substantial progress toward that ideal was made until the mid-1950s. There had never been fraternities at Rice, only residence halls for men, although the women’s literary societies had acquired a sorority-like social exclusiveness by the late 1940s. Adviser to women Betty Rose Dowden ended this tendency in 1950 by helping to organize enough new literary societies to allow every woman student to belong to one. Still, women could not live on campus, and the dormitories for men left much to be desired.
The trustees, recognizing that student life and morale at Rice were not meeting the standards to which the Institute otherwise aspired, began in the early 1950s to investigate the possibility of organizing a college system. At first it was not proposed to build a women’s college, nor was it clear how many and how large the men’s colleges should be. Finally it was decided to make additions to the three older residence halls and the newer Wiess Hall, transforming them into four men’s colleges: Baker, Hanszen, Will Rice, and Wiess, named after prominent benefactors (trustees Captain James Baker, Harry Clay Hanszen, William M. Rice, Jr., and Harry Carothers Wiess). While these plans were underway, Houston Endowment, Inc., provided funds for a women’s college to be named for financier Jesse Jones’s wife, Mary Gibbs Jones.
Each college was to have its own dining hall, detached master’s house, apartments for two or more resident single faculty, study rooms, game rooms, and space for approximately 220 students. The colleges would consist of students representing all classes, freshmen to senior, and all majors. Each college would be independently governed by its own student officers, and each would sponsor its own intramural teams, plays, glee clubs, and the like. Fifteen or more nonresident faculty associates (and later community associates) would be chosen for each college to take occasional meals there and participate to a degree in the life of that college. The development of the college system, with students moving into the new facilities in the spring of 1957, was the single most dramatic improvement in student life ever made at Rice. It transformed the undergraduate experience.
It was not simply that the facilities represented a vast improvement in the amenities of everyday life. The men’s colleges remained without air conditioning, and on warm nights when the wind blew from the south, students could hear lions roaring at the nearby Houston zoo. But the colleges profoundly changed the character of campus life. Women living on campus represented a significant milestone, even though they had strict curfews and dress codes. Men and women studying together in the library before the long walk to Jones College (prudently placed across the campus from the men’s colleges), made life more pleasant for many students. The college system rendered student organization by class almost irrelevant, and gradually students came to identify far more with their colleges than with their graduation classes. Intramural competition became more spirited, and colleges came to be recognized for glee clubs or Shakespearean productions or table-top theater.
The colleges slowly gained separate identities that set them apart from one another. Upperclassmen became less interested in “initiating” freshmen by hazing and more interested in incorporating them into the life of the colleges. Freshman week evolved to ease the transition from high school to Rice, with surprisingly supportive involvement from large numbers of upperclass students. While life in the colleges has not yet achieved the degree of intellectual and social camaraderie idealized by Lovett, it is a marked improvement over dorm life. Within a decade colleges became in student eyes the most distinctive and most praised characteristic of Rice.
The beer-bike race, perhaps Rice’s most colorful athletic event, began in 1957 with the college system. At first the same people drank beer and rode bikes, but in a few years drinkers and riders were separate. The race among the four men’s colleges was run around the inner loop circling Lovett Hall, the Rice Memorial Center, and what is now Herring Hall. As soon as the drinkers drained their twenty-four-ounce cans of beer, burly pit crews launched the riders with a mighty heave. Barring wrecks at the four corners of the route, the exhausted riders were caught at the end of the course by the same pit crews and unceremoniously pitched off their bikes so the next riders could jump on and be thrust forward just as the next beer drinkers emptied their cans.
Before the race, college members approached the stands en masse, displaying their college colors and insignia. College spirit ran high; by the 1970s and 1980s the spring beer-bike race was more important to most students than the homecoming football game in the fall. Colleges arranged elaborate and comical entrances to the stands, now moved to an oval track laid out on the stadium parking lot. By then eight colleges were participating, and the main event was preceded by a shorter women’s beer-bike race, an alumni race, and there was also a whimsical Graduate Student Association bike team. Younger alumni in growing numbers return to campus for this spring outing, complemented now with tennis matches, baseball games, and refreshments. The races are hotly contested, the athletes are amateurs (though they ride decidedly professional bikes), and the fans are fervent in support of their colleges. The 21-year-old age limit for alcoholic consumption has forced some adjustments in procedures, but the excitement and good-natured competitiveness of the races remain. Beer-bike day has become a quintessential Rice event.