A Secretary of State, an Elk Head and Rice Students -- What Could Go Wrong?

Keep Houston Press Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Houston and help keep the future of Houston Press free.

The most well-known prank in Rice history took place on a warm spring morning in 1988. A few years after the idea first crept into their keg-addled minds, a handful of engineering students erected a pair of 24-foot A-frames around the campus's centerpiece, a one-ton statue of William Marsh Rice that houses the ashes of the university's founder.

Willy, as the statue was affectionately known, had faced the university's picturesque Lovett Hall for 58 years. But before the sun rose -- as lookouts paced nearby roofs; as decoys helped dissuade patrolling police that a "senior research project" need not be bothered -- Willy would instead be staring down Fondren Library, rotated 180 degrees from the view he once enjoyed.

The turn had been flawless: no scratches, no chips. Willy'd survived the turn just fine. (The same can't be said of the university-sponsored realignment, which saw the professional movers crack one of Willy's base-pins.) And the students would have gotten away with it, too, had one of the black-painted A-frames not slammed into the ground, alerting nearby campos that, hey, perhaps this research project wasn't entirely permissible. Students and alums rallied around those nabbed. Courtesy of hundreds of shirts sold in solidarity, the ordeal ended rounded, once more, by the kegs that so often dot campus.

The prank has seeped into the school's lore, and, come both Orientation Week and Beer Bike weekend, most Rice students turn their gloss-eyed imagination into surpassing Willy's Turn. But however many exploding toilets and zip-tied chair mountains they can muster, no prank -- or jack, as they're known -- has come close.

That could change, however, with the newest addition to Baker College, one of the 11 residential colleges inside the hedges. Lacking Weiss's classist conceit, Lovett's inferiority complexes, and Sid Richardson's alcoholism, Baker remains one of the blandest, bleakest colleges on campus. (I mean, I can't even recall a single anti-cheer we would have directed at Baker. 'Baker men come early!' is the closest I've got.) However, the college's commons are often -- and not inaccurately -- couched in Rowling-esque terms, calcifying the residential college system's comparisons to Harry Potter. A high, timbered ceiling, planked runners, and drapes fit for Buckingham present Baker College's defining feature.

As of this week, there will now be a new addition to the foyer. Former Secretary of State James Baker III -- of the same namesake, Captain James Addison Baker, as the college -- has decided to bestow, of all things, an elk's head upon his eponymous college. The head was previously stowed in the campus's Baker Institute for Public Policy, Rice's reputed public policy think-tank. Among the dignitaries and scholars, among the most notable guests Rice shuttles through campus, Baker and his coterie figured the elk head didn't quite fit.

"I'm an avid hunter, and I love to hunt," said Baker. "I particularly like to hunt elk, North American elk, because my father took me elk hunting way back in in 1944, when I was only 14 years old, in Wyoming. ... I killed a really magnificent bull elk a number of years ago, and we had the head in the Baker Institute, but it really overwhelmed the place. It's so big -- it's much too big for that....And I thought, you know, I really ought to give that elk to Baker College."

Not the most traditional gift, really. But then, Baker, regarded as one of the most salient members of Bush 41's cabinet and the architect of America's post-Soviet foreign policy, has always brought a splash of color to an otherwise dry position: sharing a sauna, Baker once utilized a nude tête-a- tête to help cajole the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, into washing his hands of his newfound nuclear weaponry.

(To be fair, Baker also had his share of politicking. Despite making an oral promise to the faltering Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not move "one inch to the east," the group's expansion -- via such broken promise as continues to propel Putin's intransigence -- was fait accompli as soon as the Soviet flag lowered over the Kremlin. Moving on ....)

Still, the gift -- and its name -- present one of the stranger moments in Rice aesthetics in recent memory. "Totally out of the blue," Ivo-Jan van der Werff, one of Baker College's Masters, said. "... We decided on a space that this elk head, who Mr. Baker called Roy, could be." Stuck high up in the commons' rafters, Roy can now monitor the Bakerites' meetings and meals, enjoying a new home and new notoriety.

Of course, now that he's out of the (relatively untouchable) Baker Institute, Roy also presents one of the finest opportunities for Martellians or Hanszenites or Murts to finally live up to the legacy left by Willy's Turn. I'm not going to suggest placing Roy atop Willy, or sending him on a Flat Stanley adventure around the city, or loosing two dozen elks within the Baker commons in mock memorial -- I would never suggest any of these, naturally -- but if ever Rice students had an opportunity to finally approach the Jack to End All Jacks, now would be a time.

Roy's there, kids. He's tacked and waiting. And Beer Bike's only two months away. Let's see what you can do.

Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the Press community and help support independent local journalism in Houston.


Join the Press community and help support independent local journalism in Houston.