1885 April Fool’s incident chronicled in new book

When students at what was then Sam Houston Normal Institute decided to have a little fun with the faculty on April 1, 1885, they planned a smashing “April fool.”

But when it came to having fun back then, the Normal students were a bit timid–the result perhaps of strict standards of conduct. Dancing, drinking and card playing were all grounds for suspension.

The April fool incident, and other details of campus life, are described by Ty Cashion in a soon-to-be-completed history of Sam Houston State University, being written for this year’s celebration of the university’s 125th birthday.

Cashion, associate professor of history, uncovered the April fool story in letters written by J. J. Rushing, a student from the Shelby County community of Tomday on the Sabine River in deepest East Texas.

Rushing wrote that “almost every student in school”–which was about 300 most semesters–decided that when they marched out of morning chapel services that April 1 they would “march on home” instead of going to class.

About half of them went through with the prank, but the other half, including Rushing, backed out. How far the wayward half traveled toward their boarding houses is not noted, just that the faculty “took it as an April fool and said nothing about it.”

Others of that era who took other than the prescribed path were not so fortunate.

When students enrolled, they were required to take a pledge that bound them to “comply cheerfully with the regulations of the school.” They were also given grades for their “deportment,” which were considered when they applied for teaching positions.

Minutes of one faculty meeting noted that two young women suffered “indefinite suspension” for admitting “they had danced repeatedly and openly” in defiance of their pledge.

The hot pastime, for some, was skating. Rushing wrote to his brother, describing what skates looked like and how they worked, and the effect of getting a group of people on them in a roller rink.

“It is a great show to see them fall around in every direction,” he wrote, “some time four and five in a pile, but they will get up and try it over.”

Because of all that body contact perhaps, or the falling and getting up being considered too unladylike, skating was added to the list of prohibited diversions–for females.

And how did the students back then live under what some today might consider impossibly strict regulations? They didn’t seem to bother Rushing.

Cashion writes that “his letters projected the confident enthusiasm of a student who was making the most of college life.”

In one letter home, Rushing wrote, “I never studied so hard in my life as I have been studying these past two weeks, and I think I have been greatly rewarded for it…I like my change (of boarding houses) very well.

“I have a good old steady room mate and a church member…We were visited by the Committee on education this week. Some of them delivered some very good speeches…We take a lesson every day on Civil Government, taught by Dr. Baldwin; it is one of the most interesting studies that I have…”

Another note began: “I am well and as happy as a ‘dead pig in the sunshine.'”

Cashion’s book is scheduled for release later this year.

The 125th birthday celebration events include a visit by Dan Rather on April 16, presentations by historian James Haley April 20, and a commemorative ceremony with Gov. Rick Perry April 21.

Sam Houston Normal Institute was created on April 21, 1879, with the signing of charter legislation by Texas Gov. Oran M. Roberts. Activities are also planned around the date of October 10, when the school’s first classes were held in 1879.

Story contributed by the office of Public Relations

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