The old man stood tall, only slightly stooped, above the line of family, church and community friends come for the three-tiered wedding cake and punch, past the gauntlet of handshakes for parents, blessings on the bride and her marine lieutenant set back from this family he had only just met, family still puzzled by their daughter’s rash appraisal of his dress blues, heavy wool he would only wear this once, just back from Vietnam, thin and sweating and unsmiling, having weathered these West Texans he neither knew, nor cared to know, desiring only the red-haired young woman beside him, whispering through her teeth Smile! Be nice! And the tall old man nodding and coming closer, withholding the book past parents and bride to stand beside the marine who thought he was beyond such trials, not having yet opened the book to discover his name inscribed in a shaky script, for what lay ahead, what the book foretold. Famous Are Thy Halls: Hardin-Simmons University as I Have Known It, With Autobiographical Sketches—the old man’s history of self and place, a college north of nothing, or almost, July 4, 1891, its cornerstone laid to hold through storms of sand bullying scrub mesquite and prickly pear, coyotes and diamondbacks, twisters purging sodbusters’ clay hovels, anything audacious enough to rise above the earth prostrate before this land’s vengeful gods.
Rupert Norval Richardson. His mother must have coveted this name for her only surviving son after three daughters and baby Laurence who died of erysipelas at seven months. She maybe bargained for the name—Rupert N.—to consecrate her son to academia, research, stentorian lectures, authorship, reluctant presidency. Rupert was born in a log house in 1891, the same year as Hardin-Simmons—a predestination, a fate he did not appear to choose. His father built the cabin in 1879. On Sandy Creek, Stephens County, Texas. Rupert often ran away, or was just leaving without notice of his intentions. Alarm in the family. His absence. He never thought of it as running away and never developed the slightest sense of guilt about it. He was simply “out seeing things.”
Before Quantico and Camp Lejeune. Before Da Nang and Chu Lai. Before the marine returned to the States, the .45 pistol he un-holstered only once, turned in for a blank notebook of lined pages, a desk drawer of sharpened pencils. Before the redhead and twin babies, there were books and an East Texas farm, his grandfather weathered and wary of a child who ran the woods with a collie dog, no concern for copperheads and wolves, the sudden report of a hunter’s rifle. He, too, was just out seeing.
He could not know what desires lay beyond the hundred acres of pine and sweet gum, red oak and maple, two ponds of sunfish, a creek patrolled only by turtles and tadpoles, the blue jays’ scolding he could ignore, the raucous crows—their laughter loud in the face of the Baptist preacher’s God quick with fire and eternal judgment, the jersey cows gathering calves to their sides, the mockingbird singing the boy deeper into the woods, the family of wolves—shadows against the distant boundary of barbed wire and hickory—this peaceable kingdom from which he could not fear being cast out, or worse, leaving of his own accord.
Does a historian read fiction, the truth discovered in novels? Could Rupert have read William Faulkner’s “The Bear”—Sam Fathers, the blood of Chickasaw chieftain and African slave disposing him to the big woods, Edenic world of mythic bear and untamed dog—head, high as the shoulder of a horse, Sam Fathers’ Garden of Tooth and Claw, triumvirate of bear, dog, and man, destiny of combat and death, no living outside this primeval forest encroached upon by settlers, preachers, city planners?
For Rupert, it was Charley Moon—twenty-five years Rupert’s senior, “mulatto,” hunter wise in the “habits of wild things,” companion who treated the boy as if he were an adult. He told stories of wolf hunts, “adventures with a wild cat.” From Charley Moon, Rupert learned nature and “caught a love for it.”
Most neighbors were weeks and months between visits, other boys to play with. Rupert discovered a fascination with bees—how to rob a hive, imprint work habits, stamina and character, the necessity of telling the bees of a death in the family, the community. The War with Spain. William Randolph Hearst. Joseph Pulitzer. The boy read accounts, grew “fighting mad.” His first dog, Ring, “mastiff-like,” “lion-hearted,” “boon companion,” killed a coyote almost as large as he. A hired worker, in the night, saw an eye glowing in the field, fired, and Rupert heard the “whimpering of a dying dog.” After that, Rupert avoided dogs and saw to it that he “never loved another animal as dearly as [he] loved Ring.” For pets, he chose cats. A cat “keeps you at paw’s length. He never gives himself to you heart and soul like a dog. When the dog dies, or is killed, you grieve your heart out.”
What was it Dr. Richardson saw in the Marine he had only heard about from the redhead’s parents, how he wrote from Vietnam to ask for their daughter’s hand, having never met the parents, having only dated the redhead twice before shipping out? And now, back in the world, he seemed unfit for polite society. Maybe Rupert thought of his son Rupert, Junior, Little Rupe, his laugh, his B. A. from Hardin-Simmons, his Master of Arts at the University of Texas, his predictable future. Then came September, 1940, and President Roosevelt signing “the first peace-time draft law in the history of the nation.” Then came the early afternoon of December 7, 1941. Men “began to withdraw from school in numbers to join the colors.” So many, Rupert could not name them all. “To some readers they may be just names; but to those of us who knew them they are buoyant, enthusiastic, delightful young men. Some of them seemed so young. Perhaps my being older and the father of a son soon to be overseas caused me to accentuate my thoughts of their youth.” Maybe Rupert saw in the Marine, his dress blues, a photograph of Rupe in uniform. Maybe Rupert thought of his son, returned to his father to shuffle-step the campus, speaking only to himself.
Did Rupert regret leaving his father’s farm for Simmons College (Hardin-Simmons)? He wrote he “loved the ranch and the open spaces” and wondered how he “ever pulled [himself] away from it.” He had grown up, however, “with the idea of taking part in a profession.” Rupert seemed to always know “the farm and ranch days constituted just a period of transition. I would enjoy them and be thankful for them while I had them, but the main task was other work out ahead. And even today, when I visit my stock farm near Abilene and stay longer than I had planned, there arises the feeling that this is delightful, but there are other things that I should be doing.”
Maybe the tall old man could sense the redhead’s husband needing the book, direction to a place, a heritage he was incapable of choosing on his own—Forty Acres his in-laws loved as students and, later, his father-in-law, as a member of the faculty, dean of the school of music. The campus his wife and her siblings grew up claiming as home, as would his twin sons, and he would come to reconcile himself to something more worthy than wealth and fame, published books and public readings. He could learn to be still and listen, run a hard eight miles each noon, sweat and muscle fatigue, gaining a kind of joy to propel him through the afternoons, the weeks, the months, the years accumulating like names on a roll sheet, an honor roll: Simmons, Olsen, Sandefer, Richardson, Dean. So he walked the campus—nights and holidays, early morning hours, quiet times, still and small, voices whispering him on.
“Famous Are Thy Halls”—a phrase from the Hardin-Simmons University Anthem:
Hardin-Simmons Anthem (stanza one)
Hardin-Simmons, hail to thee,
for famous are thy halls.
Long may thy worth increase,
long live thy noble cause.
Great are thy victories
o’er land and over sea.
Fair daughter of the West
we love and honor thee.
Faulkner, William. “The Bear.” Go Down Moses, by Faulkner, Vintage, 1990. pp. 181-315.
Richardson, Rupert N. Famous Are Thy Halls: Hardin-Simmons As I Have Known It. Abilene Printing & Stationery, 1964.