Redbird Memories of an Orange Tower Prof

by Leslie LaHugh (“Hugh”) Gardner

The signature event of my time at UT – after the assassination of JFK – was when Cassius Clay whupped Sonny Liston and became world champion boxer Mohammed Ali, which brought the nascent civil rights moment alive on campus, which in turn put to rest the haunting ghosts of slavery represented by Littlefield Fountain.  The very first civil rights march in Austin ended up with a frolic in its pool.

I think my personal epiphany at UT came when I was returning home at dawn one cold and snowy morning – probably after partying all night – and was crossing the mall when I realized that there were no other tracks there, that mine were the only footprints anywhere on this epicenter of Texas at its best.

As if that wasn’t enough, I heard a beautiful birdsong, and scanned the surrounding live oaks until I spotted its source, a magnificent crimson cardinal singing his heart out to some passionately imagined destiny in this white and silent world … perhaps inspired by UT’s great slogan on the tower, “Ye Shall Know the Truth, and the Truth Shall Make You Free.”  It worked for me!

I was the prototypical math-whiz high school geek from Dallas, carrying a slide rule around and reading mostly comic books.  I enrolled at UT in 1961, having been rejected by Rice for faking books I had supposedly read in my interview.  I really dodged a bullet on that one!  I had to take remedial English my first semester, but after four years at UT – reading like a sponge, writing my ass off, listening to all the brilliance around me – I was offered financial support by all five of the great public universities I applied to for graduate school (including UT), choosing Sociology, Queen of the Social Sciences, at Wisconsin/Madison, over Political Science at Berkeley.

I was prepared for this leap from nerd to notoriety by many great teachers at UT, foremost among them Dr. Murray Havens of the Government department, who must have written me dynamite letters of recommendation.  Dr. Havens was not only a terrific teacher; he was the department’s leading innovator in that era, showing how politics, like society, could be best understood (and influenced) by scientific methods.  He might be amused to know that in the 1970s I was the Colorado equivalent on the left to Karl Rove in Texas on the right, introducing new ideas like personalized computer letters and key-precinct targeting that helped bring the Dem tide of Hart, Lamm, Wirth and Schroeder to my adopted state.

With apologies to Dr. Havens, who taught me the basics of this new and powerful science, I gave it up when I learned that many politicians, and most all my fellow consultants, were cynical, abrasive ******** I wanted nothing further to do with.  I guess Karl liked ******** a lot more than me.

Dr. Havens sponsored and supervised my honors thesis about “liquor by the drink” in Texas, which I reworked into one of only two articles out of hundreds that I ever had rejected for popular publication (by Ronnie Dugger of The Texas Observer, no less).  I got to interview Ben Barnes at the capitol and get tanked at the Texas Restaurant Association, wow!  Dugger thought I was too biased toward booze, which was true.

Dr. Havens also put me to gainful employment my senior year grading essays, which taught me how to edit for grammar and style as well as judge knowledge.  Despite Dugger (but partly thanks to him too), Dr. Havens helped me understand that I could research, analyze and write with the best.  I gained a sense of personal power with the written word that stood me in very good stead from then on – like my first published article, the cover story of Esquire magazine (September, 1970) at age 26.

Twenty years later, I actually met Mohammad Ali at a Chinese restaurant in New York while attending a sociology convention.  He was going around to different tables doing card tricks.  When he got to me, I jumped up and gushed, “You really are the greatest!”  What sticks with me today is my astonishment that he wasn’t all that much bigger than I was.

I still have dreams about being a student at UT, waking up in a cold sweat wondering where’s my car, dude, or running late to an exam.  These were some of the happiest moments of my life.  I will be eternally grateful to Dr. Havens and UT Gov (I still feel it should be “Political Science”) for opening up some fabulous opportunities and helping me gain the self-confidence it took to pull them off.