Patrick James Nicholson.

William Ward Watkin and the Rice Institute online

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Your decision announced today comes with intense regret to
each of us, though with personal understanding that it is a
privilege nobly earned.

Out of the marsh and swamp of this campus you have brought
beauty and fineness at every step along the way. Into its building
you have woven your life with all its clearness and kindliness.
All that we see about us is yours in every sense, creating,
nurturing and fulfilling toward an enduring meaning. It will
ever be yours in each step forward so long as you shall live.

In retrospect you have the right to view with warmth and joy
a noble work faithfully done. I pray that for years and into
generations to come it may carry on toward the soundness and
beauty which your vision for it holds.

With cordial personal regards

I am sincerely Yours

Wm Ward Watkin

Sunday, May 18, 1941

President Lovett replied, on June 4, 1941:

Office of the President
4 June 1941

My dear Mr. Watkin:

On opening your very kind letter about the change in my status
at Rice, I was somewhat terrified to recall how long, unbroken,
and intimate a line you have on my manifold limitations. So I was
all the more gratified to discover how many pleasant things you
could write from that background of personal experience. In turn,
I know, I think, a great deal better than anyone else the length and
breadth and heighth and depth of my obligation to you straight
through these years. And I have appreciated more highly than I
can tell you your concern in these latter days for my health and
comfort on the top floor of the tower. For all that you have been

Chapter Eight 301

to this institution and for all that you are to us now I shall treasure
your letter for the rest of my days.

With all my thanks, please accept also my very best wishes,
in which Mrs. Lovett joins, for you and your family, and believe
me to remain, as always.

Faithfully yours

Edgar O. Lovett

It was a letter that William Ward Watkin would "... treasure for
the rest of [his] days." Fortunately President Lovett remained in
office until March 1, 1946, allowing for gradual adjustment to a
postwar world at Rice.

However, as World War 11 intensified on all fronts, Watkin 's
thoughts were dominated by his growing concern for his only son,
Bill, and for his two sons-in-law. William Ward Watkin, Jr. , was well
into his final year at West Point when the Japanese struck their
devastating blow at Pearl Harbor. As an honor graduate of the U.S.
Military Academy and a combat engineer, he would almost certainly
face frontline action in either Europe or the Pacific after his Class of
1942 received their diplomas and commissions.

Lieutenant Watkin' s father and his sister Ray attended his graduation
at West Point in May of 1942, just six months after Pearl Harbor.
General George Catlett Marshall, later chief of staff, secretary of state,
secretary of defense, author of the Marshall Plan, and Nobel laureate,
gave the commencement address. He announced to the audience and
to the world that the first American troops had already landed in
Ireland. It was from there that they would later go to North Africa.

After graduating from West Point on May 29, 1942, Second
Lieutenant Watkin was assigned to the 2nd Engineer Battalion of the
2nd Infantry Division at Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio. From
there he was sent on maneuvers to provide advanced training for
enlisted men who had completed basic training. For months, the newly
commissioned officer crisscrossed inaccessible areas of Louisiana and
Mississippi, where the battlefield conditions of jungle warfare could
be simulated. He was often near the "Piney Woods" area of Missis-
sippi, where his grandfather Frederick William Watkin had gone to
seek his fortune in the burgeoning lumber industry of the early 1890s.

302 William Ward Watkin and the Rice Institute

There had been a leave, all too brief, for Lieutenant Watkin to come
home between graduation and reporting to Fort Sam Houston. While
his son had been at West Point, the senior Watkin had enjoyed annual
visits with his son. Watkin had been able to combine trips to USMA
with meetings of the National Architectural Advisory Board in
Washington, D.C. He greatly enjoyed his visits to West Point, the site
of Cram & Goodhue's first notable commission, overlooking the
Hudson River. Now, in 1943, with the likelihood of a long separation
before them, father and son agreed to exchange frequent letters. Since
chess had been a favorite game of theirs, it was decided that each letter
would contain the next move in a long-continuing chess match. Also,
letters from the South Pacific would be understandably brief because
of wartime censorship.

Lieutenant Watkin 's first move in the new chess game came in a
letter via overseas mail from New Guinea. Bill had shipped out from
Camp Pickett, Virginia, as a combat engineer with the 106th Engi-
neer Battalion of the 31st ("Dixie") Infantry Division. His outfit was
soon in the thick of a campaign devised at the highest level. The U.S.
Joint Chiefs of Staff decided upon a so-called "stepping stone"
approach leading to a final invasion of Japan itself from the south, as
opposed to the original strategy of moving toward Japan from the
Aleutian Islands in the North Pacific.

Meanwhile, both of the Watkin sons-in-law were on active duty, and
also headed overseas. Rosemary's husband, Nolan Barrick, was an
ensign in the U.S. Navy. After intensive training in the specialty of
interpreting aerial photographs, he was sent to the South Pacific and
to Australia. Ensign Barrick would not return to the States until 1945.

Carl Biehl, who had married Ray in December 1939, had valuable
experience as a shipping executive. Ray and Carl went to Washing-
ton, D.C, together late in 1941. He had accepted a position there
with the War Shipping Administration. A year later, he was commis-
sioned a captain in the Army Transportation Corps and, after a brief
duty in New Orleans, was sent overseas to the key port of Bristol,
England, on the Bristol Channel. Huge quantities of vital war material
were being moved through this major English port, and the ships had
to be unloaded with great speed so that they could return to the U.S.
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Biehl landed in the midst of "Operation
Overlord" on Omaha Beach in Normandy вАФ his job was to oversee

Chapter Eight 303

unloading the supply ships on the beach. Promoted to major, he
remained in the European theater for the remainder of the war, until
October 1945, when he returned home as a lieutenant colonel.

After her husband left for England from New Orleans, Ray
returned to her home in Houston. There Rosemary joined her soon
after Ensign Barrick's departure for the South Pacific. Rosemary
quickly accepted a position as a draftsman for a major oil company.
The two sisters took an apartment at the Park Lane, near their father's
home, and Ray enrolled for graduate work at the nearby Rice
Institute. She pursued her master of arts degree in the history of art,
which was awarded in 1944. Her work was done in the School of
Architecture and her adviser was James H. Chillman, whose special
field was, of course, the history of art. In the 1930s, before the war,
Chillman had divided his summers between a lectureship at his alma
mater, the University of Pennsylvania, and the guiding of groups on
art tours of Italy and France for the well-known Bureau of University
Travel. In 1944, Chillman completed his twentieth year as director of
the Museum of Fine Arts, and three decades in the Department of
Architecture at Rice Institute.

It was a great comfort for William Ward Watkin to have his daughters
back in Houston during the war, with Bill, Carl, and Nolan all overseas
in combat zones. In Houston, the Watkin family all remained busy and
hopeful, but were never unaware of the danger lurking for the other
members of their family. The mail was eagerly awaited, and quickly
sorted for letters from overseas. They listened daily to the early evening
radio broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow and the other commentators,
and to scan the Houston press for Ernie Pyle's prize-winning reports
from the Pacific and from Normandy.

Two other Houston families, friends of the Watkins, had sons in
the 31st (Dixie) Division. Serving there with Bill Watkin were John
Harris Meyers and Charles Lykes. Meyers, a 1939 graduate of the
University of Texas Law School, was married to Alice Baker Jones,
a granddaughter of Captain James A. Baker. Lykes was the son of Mr.
and Mrs. James McKay Lykes of the shipping company [11].

Bill Watkin was taking part in some of the most dangerous operations
in the South Pacific as the "stepping stone" campaign of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff moved U.S. units west across New Guinea and on to

304 William Ward Watkin and the Rice Institute

the Moluccas, then due north to the Philippines. Late in 1942, he was
promoted to the rank of first lieutenant, and then in May 1943, to
captain, as commander of Company B of the 106th Engineer Battalion.
In 1943, he was promoted to major and battalion operations officer.
His unit made assault landings at Aitape, a Japanese stronghold on the
coast of northeastern New Guinea, and at nearby Point Sarmi [12].

Major Watkin's 106th Engineer Battalion made two more assault
landings as the 31st Infantry Division continued in the exact path of
the planned approach toward an invasion of Japan. The first landing
was at Morotai, northernmost of the Moluccas (Halmaheras), and
only 300 miles from the Philippines. The second landing, even more
important strategically, was on Mindanao, the most southern of the
Philippine Islands, in an area heavily defended by the enemy. For this
operation, Major Watkin's battalion was awarded the coveted Presi-
dential Unit Citation, with its colorful and distinctive patch and
ribbon. A few months prior to VJ-Day, Watkin was given command
of the 239th Engineer Construction Battalion.

Germany had surrendered as of midnight. May 8, 1945. The U.S.
war against Japan had taken a different turn, with mass aerial bombing
of Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, and other major cities spreading fire
storms and tremendous destruction. An invasion of the enemy's
homeland, predicted to cost a possible 100,000 or more U.S. casualties,
might still be necessary but had become less of a certainty. Then
suddenly, the war in the Pacific was also over. Emperor Hirohito agreed
to recommended capitulation only days after Captain Kermit Beehan
of the Class of 1940 at Rice released the atom bomb from the Enola
Gay over Hiroshima on the morning of August 6, 1945.

The long-running airmail chess game between William Ward
Watkin and his son had only just been concluded with the end of
hostilities in the Pacific. From Japan, Lieutenant Colonel Watkin
would continue the frequent letters to his father, as he would not
return to Houston until December 1946. The 16 months since the end
of World War n had seen new assignments that would further his
military career. After deactivation of his 239th Engineer Construc-
tion Battalion at Leyte in the Philippines, he was named division
engineer and commanding officer of the 311th Engineer Battalion,
86th Infantry Division. In July 1946, he joined General MacArthur's

Chapter Eight 305

headquarters in Tokyo as chief inspector of engineer troop units for
the entire Pacific Theater.

Meanwhile, at home during the war, Ray had been serving as
secretary to the Houston Chapter of the American Red Cross, a job
she held until her husband's return. Her husband. Colonel Carl Biehl,
returned to Houston in the fall of 1945 from his final post with the
Army Transportation Corps in Belgium. They would soon move to
New Orleans, where Carl resumed his position as head of his own
shipping firm, with offices in Houston, Galveston, and New Orleans.
As had been long planned, Carl had joined his family's firm after
graduating from the Harvard Business School in 1934. His father,
Carl Biehl, Sr., died soon after this, and the younger Carl took over
management of Biehl & Company.

Nolan Barrick also returned to Houston and civilian life late in
1945. He and Rosemary moved to Ames, Iowa, where he joined the
architectural faculty of Iowa State University. They returned to
Houston in the summers, where Barrick continued to work with his
father-in-law on a number of new commissions as the postwar civilian
economy revived.

It was a memorable day when Lieutenant Colonel Watkin returned
to 5009 Caroline after three and a half years of absence in the South
Pacific and Japan. Neither father nor son was demonstrably emo-
tional, but they were both deeply thankful for Bill's safe return.
While in Houston, Bill received official orders assigning him as an
instructor to the U.S. Military Academy in the Department of
Mechanics (Mechanical Engineering). Before reporting to West
Point, however, the Army granted him a semester at the Massachu-
setts Institute of Technology as a graduate student. The four months
in Cambridge, his father's birthplace, was a welcome change and an
opportunity to prepare for a different phase in his career.

It signaled the beginning of his graduate studies that would, in
time, bring him the degrees of master of science (California
Institute of Technology, 1951) and doctor of philosophy (Columbia,
1964) as well as the later distinction of graduating first in a class of
528 officers at the Army's Command and General Staff College in
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

306 William Ward Watkin and the Rice Institute


A new postwar era had begun at Rice Institute as the 1946-1947
academic year opened. The faculty and administrative staffs, worn in
mind and body by the 12-month operation, shortages, absence of
colleagues, personal difficulties, and other problems of the war,
gradually returned to normal.

In 1945, William Vermillion Houston, the distinguished physicist
who had left the California Institute of Technology to become the
long-sought successor to President Lovett, was settling in on the top
floor of the Administration Building as the new president of the Rice
Institute. He had an agreement with the trustees to raise salaries,
establish a retirement fund, and to bring the number of faculty members
to 100 from the wartime total of barely 60. The long-established
policies of high quality in teaching and research, along with a low ratio
of students to faculty, would be maintained. This was to be done in
spite of a decision to increase enrollment substantially to 2,000,
including many more graduate students. To aid in faculty recruitment,
the rank of associate professor was added. Previously, assistant
professors were promoted directly from assistant to full professorships.
The revised system provided immediate and ongoing new strength both
in recruiting, and in retaining, highly qualified faculty.

The trustees had agreed upon a new category of trustee emeritus,
leaving room for a new generation of community leaders to be named
to the governing board. William A. Kirkland, Gus Sessions Wortham,
Dr. Frederick Rice Lummis, Harry Carothers Wiess, and Lamar
Fleming, Jr., were soon elected, along with two other men who were
to become active in the changes under way at the Institute: Harry C.
Hanszen and George R. Brown. Hanszen had replaced the deceased
Captain James A Baker in May 1942; George Brown was named to
the trusteeship of Robert Lee Blaffer after the death of Blaffer, a
founder of the Humble Oil & Refining Company in October 1942.

There had been no new construction at Rice during World War 11.
The last of the U.S. Navy V-12 students had left in July 1946, as the
four-month, year-round terms came to an end. It was already
apparent, however, that the physical plant would have to be expanded
as soon as possible to accommodate the many former students

Chapter Eight 307

returning after absences dating back to 1940, the new enroUees, and
the postwar expansion of the student body.

The greatest need was for a library. Alice Dean, mathematics
instructor from the Class of 1916, had been acting librarian for a third
of a century and had been promoted to librarian in 1946, one year
before her retirement. Beginning with an annual budget of $10,000,
she and her assistant, Sarah Lane, had built the collections to more
than 150,000 books. But the books were in almost a dozen campus
locations, including having spilled over from the original location on
the second floor of the Administration Building to the first floor and
basement of that structure.

The obvious priority was the construction of a new central library.
Rice had joined a new postwar consortium on the planning and
construction of libraries at colleges and universities. There was
general agreement that a classroom building, as well as an additional
engineering laboratory, also ranked high on a list of needs. However,
the significance of a library building soon took preference. Claude W.
Heaps, senior professor in the Physics Department, had been named
chairman of the faculty Library Committee. President Lovett decided
to send Dr. Heaps and William Ward Watkin on a nationwide tour of
institutions that were planning or already had new libraries.

Fortunately, the financial picture at the Rice Institute had improved
most dramatically during World War H. This had come about largely
through the efforts of Roy M. Hofheinz of the Class of 1932. The
so-called "boy wonder" of area politics was serving as judge of Harris
County when the estate of W.R. Davis, a veteran oil wildcatter, was
filed in his court for probate. Davis had hit a potentially big strike in
Starr County, near the Mexican border in the upper Rio Grande Valley.
This was named the Rincon Field. Davis had borrowed about $5
million to bring these wells into production and provide a pipeline to
the remote location, as well as for building a shipping terminal at the
Port of Brownsville. He owned a 50% working interest in Rincon and
nearby leases. Dan Moran's Continental Oil Company held the rest.

Davis' heirs and Judge Hofheinz had found it difficult to settle the
estate, primarily because a high tax rate then in effect would apply
to any corporate purchase of the property. The $5-million debt (at
a time when a million dollars had a great deal more impact than

308 William Ward Watkin and the Rice Institute

today) was also a considerable deterrent to a proper and satisfactory
sale agreement.

Judge Hofheinz decided that the solution might well be to sell
Davis' holdings in the Rincon Field to a tax-exempt entity, specific-
ally to the Rice Institute. He brought the matter to the attention of
George Brown of Brown & Root, and to Harry Wiess, a founder of
the Humble Oil & Refining Company who would become a Rice
trustee two years later, after the death of William Marsh Rice n.

Brown and Wiess were invited to discuss the possible purchase of
the oil field before a meeting of the governing board of the Institute.
The detailed analysis that followed indicated that W.R. Davis' share
of production from Rincon would justify a substantial cash offer to
the heirs plus assumption of the $5-million debt. It was decided to
offer $1 million in cash, if this could be raised quickly, in addition to
the debt assumption.

A group of prominent Houstonians including George Brown and his
brother Herman, Harry Wiess and Harry Hanszen, the Parish brothers
(Stephen Power and William Stamps), and H.R. Cullen gave a total of
$200,000. Colonel W.B. Bates and the other trustees of the Monroe
D. Anderson Foundation agreed to provide another $300,000. It was
agreed that this sum would apply to a campus building that would be
a memorial to M.D. Anderson if the $300,000 could be recovered from
operating the Rincon Field. The Rice Institute trustees then provided
another $500,000 from endowment funds, to make up the total of $1
million in cash offered the Davis heirs.

The heirs accepted the offer just a week before Christmas Day
1942, and signed over almost one-half of the working interest in
Rincon to the Rice Institute. This turned out to be an extremely
profitable investment. The entire loan against Rincon was paid off
within five years, in addition to the $1 million in cash for W.R. Davis'
heirs. Net returns since, almost 50 years after the acquisition on
December 18, 1942, have been a major factor in the improvement of
cash flow and net asset totals at Rice. And, because of this fortunate
development, coupled with some sizable gifts, the postwar program
of building much needed new facilities for the Rice Institute made
remarkable progress between 1946 and 1950.

Chapter Eight 309

Happily, the new surge of planning and construction on the campus
included important new architectural consultantships for William
Ward Watkin. These commissions involved Anderson Hall (1947),
the Abercrombie Engineering Laboratory (1948), and the Fondren
Library (1947-1950).

On all three projects, Watkin worked with the architects John
Delabarre Staub and John T. Rather, Jr. , partners in Staub & Rather.
Staub had been the architect for many fine homes in Houston. Rather,
a graduate of the Class of 1919 at Rice, had been one of Professor
Watkin' s most talented and active students, as well as a leader in the
Architectural Society and its many undertakings on campus.

Anderson Hall, on the north side of the Academic Quadrangle, was
ready for occupancy in August 1947. Its classrooms and faculty
offices would include the new location of the Department of Archi-
tecture and were invaluable in relieving the overcrowding on campus.
Ground was broken late in 1947 for the Fondren Library, financed in
part by a $1 -million gift from Mrs. Walter William (Ella) Fondren. It
was to be for a memorial for her deceased husband, another of the
founders of the Humble Oil & Refining Company. The estimated cost
of the long-needed facility was $1.8 million. In addition to almost
$100,000 from an Alumni Association Fund, a substantial part of the
deficit of $800,000 was soon covered from an unrestricted bequest
dating back more than a decade. E.L. Bender, a prosperous lumber-
man better known as the owner-operator of the downtown Hotel
Bender (famous for its Sunday dinners), had left $200,000 to the
Institute when he died in 1934.

Watkin, with Staub and Rather, had hoped to place the Fondren
Library in the location envisioned in Cram's original master plan of
the campus. This would have been west of the site on which it was
actually built. The extremely long vista created back in 1910 by Cram
& Goodhue was based on a central axis running from the main
entrance through the sally port and the statue of the founder on west,
almost to the eastern edge of today's Rice Stadium parking lots.

Faculty members, and a majority of the Library Committee,
pointed out that it would be a long hike indeed from classrooms and
offices to a library so located, especially in Houston's heat, humidity,
thunderstorms, and wet northers. Their view prevailed, magnificent

310 William Ward Watkin and the Rice Institute

though a longer vista would have been. The Fondren Library was
placed at the end of a shortened Academic Quadrangle, north and
slightly west of the original Commons. Ralph Adams Cram and
Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue's central axis, on which William Ward
Watkin had worked as a draftsman beginning his architectural career
in Boston as early as 1909, had been considerably shortened.

Mr. and Mrs. James S. Abercrombie and their daughter Josephine
(of the Class of 1946 at Rice) provided $500,000 for the Abercrombie
Engineering Laboratory. Completed late in 1948, this facility was
badly needed as postwar enrollments in science and engineering
continued to expand. It included, as an ornamental feature, a
sculpture by William M. McVey of the Class of 1927, the first alumni
sculpture on the campus. The work depicted the various ways in
which the engineer changes, delivers, and stores the natural energy of
the sun in the differing forms required by our heavily industrialized
civilization. McVey would later receive recognition nationally for
another important commission, a statue of Sir Winston Churchill for
the British Embassy in Washington, D.C.

During these first postwar years, Watkin was busy adding to
faculty of the Department of Architecture for the anticipated jump in
enrollment. James Morehead and James K. Dunaway had both
returned to Rice from active duty in the fall of 1946, at the same time
that Thomas FitzPatrick left for Iowa State. The resumption of the
traditional academic schedule for 1946-1947 helped restore more

Online LibraryPatrick James NicholsonWilliam Ward Watkin and the Rice Institute → online text (page 26 of 31)