written by Chris Adams
photographs by Reginald Campbell
We all know that guy. You know, the one already drinking beer with his face painted two days before Sunday’s kickoff. Or the one who went to one too many shows, and started arguing that Jerry Garcia was incapable of creating a less-than-perfect composition, and then just dropped out of college and into a sea of tie-dye to follow the Grateful Dead. They are much more than fans. They are devotees, true believers.
Obviously, sports teams and jam bands aren’t the only organizations that fall into this playing field of perceptions and fanaticism. The fine line between religion and culture tends to get walked on hard whenever we form institutions. It’s a mashup of identity and the need to feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself. Companies, families, and all sorts of communities and organizations in America now seem to require religious belief. So when it comes to universities, their students and their alumni, there is no more perfect example of that kind of true devotion like the devotion to Texas A&M University.
Conspicuously situated in College Station, Texas, it’s an institution of higher learning where time-conformed traditions immediately begin to feed the psyche of students the minute they show up for orientation, or at birth if they come from a line of Aggies. Traditions such as Corps of Cadets, Aggie Ring, Aggie Code of Honor, Aggie Yell, Elephant Walk, and Muster, commence to inform your life in some form or fashion and tend to cling on until death do you part.
Sarah Marie Henry (’15), who swam for the Aggies and was an NCAA champion in 2015 admits to that kind of devotion when she says, “We have a favorite quote at Texas A&M, ‘From the outside looking in, you can’t understand it. And from the inside looking out, you can’t explain it.’ The spirit at A&M is unique in the sense that we hold time-honored traditions close to heart. When speaking to other friends of mine that went to different universities, I rarely find the same kind of excitement and pride about their schools.”
It’s hard to argue with her statements. Tradition and devotion at most schools are directly related to the football program, for example, Michigan and Ohio State. But Texas A&M transcends that. Living in Texas and speaking with those who are alumni, you immediately realize that even football is just one component of a collective of traditions and collegiate customs.
According to Texas Monthly, the Saturday Evening Post reported in the early 1950’s that Texas A&M “claims the most fanatic loyalty any college ever had. No school is more ritualized than Texas A&M. In Aggieland, legends and customs are attached to everything from the school ring to the bonfire before the annual football game against the University of Texas at Austin. One of the enduring goals of the university is to pass the Aggie experience on, unchanged from generation to generation.”
Traditions provide a platform for allegiance and devotion at A&M. Take away the ritualistic practices and it becomes just one of many American football-worshiping universities, where you might here shout or two of Roll Tide! or Go Blue! But when you hear Go Maroon? That’s a whole other level of ballgame.
Country music artist, Granger Smith, wrote a tune about his alma mater that was featured on his 2006 EP, We Bleed Maroon, singing about things like ol’ Sully, yelling farmers, and saying “here” at Muster, the song underscores the depth of the traditions’ root system. Take Muster. A unique tradition that celebrates fallen Aggies.“I attended Muster every year (a tradition where we honor Aggies who have passed over the previous year). It is a powerful experience sitting in Reed Arena and hearing people saying ‘here’ for classmates, family members, or even people you may have never met,” Henry recounted.
More controversial though is ol’ Sully as Smith name checks the founder of the school, Lawrence Sullivan Ross. Ross was a former president of A&M, Texas governor and Confederate general. A monument to him proudly stands in Academic Plaza at the center of campus. The tradition of Pennies on Sully is where students leave pennies at the base of Sully for good luck; in particular, before taking an exam. It has become a source of contention due to the current trend to rid public places of Confederate monuments and memorials. A&M hasn’t acquiesced to political correctness, [or historical correctness for that matter] its defense of traditions dug in deep.
"Anyone who knows the true history of Lawrence Sullivan Ross would never ask for his statue to be removed," commented Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp in a 2017 issued statement. The oldest and possibly most revered student organization on campus (there are more than 1,000) is the ubiquitous Corps of Cadets. Besides being the protectors and keepers of Aggie traditions, they offer the A&M student a military-style leadership training program. Many of the graduates pursue military commissions in the armed forces. Once upon a time, all students were required to join, but now it’s optional.
And perhaps nothing galvanized the A&M collective more than the tragic 1999 bonfire collapse. A 59-foot stack of 5,000 logs fell during construction of the bonfire killing 12 students and injuring 27. According to the official university story, “The Bonfire Memorial embodies many layers of meaning associated with the Aggie Spirit--a deep sense of belonging, a strong spirit of teamwork and leadership and an enduring sense of tradition that unites thousands.”
It is notable to mention that 12 individuals perished and the 12th Man is significant to Aggie spirit. The 12th Man encapsulates the selflessness tenet of Aggieism and the call for its practitioners to exemplify it in their lives. E. King Gill, a practice squad player for the Aggies in 1922, was called down to the bench by Coach Dana X. Bible during a game and told to suit up when only a few players remained on the bench. After the bench was depleted due to injuries, Gill was the last man standing. He stood on the sidelines through the very last play. The entire student body is now referred to as the 12th Man, “waiting to step in if needed.”
“Whole books have been written about this topic. Some of the major ideas are that people have a need to belong and to identify with something larger than themselves,” said Professor Alan Reifman, who teaches human development and family studies at Texas Tech University.
Though not all opinions are unconditionally commendatory. There are those that had satisfying experiences coupled with limitations and discouragement. “The spirit at Texas A&M is truly unlike any other. I would say it’s definitely a double-edged sword. My experience has been both enhanced and undermined by the spirit and traditions while attending A&M,” wrote Jasmine Wang (’19) in an email.
“As a woman, person of color, and also a first-generation American college student, I grew up in one of the most diverse counties in the state of Texas -- Fort Bend. Wand indicated that she experienced culture shock, but the variety of opportunities and alumni network have made it very worthwhile. “However, it was also at A&M that I first experienced what it was like to be judged first and foremost on the basis of my gender or my racial identity,” she added.
Wang said that while the Aggie spirit effectually fosters community it entraps narrow perceptions as well. “Because of the overemphasis on traditions, I've seen both students and alumni alike often become stagnant and unable to accept change when it comes to issues concerning diversity and inclusion.” Some even leave.
“Personally, the super-charged school spirit Texas A&M exhibited was unhealthy for me -- mostly from a multicultural perspective. It was a shock and somewhat overwhelming to be expected to adhere, learn, and participate in traditions that didn't fit with the personal exploration of self I was doing,” wrote Melissa Martinez via email. She spent two years there before transferring to Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas. “It often felt like I was being told what to believe and how to express by an organization that was inherently based on celebrating white culture which is different than who I am.” She said while many of her peers found the school spirit to be beneficial, she felt otherwise. “I was often called a two percent-er there, aka someone who isn't fully embracing the A&M experience.” Just for reference, the total student population of Texas A&M as of fall 2018 is approximately 70,000. The primary ethnic profile is: White-38,591; Hispanic-14,678; Asian-5,210; Black-1,619. The gender breakdown is: male students-36,194; female students-32,222.
Others eschewed the traditions and embraced the academic experience. Adam Van Winkle (’06), a writer, editor, and English teacher, was one of them. “I know lots of less spirited Aggies, like me. I spent my time in the philosophy department at A&M. It was stellar, and well-worth all the Kool-Aid sipping around me.” However, he also said there is undoubtedly an indoctrination. “I don't know of colleague or friends from other big D-1 schools that went to practice for the yells and class calls and such. They learned all that much more organically. It's practically an unofficial class to get through at your orientation before you even go to school. I've never been much of a rah-rah guy. It's just not my style. The forced practice of the yells was awkward and weird. But most people seemed to be having a good time.” But watching a midnight yell practice at Kyle Field sort of reminds one of Berlin, 1936.
Not everyone would agree though. “The spirit and devotion to traditions enhanced my experience at Texas A&M. There was always something special about attending a Yell Practice with thousands of fellow students at midnight the night before a home game,” Henry wrote. Words or phrases are important at A&M too.
“It is the place where for many years everyone was required to say “howdy” and greet people by name,” read the aforementioned 1992 Texas Monthly article. This seems to have stuck. During a humid afternoon under the shadow of the monstrous Kyle Field, there was a line of undergraduates at the ticket booth for Aggie football schedules. The student-employee behind the glass said, “howdy,” to the first in line. After a very slight pause, the person responded with, “howdy,” and then the same with the next Aggie, and the next and the next. The word howdy’s use seems less like a polite greeting and more like a required code or a secret password.
Seemingly, no other campus in America celebrates or honors its traditions and spirit like Texas A&M. It appears to live slightly outside of the norm. Aggieism isn’t magic, miraculous, or all-encompassing, but is it healthy or unhealthy? It obviously depends on who you ask. “In the end, zealousness ain't ever healthy. I've certainly met the A&M zealots. They are all-out, die-hards. And they are annoying as hell,” Van Winkle remarked. But on the other hand, “I think the most special thing is that even after you graduate, you are still a part of this community,” Henry commented. “All it takes is spotting an Aggie ring, and all you have to do is go up, say your name and class year and immediately you have a bond with a person you may have never met.” But isn’t that why we form communities in the first place? Yeah, that's what we do when we bleed maroon...