East Tennessee State College’s “Rat Week” Was Revived in 1947 with Mixed Emotions

The late George Buda once shared with me some ETSC student newspapers, the Tennessee Collegian. George had a heart for Johnson City and, over time, helped me piece together numerous Yesteryear articles. One edition from the November 1947 Collegian should bring back memories for many of my readers. That year, ETSC revived “Rat Week,” the custom of initiating freshmen into the college ranks. It was a tradition that was dropped and almost forgotten because of the anxiety that resulted from our country's involvement in World War II.

Beginning Monday, Oct. 20, the “rats,” as freshmen were called, were required to wear specially designed “rat caps” from 7:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. for an entire week. If they encountered a faculty member, they were required to tip their hats as a courtesy gesture. Also, the sidewalks between the Library and the Administration Building were off limits to freshmen. The restrictive ruling also applied to the main entry doors of these buildings, requiring students to use side or back entrances instead. Failure to do so had its consequences.

“Rats” were required to memorize the school's Alma Mater and sing it upon request of any upperclassman. They were also to learn the context of the Constitution of the United Student Body and be ready to answer questions from students. Further, frosh were required to attend the homecoming football game wearing his or her special headwear. Another important assignment was gathering wood to be used at the bonfire pep meeting on October 25.

Top: One “Rat” Enters Carter Hall Fish Pond While Another Comes Out. Bottom: Lady “Rat” Taking Orders from a Group of Upperclassmen.

The campus grounds and dormitories were cleaned by freshmen on Friday, the 24th in preparation for homecoming festivities. The singing of the Alma Mater was heard frequently across all parts of the campus during “Rat Week.” A few people took involuntary baths in the Carter Hall fish pond while others scoured the Administrative Building using toothbrushes.

The 37th annual homecoming of ETSC began with a buffet supper spread in the Training School (now known as University High) cafeteria for the alumni by the Senior Class. John Burrus and his classmates served as host to over 200 alumni, who ate wieners and all the trimmings to the tune of “Do You Remember When.” The highlight of the supper was the presentation to the alumni of Dean Emeritus, David S. Burleson, who offered tales of the humble beginnings of the college that included when it was known  as a Normal School.

The culmination of “Rat Week” occurred on Saturday night, October 25, when freshmen marched behind their special float in the Homecoming parade heading to Memorial Stadium on E. Main Street.

The largest crowd that had been seen in quite a while witnessed the parade and floats preceding the homecoming football game. The sophomore float, the S.S. Buccaneer, took first honors, while the senior class, a cornucopia in green, orange and yellow with three high spirited ladies energetically pitching fruit to the onlookers, received second place. The Frosh float with their king and queen was decorated in pastel colors.

Top: Group of “Rats” Removing Their Shoes and Hopping Like Rabbits. Middle: Several “Rats” Sing at Orders from an Upperclassman. Bottom: Homecoming King and Queen.

Upon arrival at the stadium, the now-humbled freshmen sat on reserved seats as a group. The King (Elmer Evlin) and Queen (Margaret Kyker) of Homecoming from the freshman class were crowned at halftime. Afterward, the freshmen were instructed to engage in a shoeless “rat race” on the football field, which started at the front (north) end of the stadium. The obedient “rats” raced to the south end and returned.

While the entry-level students were doing this, several upperclassmen engaged in a bit of revelry by scrambling their shoes. One student, upon returning, managed to match his shoes but ruined them when he placed his cold, muddy, bruised feet in them. The consequence of this endeavor was that several students soon developed a sore throat.

The publication noted that the student government, under the able direction of its president, Harrison Taylor (a grandson of former Tennessee governor, Alf Taylor), was the proper organization to take their problems to for resolution. It further said that a “gripe box” would be placed between the Administration Building and the Library. Harrison defeated five other candidates for the 1947-48 Hall of Fame honor of “Best-All-Round-Boy.” Pereda Rice was “Best-All-Round-Girl.” 

Eight campus beauties were selected from a total of 32 candidates: Helen Hawthorne, Ernestine Duke, Joanna Goode, Nancy Kiser, Eleanor Willard, Sara Livesay, Eileen Martin and Mrs. Eleanor Weekley. 

The Tennessee Collegian extended its grateful acknowledgment to (Travis) Kinkade Floral Shop for the beautiful chrysanthemums, which were presented to the homecoming queen and to the Carson Newman cheerleaders.

Like most student publications, the 4-page bi-monthly newspaper contained 10 local advertisements:

Lodge Service Station (corner of Wilson and Lamont, U.S. tires, batteries and road service).

Jay's Confectionery (corner of Buffalo and Tipton, Johnson City's Leading News Stand).

King's (Johnson City's Great 5-Floor Department Store, Where the Smart Bucks Who Know Buy their clothes).

Jug's (Little Metropolis, East Tennessee's Most Complete One-Stop Store, Curb Service, Open 24 Hours a Day).

Dinty Moore's Restaurant (The Home of Good Eats, At 115 E. Market).

Yellow Cab Company (107 E. Market).

Coca-Cola Bottling Works (226-30 E. Market).

Beckner's (Diamonds, Watches. Jewelry, Opposite Majestic Theatre).

R&L Bowling (Daily 12 Noon to 12 Midnight, 8 Modern Lanes, 808 Buffalo).

The Record Shop (113 W. Main, west of the Windsor Hotel. They produced a radio program over WETB at 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday known as “Name the Band” that featured Milburn Swanay, Wright Swanay and Brydeor Tolliver).

At the conclusion of “Rat Week,” the Tennessee Collegian had fitting words in an editorial: “'Rat Week' is over and from where we sit, it was a 'howling' success. Taken as a whole spirit was good on the part of the freshman as well as the upperclassmen and apparently it was fun for the majority.

“It is a pleasure to see a group of people work together for a common cause and it certainly seems to us that this was what was done by the frosh all week, as initiation tasks were dispatched in a resigned but competent manner. Again, may we extend a word of appreciation to each of you and welcome you officially into our student family.”   

While most students approached the week with a degree of uncertainty and apprehension and were glad when it came to a finale, they generally realized its value of initiating them into campus life. I wonder how many of those old hats still exist.