Cut The Caps
September 29, 1944
As the school year opened in September of 1944, the University of Kansas saw not only the arrival of a new crop of freshmen, but also the revival of a contentious KU tradition that had been in practice, on and off, since at least 1905. The custom required all freshmen to wear tiny caps resembling beanies.
Supposedly, it was a means of instilling class and school spirit in these newcomers to campus. Practically, the caps served as a visual marker that set freshmen apart from their upper class “betters.” Failure to wear one’s cap, or to properly tip it before an upperclassman, could result in a number of unpleasant consequences. These included a severe paddling, an involuntary dip in Potter Lake, or having oneself tossed repeatedly into the air from huge canvas blankets, held by members of the Men’s Student Council and the K-Club, which was composed of lettermen from all University sports.
From its inception around the turn of the century at college campuses across the country, the freshmen cap tradition provoked controversy at KU. Every so often there would be a university-wide debate as to whether paddling should be a proper enforcement mechanism or, indeed, whether the cap wearing should be abandoned altogether, which it was from time to time.
But in 1944, after a one-year hiatus, the K-Club decided to re-institute the “cap rule.” According to the Lawrence Journal- World, “Just how the K-Club will persuade freshmen to wear their caps is undecided, but according to George Dick, K-Club president, the traditional paddle will probably be used.”
However, there was one group of 40 KU freshmen that openly refused to comply with the K-Club’s directive – an action that, in the past, had simply invited retribution in the form of a brutish paddling. But this group was different. It was composed of World War II veterans who had been in real battles and faced real bullets. They were in no mood for adolescent foolishness, nor would they subject themselves to degrading abuse at the hands of snotty college kids barely out of their teens.
The K-Club’s Dick soon recognized his directive would be unenforceable, at least as far as the WWII vets were concerned. On September 29, 1944, he bowed to the inevitable and declared the reinstated cap rule would not apply to discharged veterans. The announcement marked the final beginning of the end of the “freshman cap” tradition at KU.
Freshmen caps had been worn at KU since 1893, but the practice was by no means mandatory. It became official in 1905 when freshmen were required to wear a “light green skull cap with a bright red button,” to signify their lowly status Later, the caps took on something of a standard, black design with differently colored buttons representing the school in which the student was enrolled.
The “cap rule” was instituted around the time the nearly 15-year-old “Maypole Scraps” tradition was formally abolished. This virtually annual rowdy May Day event was a semi-sanctioned tussle, generally between the male members of the freshmen and sophomore classes, over the ownership of a specially erected maypole.
Substituting the caps for the Maypole Scraps was a means, as the Kansan blandly explained it, to “put an end to the physical violence, foster school spirit, and unite the freshman rather than ostracize him. Caps were to be tipped to the school flag, faculty members, and seniors, who could be recognized by the arm bands they wore.” However, concerns about weak compliance and open flaunting of the “rules” by freshmen soon led the Men’s Student Council to invest itself, the K-Club and the Sachems (the men’s senior honor society) with the power and authority to enforce cap-wearing, by physical punishment if necessary.
As early as 1913, University officials began to express serious concerns about the brutality associated with enforcing the cap-wearing tradition. In a letter to the Men’s Student Council, dated June 4 of that year, the University Council decried the “growing tendency to disorder among the men of the student body. It seems clear,” they said, “that the freshmen cap rule put forth by you each year is responsible for this in a considerable measure, and that this rule has resulted in a revival of hazing.” The University Council resolved that, “For any representative body to impose upon any class a distinguishing mark or article of clothing, is contrary to the ideals of the University.”
After the University Council’s resolution, the enforcers of the cap tradition were indignant, and many Men’s Student Council members threatened to resign their offices in protest. Ironically, the group responsible for saving the cap tradition amid all this controversy was the freshman class itself! In a mass meeting of freshmen, held on October 2, 1913, the class resolved that, “Since the wearing of a prescribed headgear by the freshmen has been a custom of the University for several years, we as a class, request the privilege of wearing the emblem prescribed by the Student Council.”
Yet despite the consensus reached in 1913 over the wearing of caps, a trick pulled by the upperclassmen in 1916 thrust the hazing aspects of the tradition back into the spotlight. The understood rule was that freshmen would don their caps starting on the day of the first football game, no earlier and no later. But, according to the Graduate Magazine, that fall “the date of the appearance of the caps was advanced by one day and no warning was given the intended victims. As a result, a more or less harmless custom degenerated into a type of hazing that had long been discarded at the University.” Once again, the University had to take disciplinary action.
On April 3, 1917, the University Senate followed the recommendations of a disciplinary committee and agreed that donning caps, “or any custom involving the wearing of insignia,” must be voluntary. Thus, “all hazing, including ‘paddling’ and all other methods of enforcing student regulations by physical violence, is forbidden.” Once again, the cap enforcers cried foul. The Graduate Magazine mockingly described them as “bloodthirsty upperclassmen” who were strangely convinced that, by this ruling, sacred traditions “would be uprooted forever and a degenerate horde of freshmen [would] terrorize the campus.”
Of course, nothing of the sort happened. From that point on, the names of disobedient freshmen were published in the Kansan in order to shame these non-conformists into obedience. The tactic seemed to work. The paper noted recalcitrant freshmen were “proving amenable and wearing the stunted caps wished on them by their elders and betters.”
In spite of the official ban on hazing, and particularly on paddling, the practice gradually reemerged and, according to the Kansan, was “freely permitted on campus” by the mid-1920s. “The paddling took place anywhere,” recalled Raymond C. Nichols, a senior “enforcer” back in 1926. “Sometimes townspeople and high school boys got brought in. Everyone tried to get a swat at the men running the gauntlet.” The old brutality returned as well, said Nichols. “It was instinctive for freshmen to try to protect themselves as they ran through the lines, but when hands flew back to cover the target area, some finger bones were broken.”
Not until 1934, though, was there sufficient outcry to revisit the enforcement issue. In October of that year, KU began to debate yet again whether paddling should be formally outlawed. The K-Club, responsible for enforcing the cap-wearing tradition, agreed to a campus-wide vote on the question, insisting, however, that without proper “policing,” the tradition would die out. For the benefit of the voters, the Kansan published detailed pro- and con- arguments for both sides.
On the question of whether to “continue freshmen paddling by the K Club,” the results were 412 in favor and 347 opposed. This was, however, a small turnout considering there were 2,650 men enrolled at this time. (Freshmen women, not surprisingly, were never in danger of being paddled. The part of the tradition that required them to wear caps fizzled out after 1926). The men had spoken, though, and despite allegations of ballot box tampering, the paddling continued. According to Ernest Vanek, president of the K-Club, they “would enforce the same rules that have prevailed and in the same manner.” However, he added, “no freshman that observes these few simple rules need have anything to fear from the K-Club.”
Another year passed, and finally the faculty had had enough. On October 15, 1935, the faculty of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences passed a unanimous resolution denouncing the paddling of freshmen by the K-Club. “The public infliction of corporal punishment for the infraction of arbitrary rules,” they insisted, “is a childish practice which is discreditable to the aggressors, humiliating to the victims, and highly offensive to many of those who are compelled to witness it on the campus.” Dean Henry Werner, the Men’s Advisor, added that, “the whole performance [gives] an undignified reputation to the school. [And] since the faculty must share in that reputation, their procedure was in my estimation justified.”
Two days later, in an astounding turn of events, the K-Club passed its own resolution promising that never again would it have a part “in the paddling of freshmen or in the enforcement of other rules pertaining to traditions.” According to Gordon Gray, the organization’s new president, “it is exceedingly doubtful as to whether the University as a whole approves … It would seem that true traditions do not need to be enforced [and] where enforcement is necessary, they cease to be traditions.” Gray’s opinion was not the unanimous view of course; many K-Club members supported the continued paddling of freshmen.
The K-Club’s action and surprisingly mature and reflective attitude, said the Kansan, “came as a complete surprise to both faculty and students.” And four years later, looking back on the decline of freshmen cap-wearing, the Kansan, echoing Gordon Gray, noted “a tradition which lasts without force is strong for that reason. When force or coercion is necessary for its longevity, the custom instantly becomes an artificial rite instead of a functional tradition.” Real traditions, such as “the Rock Chalk yell” exist and are esteemed because “they remain strong without pressure from any single group.”
In 1940, however, this rite that just would not die reared its beanie-covered head again. William Breven, that year’s K-Club president, vowed to re-institute the freshman cap rule. He also stated his intention to subject malefactors to “appropriate” punishment. (Breven himself, of course, had avoided having to wear the cap or suffer the consequences during his freshmen year.) The K-Club policy remained officially in effect for the next two years, was abandoned in 1943, and then revived in 1944 by Dick, who ran into the intransigence of the World War II veterans.
One veteran in particular, Art Brooks, spoke for them all when, in a letter to the Kansan, he asked, “What in hell is going on here? Is this a college where one prepares for life, or a country club where one spends [one’s time] guzzling cokes, attending dances, driving around the campus in a car, etc.?” This was September 26, 1944, and Brooks insisted that the puerile K-Club remember “those fellows fighting in France and the South Pacific [who] look to us to get started on the road to a better life.”
He continued: “We who are attending the University right now are very lucky…. We are here to learn to take our place in the world, to be able to prevent another war, and not to have a rip-roaring good time or to catch a husband, as some of the heavily lip-sticked sorority sisters … seem to think.” Amid all this careless joviality, their fellow citizens were fighting, suffering, and dying overseas, for their freedom no less. Brooks wrote about “the sight of a 35-year-old man crying like a baby because his request for a furlough was refused. His mother was 80, and there was no one at home to take care of the farm.” In addition, he had received letters from his “friends in France, Italy, Australia, and Burma” and, after reading them, clearly understood “what a wonderful opportunity I have. I for one,” he concluded, “do not care to indulge, in the face of this, in archaic stupid pranks, such as the wearing of a hat on certain days.”
The veterans’ refusal to wear the caps, according to the Kansas Alumni magazine, “finally spoiled the tradition.” “It’s difficult to imagine a battle-tested veteran submitting to a paddling, let alone agreeing with a November 1919 Oread Magazine article that described the caps ‘not as a mark of degradation, but as a distinctive badge which links together the new men of the university.’” To make it official, the All Student Council of 1948, on April 7, ended the practice once and for all.
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas