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The 1939 Bonfire Incident

By Chris Guthrie

The most famous single story from Tarleton’s past concerns the 1939 Homecoming bonfire incident. It seems that everyone connected to the university knows something about this story since versions of it appear time and time again in The J-TAC, various alumni publications, and collections of Tarleton traditions. The incident even recently gained the status of an artistic motif when it was incorporated into the carved brick mural the today decorates the interior of the Student Development Center. Granbury artist and Tarleton Alumnus Covelle Jones has also included a rendering of the incident in his design for a bronze medallion commemorating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the college.

Unlike some Tarleton traditions, the 1939 bonfire incident is grounded in reality. However, most accounts of the incident are abbreviated, encumbered by large doses of self-congratulatory school pride, and seriously lacking in historical context. Dr. Stuart Chilton, in a number of columns in the Stephenville Empire-Tribune has recently attempted to correct these weaknesses by employing a variety of new sources. The narrative that follows draws heavily from his work.

John Tarleton Agricultural College and North Texas Agricultural College in Arlington had an intense football rivalry that stretched back to 1917, the first year that the two schools faced each other on the gridiron. Tarleton won that game with a score of 3-0. With each successive year, the context (which took place on Thanksgiving Day) increasingly took on the character of a life and death struggle for the bragging rights of athletic (and, implicitly, male) supremacy. The precise reasons for this intense rivalry defy rational explanation (as is the case with many rivalries). Perhaps the numerous similarities between the two colleges contributed to their mutual hostility. Both schools were branch campuses of Texas A&M, were approximately the same size, drew from the same predominantly rural constituency, and were geographically close to each other. In any case, once the rivalry established itself, it quickly took on a life of its own and perpetuated and reinforced itself annually.

The rivalry between the two schools reached feverish proportions during the 1930s. In the words of a former student from this era, the annual game had become “a high noon shootout at the O.K. Corral and World War II all rolled into one bitter struggle.” On the day of the game, for example, Tarleton students would line U.S. Highway 377 on the east side of town and pelt any car bearing Arlington license plates with rotten eggs and sometimes even brickbats. The tradition of having a bonfire the night before the big Thanksgiving game in order to raise school spirit and “symbolize mastery over their rivals” started at both schools in the 1920s. At approximately the same time, both sides developed the associated custom of “invading their opponent’s campus during the week leading up to the game and attempting to ignite their bonfire ahead of time in order to “rob the other of a spirited climax, thereby seizing an advantage of irreparable harm to their adversary’s spirit, and an added ingredient for the success of their football team. The Tarleton tradition of drum beating began in response to the need to guard the Homecoming bonfire. Students would circle the site of the bonfire and beat a drum around the clock for several days preceding the Thanksgiving Day football game in order to ward off potential NTAC invaders.

Despite these precautions, NTAC students still occasionally managed to invade the Tarleton campus. In 1937, for example, they “stormed” Tarleton the Tuesday before the big game, destroyed the wood that had been collected for the bonfire, stole several signs from the campus, and smeared the school’s water tower with black paint. The dean of NTAC at the time, E.E. Davis (contrary to some accounts, he was not related to J. Thomas Davis—although he did attend Tarleton as a student between 1900-1905 and taught biology between 1909 and 1911), apologized for the incident, vowed to “penalize” those students involved in the invasion, promised that the stolen signs would be returned, and offered to pay the expenses involved in repairing the water tower. Newspaper accounts of the 1937 raid hinted that it may have been in retaliation for a similar, though unsuccessful, attempt by Tarleton students to ignite the NTAC bonfire a few days earlier.

The events surrounding the JTAC/NTAC game of 1939, however, made the 1937 incident seem like child’s play. On Tuesday, November 28, fifty Tarleton students, armed with mason jars of gasoline, traveled to the Arlington campus on the back of a flatbed truck. Then they managed to get through the cordon of guards that the “Grubbs” (Tarleton’s nickname for the NTAC students) had placed around their bonfire site and set the pile of wood on fire. When NTAC students tried to put the blaze out, they found that the Tarleton invaders had also cut their fire hose in half. According to some reports, the bonfire burned a week after this premature ignition. NTAC students captured ten of the Tarleton invaders, shaved their heads, rubbed them down with Absorbine, Jr., and held them captive until the next day. The remaining Tarleton cadets managed to escape and head back to Stephenville. However, a contingent of NTAC students followed them out of Arlington, determined to punish all of the culprits. They gave up this idea when, after they crested a hill out in the country, they found the Tarleton flatbed blocking the road and its passengers silently waiting in front of it for a confrontation. The NTAC posse turned around, went back home to Arlington, and made up their minds to exact another form of retribution.

Organized by student Nicky Naumovich, who served as ROTC Lieutenant Colonel and Regimental commander, NTAC’s revenge took the form of a two-pronged attack on the Tarleton campus. Eighty to ninety NTAC students traveled to Stephenville in a cattle truck covered by a tarpaulin in the early afternoon of November 29th, each armed with a bottle of gasoline and a cigarette lighter. Unfortunately for the would-be invaders, their dean, E.E. Davis, had warned Tarleton’s Davis of the attack. Tarleton’s dean responded by canceling classes on that day, thereby enabling his students to organize a formidable defense. IN fact, they intercepted the NTAC truck before it could even get near the bonfire site. The captured NTAC students received the traditional punishment: Tarleton coeds shaved their hair into the shape of a “T”, the prisoners received the usual dosing of Absorbine, Jr., and they were forced to have their photograph taken with their heads bowed in submission and their shaved “T’s” prominently displayed.

NTAC’s Dean Davis had not known of the other part of his students’ retaliatory strategy and therefore could not warn Tarleton ahead of time. Chester Philips and Hatton Sumner, two NTAC students who were enrolled in the school’s Civilian Pilot Training Program, rented two Taylor Craft cabin monoplanes (owned by Ken W. Larson) from Meacham Field in Fort Worth without telling the authorities the purpose or destination of their flight. And with good reason. Their plan was to fly to Stephenville, circle the Tarleton campus, and drop phosphorous bombs that Philips had manufactured on the bonfire site and hopefully ignite it. Philips, accompanied by fellow student James E. Smith as his bombardier, flew the lead plane. Sumner piloted the second plane with the purpose of completing the bombing mission if Philips missed the target.

Initially, everything went according to plan. The planes followed U.S. Highway 377 to Stephenville. Philips arrived first and made a reconnaissance run over the bonfire site (located in where the Science Building/Fine Arts parking lot is today). He then circled and came back towards the site at a lower altitude in order to drop his bombs. Tarleton students on the ground, quickly realizing what was about to transpire, did everything they could to protect their bonfire. Student Mickey Maguire climbed on top of the pile of wood with a garden hose and soaked it down, hoping to make the site more resistant to any premature blaze. Other students picked up whatever they could find—sticks, stones, cans—and threw them at the Phillips’ aircraft. Philips braved this ground barrage and dropped one of his bombs on the target. However, Tarleton students quickly removed the device before it could do any harm. Philips began to circle back one more time, intent on dropping his final bomb. As he maneuvered his plane around for the final run, he had to fly past the Tarleton water tower. Several students had climbed the tower and hurled their missiles at the plane. One student on the tower, L.V. Risinger, threw a 2”x4” piece of wood (about two feet long) at the plane and damaged its propeller. Philips’ plane veered sharply to the left, narrowly missing Dean Davis’ house, and crash-landed in Hunewell Park. Both wing tips were sheared off by trees as the plane landed; however, both Philips and Smith emerged from the damaged plane uninjured. A crowd of angry Tarleton students descended on them, but Dean Davis and Colonel Bender (head of the ROTC program) took the two NTAC invaders to the Dining Hall under their protection. The second NTAC plane piloted by Sumner, arrived at the campus just as Philips went down. He turned around and headed straight back to Arlington, never telling Meacham Field authorities where he had been or what had happened to the other plane. In fact, until very recently most people involved in the incident did not know that Sumner had participated in the raid.

Philips and Smith remained under the protection of Davis and Bender until NTAC officials picked them up the following day. Davis placed a guard around the downed aircraft so that vengeful Tarleton students would not rip it apart before it was returned to Fort Worth. Although some demanded that the JTAC/NTAC football games be canceled as a way to avoid similar problems, officials from both schools decided to continue the rivalry. However, they did agree to ban the practice of bonfires before the games. NTAC took disciplinary action against some of those involved in the events of November 29. Officials expelled Smith from school for the remainder of the semester and Philips had his pilot license suspended for six months. Thirty other NTAC students were forced to attend a lecture on proper behavior as punishment for their involvement in the incident. Tarleton, in its public pronouncements, claimed that Philips’ plan had been forced down by “engine trouble” and made no mention of Risinger’s actions. School officials also took no disciplinary action against any of its students. The next day, November 30, the annual football game took place and Tarleton emerged the victor, 6-0.

The memory of the 1939 bonfire quickly entered the realm of Tarleton legend. Even though Tarleton tried to hush up the details surrounding Philips’ downed plane, the story nonetheless attracted the attention of the Associated Press and appeared in many newspapers throughout the country (including the Chicago Tribune). The story was even included in a radio broadcast by Walter Winchell, who commented that “if England had an anti-aircraft battery like Tarleton had in L.V. Risinger, they could lessen the effectiveness of the German air raids over London.” Risinger, who worked for the London Avalanche Journal and then as a deputy sheriff for Lubbock’s 364th District Court after graduation, became a virtual campus cult figure and frequently came back to Tarleton to recount his version of the events of November 29. The annual Homecoming bonfire was named in his honor after his death in 1994. Nicky Naumovich, the NTAC student who planned the 1939 raid, became an instructor of RAF pilots in England during World War II and entered the real estate business in Arlington after his return to the United States. Both pilots who participated in the attack on the Tarleton bonfire died during the Second World War: Chester Philips lost his life when his B-24 bomber was shot down over Kiel, Germany, on May 14, 1943, and Hatton Sumner was killed during a training exercise near San Diego, California in late July 1942.

America’s entry into World War II in 1941 forced the temporary suspension of the annual Thanksgiving Day rivalry between Tarleton and NTAC. When the games resumed in 1945, a new and safer tradition replaced the old bonfire attacks. The winner of the game now received a “Silver Bugle,” which it kept until the next contest. This tradition continued until 1958, the last game between the two old rivals. NTAC (which had changed its name to Arlington State College) won this game, earned the “silver Bugle,” and then misplaced it. It has never been found. But this event did inspire another Tarleton Homecoming tradition, the “Hunt for the Silver Bugle,” in which students engage in a campus-wide scavenger hunt the Thursday before the Saturday afternoon game.

The JTAC/NTAC rivalry remained intense for as long as the two schools played football against each other, although it would take different forms after the 1939 incident. In 19544, for example, NTAC had one of the best seasons in its history and had a good chance of receiving an invitation to play in the “Little Rose Bowl,” a prestigious junior college post-season game. Tom Vandergriff, Arlington businessman and civic leader, lobbied bowl officials hard to win NTAC an invitation to play in this game. Vandergriff’s activities on behalf of his school forced him to miss NTAC’s last regular season game against Tarleton. Tarleton had not had a great season but the intense emotions inspired the team, led by quarterback Jerry Flemmons, to play their best game of the year and win a resounding victory over NTAC. Vandergriff returned from his lobbying trip and landed in Love Field in Dallas the day after NTAC’s defeat. When he stepped off the plane, he found a hearse, rented by Tarleton supporters, waiting to drive him home to Arlington. When he arrived home, he discovered that Tarleton fans had also mailed him an envelope stuffed with crushed rose petals. Attacks on bonfires had given way to symbolic jokes, but the JTAC/NTAC rivalry remained very much alive.

The 1939 incident was not the last time that Tarleton’s bonfire came under attack. In 1983, long after the JTAC/NTAC rivalry had entered the realm of legend, Tarleton students awoke one Friday morning in late October to find that the bonfire they had been building for weeks had been set on fire. Tarleton Police Chief Don Wiler attributed the premature blaze to the work of an “individual with a twisted sense of humor” but never was able to identify the culprit (or culprits) more specifically. Upset and angry, Tarleton students, nonetheless, did hurriedly assemble the material for a smaller bonfire pile during the day, so that they at least had something to celebrate that night.