This is Part 1 in a Multi-Part series of the great traditions of Alma Mater Dear.
In the Fall of 1964, Sports Illustrated visited the small hamlet of Commerce, Texas to feature the Football program of East Texas State College. They were there to cover the recent passing of Head Coach J.V. Sikes, and the new coach, 37 year old Ernest Hawkins, who had been Sikes’ Assistant Head Coach and offensive playcaller. However, one of the things that the SI staff saw was something that they found interesting to say the least. A cast-iron bell that was at the north end of Memorial Stadium that read “VICTORY! OLD ET on one side and DANDY LIONS on the other. It was the Victory Bell.
The Victory Bell is still on campus today and has been many places on campus. For many years, and most years I was on campus, it was located on the hill overlooking the campus quad where the old Rayburn Memorial Student Center was. For a few years, it was located on the walkway just south of the Sowers Education School Building. The clapper has long wore off, but there is a reason as to why, and a reason why this bell was even brought on campus to begin with.
When William Mayo founded East Texas State Normal College, college life was quite different back in 1889. The schedules were much more structured and students were on a bell schedule to start the day. The ringing of the bell meant lunch time, class time, and eventually, dinner time. A student usually had that job to ring the bell to call his classmates to dinner in order to pay for his education. After ETNC was destroyed in a fire and moved from Cooper to Commerce in 1894, the bell was taken with it, and one schoolboy or girl who had the job of ringing that bell to mark the start and end of the the day. Bonham native Sam Rayburn (Class of 1902), the longest serving Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, once rang that bell himself to help pay for his education, along with sweeping the Commerce schools after meals for 3 dollars a month. Rayburn credited those times and his degree from East Texas Normal with getting him into the Law School at The University of Texas, and ultimately, the third most powerful position in the United States government.
As ET grew, the bell was kept more as a relic of the past, but that changed once Football was introduced on campus. Despite the fierce initial resistance from William Mayo to even have football, the bell became a symbol of school pride and was rung at games starting in the early 1920’s and as the Lions joined the Lone Star Conference and became a small school power in the State of Texas, the bell became both noise maker and symbol of pride. It was not until the mid 1930’s that the tradition of the Victory Bell came full circle.
The bell was moved onto the field around 1933 and every time the Lions scored a point, it would ring out that many times. If the Lions won, which in the 30’s, 40’s, and especially the 1950’s was very often, once the game was over, a group of male cheerleaders would ring the bell for every point the Lions had scored in addition to the points scored during the game. For example, if a touchdown was scored, that was 6 rings, an additional ring if the extra point was good. After every score, the bell would ring. In addition to that, after the game was over, the yell leaders would gather at the bell and ring the bell for every point that had been scored, and in those days, offense was plenty. Due to the frequent rings, and the rowdy student body, by 1963, the clapper had worn out and the school decided not to add another one, but to keep the original bell. It was now part of the history of the nearly 80 year old school.
By the time the 1960’s rolled around, it was moved to a main concourse on campus. Sam Rayburn gave a speech on campus to graduates where the term “Lucky Lions” was coined. Rayburn was quoted as saying that “with perseverance, toughness, hard work, and a little luck, you Lions can go forth to serve and make an impact on the world.” At Rayburn’s behest it was reported that students who start school walk by the bell and touch the base “for luck for your new endeavors at this institution.” Noting “you were just Lions, now you are Lucky Lions.” In the 1990’s, an image of the bell was added to the design of the University class rings, opposite the side where a Lion stands in the sun, noting the year that the student has graduated from the University.
The Bell remained in the main concourse for many years, until it was moved to the Mayo Memorial on the south end of campus, near the sorority halls off of Neal Street. The bell was moved back to the original spot on the main concourse walkway between the new Rayburn Memorial Student Center and the Austin School of Science and Engineering in 2018, which is where it remains.
There has been a movement, albeit a small one, not to replace the bell that is now over 120 years old, but to move a bell to the stadium and ring it in the same fashion that was done 60, 70, and 80 plus years ago. If that is done or not is yet to be seen, but somewhere on that faded, stubborn land of blackland dirt echos the sounds of Lions who have scored touchdowns and celebrated wins with a bell ringing in the distance to those who are shouting “VICTORY, OLD ET!”