Building Community through Shared History - A KU Memorial Union Program

The "Big Tooter"

While the most memorable sounds at the University of Kansas are likely the Rock Chalk chant and the singing of “The Crimson and the Blue,” a close third has to be the blowing of the campus power plant steam whistle. An unusual, though no less traditional, university anthem, the whistle has sounded on the hill for nearly a hundred years. It is something few denizens of Mount Oread will ever forget. The whistle was first used as a 7:45 a.m. wake-up call and a nightly announcer of curfew, but on March 25, 1912, it became a means to signal the end of hourly classes. Since then, it has been the savior of students and the bane of professors – or is it the other way around?

In February 1912, the University Council began considering a two-pronged proposal that would shorten all classes from 55 to 50 minutes and announce the end of each hour’s classes by blowing the powerhouse steam whistle. According to the University Daily Kansan, the reason for shortening class periods was that 50 minutes was “the standard length for lecture hours in universities of the country.” The change also would give students a ten-minute passing period to get from one class to the next.

The sounding of the steam whistle at precise intervals replaced an irregular and undependable system of ringing bells. As one student described the problem, “Absolute uniformity in the dismissing and the taking up of classes is the thing that is wanted. Under the present system it is sadly lacking. In some of the buildings the bells ring; in some they do not. Some of the professors dismiss their classes when the bells ring; some do not.” Professors and students alike heartily approved the proposed change. Students tended to favor it because a standardized dismissal time would (theoretically) cut off long-winded professors. Many professors also supported the change, believing it would cut down on tardiness if all classes were let out at the same time. Thus, on March 13, the University Council formally decided to adopt the whistle system of marking time. The next day, the Kansan confidently foretold the end of “the professor who believes in the Marathon recitation instead of the fifty-minute class dash.”

Nicknamed the “Big Tooter,” the whistle began serving its new function on March 25, 1912, at 9:50 a.m. “If the instructor isn’t through when the whistle blows,” said KU Chancellor Frank Strong to the student body, “get up and go.” The University Council published the whistle schedule in the Kansan, along with some guidelines of their own: “Students are authorized and expected to leave their classes promptly after hearing the signal. Instructors will not consider this a discourtesy.” But many did.

During the first years of the steam whistle’s operation, students and faculty periodically clashed over its time-keeping authority in the pages of the Kansan. Sometimes, the paper agreed to publish the names of professors who kept their classes in session even after the whistle had blown, intending, apparently, to shame them into compliance. Some offending professors either claimed (or feigned) being hard-of-hearing. Others openly defied the regimented schedule, insisting that they be allowed to finish their thoughts irrespective of the whistle blows. The whole saga came to head on April 3, 1916, on the front page of the Kansan when professors who had received “kicks” (or complaints) about their lack of punctuality tried to defend themselves.

“I am not guilty,” insisted economics professor A.J. Boynton. “Students who register kicks should have their names published along with the professor kicked. Most of them are the silver-headed ones who pull flunks.” He went on to explain that, “I seldom hold class over time for more than a minute and expect to continue finishing my lecture. I believe that the ten minutes are for that purpose as well as for making the next class.” F.W. Blackmar, sociology professor and dean of the Graduate School, thought that he “should not be on the ‘black list,’ for when the whistle blows I send my class out flying. I finish a sentence but never hold them over ten seconds. I think the kickers,” he said, “need a baptism of integrity.”

History professor William W. Davis told the Kansan that he was an “advocate of reform,” and insisted the “kicks” he received were due to his inability to hear the whistle. “I believe,” he added, “that the lecturer should bring his remarks to a close as quickly as possible when the whistle blows,” but also that “the students should refrain from a pell mell scramble for the door.” Blackmar agreed, complaining that the “students who squirm and wriggle around in their chairs the last five minutes of the hour disturb the whole class and are also at fault.” (Blackmar’s observation suggests little has changed since 1916.)

Some professors saw the steam whistle itself as the problem. “If we had an honest whistle,” said one who refused to be named, “half of this trouble would be avoided. When it varies from two to five minutes every hour, it is hard to gauge a lecture accordingly, and the professor or student who is worth his salt wants the final point.” He concluded, bluntly: “Although I may be on the black list, I don’t care, for any professor is justified in a minute overtime when necessary.”

History professor C.A. Dykstra was even more defiant. “I emphatically advocate the right of every professor to briefly finish his lecture after the whistle blows,” he declared, “and until some stringent ruling, such as chopping off our ears, is passed, I expect to use the customary half minute to do so.” He also admitted an occupational hazard, noting, “Professors of the department of history are the worst violators of this rule, because the subjects are such that they do not permit of an instant dropping…. I know that every second seems a minute, but if the student is interested, he will not mind.”

On January 2, 1923, the “old punctuality enforcer,” as the Kansan called it, was being moved to the University’s new, more centrally located power plant behind what is now Stauffer-Flint Hall. The transfer meant the whistle could now “be heard all over campus even on the windiest days.” An even bigger “improvement” came in October 1929, when the University replaced manual operation of the whistle with an automatic “master clock.”

Nonetheless, whatever modifications the KU steam whistle undergoes, it seems unlikely that it can ever cure the impatience of students or the verbosity of professors. But does it have to be so loud? Most students have lost count of the number of times that the earsplitting whistle has startled them half to death during an otherwise pleasant stroll across campus. Perhaps they should think of it as an aural experience that links them to past (and undoubtedly, future) generations of Jayhawks. Back in 1912, as the Kansan noted in an article about the steam whistle’s blasts, “It is pointed out that the general University catalogue says not a word in favor of Mt. Oread as a retreat for neurotics.”

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: For information on the University steam whistle, see the following issues of the University Daily Kansan: February 26, 1912, p. 1; February 29, 1912, p. 2; March 13, 1912, p. 1; March 19, 1912, p. 1; March 25, 1912, p. 1; April 3, 1916, p. 1; January 2, 1923, p. 1; and October 21, 1929, p. 1. See also, Robert Taft, The Years on Mount Oread, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1955), p. 103, for a brief mention.]