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Moonlight Prowl sets off on 500th tour

More than 33,000 people have been enchanted by the Moonlight Prowl campus tour. Jim Nicar, director of the UT Heritage Society and Moonlight Prowl tour guide, reflects on the tour’s humble beginning in recognition of the 500th Moonlight Prowl on Nov. 4.

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Moonlight Prowl tour logo

Friday, Nov. 4 marks the 500th Moonlight Prowl campus tour. More than 33,000 people have attended the Moonlight Prowl tours since its beginning in 1988. Register for the tour on the Moonlight Prowl website. 

The dinnertime phone call was from Max Locke, who had recently been appointed head resident of Kinsolving for the 1988 summer session. While the residence hall was reserved for women during the academic year, Kinsolving was co-ed through the summer, and most of its inhabitants were to be “provisional freshmen.” Selected high school seniors who didn’t quite qualify for regular admission were offered a chance to provisionally enroll at the university for the summer, take four courses — two for each six-week session — and by meeting a grade point average requirement could continue on as bona-fide UT students in the fall. (The program has since been discontinued.)

Max was concerned, correctly, that more than a few of these “provisionals” would be a bit overwhelmed in their new surroundings. Some had missed their high school graduation ceremonies to make the move to Austin, and none had the benefit of attending summer orientation to introduce them to the campus. Max had been my resident assistant (RA) in Roberts Hall the past school year, and he knew that I worked part-time for admissions as a student tour guide. Would I conduct a tour for a group of summer freshmen, to help them get to know UT? Not the usual presentation given to prospective students and their parents, but something lighter, more fun, to help the university seem a little less intimidating.

We discussed the idea, and decided to make the tour a series of historical anecdotes, shedding some light on the university’s past and the origins of a few traditions. I knew some already, and more could be found in the library and university archives. We settled on eight topics as tour stops, and opted to start after sundown to avoid the worst of the summer heat. On June 1st at 9 p.m., the inaugural day of the summer session, before a gathering of three dozen restless provisionals, a head resident, and a very unworthy tour guide, the Moonlight Prowl made its timid and unceremonious debut.

The Prowl was supposed to open and close the same night as a one-time gig. Since none of us had been on the tour before, there were no expectations or plans for the future. The Prowl was a new experience for everyone, and, entirely by accident, offered an unexpected and pleasant surprise.

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Moonlight Prowl attendees (aka “Prowlers”) on the East Mall to learn about old Battle Hall. Photo: Kim Seale

For most incoming freshmen, The University of Texas at Austin might as well have been created the day before they arrived. They navigate a maze of limestone and brick walls with red-tiled roofs, encounter a multitude of unfamiliar faces, wait in lengthy lines to purchase expensive textbooks, and acquire parking permits that are more aptly called “hunting licenses.” Aside from summer orientation and its emphasis on academic counseling and class registration, the university in the 1980s offered no Gone to Texas assembly, Mooov-in to the residence halls, Camp Texas, Freshman Interest Groups, seminars, or the bevy of other programs now used to help acclimate greenhorns to UT. With only a vague notion of the purpose and activities of the university and, in all likelihood, no idea as to how it was founded, the challenges it has tackled and the hard-won successes it has earned, it was difficult for a newcomer to personally connect with such a crowded and sprawling campus.

A light-hearted nighttime tour of the Forty Acres certainly wasn’t the answer, but the experience we had that evening was a fun and positive one. At night, when most of the students had gone elsewhere, the darkness provided an intimacy to the campus not felt during the day. The content of the first Prowl was sparse and of mostly humorous fare, but as the freshmen laughed at the antics of the residents of old B. Hall, as their eyes grew wide hearing of the students that built the stands of the first athletic field, as they discovered the patriotic symbolism of the Littlefield Fountain, and learned how a previous generation tenaciously demanded the racial integration of the shops, cafes, and theaters along the Drag, a visible change came over them. The knowledge of people and events that occurred along the same walks on which they now trod provided an inkling of that elusive connection. The university had a history, of which they were now included. They were becoming part of a community, and it a part of them. By the end of the tour, it was as if the group had suddenly, collectively, taken ownership of their campus.

We finished about 10:30 that night. The students were excited and had lots of questions, many of which I couldn’t answer. But we all had fun, and the Moonlight Prowl was something we wanted to do again, should the opportunity arise.

Gebauer Building now and old

At dusk, Moonlight Prowlers snake around to the front of the Gebauer Building — once used for engineering, and the oldest building on the Forty Acres (1904) — to hear about campus life as it was a century ago. 

It did. The Prowl content was expanded and improved, and the tour was repeated twice more in the fall and again at the start of the 1989 summer session. The groups were still from residence halls and remained about the same size, but other RAs, university staff, and even passers by tagged along. The start time of the Prowl was changed to 8 p.m., so that it began promptly after the Tower bells had pealed their last for the day.

On the eve of the 1989 fall semester, several RAs requested a Prowl as a welcome program for new students, open to anyone living in an on-campus residence hall. There wasn’t much publicity, and I was told to expect 50-60 freshmen. But at a quarter to 8 p.m., our launching point on the Main Mall was already congested and more persons were arriving. Bill Kilday, an RA from Moore-Hill, sprinted off to the Jester Center office to snag a bullhorn in case one was needed. He returned just in time. As the Tower chimed the appointed hour, we counted more than 600 students. I used the bullhorn, the RAs took on the role of shepherds, and as we proceeded down the South Mall, the university police arrived, concerned that we were an unauthorized protest march. It wasn’t exactly the cozy, intimate look at UT that was intended, but at that point we knew we were on to something.


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Prowlers look at campus architecture from the front of Waggener Hall. Photo: Kim Seale

On Friday, Nov. 4, the Moonlight Prowl will set off on its 500th journey around the campus, an opportunity both to reflect and to earnestly and sincerely thank the persons who have made it fun all of these years. Among them are the staffs of the Briscoe Center for American History — which houses the university archives — and the Alexander Architecture Archives, which helped me to find more content for the tour. David Cook and Carol Roberts are responsible for the creation of the Prowl website and its UT Memory Bank, which continues to receive reminiscences from students and alumni. My esteemed fellow staffers at the Texas Exes have also been supportive of the Prowl.

The Prowl has also, somehow, acquired a little notoriety. In 2000, the Austin Chronicle made it a “Best of Austin” critics pick, it’s had write-ups in Austin and UT newspapers, and was even given a little TV time. In all cases, the reporters wisely focused on the stories told on the tour, and not on the unworthy goofball doing the talking.

But most important are those who attended the tour — the “Prowlers” — now just over 33,000 students, alumni, faculty, staff and visitors who sacrificed an evening to hike about a hilly campus and patiently listen to a long-winded tour guide. Despite the outdoor conditions, at times in the stifling heat of summer or under a miserable, steady, cold November rain, the Prowlers have faithfully arrived at the appointed time and place. It is their interest in the university and its history that gives the Moonlight Prowl a purpose and makes it as enjoyable to conduct now as it was the first time, and I humbly thank them.

Jim Nicar is the director of the UT Heritage Society at the Texas Exes. Visit the Texas Exes UT History Central Web site for more fun facts about the university’s history.