Clyde Rabb Littlefield started his deep plunge into early University of Texas history by studying his fraternity.
“I knew that the local Kappa Alpha chapter started at the same time of the university,” says the son of the famous UT track coach Clyde Littlefield. “So I zeroed in on that. I got to know the individuals and how they fit into the university. And I was intrigued about how the university was formed.”
Fraternities in the 1880s were more focused on academics than on socializing relative to today.
“Debate was highly prized,” says Littlefield, a former military historian and world traveler who returned to Austin soon after his father died in 1981. “Not that they didn’t have socials. But my group didn’t give its first one until the end of commencement. Representatives from other fraternities were asked to come. Fraternity houses didn’t come along until about 1900.”
Hoping to preserve the school’s story, Littlefield, 85, recently pledged money to back a position of university archivist at UT’s Briscoe Center for American History.
“Clyde’s knowledge of early UT history goes beyond that of a heritage enthusiast or family history researcher,” says Don Carleton, director of the Briscoe Center. “As a trained historian, he is able to critically analyze the many sources he has uncovered and studied over the years, most of which are found in the center’s collections.”
The lanky man with a crooked smile is not all about archives and research. On any given afternoon, he can share tales of growing up around the UT campus during the 1930s and ’40s; about scampy adventures in what, in retrospect, seemed like safer times in Austin; and about the changing course of UT athletics since the first varsity football and baseball teams were fielded in 1892 and 1894.
He is also good on architecture, too, a profession he once aspired to join. When he returned to Austin for good, Littlefield started investing in real estate. He owns three apartment complexes and three office buildings, including the 1856 Robinson-Rosner Building at 504 Congress Ave., the oldest documented structure on the street.
Sitting in his office on the first floor there — a nonfunctioning computer is a mere artifact — Littlefield launches into layer upon layer of personal and cultural history.
“Did you know the state closed down Texas A&M for a year because they were teaching engineering but not agriculture, like they were supposed to do?” he says about what was then called the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, launched in 1876, five years before UT was created by state law. “After all, we were an agricultural state. And two of the original UT students had studied agriculture at A&M before they came here!”
Son of the coach
Clyde Littlefield was born in 1931 at St. David’s Hospital when it stood on West 17th Street in the Judge’s Hill neighborhood. He was delivered by Dr. Joe Gilbert, who doubled as the physician for the Longhorns football team, which his father coached at the time. He easily recalls the near-campus houses his family occupied, the nicest one located in tony Aldridge Place.
“When Dad had problems as the head football coach, we left Aldridge Place and soon moved to 903 Shoal Cliff Court near West 26th and San Pedro streets,” Littlefield says. “Back then, the streets were gravel. Adjacent property owners had to pay for paving. Dad rented from Walter Splawn, who had been UT president. He didn’t go up on our Depression-rate rent.”
Born in 1892, Littlefield’s father — no relation to the UT mega-backer George W. Littlefield, who commissioned the controversial statues on the South Mall — served as track and field coach from 1920 to 1961. He coached the football team, too, from 1927 to 1933. In 1925, he and Athletic Director L. Theo Bellmont founded what are now known as the Clyde Littlefield Texas Relays.
Born in Pennsylvania, the elder Littlefield had moved with his father to Beaumont after Spindletop blew in 1901. He was a multisport athlete who coached UT runners when the track for a few years wound around old Clark Field. In 1952, he served as assistant coach for the U.S. Olympic track and field team in Helsinki.
His son, who played interior lineman in high school football, did not follow his father into the world of lifelong sports.
His wife, Henrietta Rabb Littlefield (1893-1986), descended from the Alabama Rabbs, who moved to Northeast Texas at the beginning of statehood. Some of her other ancestors had come to Texas even earlier. A close friend of coach D.X. Bible’s family, she worked as a teacher and then supported her husband’s career.
Her son spent parts of his childhood at the family’s lonely farm south of Lone Oak in the Hooker Ridge community.
An only child, Littlefield often met up with his father at practice to catch a ride home. He would sit high up in the stadium, where, he was told, it was the best place to evaluate the athletes.
“I had a feeling that it was difficult to live up to,” he says. “The limelight, so to speak.”
A kid in Austin
Littlefield was studious — up to a point — at Wooldridge Elementary School, which looked like the Pease and Palm schools and formerly sat on West 24th Street, and at University Junior High, then housed in a building that still sits next to the Jamail Swim Center. He graduated from Austin High, class of ‘49, when it was on Rio Grande Street, now part of the Austin Community College empire.
He also had a lot fun.
“I did things you wouldn’t do today,” he says with a grin. “In high school, a bunch of us went to Hamilton Pool. We were the only ones there, so we went nude swimming. I was thrown in the shallow end of Barton Springs one night. My friends tied me down. Just proving that they could do that.”
One summer, he drove with a couple of other guys in a “ragtop car” to Mexico City and back.
“We ran completely out of money,” he says. “But we saw a bullfight in Monterrey.”
He always worked. For one summer, he assisted Frank Medina, UT’s athletic trainer.
“I thought it was normal not to have money,” he says. “It wasn’t till later that I realized that it was the Great Depression.”
Littlefield remembers when South Austin flooded before the dams on the Colorado River were completed in the 1940s.
Among his favorite pastimes was scrambling up and down the limestone outcroppings of the Shoal Creek Canyon right next to his house.
“This was before Lamar Boulevard,” he says. “Once, I found a dead man there. Face up. Looked like he had gone to sleep. Turned out to be the father of a high school football star.”
On Dec. 7, 1941 — a Sunday — he learned about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor from a report that came over the car radio.
“I was out in the Hill Country with Dad,” he recalls. “Then on Monday morning, FDR addressed Congress to ask for a declaration of war. The teachers took us into the Wooldridge School auditorium to listen to that broadcast.”
On his own
“I thought I was going to be an architect,” Littlefield says about his nascent UT career. “Until I realized that I didn’t have the talent. So I switched to history and government, which was really international relations.”
He trained with the Air Force ROTC on campus. At graduation, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. A few weeks later he received orders to report on the West Coast and then was shipped out.
“On our way over there, the war stopped,” he remembers. “I wound up being in Air Force headquarters in Korea. They gave me a position writing history. Later, I wound up stationed outside Tokyo.”
After his service, thinking he would try international trade, Littlefield earned his master’s degree in history and government at UT. After a brief time working in the Oklahoma Panhandle oilfields, he was contacted by a historian who plucked his name from a federal registrar.
They needed someone with his historical background. On assignment, he met and married a landscape architect; she died, and he never remarried. His mother died in 1986, after he had moved back to Austin.
While stationed in Washington, D.C., Littlefield had met some developers who were buying and fixing up down-market real estate.
“I watched them operate,” he says. “And I invested in a couple of condominiums. I was always interested in buildings.”
Back in Austin in the 1980s, downtown Austin real estate was similarly depressed.
“I was biased toward downtown,” he says. ” My first property was where the Austin Convention Center is now. I knew the lower part of downtown would eventually develop, and I was fortunate enough to hold on to some of that property.”
He also invested in the Hyde Park area.
But how was he able to purchase the Robinson-Rosner historic jewel on Congress Avenue?
Littlefield gives an answer familiar to anyone dealing with the ways of Old Austin: “I knew the Robinson heirs.”
There is a semi-famous 1893 photograph of UT’s first football team. Twelve young men in togs or sweaters sit with a man in a suit and tie. The teammates don’t present the large physical frames or aggressive attitudes of modern football players.
Curious minds have long wondered: Who were these guys?
“The photograph is a little deceptive,” Littlefield says. “The first recognized varsity team played four games. Two before winter break and two after. The captain of the team got sick and didn’t return. Yet he’s in the photograph. Somehow UT doesn’t recognize him as the first captain. A new manager stepped in because Albert LeFevre, who put together the first game and later became a professor at the University of Virginia, went home because his brother, who had been on the UT faculty, was dying back in Baltimore.”
In the far-away-looking image are two brothers, Littlefield adds. Their father was a district judge.
But hold on: The first “field day” at UT, set aside for competitive sports, was two years earlier. The first interscholastic baseball game pitted UT’s informal team against Southwestern University before the first varsity game in 1894.
Littlefield’s early UT insight, including specifics on its southern roots, ranges far and wide.
“The first academic faculty meeting was held in Nashville, Tenn.” he says. “Ashbel Smith was president of the regents. The faculty came from universities in Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama. The youngest didn’t get the message in time. He was in South Carolina, but it was too late.”
The first classes in fall 1883 met at the Temporary Capitol on the southwest corner of Congress Avenue and West 11th Street. (It burned down in 1899.)
“Meanwhile, they were raising the Old Main Building on College Hill,” Littlefield says. “They held a ceremonial opening of the West Wing. This is where Elisabet Ney gave a bust to the university as its first gift. And this is the date that UT celebrates as its birthday.”
After winter break in 1884, classes moved to College Hill, site of the current UT Tower.
“You see, the Legislature needed the Capitol back for a special session,” Littlefield says. “Ironically, the street on the north end of the 40 Acres was called ‘Orange.’”
His bequest to support a university archivist and curator reflects the high status he gives UT at a time when its agricultural and rural pasts are almost forgotten.
“I personally think it’s central to modern Texas history,” Littlefield says. “When railways were connected from the east, that was a key element. Then came the universities. In those days, the leaders of society were all intensely involved in the university. It definitely helped shape modern Austin.”