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A Tale of Two Colleges

Once upon a time on the University of Nebraska campus there were two colleges of esteemed reputation. Their students were honorable, intelligent men who received the finest professional training. But they never could get along with each other. The engineers pointed to the bridges, buildings and machines they built with pride. The lawyers’ accomplishments were of a different nature, requiring skillful arguments and evidence to settle human disagreements. To the engineers, the lawyers were parasites. In the eyes of the lawyers, the engineers were narrow technicians. And so the rivalry between the two colleges continued.

Engineering Sigma Tau Fraternity of '27

Like today, Engineers Week in the 1920s was a major event. There was an entire week of activities including displays in downtown stores, a field day, a downtown parade with floats from every department, and boxing and baseball matches between the engineering and law colleges, whose buildings were located next to each other.

The law students often chose E-Week to wreak havoc on the displays and projects so carefully constructed by the engineers, and the engineers would retaliate in some fashion. The fracas usually resulted in one or both groups of students being dunked in a nearby lily pond. In 1924, the law students tore down an arch the engineers built and placed in front of University Hall. Over the years, there had been other incidents:

It seems that several years ago the engineers besieged the laws in the law building and proceeded to flood the building with a fire hose. The laws retreated to the second and third floors, the story goes, dragged down some of those half-foot thick law books from the library shelves, and pitching them out of the windows, laid out a number of engineers.

Daily Nebraskan, May 10, 1927

So it happened that one day, the engineers decided to fight back. After all, the honor of the engineering profession was at stake.

1927 Phi Alpha Delta Members

Engineers and Law Students Stage Riot Over Destruction of Dirigible

Something very near to a riot and closely resembling a "free for all" was staged by the engineer and law students on the second floor of the Law Building Wednesday morning after 11 o'clock classes had started. The encounter continued to rage between the Library and the Law building a few seconds later as the result of an attempt on the part of the Engineers to avenge the burning and wholesale destruction of their dirigible, the E '27, placed in front of the administration building to advertise Engineers week, while they were at convocation.

"It seems like the Engineers and the Laws never did get along some way," was the remark of John Peterson, janitor of the Law school who has held that post for some time as he looked out the window of the building.

"Lots of noise" was the way the janitor described the incident occuring between the two buildings. He believes, however, that the Engineers must be Engineers in the true sense of the word as he was at a complete loss to understand how they managed to put the large sign on the Law building advertising Engineers Week, which was torn from its heights by the Law students early Wednesday morning.

A quart of gasoline purchased at the filling station immediately across from the Law building and a match was all that was needed to start the much advertised balloon in flames and the largest class fight in years. The wire holding the dirigible in position was loosened, letting it fall to the ground where holes were poked in it with sticks and the fire encouraged.

Rumors of this trouble has been on foot ever since Tuesday morning when the Engineers awoke to find that "Pharmacy Week" had been painted over "Engineers Week" on hte dirigible placed to advertise that event.

Students in the School of Pharmacy proved their innocence in the matter by repainting the sign and by taking sides with the Engineers in the conflict that followed.

Daily Nebraskan, Thursday May 5, 1927

The Phi Alpha Delta Law fraternity house.

Law Punish Culprits Who Play Traitor

"The Law of the clan shall not be broken." Three members of the Law college who broke faith with their group to the extent of assisting the Engineers in repairing the dirigible E '27, partially destroyed by fire in a near-riot Wednesday morning, were summarily punished during intermission between ten and eleven o'clock classes yesterday morning. The irate lawyers forced the culprits, Wendell Cameron, Robert Powell, and Arch Weaver, to run a gauntlet of paddles as atonement for their misdeameanor. A double rank of paddle-wieldiers lined the sidewalk south of the Administration building to take part in the ceremony. A considerable number of spectators were attracted to the scene by the vicious "thwack!-spat!-thwack!" of the instruments of torture.

Daily Nebraskan, Friday May 6, 1927

The Engineering Week Arch destroyed by law students in 1924

Legal Students Tubbed
Delta Theta Phi House Escapes Unscathed;
Police Riot Squad Is Called

The dirigible advertising Engineers Week was torn down and the P.A.D. house raided last night in a renewal of the ancient feud between the engineers and lawyers. Police summoned to stop the fighting at the P.A.D. house, and firemen dispersed the mob outside by the use of water.

The trouble stated about ten o'clock when the lawyers drove up in a machine and attacked the dirigible constructed by engineers in front of the Administration building. Engineers left their position in the laboratories and hurried to the scene.

they organized into a mob and headed for the P.A.D. house where they surprised the lawyers in the act of carrying eggs down stairs in readiness for the attack. The proceeded to scatter them in a womewhat broken condition about the house.

Cause Damage

IN the course of the struggle a window was broken out and several pieces of furniture were broken.

Riot calls were sent in by residents of the neighborhood and 7 or 8 policemen were sent down to quelch the riot. They had some difficulty in keeping the engineers from going in en masse to drag out the lawyers who they believed were hiding in the house.Someone, evidently seeing the flare of a torch carried by the engineers, sent in the fire alarm. The trucks left but returned a few minutes later and the firemen used thier equipment to disperse the mob which had gathered to witness the battle. Many onlookers were soaked and the crowd was soon dispelled.

It is estimated that the damage down in the P.A.D. house will totalk $1,000, including broken doors, windows and furniture and damage done to floors and rugs.

Daily Nebraskan, Friday May 6, 1927

Rudolph Umland, '29, recalled his memories of the incident in a history of the university:

The engineers had constructed a dirigible balloon mounted it on a pole on the campus to advertise the annual "Engineers' Week." Some law students partly wrecked the balloon one night and the engineers considered it a direct attack upon the collge honor. Names were called and threats exchanged. On the night of the riot the engineers were giving a public demonstration of the work of their college. I was assisting in the testing of concrete in one of the laboratories. Suddenly there were four blasts of a steam whistle - a signal that the lawyers had again attacked our balloon. We dropped our work and rushed from the building.

The lawyers had succeeded in entirely wrecking the balloon this time. We saw a large party of them fleeing up one street so we set off in pursuit. The miscreants reached the Phi Alpha Delta fraternity house, crowded in, and locked the doors. We milled around the house and shouted to them to come out and fight like men. They replied by hooting at us from the windows and throwing ripe eggs.

"Let's break in the doors!" someone shouted.

The doors readily gave way under our impact and we swarmed into the house. Several fledgling lawyers were caught and made captive; the others retreated up the stairway to the third floor. Pressing after them, we were halted near the upper landing by a shower of blows from milk bottles, chairs and clubs. More than one skull was bruised in the melee that followed. I remember feeling the trickle of warm blood down my own face when a chair leg hurtled through the air and struck me.

- R. McLaran Sawyer, Centennial History of the
Universiity of Nebraska II: The Modern University,

The Law College Building

The Big Fight

More excitement than ever last night. The airship was finally wrecked almost to shreds. The engineers engaged in a thrilling hunt for lawyers, stampeded through the homes of the two legal fraternities, got a couple of lawyers and ducked them in the pharmacy pond. After the excitement was all over, the firemen came out in two trucks, and squirted water all over the neighborhood with particularly wet aim against a crowd of sorority girls. Several hundred spectators enjoyed watching the shower of bad eggs at the start of the fight, and had even more fun dodging the firement's hoze (sic) barrage, and laughing at those who got wet.

The papers this morning, of course, will be filled with many paragraphs describing the raiding of the house, the calling our of police reserves (of which Lincoln has none), the heroic action of the firemen (who poured water on the spectators half an hour after the engineers and lawyers had declared and armistice) and generally about the big mob scene which was mostly people in automobiles and on porches of neighboring houses.

Exaggerated as these accounts may all be, and apologetic as we may try to be for exhuberant (sic) spirits of college boys in the midst of tese collegiate rivalry, the feeling is inescapable that raiding of homes and wrecking of doors and furniture is carrying things a trifle too far.. the whole idea of a near-mob scene at night with all the haranguing and rowdyism incidental to it, is somewhat out of gear with collegiate dignity, what little of it there is among students at play.

The Engineering Week Dirigible torched by law students in 1927

Engineers and Laws Decide to Bury The "Eggs"; Chip In to Pay Damages

Arrangements were made yesterday for a peaceful settlement of the damages incurred in the riot Thursday night by the engineers on the Phi Alpha Delta fraternity house.

The expenses will be met by an assessment on a per capita basis of all students in both colleges. It is thought that seventy-five cents per student will be sufficient to cover all damages.

Dean Foster put the situation before his lawyers at a convocation in the Law building at 11 o'clock. While the lawyers felt that they were really the injured parties and that they were not responsible for the trouble, they agreed that since it is to be the best interest of the University and the College of Law, they would be willing to make some concessions to have the matter settled without court action.

Dean Ferguson presented the case to his engineers at a convocation in Temple theater at 4 o'clock yesterday afternoon. The men responded with a unanimous vote in favor accepting the recommendations of the deans and men were appointed to accept payments. It was agreed by all that the nominal price of seventy-five cents was ridiculously moderate for the fun they had.

The first offender in the fracas was identified and his confession was heard by the deans in a special session Saturday. His confession and answersto questions put him in cross-examination by Dean Ferguson were such that no doubt was left in their minds that he is the man who really changed the wording on the engineers' dirigible. He is neither a lawyer, an engineer or a pharmacist, and was assisted by a man who is not a student in the University and does not live in Lincoln, but merely a weekend visitor looking for excitement.

With the settlement of these damages in such a satisfactory manner, it is probably that the conflict between engineers and laws is over for this year anyway.

Daily Nebraskan, Tuesday May 10, 1927

And so another chapter in the engineering-law feud had come to an end. The conflict would continue for some time on the University of Nebraska campus until the outbreak of World War II, when the country’s attention turned to more serious matters. Differences in academic training and philosophy between the two professions would continue to sow the seeds of a healthy rivalry that would sometimes transcend the boundaries of common sense.

“It is no wonder that the two never get along,” the Daily Nebraskan editorialized. “They often can’t get along under the roof of the same fraternity house, let alone on a star-lit campus with spring combat blood in the air.

“And the feud between the two student bodies will continue, as ever, possibly a bit more bitter, assuredly not sweetened a bit.”

For more information:

  • Boye, A. John. One Hundred Years of Excellence. Lincoln, NE: Department of Electrical Engineering, 1997.
  • Sawyer, R. McLaran. Centennial History of the University of Nebraska II: The Modern University, 1920-1969. Lincoln, NE: Centennial Press, 1973.
  • Contacts magazine, Spring and Fall 1985. University of Nebraska–Lincoln Archives.

Thanks to Tom Mooney, University Archives, and John Boye, electrical engineering, for their research assistance.

Illustrations by Kevin Sypal.

Arch photo courtesy NU Alumni Association. Dirigible photo courtesy M.E. Scoville. All other photos from The Cornhusker 1927 yearbook.