Spirit Plaza–The Long History

This project, The Spirit Plaza, grew out of a suggestion in October of 2013 by then Vice President of Student Affairs, General Joe Weber, to place a plaza in the central area of the campus, similar to what our Class of ’69 was doing with the Bugle Stand Plaza in the Quad.

Initial Formation/Project Inception

Prior to the 45th reunion, during one of the class council meetings (Friday morning Bacon & Ags at Denny’s) we discussed the class project of the refurbishment of the bugle stand in the Quad.  It was suggested that since the Corps members have undertaken a project, the non-reg (civilian) students should explore the possibility of a second class project on campus.  The goal was to build something meaningful on campus and attract students as a gathering spot.  One example was to put some benches around the Fish Pond with some greenery around it, something distinctive for the students.

The initial committee was composed of Bill Zemanek, Bill Maddox, Tom Woodbury and Freddie Wong.  The committee met multiple times looking at different possible locations including areas around Sbisa Hall, Memorial Student Center, Academic Plaza, various West Campus buildings, etc.  As we discussed the poorly sited existing placement of the Silver Taps and Muster sculptures after they were moved from Military Walk, we were also looking into the available information for Silver Taps which was quite sparse.  It became obvious that the space between YMCA and Coke buildings was a perfect place to both create a gathering plaza and to relocate the Silver Taps and Muster sculptures.

At the same time several of our committee members interacted with Fish Camp students and activities due to our class involvement with Fish Camp Crew and witnessed firsthand how the Silver Taps/Muster ceremony at Fish Camp impacted the understanding of the Aggie traditions of Silver Taps and Muster.  Fish Camp Crew began our learning process of their reading a letter written by fish Donald Coward ’72 in 1968 as part of their Fish Camp program for Silver Taps and Muster.  He wrote the letter to his parents  after his first Silver Taps in the fall of 1968, and a few weeks later after writing the letter, Coward along with his CO, John Groves ’69 and his fish buddy George Reynolds were tragically killed in a car accident in North Texas during  the Corps Trip to Dallas.  The reading of the Coward letter became a part of the Fish Camp process starting in 2000.  Since that time, there have been over 100,000 Aggies who have heard that letter read.  Given how he stated the impression that he so clearly described of Silver Taps and its meaning, we decided that this letter needed to be put on display permanently.

Unfortunately, in our research we found there is not a copy of the handwritten letter in the TAMU archives.  With the help of Laura Perritt ’72 and her research on the internet, we found an obituary of Coward’s mother.  It listed surviving members of his family, a sister and 2 nieces.  We were able to locate one of the nieces, Mrs. Caprice Meador, who lives in Brazoria County.  In her search of her grandmother’s archives, she was able to come up with copies of the handwritten letter.

Project Development Process

During our 45th reunion, classmate and architect Mikeual Perritt (husband of Laura ’72) provided a simple design of the initial concept for the plaza, located between YMCA and Coke buildings, adjacent to Military Walk.  This included the relocation of the existing Muster statue, gift of the Class of ’95 and Silver Taps statue, gift of the Class of ’91.  These statues, created by Professor Rodney Hill,  had been moved by the renovation of the Military Walk next to the flag pole from their original location in the middle of Military Walk.   The budget was very moderate as it simply included a small statue of the handwritten Coward letter and the other two statues.  At the 45th Reunion, the class endorsed the project with encouragement to further develop the design.

After the reunion, Bob Lynch joined our committee.

We approached the College of Architecture and Dean Jorge Vanegas suggested we do a student competition.  The spring semester of 2015 a third-year landscape architecture class taught by Russell Reid and Mike Teal was selected by the College to participate with our project.  From a total of 6 student teams we picked the winning design and presented a $1000 award donated by one of the Committee members to the team

The initial design was cost prohibitive.  The professors advised this is typical for student designs as they are not cost sensitive.

We then went through a process of design revision/scope reduction.  There was tremendous input and help from Mike Teal, who continued to work on the Plaza design and engineering, Tony Watson, who designed and later constructed the Plaza markers/monuments, and Benjamin Knox, whose artistic insight and guidance was so much appreciated.  One of the winning design team students, Claire Gaughan Britton ’17, also continued to work with Mike Teal on the project.

The first proposed name for this project was Traditions Plaza.  Upon discovering that there is a “Traditions Plaza” associated with the Bonfire Memorial, and with the help of the Traditions Council, we subsequently renamed it Spirit Plaza.

University Review/Approval Process

In July 2016, under the guidance of the university architect, Lilia Gonzales ‘94, we submitted the first proposal to the co-chairs of the Council for the Built Environment (CBE) for approval of the project.  The CBE and its five sub-councils constituted the screening and approval route for all construction projects on campus.  From that point forward, we went through 3 different versions of reviews and each cycle generated additional requirements and changes in the design.  Each cycle of such review would take as much as 6 months to complete.

It became one of the most challenging experiences collectively for the individuals on our team.  And two of the team members had a combined 40+ years of major project management with major global oil companies.  It was the bureaucracy of the university and the lack of understanding of the Aggie experience at Texas A&M by several of the university staff, faculty and student members of the committees that were the most challenging to us.  A telling question during one of the reviews was the question asked by one of the committee faculty members:  “What is Silver Taps?”

Student Contribution

As mentioned previously, the original design was the winner from a student design contest.  In addition, we engaged with the Traditions Council to further validate our research effort on the facts/history of Muster and Silver Taps.  In our effort, we realized that there has never been a book published exclusively about Silver Taps.  On the other hand, the Association of Former Students has put out much information about Muster.  There was a student paper from the 1950’s in the archives about the history of Silver Taps which was one of the few meaningful references discovered.

The Traditions Council also worked with us to come up with the naming of Spirit Plaza so that the Spirit Plaza was essentially named by the students themselves.   Additionally, the Class of ’95 made a financial contribution to support the refurbishing and relocation of the Muster statue they had previously given to A&M.  The Class of ’72 donated the marker/monument for the Donald Coward letter and is so recognized in the Spirit Plaza.

Finally, as suggested and led by Bill Zemanek, we worked with students in Class of ’19 to take over the monitoring and upkeep of the monuments in the Spirit Plaza after the dedication until their own 50th reunion.  By that time, we anticipate they will then pass “Preservation and Protection” of the Spirit Plaza along to the members of the Class of 2069 to do the same, thus creating a long-term chain of former students watching over the Spirit Plaza.

Connection with Donald Coward Family

When we established connection with Donald Coward’s niece, Caprice Meador, we learned that he had a fiancé at the time of his death.  Knowing her identity, we were able to locate Mrs. Jeannie Earwood in the Houston area.  We learned that, after Coward’s death, she married a good friend of his. Her husband had just died when we reached out to her.  It was a total surprise when we contacted her, and she was very interested in our class project.  She told us she attended the Silver Taps for Donald, his fish buddy, George Reynolds, and our classmate John Groves on campus with Donald’s parents.

His niece accepted our invitation to visit Fish Camp to witness the reading of the Coward letter.  Mrs. Meador and her husband attended Fish Camp in August 2015. Coward’s former fiancé was not ready to attend Fish Camp.  By 2017, she was ready to do so, and we invited her to attend the Namesake session and camp of Freddie Wong and she chose to attend all 4 days of the camp.  Upon her return home, she informed us that she and her daughters would like to make a donation to our class fund for this project.

By searching the Association of Former Students database, we were able to locate George Reynolds’ great uncle, Joe Reynolds ’42, who although deceased, allowed us to track down his granddaughter Rhonda Williams ’94 who then led us to her grandmother, Mrs. Renee Mitchell, who is George Reynolds’ sister.   One of Rhonda’s daughters, Randee Jo Williams Koeller, was currently in school at A&M and the Class of ’20.  Over the course of several months, we had the pleasure of Rhonda and Randee visiting our Friday breakfasts and sharing the camaraderie of what the Spirit Plaza means….and will mean….to so many Ags and their families.

We were privileged to have those family members mentioned above plus others in their families join us for the dedication of the Spirit Plaza.

How the Spirit Plaza was approved and finally constructed

When Freddie Wong and Tom Woodbury took the revised design and construction details before the Design Review Sub-Council in early April for the third and supposedly final time for their approval and submission to the CBE, we hit a wall.  The CBE had already given the project the OK to move to final design after we addressed their “caveats”—those items which the CBE and their sub-councils said must be done to gain final approval.  Further, the CBE had recommended and obtained project approval from TAMU President Michael Young in March, 2018, providing the caveats were met.  There were 14 items/caveats and they had been addressed when Freddie and Tom went before the Design Review Sub-Council.  Lilia Gonzales as chair of the Design Review Sub-Council then took the Sub-Council’s recommendation to the CBE on May 8 and we were then faced with another added 17 caveats.  The CBE sent the proposal back for further re-work.   We were on a tight time schedule to accomplish demolition and construction by April 21, 2019, and had already established the necessary working relationship with SSC (campus construction management group), taken the project out for bid, and had the contractor selection in progress.  This rebuff by the CBE made us realize we were not going to be able to do the project that we believed in because the CBE and the principal Design Review Sub-Council did not grasp why, when you are speaking of the Aggie Spirit, that the Spirit is inclusive of all Aggies regardless of gender, race, religion or ethnicity, and that the essence of the Aggie Spirit can be found in Silver Taps, Muster, Aggie Honor Code and Aggie Core Values as it was so vividly expressed in the Donald Coward letter.  All of that should be on display and understandable in the Spirit Plaza for students, former students, parents, family, and visitors to both revisit what binds Aggies together and to help others begin to understand “…the Spirit can ne’er be told.”

So when that realization hit us, we responded by saying we could not go further in good faith and were prepared to return our contributions (we were prepared to spend over $500K) to our classmates or redirect those funds as our classmates wished.  Under Bill Youngkin’s leadership, we took a small group (Bill Youngkin, Tom Woodbury, Bill Howell) to meet May 25 with the University Architect, Lilia Gonzales, and the VP of Student Affairs, Dan Pugh, who was our official project sponsor.  Dr. Pugh was not able to attend and the Associate VP, Tom Reber, met with us.  We explained we were done dealing with University committees and perhaps done with the project if it could not move forward as we saw it.  The outcome was that they stated their hands were tied by the CBE and we should appeal to the co-chairs of the CBE and likely the President and the Chancellor.  In June we met with Jerry Strawser, CBE co-chair and TAMU Executive VP for Finance and CFO, who listened and responded two weeks later essentially outlining what the CBE had already told us.

At that point, we further conferred with our classmate and A&M Regent Bill Mahomes who set up a conference call with Chancellor John Sharp ’72.  Chancellor Sharp and his staff recommended we first discuss with President Young which we did in late July along with Bill Mahomes.  The outcome of that meeting was quite positive as to the project, its location and what was to be included.  President Young asked VP Michael O’Quinn ’84 to work with the University Architect basically giving her power of attorney to complete the project, and it was her duty to keep the University CBE and other committees satisfied that the project was within their overall guidelines.

We then formed a tight working group with Lilia Gonzales, her planner David Brown, Communications Director Karen Bigley ‘93, the SSC people led by Mildred Trevino ’14, and Tom Reber who represented the University.   Our planning and execution group of classmate Wick McKean (prime contractor–JaCody), Tony Watson (markers/monuments), Mike Teal (engineering design),  Larry Lippke (’69 class agent), and Bill Howell (project coordination).  Details such as wording on the markers were handled efficiently, especially with the help of Karen Bigley and Lilia Gonzales being very much in synch with what we were trying to accomplish with what was communicated within the Spirit Plaza.

And so by December 17 when the students had left for winter semester break, ground was broken for the Spirit Plaza and JaCody Construction took over the space between YMCA and Coke buildings.  Our classmate Wick McKean and all the subs he brought in did a magnificent job in how the Spirit Plaza turned out.  And they accomplished such a great job in the face of an unusually cold and wet winter and delivered the completed Plaza back to the “students” with three weeks to spare prior to our 50th Reunion and Muster on April 22.

The dedication of the Spirit Plaza was accomplished on April 23 at 10:00 AM with a brief ceremony that opened with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance said facing the U.S. flag flown in front of the Academic Building.  This 12’ x 18’ flag was first raised the day before as the Corps of Cadets provided an “all hands” review at 0700hrs.  When it was lowered on the 23rd, our Class of ’69 took possession and will once again have it hoisted at our induction to the Sul Ross Group in 2024.

The dedication agenda and remarks script can be found at https://classof1969.aggienetwork.com/spirit-plaza-dedication/

During the dedication we recognized those who have contributed so much to make the Spirit Plaza a reality, and we were blessed to have the families of Donald Coward and George Reynolds present.  We heard the heartfelt remarks as Regent Bill Mahomes ‘69 presented the Spirit Plaza to Texas A&M and to the A&M student body.  The acceptance remarks from President Michael Young and Student Body President Amy Sharp ‘19 left no doubt as to the sincere appreciation this Spirit Plaza brings to the campus and our students.  We proudly joined with the Class of ’19 as Bill Zemanek and our class agents issued the charge to their class agents to “Protect and Preserve” the Spirit Plaza for the next 50 years.   And with the presence of the Texas Aggie Band and the Ross Volunteers along with many other students, we joined together to sing “The Spirit” as the Aggie Band played forth, joined by yell leaders from the Classes of ’69, ’19, and ’72. It was a very special ending to the dedication.

It was a remarkable event for which our Class of ’69 is humbled by the opportunity to leave as legacy this Spirit Plaza which puts forward the basic essence of what the Aggie experience brings to each and every heart.  Our Spirit Plaza committee and our Class of ’69 wish to state without reservation that during our development of The Spirit Plaza and our other Legacy projects, an “Aggie” is an inclusive term which recognizes all Aggies regardless of gender, race, religion or ethnicity:  “We are the Aggies, the Aggies are we!”

Each Aggie, indeed each class, shall in time pass on from our beloved Aggieland.   But we know there are generations to follow that can experience the Spirit Plaza and understand what it means to be an “Aggie” with the solemn traditions of Silver Taps and Muster guiding the transfer from Aggie to Aggie, generation to generation.  We firmly believe that with Fish Camp Crew continuing to provide incoming freshmen that introduction through the Donald Coward letter and their program focused on Silver Taps and Muster–and that the now established passing of “Protect and Preserve” to the Class of ’19–one will be able to come into the Spirit Plaza now and into the future and understand that the brick, mortar and inscriptions placed there—and yes, that Spirit which lingers there–can recall–or introduce–one to that “Aggie Spirit” we all hold so dear.

Respectfully submitted,

The Spirit Plaza Committee

The Class of ‘69

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