A day in Waco, Texas

Waco is a medium-sized town in central Texas, midway between Dallas and Austin. Like many Texas towns, it has the appearance of just hanging on by its fingernails. It has some industry, but Baylor has got to be a large part of the reason why it continues to exist. Waco does have some charms: it sits on the Brazos river and the bridges and parks along the banks of the river provide a pleasant place to stroll. As well, the shade created by the trees along the river provide a welcome respite from the heat (but not the humidity, unfortunately) of the day. Early in the evening we had a chance to walk across Waco’s famous suspension bridge
and explore a bit of the river’s edge, marveling at the awesome noise being produced by what must have been thousands of birds (Grackles, Nancy thinks) nesting in those trees.

We had gotten into town about 1:45pm, having arranged to hook up with Kevin (David and Brigid’s younger son) at 2:00. We headed straight to the Visitor’s Center where we outfitted ourselves with a campus map, a booklet that promised to take us on a walking tour of the campus, and two complimentary bottles of water (it was hot and humid that day, something I was less than excited about). There was a campus tour bus idling just outside of the center, and the young man helping us with information was about to direct us to it when we let on that we were not parents of a prospective student (as many of the other people in the center were) but were simply there to visit our nephew. With directions in hand, we proceeded to the Hooper-Schaefer Fine Arts Center where we were to meet Kevin. In a nice bit of serendipity this building was also the first stop on the campus walking tour.

The Fine Arts Center is Kevin’s home away from home. Kevin, a junior, is a theater major (he’s an aspiring stage actor), and as the Center contains three theaters he spends a great deal of his time in the building. Kevin also works for the Drama department, helping to promote the various stage productions put on by the students and working to attract new students.

As it is a “fine arts” building, it isn’t exclusively for use by the Drama department. As we waited for Kevin to arrive, Nancy and I wandered the halls admiring the many examples of student artwork and peeking into various classrooms and workshops. We were pleased to see the variety of arts represented: old-school photography (I.e. film), textiles, printmaking, graphic arts, drawing, painting. Wandering down one hallway looking at the line drawings displayed on the walls I was startled to come to an open door through which I observed a roomful of students actively participating in a life-drawing class. The students had their backs to me, meaning I had a full-on view of the model, perched on her stool. Fortunately (unfortunately?) she did have underwear on…

Kevin eventually located us and he then proceeded to give us a tour of the Drama department. Everyone seemed to know Kevin, and he introduced us to a number of his friends and one or two of his professors. If you know Kevin you know that he is well suited to the acting profession. He is very outgoing and upbeat, and thus makes an ideal tour guide (in fact, he does also work as a campus tour guide). He showed us all three theaters in which he has performed, along with the “green room” where the actors prepare before going onstage and the massive room behind the largest theater where sets are built and backdrops are painted.

The tour was great, but as this was the week before finals, and because Kevin had a very important audition later that day (and, not incidentally, because he was supposed to be working!) we hugged him and said goodbye at the completion of the building tour. We were really pleased to see Kevin so happy in his element. Keep an eye out for Kevin Wilson; that kid is going to go far! As we left, Kevin handed us a promo card for Baylor’s 2013-2014 season, the back side of which is entirely taken up with a picture of the three principals from “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” one of whom–of course!–is Kevin. Even Kevin’s mother doesn’t have one of these, yet (don’t worry, Bridget, we’ll let you look at ours, and I’m sure Kevin will send you one someday…!)

Sans Kevin we proceeded to take the full campus walking tour. Baylor is a gorgeous campus: very neat and clean, and largely made up of relatively new-looking brick buildings and neatly trimmed lawns. The tour takes you back in time, however, to the oldest buildings on campus. Baylor’s “Old Main” is a wonderful, small castle of a building; it was one of the original school buildings. We tried to peek into one of the other old campus buildings: the 2000-seat auditorium where chapel is held (Baylor is a Baptist college; students are required to take two semesters of chapel. Unfortunately, the inner doors were locked. The lobby area was open, however, and the air conditioning was running full blast, so we settled on a bench in the lobby and allowed ourselves to recover from the veritable sauna outside.

We did two more notable things on our tour. First, facing the chapel is a block of stone upon which rests a bronze statue of a seated Judge Baylor. Apparently it is a tradition for seniors to have their pictures taken while sitting in the Judge’s lap. Nancy couldn’t resist (I could), so she climbed up and I took her picture with one of the founders of Baylor University.

Second, Baylor declared the Bears to be their mascot back in the early 1900’s, and a few years later two real, live black bears were donated to the school. Ever since then Baylor has housed two live bears in an on-campus facility just across from the campus bookstore. Because of the heat the bears were not in the exposed part of their enclosure, but two heavily tinted windows allowed us to get a peek at one of the sleeping pair. According to a sign at the enclosure, the bears are taken for a walk around the campus twice a week or so. I wish I could see that. The reactions from the students must be interesting!

After completing the campus tour, we got back into our car and headed off to the one other attraction we knew of in Waco: the Dr. Pepper museum. Until we began looking into what one does in Waco, we hadn’t realized that Dr. Pepper was invented and first served here back in 1885. Unfortunately for us, the museum itself had closed for the day not 15 minutes before we got there. Fortunately, however, both the gift shop and the soda fountain were still open. So after trying to get a peek into the museum itself, we proceeded to browse through the logo’d items sold in the store, and then headed over to the soda fountain for a small Dr. Pepper float.

Having essentially exhausted what there is to do in Waco, we headed off to our hotel. At my brother David’s suggestion we were staying at the downtown Hilton. The Hilton is connected to the city’s convention center and sits directly across the street from the suspension bridge, on the west side of the river. It is also on the edge of the downtown area, so after we checked in and got settled we checked out the view of downtown and the river from our seventh-story window and then put on our walking shoes and went exploring.

Within a block or two of the hotel is a set of old two-story industrial buildings that have since been converted into shops and restaurants. We found a dark, quiet pub there and enjoyed a cool beer before moving on to find something to eat. A few doors down we came upon a Tex-Mex place that looked nice enough, so we stopped in and had a simple Mexican dinner. Perhaps it was the items we chose, but the meal would have been very familiar to anyone eating at a nice Mexican chain restaurant In California; the food was good enough, but there was nothing particularly “Tex” about it. The decor was very nice, however: you felt like you were sitting outside in a small Mexican plaza. And the place seemed to be quite popular with the locals, so the restaurant seems to be doing something right.

After dinner we took an extended stroll through the town, admiring the classic old buildings. Waco’s most prominent building, and a local landmark, is the “ALICO” building. Built in 1910, it is 22 stories tall with a prominent set of red letters spelling out “ALICO” on top. It was built as the home to the Amicable Life Insurance Company, and amazingly it remains so to this day, over 100 years later. Because of its steel structure, the building was one of the few in downtown Waco to have survived a direct hit by a tornado that went through back in 1953.

Waco is also home to the McLennan County Courthouse, a classically designed white stone court building whose design was supposedly inspired by St. Paul’s Cathedral in Rome. The imposing steps leading up to the entrance, the white dome, and the statue of Lady Justice on top of the dome make the function of this building instantly recognizable. Built in 1901, this building still houses the county court.

The courthouse, being close to our hotel, pretty much marked the end of our downtown tour. We briefly explored the suspension bridge and the nearby park, but after that we elected to head upstairs and retire for the night so we’d be rested and ready for the next day’s journey down to Kerrville and San Antonio.

Thus ended our time in Waco, Texas. We probably would never have gone to Waco if it hadn’t been for Kevin, but I’m glad we did. Waco may not be the most exciting town in Texas, but it seems to be representative of a large number of small- to medium-sized towns scattered throughout middle America. Coming from such a populous area as we do, it is refreshing to see people living a slower, somewhat simpler life. Living in the Bay Area it is easy to forget that not everyone lives at the same breakneck pace as we. I also found it encouraging to see how much an institution such as Baylor can help not only the students it directly serves, but also, indirectly, the larger community in which it is located.

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