Monday, December 10, 2012

Jesse Wrench: Mizzou's Favorite Oddball

The MU Student Center has just installed an exhibit celebrating the life and work of Jesse Wrench. This display is located in the Lower Lair Lounge and will stay up until February.

Jesse Erwin Wrench (1882) was a beloved History professor at Mizzou from 1911 through 1953. While here, Wrench taught a wide array of courses; served as faculty adviser to various student organizations, including the Dramatic Arts Club; published two popular high school textbooks (begrudgingly); and founded and presided over the Missouri Archeology Society.

Savitar, 1929.

Wrench digs with the Missouri Archeaological Society (Savitar, 1939).

Better known for his eccentricities than his academics, the unconventional professor ceaselessly perplexed and fascinated Mizzou students and the Columbia townspeople. His attire—consisting of a hairnet, a cape, and cropped knickers—as well as his unusual facial hair, would have immediately marked him as an oddity. Although his costume was eventually accepted as part of his identity, it was not always popular among the MU administration. Indeed, Wrench was unsuccessfully pressured multiple times to cut off his beard. Later in life, Wrench explained that his notorious hairnet was a practical measure intended to keep hair out of his eyes when riding his bike. This clarification seems credible, as Wrench rode his bike everywhere, cape billowing, and was even purportedly thrown out of a faculty football game in 1925 for using his bike to tackle opponents.

Savitar, 1946.

Missouri Alumnus, March 1949, courtesy of University Archives.

Students loved telling stories about Wrench—some true, others less so. Among the true stories were accounts of the professor mowing the lawn in his underwear and winning hog calling contests. Students told tall tales about Wrench being shot at while traveling and being mistaken for various bearded persons (Trotsky during a stint in Mexico and Blackstone the magician by waiters in St. Louis). His get-up and his mythic status made him easy fodder for Mizzou cartoonists—Wrench was regularly parodied in the Showme student humor magazine and Mort Walker later credited him as his inspiration for the university professor character in his Beetle Bailey cartoons©.

Beyond his light-hearted oddities, Wrench was also known for his serious activism. Jesse and his wife, Jane Wrench, became involved with MU’s Cosmopolitan Club almost immediately upon their arrival to campus. The University of Missouri’s chapter of the Cosmopolitan Club, whose motto read “Above all nations is humanity,” was an organization founded in 1908 by and for Mizzou’s international students and advocates. The organization was later dubbed the ‘Cosmo Club’ before eventually joining with the International Club.

Wrench hosts a meet and greet for international students (C:1/14/6) Courtesy of University Archives.

In 1918 the club declared Professor and Mrs. Wrench ‘Honorary Members’, but the couple actually acted more as unofficial advisers and house parents. Indeed, for almost 50 years the Wrench’s house acted as the temporary home for international students in need of lodging. Because of their generosity and support, the members collectively referred to Jane as “Mother Wrench” and one club alumnus, David H. S. Cheng ‘49, even named his son ‘Jesse Wrench Cheng’. Moreover, according to an Alumnus Magazine article of 1953, the couple was annually sent hundreds letters from international alumni wishing to express their gratitude. After Jesse’s death in 1958, at least one former Cosmo Club member contacted Jane to return the favor by offering her residence abroad.

Wrench’s student advocacy did not stop there. During the Great Depression Wrench helped organize co-ops for struggling students in need of food and housing. He also founded the Independent Men’s Organization (in 1939) that acted as an advocate and social network for unaffiliated non-Greek students. On a more intimate level, he purportedly lent students money when short on enrollment fees and bailed students out of jail if he felt they were wrongly arrested. Moreover, Wrench was a participant in several Femme Forum debates, was known as a proponent of racial equality on university campuses, and was a lifelong member of the Columbia chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Notably, in 1947, Wrench was one of three faculty supporters who signed a student-authored letter that insisted local black students (from Lincoln University of Missouri) be permitted to participate in a regional United Nations Student Conference. 

Missouri Showme, December 1949. Courtesy of University Archives.

Beyond the professor’s role as a serious social advocate, the student body also regarded Jesse Wrench as an all-around friend, an accomplice in lighthearted mischief-making, and a spirited motivator. Indeed, Wrench was a permanent fixture at Mizzou pep rallies and games where he and his Growlers (a cheering squad later dubbed the Tiger Claws) cheered on the team and often created quite a spectacle. At these rallies, Wrench delivered lectures about school spirit wherein he insisted upon the importance of lending support and strength to MU’s campus community. 

Savitar, 1941.

As it turns out, for the students, Wrench was often the figure around which Mizzou’s community could gather. For example, due to his status on campus and his lively character, students often parodied the popular professor by donning a beret and a false beard for various events, shows, and departmental reviews. The imposters were reportedly a hit with the crowd and with Wrench himself. In fact, according to the Missouri Alumnus in 1949, Wrench eventually abandoned wearing berets altogether because he had lent too many out as props.

Wrench impersonator (Savitar, 1939).

Expressing a fairly universal sentiment, a 1949 Missouri Alumnus proclaimed Jesse Wrench to be “just as much a part of the campus as the columns or the tower.” Indeed, in 1953 several outside sources corroborated this claim: the Missouri State Legislature dubbed Wrench “a symbol of the University itself” and TIME Magazine declared him “Mr. University of Missouri.” For Mizzou students, however, he was more than a symbol—upon his retirement, in hopes of giving Wrench a last ‘Hurrah’, hundreds of students marched from the columns to his home bearing gifts and letters of gratitude. A letter from the QEBH men’s honor organization, for example, read:
We are proud because we have known the good fortune to know you through the past few years of our own college lives. We can speak for the past QEBH members who also shared our opportunity and will miss you…Your Missouri spirit is as ageless as the columns we love so well…So here tonight we pause to pay a tribute past due to you.
Moreover, in an unprecedented gesture, the Missouri Legislature passed a formal resolution commending Jesse Wrench for his work at the University of Missouri that thanked the professor for “the aid and assistance he has given… former members of the University who are now members of the State Legislature.” A humbled and grateful Wrench responded: “I don’t know why you are honoring me. All I have done all my life is to have fun” (Missouri Alumnus, June 1953, pg. 4).

Missouri Showme, April 1949. Courtesy of University Archives.

Missouri Showme, February 1947.

Authored by Niki Eaton, PhD student, Art History and Archaeology


Savitar yearbooks
Missouri Alumnus
Showme humor magazine