Old School

As a first-generation college student, I learned a lot about university life from films like “Animal House” and “Old School.” They taught me that I’d eventually have to face a powerful enemy in the form of a vindictive, narrow-minded administrator.

Upon joining the Student Event Center’s Distinguished Speakers Committee, I was certain I’d found my nemesis in the form of Andy Smith, the Texas Unions director. He was almost too perfect. Always dressed in suit and tie with a helmet of white hair he could easily pass for one of Dick Cheney’s henchmen. The one Dick Cheney’s other henchmen were afraid of.

I’d heard stories, too, about how he’d ruthlessly killed programs the campus community loved, cutting at the budget like a butcher from his perch in the corner of the Union.

My first few interactions with Smith put us immediately at odds over the budget, over facilities usage and once even over the sleeping habits of people in the Texas Union. It wasn’t just what he thought, but how he presented it. Even when talking about mundane things like the weather he’d recline in his chair and lean his chin forward, lowering his voice conspiratorially, as if the rain we’d been having lately might be part of a larger plot.

Yet the more I worked with him, the more disappointed I was. Or, at least, the part of me that wanted a foe was disappointed. He was hardly the heartless administrator who aimed to consolidate power and money that I’d expected. Even when I disagreed with him, Smith’s machinations had the long-term best interests of the student body and the University in mind.

As a Texan columnist, I met many professors, staff and administrators. All of them mean well, but not all knew how to function in the massive and complex bureaucracy that is UT. Smith understood how the system worked better than anyone I ever met during my time at UT. 

Though his role wasn’t as an educator, watching him maintain and expand the Union and allow the expansion of student programming was one of the best educations I got at the University of Texas. 

His legacy is obvious. Student programming at UT is among the best in the nation. The original Texas Union is more attractive, more efficient and more student-friendly than it has ever been. The new Student Activities Center, though conspicuously absent of big comfy couches perfect for napping, serves the campus community well. 

And if you should find yourself enjoying a late night Frosty at Wendy’s, you owe a small debt of gratitude to Smith. He loves that damn Wendy’s so much. If you’ve never seen Andy Smith excited, try to grab him before he retires and ask him about it.

His other legacy, though, isn’t quite so obvious, but it’s the one that’s more important in my estimation: his impact on students who had the privilege to work with and/or against him. That so many of the former members of the Union Board of Directors now serve as leaders in business and government is encouraging and not at all surprising.

If Smith had one flaw in his leadership, it was a desire for secrecy that some saw as insidious, but was usually an attempt to protect student programming in the face of campuswide budget tightening or to shield students from the whims of public scrutiny in order to give them space and time to make the hard decisions. When it backfired, it backfired spectacularly, as with the Cactus Cafe controversy, but go back and look at any student-drafted Union budget if you want to see the possibilities of competent student leadership under wise administration.

That secrecy also means he’ll probably be the last one to stand up, before he retires, and recount to you all the things he’s done to keep both the physical Union and the idea of a student union alive, so I’m happy to do it for him.

Matt Hardigree is a former SEC president and Daily Texan columnist. He graduated with government and geography degrees in 2005.

Smoke licks across the blackened top of the yellow school bus of Old School BBQ & Grill like it was a normal day for serving up barbecue. But inside owner Dan Parrott’s mind, he was fine-tuning the special menu for Bill White’s send-off party in Houston this weekend.

“They’re going to have their socks blown off,” he chuckles and says in his deep, slightly raspy Southern voice.
Parrott greets some customers out of the window from the driver’s seat before he steps out of the bus (aka “Big Mama”) and grabs his usual pack of Djarum cigarettes. Then he eases onto a bench before lighting one up.

“Andrea [White, Bill White’s wife,] heard about [Old School] after one of our staffers ate there until she said she couldn’t eat anymore,” explains Bill White spokeswoman Annalee Gulley. “She’s been wanting to get Dan to Houston ever since.”

Considering where Parrott, his son Danny and friend Trey Cook came from almost a year ago when they first opened near MLK and Airport boulevards in the freezing Austin winter, Bill White’s party for his closest friends and supporters is a massive stepping stone.

It was during those first few months, when he sometimes saw four customers a day, that Parrott said he met some of their first regulars, including three UT students who are joining Big Mama in Houston to help out at the party. White even delayed his return-home party for one week to accommodate Old School’s schedule.

Now Parrott says he gets disappointed calls when he’s off catering private parties and not as his usual location.
“[White’s party was rescheduled] partly because of the iconic nature of [Old School],” said Talib Abdullahi, a liberal arts junior and one of Old School’s fanatics who is going to Houston. “It takes a lot of time and preparation but it’s made in this shabby location. Another part is that people have come to know Dan’s humble entrepreneurship. He’s a very charismatic person who can connect with anyone.”

But before Parrott was serving up his “tasty brisket” and “killer mac and cheese,” as described by several Yelpers, he was deeply involved in the hospitality business for roughly 35 years — prior to when he says it became trendy. He studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris before coming back to the states to work at 56 restaurants and do numerous consultations for start-up restaurants.

“People forgot to be hospitable somewhere along the line,” says Parrott while letting the smoke billow through his thick mustache and beard. “When I started, customers were used to mom’s cooking, and when you went out it was really something. Throwing away $120 worth of potato salad that I don’t like doesn’t make me a hero; it makes me old school.”

It’s that kind of attitude, as well as his generosity of providing a free meal or two to regulars, that’s made him notable to many students on campus. Parrott adds that Anthony Bourdain, a well-known Travel Channel host, chef and author, first discovered Old School in late June after many students told the celebrity to visit the yellow school bus food trailer after he took a walk around campus.

“There’s something that’s much more important to me than money: time.” says Parrott before he finally sets down the cigarette. “You can always make more money but time is something that you can’t replace. I could give a rat’s ass if they spend $30 or $40. We want to make [their time at Old School] valuable. That’s why we’re going to make this party extra special and bring some of our biggest fans along.”