Old Main

Old Main on the University of Arizona campus.

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What do a powerful snow storm, entrepreneurial gamblers, and a very dead cat have in common? They all played a crucial part in creating the foundation for the University of Arizona.

And while Arizona's first university has grown into the major research and higher education institution we know today, Robert Torres, professor and department head of the UA College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, says it's important to remember where it all started.

Torres, who teaches a UA heritage and traditions course, has been lecturing students about the university's historical moments, notable people and iconography since taking over the class several years ago.

And because we all can't sit in on Torres's class (not even Arizona Stadium could hold that much Wildcat pride), here are some unique facts and tales you may not know about UA's beginnings.

Tucson got the university because we were late to the party

Aerial view of then University of Arizona campus, with Old Main at the center, in 1939. View looking east from Park Avenue.

In 1885, the Tucson community sent council member C.C. Stevens and a group of delegates to the 13th Arizona Territorial Legislature in Prescott where towns were divvying up a number of institutions. 

In the end, Prescott remained the capitol, Phoenix received the insane asylum and Yuma the prison. 

Due to a freak snow storm, Stevens and his group were days late to the event and lost out on all the things they were hoping to bring back their town, including making Tucson the territorial capitol yet again.

Tucson ended up getting their last pick, which was the university. And when the delegates arrived back home they were met by a bunch of residents who were very displeased by the outcome. 

"It's been said that when they returned back they were received by a very angry mob," Torres said. "They were pelted with rotten tomatoes and dead cat."

The land where the university sits was donated by gamblers and a saloon owner

Old Main and the University of Arizona in 1902, above — the university has been a place for wide-open opportunities.

Forty acres of rural land near what is now downtown Tucson was donated by two professional gamblers and a saloon owner.

Had they not provided the land, the town would have lost out on the bonding needed to start the university, Torres said.

Old Main has been through a lot

Old Main, the original building on the campus of the University of Arizona.

The original building of the University of Arizona broke ground in 1887 and was completed in the 1890s. In the beginning, the building housed the School of Agriculture and contained classrooms, laboratories, and a mess hall. Eventually, the building was renamed University Hall, condemned in the the 1930s, remodeled, and lovingly re-renamed Old Main somewhere along the way.

Today, Old Main hosts the administrative office to the UA president and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The fountain near Old Main is a memorial to students who died in World War I

You can find a plaque that lists the names of the 13 fallen students on the west side of the fountain.

UA students "Bear Down" because of John "Button" Salmon

Salmon played football and baseball at Arizona and was student body president in 1926.

On Oct. 3, 1926, beloved UA quarterback and student body president, John "Button" Salmon, was driving from Phoenix to Tucson with a group of friends and got into a rollover car accident. Button's friends left the scene unharmed, but he suffered life-threatening injuries.

Button ended up dying at St. Mary's Hospital a few days later, but not before telling football coach "Pop" McKale to relay this message to his team:

"Tell them … tell the team to bear down."

After Button died, school was canceled for a day and a memorial service was held in his honor, which drew thousands of mourners.

A band director was inspired to write the UA's fight song after flying over Bear Down Gymnasium

Photo taken looking southwest from North Cherry Avenue and University Boulevard shows baseball field adjacent to Bear Down Gymnasium in September 1966.

The story goes that in 1952, Jack Lee was interviewing to be the next UA band director, and as he took the plane back to Michigan he flew over the university's campus and saw the words "BEAR DOWN" painted on the roof of Bear Down Gymnasium.

Lee was very much was inspired by those words and began writing the UA fight song on the back of a barf bag, according to Torres.

Oh, Lee ended up getting the job too :)

Before Wilbur and Wilma there was Rufus

University of Arizona Wildcat Mascot "Rufus Arizona." The original mascot, first called, "Tom Easter," arrived on campus on Oct. 17, 1915.

In 1915 a live wildcat was gifted to the student body and lovingly named "Rufus" after UA president, Rufus B. von KleinSmid.

Unfortunately, Rufus met an untimely death in April 1916 after the cat accidentally hung itself from a tree.

Since then it's mostly been humans who take on the role of the wildcat mascot. Wilbur was introduced to UA fans in 1959 during a football game, and Wilma joined the party in 1986.

Have more interesting UA facts? Email them to smunsey@tucson.com

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