Of those who have made Lebanon their home over the past 200 years, none may have had a more enduring influence on multitudes of young lives than Laban Lacy Rice, whose leadership first dazzled college students in the 1890s and continues to affect teenagers today at a summer camp he founded a century ago.
Who was he, you ask?
Quite possibly the most fascinating man who ever hung his hat in this town, and odds are great that most here do not recognize his name.
Rice, who bid adieu to this world in 1973 at the age of 102, was an educator, classical scholar, author, poet, linguist, college administrator, astronomer, mathematician, camp director, lecturer, world traveler, philosopher, prankster and one of the greatest athletes in Cumberland University history.
As Cumberland’s first student to participate in collegiate athletics, he took on Vanderbilt University, the University of the South and Peabody Normal School in a track meet as the sole Cumberland participant one spring day in 1889.
The athletic student earned three degrees at Cumberland: a bachelor of arts in 1891, master of arts in 1892 and a doctor of philosophy in Latin, Greek and Sanskrit in 1894. After teaching at Cumberland for several years, he would become the first headmaster of Castle Heights, which he eventually bought and renamed Castle Heights Military Academy. In 1919, he founded Camp Nakanawa, a private girls’ camp near Crossville, which became the largest camp for girls in the U.S. Still going strong, the camp celebrates its centennial July 19-21.
Rice would return to his alma mater in 1939 as chancellor, and in 1941, on the cusp of the U.S. entry into World War II, would find himself in the midst of a difficult six-year term as the university’s 11th president.
A prodigious writer, Rice authored more than a dozen books as well as poems, short stories and scripts covering such topics as Einstein’s theory of relativity, astronomy, the Bell Witch and the TV Western “Gunsmoke”. He also wrote letters by the score as he corresponded with such luminaries as President Dwight Eisenhower and Albert Einstein.
Born in Kentucky 149 years ago
About his beginning, he wrote, “I was the squalling son born to Laban Marchbanks and Martha Lacy Rice in Dixon, Ky., on Oct. 14, 1870.” He also noted, “I was born during President Grant’s administration. Since then there have been greater changes and greater discoveries than in all the rest of history — and I’ve been privileged to see them.”
Rice was raised in a strict Presbyterian home, and his father was a wealthy tobacco merchant who operated a “dark tobacco” warehouse and store in the village of 360 souls. At the onset of the Civil War the businessman freed his slaves and enlisted with the Confederate Army. Mr. Rice spent two years in a federal prison after being captured during the Battle of Fort Donelson.
In the fall of 1878, Rice’s father moved the family to Evansville, Ind., on the Ohio River, where he would lead the tobacco warehouse firm of Rice, Givens and Headley. The tribe moved into a two-story brick house where Laban and his siblings were raised in the shadows and teachings of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church across the street.
In various memoirs Rice shares of his childhood days as being very happy, reporting, “I never wanted for anything necessary to everyday comfort. I never had a serious fall; never broke a bone; never engaged in a real fight.”
As for his immediate family, he wrote in his diary on Dec. 1, 1965 (at 95 years of age), “There were five children: John, the son of father’s first wife, who died about 1859 of tuberculosis; Tandy, born in 1865; Lacy, born in 1870; Cale, born in 1873; Goldie, born in 1876; Cottie, born in 1879. During the years from 1878 to 1891, when father moved his warehouse business to Louisville, Kentucky, only one tragic event occurred: my mother died in childbirth in 1881 as the result of the ignorance of the attending physician. To me the loss was immeasurable, for the third marriage of father to my mother’s sister deprived me of what I needed during my maturing years.”
Nevertheless, he professed that his boyhood in Evansville “were truly golden days.” With brother Cale as his bosom pal (Cale affectionately called him by his middle name of Lacy), the two burned daylight enjoying such summertime activities as tennis, riding ponies, swimming, fishing and shooting lizards and woodpeckers with slingshots. During the winter there were sleighing, skating and snowballing.
An excellent athlete, Laban found himself to be the best marble shooter in the school as well as an expert spinner of tops, and on the Fourth of July when he was 13, Laban became the idol of all the other lads by climbing a greased pole and winning a handsome suit. Meanwhile, Cale at 14 reigned as the city’s roller-skating champion.
The duo was most enthusiastic about the great American pastime of baseball as Laban pitched and Cale was his catcher. One summer their local team won 20 games. The battery would remain intact when both attended Cumberland, where mighty Vanderbilt University would become their archrival.
Laban recalled, “During my years in Evansville, I became passionately interested in baseball, beginning my career at the age of 13 when we threw or tossed the ball underhanded. When I reached the age of 15, I was very proficient, and until father moved to Louisville in 1891, I pitched annually for an amateur team that never lost a game although we played semi-professional teams on three occasions. What my skill meant as a baseball twirler meant when later I entered Cumberland University will be very briefly detailed when I write of my years in Cumberland.”
Falling in love with Lebanon
After completing high school, Laban Lacy Rice intended to enter a preparatory school in Wisconsin before enrolling at Princeton University; however, one week before his departure, a Presbyterian pastor dropped by his home to talk to his father and convinced Mr. Rice to send his son to a Presbyterian college. Thus, it was off to Cumberland University.
He arrived in Lebanon the first week of September 1887 on a Saturday morning after traveling those last 30 miles from Nashville by train in 2½ hours. He was a month shy of his 17th birthday. His freshman year he boarded at Miss Mollie Williamson’s across the street from the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Room and board cost him $10 a month. The next three years he lived in the Hatton house, once the residence of Col. Robert Hatton, whose statue stands in the center of the Lebanon square.
His first Sunday in town, Rice walked to church and promptly lost his heart to Miss Blanche Buchanan, a member of the choir. The songbird was the daughter of a Cumberland professor, Capt. A.H. Buchanan, an engineer who mapped battlefields for Gen. Joseph E. Johnston and the Army of the Tennessee during the Civil War.
(The math and civil engineering professor was tasked to conduct the geodetic survey of the state of Tennessee in 1876. He planted Marker No. 1 on the highest hill in Lebanon, which became the site of the main building on the Castle Heights campus. The 2-foot-tall limestone block he put there still marks the spot in front of what is today’s Lebanon City Hall.)
Rice would reminisce about those early years in Lebanon decades later in newspaper columns, books and diaries. Below, he recollects his first two days in town and the moment he fell in love.
I admit gladly that the richest returns in development of mind and character came from my years in Cumberland University, where I enrolled as a freshman in September 1887. Lebanon was a sleepy college town of approximately 2,000 inhabitants. War years with its inevitable destructiveness had paralyzed Cumberland. Its magnificent four-story brick building with library and laboratory facilities was burned during the conflict between the South and North, so that when I enrolled 22 years after the war ended, I found a denominational institution gasping, if not for its life, at least for decent university recognition.
There were no electric lights, no running water in homes, no modern gadgets. Once or twice a year, some peripatetic pianist or musical trio visited the community; otherwise there were not public shows to distract the attention of students. We had to study in order to avoid boredom. Regularly during my freshman and sophomore years, I spent some nine or more hours daily in home study.
I arrived Saturday, and on Sunday went, as I had been trained, to Sunday school and church. Fate entered my life that day. While going into Sunday school room I happened to see a very attractive young woman, and at dinner, when I asked my hostess who she was, I heard the name — Blanche Buchanan —mentioned for the first time. It was a case of love at first sight. Weeks passed before I had the opportunity of meeting her. Five years later, after going steady for all of three months, we were married, Nov. 23, 1892.
The only known copy of “Cumberland University Magazine,” dated November 1892, details their nuptials quite eloquently.
The marriage of Mr. L.L. Rice and Miss Blanche Buchanan at the Cumberland Presbyterian church, of this place, on November 23, was one of the prettiest that ever occurred in Lebanon. The church was beautifully decorated with cut flowers and potted plants. Mr. J.N. McKenzie played the wedding march. The ushers, Messrs. Brown and Harris, marched down the left aisle, while Messrs. Owsley and Pace were opposite in the right aisle, and stopped by the altar; after which came Mr. Finis K. Farr and Miss Minnie McClain, with W.L. Darby and Miss Maggie Fite opposite them, C.Y. Rice and Miss Porter McFarland with E.E. Adams and Miss Rice keeping pace with them.
The attendants formed a semi-circle behind the altar; then came the bride and groom and as they stopped under a large floral bell they were wed by Rev. J.M. Hubbert, of Nashville, who pronounced them man and wife in a very beautiful and impressive ceremony, after which they took the train for Mr. Rice’s home in Louisville. The bride is the daughter of Professor A.H. Buchanan, of this place, and was one of the roses that has so long cast her refining influence over West Main. Mr. Rice is well-known to the people of Lebanon, having been here for some time in school, and always taking a prominent part in society, the Y.M.C.A. work and athletics. He made a wise selection and she a good choice, and the Magazine wishes them well, and we are ready to exclaim: “O fortunate, O happy day! When a new household finds its place among the myriad houses of earth.”
Cumberland’s pioneer scholar-athlete
Well before the couple began courting, Rice had made a splendiferous impression upon Cumberland athletics on the track and baseball diamond. In fact, he was the school’s first athlete.
Late Wilson County historian G. Frank Burns in “Phoenix Rising: The Sesquicentennial History of Cumberland University 1842-1992” noted that in 1889 “slender young freshman Laban Lacy Rice began the intercollegiate athletic program of Cumberland when he entered a track and field meet at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.”
The May 4, 1889, Tennessean newspaper reported that during the fourth annual Vanderbilt Athletic Association Field Day at Sulphur Park, Rice won the baseball throw by hurling the ball 332 feet. He also competed in the 100-yard dash.
Rice reflected in his diary, “When I started Cumberland University in the fall of 1887, the university had never sponsored a track baseball or football team, and it was my luck to never sponsor a track, baseball or football team. It was my luck to organize and captain Cumberland’s first track and baseball teams and had football been authorized, I suppose I would have tried for a quarterback job.”
Burns also shares that Rice threw “the first curve ball in these parts.” It was obviously a pitch that confounded hitters across the South as his record on the mound would tell. When brother Cale followed Laban to the school, he became his backstop behind the plate from 1890-1893.
The duo and their teammates were to whip Vanderbilt six out of seven games over that span of time. Rice told Lebanon Democrat reporter Burns that in the fall of 1891, “The Commodores brought a large crowd from Nashville, and their coach instructed the hotel in Lebanon to prepare a dozen large rice puddings for his team to eat after their expected victory, making a pun on the ‘Rice’ they expected to devour.” Cumberland won the doubleheader and Vanderbilt skipped out on the pudding feast.
Cale also received a bachelor’s of arts degree from Cumberland (class of 1893) and then earned a master’s of arts degree from Harvard University. He would return to his alma mater to teach English language and literature from 1896-1898. He next pursued a literary career, writing poetry, books and plays, and in the first decade of the 20th century was ranked as one of the top poets in the U.S.
He and his wife, Alice Hegan Rice, who wrote the best-selling book, “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch”, in 1901, would take up residence in Louisville, Ky., and made numerous trips to Tennessee to visit Laban and his family.
Laban expounded more on the inaugural days of Bulldog baseball when he wrote:
I organized and captained the first track and the first baseball team in Cumberland’s history. In the spring of 1890, I managed to persuade seven other Cumberland students to join with Cale and me in forming a team with one, no, two games scheduled for late May with the Vanderbilt team. Cale did the catching and I the pitching.
To the great surprise of everybody in Lebanon and Nashville, we defeated the strong Vanderbilt team in both games, and on returning to Lebanon on Saturday afternoon received such an ovation as Lebanon never in its history had spectacled. To cut matters short, we defeated Vanderbilt teams six straight times before losing a game.
In that losing game, the Vanderbilt pitcher was a professional, a member of the pitching staff of the Philadelphia National League, who was an engineering student in Vanderbilt. I had the misfortune while sliding home in an early inning to be badly spiked on my right shinbone. I should have been taken to the hospital immediately, but as we had no other pitcher, I tried to minimize my injury, so kept on. We lost the game by a lopsided score. The next day I was taken to the Nashville Hospital for surgery and was laid up for two months.
Perhaps at this interval I may mention briefly details of my experience as a pitcher in amateur ranks for 10 years. During those years I twirled for our Evansville amateur teams in about 30 games, and we never lost a game though we played semiprofessional teams. The total games in which I pitched in college and city contests approximated 80. During those years I lost only eight or nine games; with three exceptions I never had fewer than 10 strikeouts in a game — strangest of all — allowed only one home run, and that in the third consecutive game I had to pitch at the University of Alabama. Finally, I never started a game I did not finish; was never knocked out of box.
A star of track and field
Preserved in the Cumberland University Archives rests a small 10-cent notebook in which Laban pasted newspaper clippings with the boxscores of several of the games against Vanderbilt. In his own hand he also printed recollections of those contests. The clippings from the Lebanon and Nashville papers recreate the initial excitement of those distant days, an era when Cumberland had only nine men on the squad.
A yellowed clipping, dated May 2, 1890, details the fifth annual field day of the Vanderbilt Athletic Association, noting, “There was a large gathering present of the best representatives of the young manhood of Middle Tennessee, who were honored and applauded in their manly sports by the presence and hearty interest of the young ladies of Nashville. Colleges represented were Vanderbilt University, Cumberland University and Peabody Normal College.”
Of the 13 track and field events, Laban Rice won three: the standing broad jump, 9 feet, 8¼ inches; running long jump, 18 feet, 11⅞ inches; and the running high jump, 4 feet, 11¼ inches.
As for the late afternoon baseball game, the sports scribe penned, “The features of the game were the batting of the Rice brothers of the Cumberland U. team and the field work of the Vanderbilts. … The game was called at the end of the eighth inning on account of darkness.” Cumberland won 13-12 with Cale and Laban scoring two runs apiece.
The following spring Laban would place second in the 100-yard dash, win the high jump and broad jump, while Cale captured the blue ribbon in the 220-yard dash with a time of 25.5 seconds at the Vanderbilt track and field day.
But baseball remained the sibling’s favorite sport. According to Rice’s handwritten notes, between May 1890 and October 1891, Cumberland beat the Commodores in six successive games, as he mentioned earlier, with the scores: 13-12, 10-3, 7-5, 10-9, 9-5 and 11-6.
The Nashville Banner described the brothers as “the crack amateur battery of the South,” and about Laban wrote, “He pitched 90 games including five double-headers: had fewer than 10 strikeouts only twice; once struck out 21 opposing batsmen; allowed only one home run in his entire career; and never started a game that he did not finish.”
During the spring of 1895, while a member of the Cumberland faculty, Laban was coaxed to take the mound again during a three-game match against the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He took it on the chin and lost all three games due to illness.
Rice wrote, “The Alabama team was much stronger. I had to pitch all three games with the exception of one inning. The water made me sick after the second game, and I had acute diarrhea that night and was in no condition to twirl the third game, yet I took the mound and a sound beating. … Would have won had I been well.”
In later years he described his curveball, saying, “It was an inshoot thrown straight overhead from the level of the shoulder. The pitcher’s box was nine feet closer to the batter then. I used two fingers on the seam of the ball to create special resistance. When the ball got six feet from the batter, it jumped up two to four inches. We mowed ‘em down.”
He told one reporter, “I never smoked and I never boozed. I had accuracy. I never gave a man a base on balls unless I wanted to.”
After his college career, he briefly tried his hand at professional ball. Rice said, “But the professionals of that day were a lot different from what they are now. Most of the boys I saw weren’t exactly the sort with whom you’d want to spend the rest of your life.”
For their glorious triumphs at hitting, running and throwing, Laban and Cale Rice were inducted into the Cumberland Baseball Hall of Fame in April 1979.
Fraternity founder, Cumberland teacher
One more highlight during Laban’s halcyon days at Cumberland was forming the Theta chapter of the Kappa Sigma fraternity on Oct. 7, 1887. He was interviewed by “The Caduceus of Kappa Sigma,” the Kappa Sigma fraternity magazine, in 1971 when he was Kappa Sigma’s oldest living member at the age of 101.
“When I was initiated, Kappa Sigma had only 15 chapters. We didn’t have a house but met each week to carry out our discussions, mostly of academic matters,” he told the writer.
While at Cumberland, Rice was a roommate, friend and confidant to a student who would become one of Kappa Sigma’s most illustrious alumni, Finis K. Farr. Farr was instrumental in keeping Kappa Sigma organized in the early years and authored Kappa Sigma’s first history and was an early editor of “The Caduceus” and later named Worthy Grand Master.
After receiving his bachelor of arts degree in June 1891, Rice spent the next year in postgraduate study in Latin, Greek and Sanskrit and then took his first teaching job at Auburn Academy in Auburn, Ky., where he and Blanche’s first child, Katherine, was born in November 1893.
Receiving his doctor of philosophy in Latin, Greek and Sanskrit in 1894 at 24 years of age, he became a professor of English at Cumberland from 1894-1897 and 1899-1906. He served as the associate editor of “The Cumberland Presbyterian Quarterly”, a magazine of religion, philosophy, science and literature, from 1897-1899.
He was professor of English in the Peabody Summer School in 1904 and then became the headmaster of Castle Heights that fall.
About those years, he noted in his diary:
I began my official relations with Cumberland University in September 1894 as professor of English and American literature. The academic apartment was still using Corona Hall on West Main Street. In 1897, Dr. Ira Landrith, editor of “The Cumberland Presbyterian”, asked me to become assistant editor, so for two years I lived in Nashville. My brother, Cale Young Rice, meanwhile, took my place as professor at Cumberland. From 1899 to 1906, I taught at the university and count those years among the happiest and most contented of a long life. Meanwhile I had purchased a third interest in the Castle Heights School, founded in 1902 by my brother-in-law, Isaac William Pleasant Buchanan, and David Mitchell.
In 1913, Rice would become sole owner of Castle Heights. His daughters, Katherine and Annie, would graduate as valedictorians at the school.
Sources: Stockton Archives in the Vise Library of Cumberland University, The Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of Western Kentucky University’s Library of Special Collections, A Backward Look at 80 by Laban Lacy Rice, Phoenix Rising: The Sesquicentennial History of Cumberland University 1842-1992 by Frank Burns, Nakanawa: The First Fifty Years by Margaret Hawkins Matens (1982), The Caduceus of Kappa Sigma (August 1971) the Kappa Sigma Fraternity Magazine; Laban Lacy Rice Diary (1965-1966); Boyhood Recollections from the Evansville Courier, Cumberland University Magazine (1892), Hail, Castle Heights! by James A. Crutchfield (2003), A History of Cumberland University by WP Bone (1935).