The Origin and History of the Bengal Lancers

The Great Depression of the early 1930’s was hard on Trinity University. Delivering a second blow, cotton prices collapsed. These two economic catastrophes hit Trinity especially hard. Many families could not afford the “luxury” of sending their children to college. Those that could often struggled to stay current with their tuition payments. Enrollment dropped, and with the loss of students, there was a loss of revenue. The school struggled to meet its financial obligations. To make ends meet, the board of regents dipped into the university’s small endowment. Teachers abandoned the school after being asked to “voluntarily” contribute a portion of their salaries back to the endowment. The university granted payment extensions and waivers to hard-pressed students, but it was not uncommon for students to go home for a visit, then never return to Waxahachie. Enrollment dropped to just 209 students.

In 1934, Trinity President John Burma tendered his resignation, declaring that he was tired of being a “beggar” forced to “live out of a suitcase.”  To make matters worse, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools placed Trinity's accreditation status on probation. Trinity was on the verge of collapse.

 

To succeed President Burma, Trinity’s Board of Regents appointed Raymond Hotchkiss Leach. President Leach would be taking office facing almost insurmountable obstacles. Declining enrollment. The loss of faculty. Finances in shambles. President Leach’s failure would mean the end of Trinity University.

In an unusual move, President Leach spent several months in Waxahachie, visiting the campus incognito. He mixed and mingled with administrators, faculty, and students. Everyone assumed that he was a school supply salesman, a potential faculty member, or a school inspector. He asked everyone he met to tell him about the school and to describe its problems. The subterfuge worked: everyone unloaded on him. He quickly learned the frustrations, fears, and problems faced by the university. He also identified potential leaders.

In one of his first moves, President Leach turned his attention to the declining student enrollment, particularly the university’s inability to retain freshmen. Many arrived over the Summer, then left the campus before classes began in the Fall. President Leach recognized the need to quickly bring the freshmen together into a cohesive group. He needed to find a way to make them become “Trinity Tigers.” He called a meeting with the student leaders he had identified in his undercover investigation.

President Leach called on three freshmen, Fred Dickson, Mac Satterfield, and Joe Wood, to form a new campus organization, charged with bringing the freshmen class together. Mac was the Freshman Class President. Joe was his Vice-President. Fred was one of Trinity’s star athletes and was one of the most popular men on campus. The purpose of the organization was, “…to keep the Tiger Spirit an omnipresent and active reality on campus and to make this spirit a never-failing shadow of the Tiger Team.” President Leach gave the three young men permission to “haze” the freshmen in order to bring them closer together… not an uncommon practice at northeastern and Ivy League colleges of the day.

The first order of business for Fred, Mac, and Joe was to come up with a name for their new club. They toyed with using something based on the Trinity Tiger mascot…specifically, the Bengal Tiger from India. As it happened, one of the top movies of the day was an adventure story, based on a book by F. Yeats Brown, which told the story of three British cavalry soldiers fighting in northwest India in the early 19th century. In the movie, Lieutenant Alan McGregor, played by Gary Cooper in his first major role, was in charge of newcomers to the unit. He welcomed two new soldiers to the 41st Bengal Lancers, Lieutenant John Forsythe and Lieutenant Donald Stone. Stone happened to be the privileged son of the unit's commander. Forsythe was an ordinary, working-class soldier. The three men came from very different backgrounds, but the rigors of war brought them together, teaching them to overcome their differences and to pledge their lives to supporting their comrades…the Bengal Lancers. This was the inspiration Fred, Mac, and Joe needed, and Trinity’s Bengal Lancers were born.

 

One scene in the movie left a big impression on the three freshmen: The three Lancer heroes are captured by a ruthless Indian warlord, who tells them, "we have ways of making men talk." He then casually orders the Lancers to be tortured by having their fingernails torn off. Despite their agony, the two older Lancers refuse to talk. The younger Lancer cracks and reveals what he knows about his fellow soldiers. As a result, the remaining Lancers are attacked and defeated. From this example came the Lancer tradition of secrecy. Better that one Lancer endure agony and temptation than for his brothers to be betrayed by his weakness.

 

The Bengal Lancers grew out of necessity in the dark days of the Great Depression as the brainchild of Trinity’s then-President, Raymond Leach. The organization helped unify the student body at a time when Trinity’s future was anything but bright. As the club grew in prominence, the student body became more cohesive…finally becoming “Trinity Tigers.” Enrollment stabilized and the university gained a strong financial footing. President Leach’s plan worked, and the club he inspired is one of the reasons Trinity exists today.

You may also like: 

The original Trinity University Waxahachie Campus
Trinity University President Raymond Hotchkiss Leach
Lancer Founders Fred Dickson, Mac Satterfield, and Joe Wood
Lives of a Bengal Lancer movie poster from 1936, starring Gary Cooper
Prison scene from Lives of a Bengal Lancer