Harley Clark and Hook ’em Horns

by admin | October 10, 2014 9:32 am


I met Harley Clark in 2005 while attending a 50th anniversary celebration in Austin of the “Hook ’em Horns” sign that his buddy  invented one night while making shadow figures on the wall of a dorm room.  Clark, who was the University of Texas head cheerleader in 1955, introduced the sign to the world at a pep rally where he unilaterally proclaimed the symbol for the Longhorns was now the official hand signal of the university.  Sports Illustrated called it the best-known sports gesture in the world.

Somehow I ended up walking in a parade down the Drag in front of campus the Friday night before the celebration — trailing former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, also a former cheerleader. By serendipity I sat next to Clark at the football game the next day, where UT demolished Kansas. We talked a bit about the Hook ’Em sign, and how the dean of students confronted him after the game demanding to know why he had proclaimed Hook ’Em the official hand gesture without clearing it through him.

“Do you know what that means in Sicily,” the dean asked angrily.

Clark replied, “Dean, I’m only 19. I don’t know anything.”

As I sat next to him and watched a procession of fans come by to shake his hands, congratulate him and reminisce, something was bothering me.

Harley Clark. Where had I heard that name before?

Finally it came to me. It harkens back to school finance and its constitutionality, that bugbear that continues to plague this state even today. A district judge just recently once again ruled the state’s method of financing public schools is inequitable, unconstitutional and inadequate. That is putting it nicely. It is a disgrace, frankly, and nearly incomprehensible that the Legislature and the leadership still cannot accept that school financing is a broken system that must be fixed.

Harley Clark, who became a lawyer and ultimately a state district judge in Austin, was assigned the first case challenging the constitutionality of school financing in 1987. He ruled the system was unconstitutional and inequitable. The Texas Supreme Court ultimately and unanimously upheld his decision. The Legislature eventually increased funding for education, at least enough to stave off lawsuits for a while. Now the state is back in court, after the Legislature’s draconian cuts to public education in 2011 led to another lawsuit, with most of the school districts in Texas joining in.

“School finance, right?” I asked Clark. “You were the judge in that case.”

He smiled modestly and averred as how he indeed was that same person.  I wonder what he thought about the state again being embroiled in a lawsuit about the same issue, a quarter-century after his initial ruling. The more things change, the more they stay the same, especially when it comes to the Texas Legislature being willing to spend money on public education.

Clark spoke after the game at the Texas Exes center. For perhaps 15 minutes, he talked about J. Frank Dobie’s classic book on the Longhorns (the actual creatures), the “animal ancestor” of the Teasip, as he jokingly put it. He then told the story again about the genesis of the Hook ’Em sign and the dean’s classic reply after their confrontation.

“I’m just glad we aren’t the unicorns,” the dean said.

Clark died Thursday at age 78. He spent his retirement years growing gourmet vegetables and herbs at his 40-acre farm in Dripping Springs for area restaurants, according to a UT press release. In my sole encounter with him, he came across as a gentle man with a strong intellect and willingness to do what was right for the public school students of Texas.

Besides, he immortalized a hand gesture that still makes me proud to use, while in the stands at the stadium. I received my master’s in journalism at  UT, helped pay for two daughters to graduate from there, and — possibly —in a couple years may have yet another daughter headed that way. We’ll see. She is looking at Baylor and SMU right now. Great schools, but they just don’t have that hand gesture we have.Hook ’em, Harley and rest in peace.

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