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Valhalla: Mythical Beings and Cheap Beer


Volunteer-Run Grad Student Bar Serves Up Distinct Personality and Rich History

By David Kaplan, Rice News Staff, 01/23/1997


There is no other place on campus even remotely like Valhalla, and for that matter, nothing like it in the world. A little more than a quarter century ago, the volunteer-run pub was established to give Rice graduate students their own hangout. With its underground clubhouse atmosphere-smack dab in the middle of campus-Valhalla is so well liked that many continue to use the bar years, even decades, after earning their degrees.


The place has a life of its own, as well as a distinct personality. Observes longtime Valhalla regular John Schroeter, "It has a certain seedy magnificence." Another Valhalla devotee, Neil Arnwine, describes the character of Valhalla as "`Cheers,' if David Lynch had written it."


Aesthetically speaking, Valhalla has its quirks. The bar's walls are covered with faded red carpet. A stuffed gar fish is high on a wall, while an aardvark skeleton is perched on the piano. The entry room wall has graffiti, including a lengthy equation which describes the action of alcohol dehydrogenase. Behind the bar a bumper sticker proclaims, "Valhalla. Gods, heroes, mythical beings, cheap beer."


Valhalla is certainly unique. It is also extremely versatile. As its founder Thomas Nichols observes, it's not just a place to drink beer. Professors and their students hold conferences there, and campus police stop in for coffee. Lunch is served daily. Situated on the southwest end of Dell Butcher Hall, under the Chemistry Lecture Hall, Valhalla, almost since its inception, has also been host to a Friday afternoon phenomenon in which graduate students, alums and their families drop by to meet friends and sip beverages on the lawn while enjoying the beauty of the Rice campus.


Nichols can recall in the early days when students gathered in Valhalla to sing hymns. There have been weddings, bluegrass concerts, chess and bridge games, not to mention some very loud arguments.


Something about Valhalla cultivates strong attachments. Schroeter recalls when in the late '70s an explosion on the third floor of Butcher Hall caused a minor fire. Immediately after the incident was reported on a local radio station, Schroeter got a call from a Schlumberger employee and former Rice grad shouting frantically, "I heard the chemistry building is on fire! Is Valhalla OK?"


Some see Schroeter as the "backbone" of Valhalla who can be counted on to help keep it running. Schroeter discovered Valhalla in 1972, a little more than a year after it opened. Since then he's been inside the bar at least several times a week, and, since the mid '80s, almost every day, either as a bartender or customer. In spirit, Schroeter believes, Valhalla has basically stayed the same through the years.


Schroeter recalls his first visit: Then, a physics graduate student, he stepped into the cavelike pub around Christmastime and beheld a festive holiday scene. A group of grad students were gathered around the piano singing and drinking from a bowl of wassail. Schroeter's most lasting memory from that night: "I remember thinking, `This wassail is awful.'"


But, as is the case with so many Rice people, Valhalla had a way of growing on him.


Schroeter, a self-described "perennial post-doc," is now an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, and an honorary research associate working under Ron Sass, chair of Rice's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Schroeter is among the Valhalla devoted-those who view it as a warm and friendly hideaway, their subterranean nest.


"I have a high regard for it," says Arnwine, who got his economics Ph.D. at Rice and is currently a lecturer at the University of St. Thomas.


"I could have never gotten through grad school without Valhalla," he added, noting that graduate school is often a "long and solitary business. Once you start on your thesis, you're pretty much on your own, in a narrow field where you can't talk about it with other people. I had a long stretch where things weren't going well. It can get depressing and lonely. But any time I walked into Valhalla I had a dozen people say `hi' to me. It raises your spirits quite a bit."


Arnwine finds it "amazing" that the bar operates so efficiently. He notes that no one gets paid to work there "yet people are happy to be part of it." All of the current 60 volunteer bartenders-each only works a couple or so hours a week-are Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission-certified. Most volunteers are Rice graduate students and alums. Further proof that Valhalla is beloved: It stays open throughout the winter break, including Christmas eve and Christmas night. Year-round it's open every day except Saturday.


Valhalla founder Nichols, a local dermatologist, says he is pleased, and a bit shocked, to see the all-volunteer establishment thriving after so many years.


From anecdotal evidence, Schroeter says he has found that graduate student bars are a rarity on college campuses-he has heard of one at MIT, for example-and that volunteer-run graduate student bars are extremely rare if not otherwise nonexistent.


The idea for Valhalla came to Nichols in 1969. As a graduate student in physical chemistry, Nichols saw a need for graduate students to get to know other graduate students, including those in other departments, and to address graduate student issues when they arose. He established Valhalla a few months after he founded the Graduate Students Association. He envisioned Valhalla as "the glue" that would hold the GSA together. For the first several years the chairman of the GSA would automatically be the manager of Valhalla.


Nichols got approval for a graduate student headquarters from acting Rice President Frank Vandiver. "Originally he gave us a spot adjoining Baker College, but the athletic department claimed it," Nichols says.


He searched again and found in Dell Butcher Hall a vacant basement which had previously had been used as a paint shop. The location seemed ideal: It was between the Fondren Library and a big graduate student parking lot, and removed from undergraduate colleges. Also, its main room had a nice vaulted ceiling. Although, understandably, some members of the chemistry department didn't want the GSA bar there: They felt that the department was more entitled to that space, and, most likely, weren't all that thrilled about having a beer joint in their basement, Nichols recalls.


But with backing from Vandiver and support from highly respected faculty GSA sponsor Franz Brotzen, the ball was rolling. Architecture graduate student Vic Gelsomino began making architectural drawings.


The place was in need of an overhaul. Its floor was severely buckled. The basement had no usable water, air conditioning or heat, but it did have spiders and scorpions, and stunk of a dead cat.


But soon, a new concrete floor was poured and air-conditioning and new plumbing were installed. Nichols and materials science graduate student Kurt Alex did much of the additional physical labor, but scores of other students helped with cleaning, painting and carpentry.


Nichols reveals how Valhalla got its name. One day he and Alex were in the bar-to-be, sanding, scrubbing and varnishing. They had the radio tuned to classical radio station KLEF, which was playing Wagner's Das Rheingold, Scene II. They both knew the opera well and could visualize the scene: Two giants from Norse mythology, Fasolt and Fafner, building the great hall Valhalla as a home for the gods.


The two grad students looked at each other and laughed. It struck them, in a tongue-in-cheek way, that they too were building such a place.


In the fall of '70, Valhalla-also referred to as "the graduate student lounge" in those day-began opening off and on. It was open weekday evenings, if and when a volunteer showed up. A graduate student could also reserve the lounge for parties and other events.


Initially the lounge had no beer license. Graduate students kept private six-packs stored in a refrigerator. They were required to record the beers they brought in a notebook. The system had its flaws. "Sometimes sophisticated customers have been irate when their Coors has been drunk by a Budweiser drinker," it was noted in a GSA memorandum to the dean of students, requesting a beer and wine license.


By the spring of '71, Valhalla was up and running with regular evening hours. To celebrate, Nichols hosted a wine-tasting complete with real wine glasses. "We invited faculty and trustees and some actually came," Nichols says.


However, beer, not wine, would remain the Valhalla drink of choice. Nichols would drive to a local distributor and pick up kegs of Lowenbrau Dark. He charged a donation price of 25 cents per cup. "It was the cheapest beer around and has been over the decades," he says. Valhalla beers are still only 50 cents a cup.


Off the top of his head, Schroeter takes a stab at naming, in chronological order, the beers that have been served on tap after the days of Lowenbrau: Next came "Bud and Bud Dark, then Pearl Light and Bud, Hamms and Hamms Dark...," etc., etc. He names nine beer combinations in all. Currently, Pearl and Pearl Bock are served. Schroeter notes that in '87 the Valhalla manager Stephanie Fiorenza introduced a third, rotating tap.


Over the years, Valhalla has mostly been used by graduate students, but other adult members of the Rice community also feel at home. It's the kind of place where one can see a space physicist schmoozing with a groundskeeper. Schroeter says that in the past Valhalla went through periods of having more "outsiders" than it wanted, but not in recent years. He also notes that over the years far more men than women have frequented the bar.


As it is at most drinking establishments, Valhalla has had occasional arguments among its patrons; typically they've been of the intellectual variety. For example, in '89 Schroeter got into a very loud exchange with Rice math Ph.D. Dave Yingst, who now works for a positron emission tomography company. The argument was over the number of computer steps it took to execute a particular procedure to calculate the Fourier transform, Schroeter recalls. The two were pounding on the bar, shouting at each other, "You're wrong! You're wrong!" They were so loud that they chased everyone else out of Valhalla. After completing their mathematical squabble they left. The other customers, who had been hanging around outside, went back in.


Schroeter was witness to another shouting match last fall. Here's how it got started: Three customers were at the bar talking politics with the bartender. One of the customers brought an economic principle into the discussion. Another of the customers was a chemical engineering Ph.D. who didn't realize that the three people he was talking to were either working on or had already completed their economics degrees. He happened to blurt out: "Economics, what a pseudo science!" And the rest is history.


Like other bars, Valhalla prides itself on traditions. For example, during initiation or "coronation" ceremonies a new bartender is bequeathed an orb and plunger-as a reminder that he'll most likely have to do some plumbing while on duty. Also during coronations, incoming and departing managers get pies in their faces, as do customers on their birthdays.


Asked why a cluster of severed neckties is hanging high on the wall, Schroeter says to a reporter wearing a tie, "Watch out the next time you're down there. You must be careful."


Under Nichols' influence in the early days, Valhalla had a more dignified ambiance. He was going for a "historical Rice motif." Some of those elements remain, including stately oak chairs adjoined to oak paneling. They had originally been in the Lovett Hall Faculty Chamber, now known as the Founder's Room. The bar was made from old oak Rice doors. Nichols also hung the numerous framed black and white photos of Rice in the early days.


Also on the wall are photos of two of the more legendary Valhalla patrons-Jerry Baker and Pete Whalen, both of whom are deceased.


Because there is respect for Valhalla's past, its managers are slow to make major changes. However, current manager Joy Roth, a geology graduate student, has initiated a few "little improvements." For example, she's made Tuesdays and Thursdays nonsmoking nights. Roth also wants to add more lighting at the bar, to make reading easier. And she hopes to get rid of a row of yellow plastic recycling garbage cans which stand conspicuously on some of the oak chairs.


Nichols, who hadn't been to Valhalla in a good while, recently dropped by to be photographed for the Rice News. He's wearing his typical attire: white pants, a white shirt, boots, and a wide-brim black hat. He has brought his own silver beer goblet.


His friend and former teacher Ron Sass, who was also one of Valhalla's original faculty supporters, says he was not surprised those many years ago when he heard that Nichols named the place "Valhalla:" "I often thought that Tom is an anachronism and would have lived much more comfortably in the culture of several hundred years ago."


Another friend, former GSA faculty sponsor Brotzen, describes Nichols as "a renaissance man." Besides having been an outstanding graduate student in chemistry, Nichols is a fine Shakespearean actor, former musician, superb gourmet cook, wine connoisseur, as well as an active champion of endangered species, especially parrots of Latin American.


Looking the bar over, taking in the old and new, Nichols says the place has lost some of its style from the early years, but, all in all, it's still Valhalla. He is "glad it's survived and served so many people in so many ways."


Says Nichols, "It seems to have worked."

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