The Alcalde
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The Alcalde

Roomies

Generations of UT roommates survive fights about dirty dishes, room temperatures, and unwanted guests — and become lifelong friends.

By Danielle Lopez

When I first stepped foot into my 75-year-old dorm room my freshman year of college, I realized I’d been misled. It was the fall of 2012 and the little space on the third floor of Prather — which I’m still not sure how to pronounce — looked about half the size of the room in the photo I’d seen online. The building, enshrouded by the shadow of Jester Center, had no elevators, the hallways were dimly lit, and there was a concerning musty scent wafting through the air. I remember thinking, this is it? And, as if to mock me, my room just happened to face the sun-kissed walls of San Jacinto Residence Hall, where I was convinced students lived like royalty.

Even so, my roommate and I made the most of it. She was my good, but not-too-close, friend from back home who quickly became like a sister. We learned that we could control the old air-conditioning unit, a luxury most students don’t have; that our enviably large windows had never been sealed shut; and that we could bypass the strict guest hours by sneaking friends up the stairwells. She and I made a home together in that little cubby and continued to make one for the next few years in our West Campus apartments.

But had things gone a little differently when the university was just getting started, she and I, along with all the UT students before us, might never have co-existed. Although campus is now home to 15 dormitories — including Jester, which is so large it once had its own zip code — those in charge in the late 1800s were hesitant about creating on-campus housing. The Board of Regents thought placing a bunch of young men in one living space would cause too much trouble.

Then in 1860, before the university was even officially signed into law, UT regent George Brackenridge donated money to create UT’s first dormitory, Old B. Hall, which housed around 48 low-income male students. “B. Hall was a wild place, occupied by wild boys, recently emerged from wild environments across a still-wild state,” wrote David Dettmer in The Texas Book, describing the three-story building that sat where the East Mall is today.

Since those “wild” days of yesteryear, thousands of Longhorns have been paired together, whether by fate or by choice, and forced to navigate a whole new world with the other sleeping just a few feet away. And whether your roommate was the kind who kept dog treats hidden under the bed for a midnight snack (true story), or the one who would give you pep talks before a big date, they had a starring role in your most formative years. The Alcalde spoke with six generations of Longhorns who once shared a home and have remained close despite the years and the miles of distance between them. Though each is of a different era, there is one commonality: These roommates are more than just friends for life. They’re family.

Jane and Jean

LIVED TOGETHER|1954–55

When Jane Swan and Jean LaForce start speaking over the phone, I can barely tell them apart. But according to them, that’s just something that happens when you’ve been friends for more than 60 years — it’s hard to know where one person ends and the other begins. “And if one of us can’t remember something,” LaForce, BBA ’58, says, “then the other just comes and fills in the blanks.”

It’s a Sunday afternoon and the duo has graciously let me in on their weekly call, a ritual they’ve maintained since graduating from UT in 1958. They first met as freshmen who were paired together at random and placed in a room in the Andrews Residence Hall meant for one person — much too small for their lanky builds, let alone their petticoats. “We either had to get along or so be it,” LaForce says.

They wound up being each other’s perfect complements. LaForce, who earned a business degree, was a panty raid-participating teen from Dallas, who knew a lot about living in a big city but little about UT. Swan, BA ’58, Life Member, who was more keen on following rules, was an English major from a small Texas town who came from a long line of Longhorns. Though they never managed to live together again in college, Swan and LaForce say their post-grad adventures kept them connected.

There’s not enough time to tell me all of the stories they’ve collected, but the ones they do share give a glimpse into the lives of two jetsetters who never fully committed to the traditional lifestyle common among those in their generation. Shortly after finishing school, the two quit their jobs, packed their bags, and traveled Europe for six months, passing through 20 countries in a little Volkswagen.

Over time, Swan and LaForce made their way through Latin America, Asia, and Africa. In between their travels, the pair lived together for a while in Washington, D.C., where LaForce worked on LBJ’s campaign team. They joined the Peace Corps together, helped each other through divorces, deaths, and “co-raised” Swan’s adopted son. “We just couldn’t get rid of each other,” Swan says as they both burst into laughter.

Now, Swan is remarried to her high school sweetheart and spends half her year in Waco, Texas, and the other part in California. LaForce still lives miles away in Washington, D.C., where she’s been retired for the last few years. The two women meet up at least once a year, usually to take another trip. They joke about what will happen when the other one is gone, though they know it’s going to be difficult. “I was born nine months to the day after she was,” LaForce says. “So I’ve always said ‘well, I was just born to be your friend, that’s all.’”

Bobby, Stephen, George, and Randy

LIVED TOGETHER |1965–70

There once was a house named Mike. It stood somewhere between I-35 and what was then called the Memorial Stadium in a 1960s East Austin neighborhood that no longer exists, and sported a sign with its name, “Mike the House,” introducing itself to the college students who crossed the threshold.

Within Mike’s walls were two bedrooms inhabited by an ever-changing arrangement of four boys;
a communal pet rabbit named Morsel, who diligently relieved itself behind the toilet; and a small cellar lit by black-lights and lined with mattresses surrounding a coffee table and a cheap record player. Mike was a crash pad where guests could turn on a lava lamp and do the things that hippies do.

“It was a fun place for the age of hippiedom,” says George Hardy, BA ’68. He’s one of three other men on the phone who all took shelter in Mike. Each of them — Hardy, Stephen Harrigan, BA ’70, Randy Sladek, BA ’77, and Bobby Zirkel, BA ’71 — originally hails from Corpus Christi and arrived on campus sometime in the mid ’60s. When someone else moved out, they moved in.

All four of them recognize that their campus experience was shaped by a tumultuous era. Hardy and Harrigan were around for the aftermath of the Tower shooting in 1966 and as time passed, Mike’s residents became gradually more interested in the counterculture (though they all point out nothing ever got too radical). They joined in on the first peace march at the Armadillo World Headquarters, and can recall riots and demonstrations that ended in tear gas.

They also remember when Eeyore’s Birthday was still an intimate affair, Whole Foods was just a small, local grocery store, and Gentle Thursdays were a day for students to come together for friendship, love, and the occasional protest. “This was not the roommate experience I expected when going to college,” Harrigan says. “It was a time that took you away from all those normal ideas of what life should be like, thrown against every norm there was.”

Before Harrigan became a successful writer, Hardy began his career in computers, Sladek became a manufacturing company manager in Tennessee, and Zirkel owned a construction company, the four of them were part of a group of boys sitting around in cut-offs and water buffalo shoes, getting lost in the sounds of the latest Leonard Cohen album. Though Austin is nearly unrecognizable and Mike is long gone, the many friends who called it home remain a part of each other’s lives. “We don’t have to see each other every day or every year,” Zirkel says.,“but when we get back together, we’re right at home again.”

Luci and Susana

LIVED TOGETHER |1972–73

What happens in Andrews, stays in Andrews. Such was the motto of Susana Aleman, Luci Guyer, and their group of girlfriends who were placed together in the Andrews Residence Hall in the mid ’70s. They called themselves the Andrews Sisters.

For nearly all of college, Aleman, BS ’75, MA ’78, JD ’84, and Guyer, BS ’76, Life Members, spent their years living in the small dorm which is now a part of the Honors Quad. Though the two of them only roomed together their sophomore year in 1973, they remained just a shout away from each other afterward, sneaking strawberry wine into the dorm or playing games with their hallmates. “It was a simple time,” Aleman says. “So we did simple things.”

With little money and no car, the pair made the most of what campus had to offer them. They’d pick up cinnamon rolls at the once-standing TJ’s bakery on the Drag before heading over to the Varsity Theater to see a movie. Some days they could be found joining in the Chicano Movement and in various protests on campus. At other times they’d run up and down the stairs at the Capitol at midnight or head down to the airport and watch the planes take off.

And they always seemed to arrive just in time for when a streaker on campus was about to bare it all. Aleman remembers watching Walter Cronkite speak at the LBJ Auditorium when a naked man ran across the stage. “The room erupted in laughter and Cronkite just stood there and said, ‘I don’t even have my camera with me,’” she says.

Since their golden days in Andrews, Aleman and Guyer have never ceased to be the leading ladies in each other’s lives. They stood by each other through their parents’ deaths. When Guyer moved to the Rio Grande Valley and Aleman went to law school, Guyer would drive for hours just to offer Aleman moral support in-person. Aleman was the maid of honor in Guyer’s wedding and whenever they find time, they take a trip north and head to Broadway.

“Anytime I had an important decision or was confused, she was my sounding board,” Guyer says. “I don’t know if I could have gone through life without her.”

David and Kevin

LIVED TOGETHER |1979–81

“If we start to sound like an old married couple and argue about what really happened, then that will explain a lot,” says David Luttrell, BBA ’82, Life Member. He’s referring to the way he and Kevin Johnson, BBA ’82, Life Member, first met nearly 40 years ago.

Luttrell, who was around 22 years old, and Johnson, who was no older than 20, were both working as tellers in the drive thru at what was once the Old National Bank in Austin. Each of them had wound up there while taking what they refer to as a “sabbatical” from UT — though really, the university kicked them both out for making less than stellar grades.

Johnson, the youngest in his family, was expected to follow in the footsteps of his father and become a doctor. “But I knew I never wanted to be that,” he says. By his third semester at UT, he received a letter telling him he needed to leave. A few years before Johnson was asked to leave UT, Luttrell had just started school as a freshman. It was that first semester that his mother died and school quickly became a struggle. The letter eventually came for him, too.

But during their years at the bank, they hit it off and climbed the ranks until realizing that without their degrees, they weren’t getting anywhere fast enough. “That prompted our decision to go marching up the steps to the main building together, where we sat down with admissions counselors,” Luttrell says. “They nearly laughed at us while they explained the grades we were going to need.” Nevertheless, the two of them rented a house by the old Robert Mueller Municipal Airport and got to work.

They pulled through the next couple of years, never letting the other slip. And soon enough, they had completed their degrees. They consider themselves family and still help out when times get tough. They were there for each other’s weddings, they were there when each of them adopted a child, and they’ll be there for whatever else life brings next.

“Luttrell was my monitor, my encouragement,” Johnson says. “I never would have been able to do it without him.”

Dallan and Heather

LIVED TOGETHER |1996–97

Dallan Reese, BS ’98, and Heather Bonfield, BBA ’98, Life Member, weren’t supposed to ever meet. But a registration mistake on Reese’s part landed him in the ROTC, and before he could drop the class, they’d already cut his hair. So he made some friends, and joined the Air Force shortly after.

He joined what was then a dominantly female ROTC organization named Angel Flight Silver Wings, and that’s where he met Bonfield, an out-of-state freshman who came from an Air Force family. They became fast friends, and when Bonfield was in dire need of a last-minute fourth roommate during her second year, Reese was her first call.

“What was really cool about Dallan was that he wasn’t afraid to buck the system,” Bonfield says. “He never minded being the only guy.” So Reese moved into their three-bedroom apartment in West Campus, though neither of them ever told their parents that they were living with someone from the opposite sex. They spent that year attending social events with Silver Wings, learning each other’s bad habits, commiserating over their suitemates, and eating lots of fried pickles and chocolate peanut butter ice cream.

But they lost touch for a while after graduating. Reese enlisted in the Air Force and married his high-school sweetheart, and Bonfield ultimately created a consulting firm with her husband in Dallas. Then a number of years later, Bonfield tracked Reese down on a whim. She got his email from his sister on social media and sent him a message. Since then, they’ve exchanged frequent messages, filling each other in on their lives.

In 2014, they reunited at Reese’s Air Force retirement ceremony in California. Now, Reese is training to become a pilot for Southwest Airlines, giving him the chance to visit with Bonfield in Dallas. “When we reunited it was really great,” Reese says. “She hasn’t changed a bit. It’s just like being with someone you grew up with.”

Taryn and Jessica

LIVED TOGETHER |2000–04

There’s that old adage people say when two best friends decide to live together: You better think twice, or you might end up hating each other. And though they were warned, Jessica Daniel, BA, BS ’05, Life Member, and Taryn Robinson, BBA ’04, didn’t listen.

Daniel made her way into Robinson’s life at 7 years old when she arrived at their Catholic school in the South Texas border town of McAllen during the second grade. “We were the kids who ran around wearing those best friend earrings that you split in half,” Daniel says.

They spent nearly every weekend at each other’s homes and went to school together through high school. So when it came time to pick their college roommates, they never considered anyone else but each other — though they did make a bold choice to get placed with random suitemates in the Castilian, who coincidentally both ended up being from McAllen too.

The dangers of living with your best friend that people warned them about never did come true. Daniel and Robinson went on to live together for the next three years of college. What they loved most about living with one another were moments like when their keg burst and leaked all over their hardwood floors, or when Robinson would come home to Daniel’s art spread all over the house. They remember getting dressed together before a night out as Outkast blasted on the stereo, and late night talks in the dark when they should have been sleeping.

“Really, we practically lived together when we were young,” Daniels says. “So it wasn’t like we were just learning each other’s odd behaviors — we were already like sisters.”

Now Daniel lives back in McAllen and Robinson is in Austin. By coincidence, Robinson’s three kids are each the same age as Daniel’s three and they’re being raised to think of themselves more as cousins. Though they live roughly 300 miles apart, Daniel and Robinson manage to see each other four or five times a year, especially when the fall rolls around. As Robinson puts it, “Thank God for Texas football.”

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The Alcalde

The Alcalde

All things University of Texas—sports, feature stories, alumni news, and more—from the magazine of the Texas Exes. Find more at alcalde.texasexes.org.