With the coming of World War II, the university adapted its offerings to be part of the overall defense efforts. The United States Navy Reserve Vocational School began training sailors in 1941.
The United States Navy Electricity and Radio Material School (NERMS) opened in the newly built recreation building in 1942. Eventually the university had three Navy training units and a small Army Air Corps unit.
As World War II began to wind down, UH enrolled its first returning veterans under the newly created Selective Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944 or G.I. Bill of Rights.
After three years of negotiating, Texas Senate Bill 207 became law, separating the University of Houston from the Houston Independent School District. Hugh Roy Cullen chaired the new fifteen-member Board of Regents, with E. E. Oberholtzer remaining as president.
With the war at an end, returning servicemen and servicewomen enrolled at the university to take advantage of the G.I. Bill and enrollment jumped almost five fold, to over 10,028 students, more than 6,000 of them veterans. Some came to UH because they had trained here during the war while others were attracted to Houston’s booming job market.
Many of the veterans moved into Trailer Village, a group of 320 residential trailers provided by the Federal Works Agency. Others lived in one of 350 tiny apartments in Veteran’s Village created from surplus barracks from Ellington Field and Camp Wallace.
The University of Houston joined the Lone Star Conference, its first official intercollegiate sport conference. A crowd of 11,000 arrived at HISD’s Public School Stadium (later renamed Jeppesen Stadium) on September 21, 1946, for UH’s first football game. The Cougars lost 13-7 to Southwestern Louisiana Institute, but the loss by no means dampened the fans’ Cougar spirit. That inaugural season also brought the first bonfire, Sadie Hawkins Dance, and Homecoming celebration, including a barn dance complete with hay and animals.
The Cougar Band was organized under the direction of Willard Shepherd with Tommy Mercer as Drum Major. The band participated in parades at home and away games, performing in the campus Varsity Variety show, Frontier Fiesta, and concerts.
The “University of Houston Ex-Students’ Association” was founded in 1946 and led by Executive Director Johnny Goyen. Name changes over the years included “The Alumni Federation,” “Houston Alumni Organization,” and the “University of Houston Alumni Association.” In 2014, UH had over 225,000 graduates living and working around the world.
The UH logo adorns the top of the official class ring, with the right shank showing the university seal and graduation year. The left shank has the recipient’s degree, the Ezekiel Cullen Building’s façade, and UH’s founding date, 1927. Only alumni wear the ring with the logo facing outward. Thanks to UHAA and the Houston Zoo, the rings spend the night with Shasta VI prior to the official ring ceremony.
The first of five live UH Cougar mascots, a seventy-five-pound, fifteen-month-old puma, was purchased by Alpha Phi Omega. After she arrived by private plane, excited students escorted her to campus. Student Joe Randol won a contest to name the mascot, calling her “Shasta” because “Shasta have a cage, Shasta have a keeper, Shasta have a winning ball club, Shasta have the best!”
The cougars lived on campus until Shasta V died in 1989, and the school switched to human mascots. In 2012, UH Alumni Association in cooperation with the Houston Zoo reinstated the live cougar mascot. Shasta VI, the first male Shasta, arrived at the zoo from Washington State, where he had been rescued after a hunter killed his mother.
The UH Frontiersmen group was organized to promote Cougar spirit, help with Frontier Fiesta and homecoming, and serve as campus ambassadors. In 1991, the Frontiersman started operating The Blaze, originally a hand-cranked oil field siren that sounded when the football team scored. In 1996, the Frontiersmen added the tradition of running across the field after each score while holding the Texas and UH flags aloft.
The Army ROTC enrolled its first cadets in the fall. The Cullen Rifles, named for benefactor Hugh Roy Cullen, was created as one of many extracurricular activities offered to the cadets. An elite competition team, The Cullen Rifles won many national competitions and served as an honor guard during President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s campus visit.