Cumberland - Chapter 2: George Allen

The least is most - effort-wise.
- George E. Allen

     The individual most responsible for the 1916 football contest was a young law student by the name of George Edward Allen. He was not to be confused with the other George Allen from the world of football, the popular coach of the Los Angeles Rams and Washington Redskins in the 1960s and 1970s; Or with the other, other George Allen. That would be the hall-of-fame coach’s son, elected Governor of Virginia in the 1990s and to the U.S. Senate in the 2000s. The younger Allen, the Virginia Governor, was considered a strong presidential hopeful until his infamous “macaca” comment got him into hot caca.

     This George Allen was born in Booneville, Mississippi on February 29, 1896. “George Ed” as his small-town lawyer father affectionately called him, was an extremely unremarkable physical specimen. In fact, there wasn’t anything about Allen that might strike a casual observer as being exceptional in any possible way. Allen was aware of such a detail. He even attests to this fact himself in his autobiography:

     Mine has been the kind of life that attracts autobiographers, but not biographers. To me it has been an extraordinary life, and I have long thought somebody should write a book about it. And since I am the world’s leading authority on the subject, I may as well do it myself. Then there is the further consideration that if I don’t nobody else will.

     Among the many reasons for the indifference of biographers to the material my life affords is the incontrovertible fact that I myself am not very remarkable by the vulgar standards of my times. Had I been President of the United States, biographers would be beating down my door. They would search through my personal papers, ferret out my secrets, disagree about the reasons for my mistakes, and tear me to pieces in a way that I myself have no intention of doing.

     It is, all things considered, fortunate I have never been President. It would be futile to deny I have never been President, because the world is full of eccentric people who remember the names of past Presidents as well as other, more normal people remember the past performances of outstanding race horses.

     Not that being unremarkable prevented Allen from engaging in more than his fair share of self-aggrandizement. Modesty was not in his nature. Nor was it in his genes. This unique brand of Allen bravado was seen as something passed down on his father’s side of the family, generation to generation, with great fanfare one would imagine.

     I shall waste no time or words trying to seem modest. I shall emulate Robert Tolman, an artist friend of mine, who once testified as an expert witness in a case involving the value of a picture. Under cross-examination, Tolman was asked who, in his opinion, was the world’s greatest living portrait painter. “I am,” he answered. Later a friend suggested to Tolman his answer might seem immodest to some. “Perhaps,” Tolman conceded. “But what could I do? I was under oath.”

     I have had many other successes in outstanding wrongness. Perhaps I should explain, in this connection, that immodesty is a family tradition with us Allens, and I feel duty bound to carry on.

     It took classmates less than one full school year, it would seem, to formulate an accurate opinion of Allen and his proclivity for embellishment. In his first year at Cumberland, Allen is listed alongside freshman class officers under the inauspicious title of “Class Liar.” The motto of the freshman class that year was “forward” and, despite his shortcomings as a student, Allen took this motto to heart. He would get ahead in life by hook or by crook. After all, he was studying to become a lawyer. Lying, it would seem, should be seen as an asset to the job.

     This was never more clearly on display than one instance, recounted in the student yearbook, when the young Mr. Allen (nicknamed “Fullback” for reasons still unexplained since he didn’t actually play the sport) struggled to come up with the appropriate answer to a question posed upon him in class by one of his professors:

Prof. Bone: "Mr. Allen, are you thinking or guessing?"

“Fullback": "I guess I'm thinking."

     Allen had enrolled at Cumberland University with extremely high expectations for himself and his future. These high expectations were not, however, always matched by his efforts. In fact, they rarely were. Allen had always taken what many viewed to be a leisurely approach to his scholastic endeavors. As a result, he found himself in the unenviable position of being ranked second to last in a class of one hundred and seventy-eight. Allen would later admit to feeling an immeasurable sense of inferiority. Not to the 176 students ranked ahead of him, mind you, but rather that one fellow who’d somehow managed to get away with more than him and still found a way to graduate.

     These were his values. They were not for everyone. He was a law only for his kind, he was no law for all, to bastardize a German philosopher who died when Allen was four years old. He was the Übermensch. The ordinary rules and laws in life did not apply to him. They were boring. Allen had no interest in being that fellow locked away in his room each night, poring over a textbook, so he could walk away from the university with the top grade in his class. He’d rather be that fellow out drinking Tennessee whiskey and romancing budding young beauties and still walk away with the same damn diploma.

     Allen was not there at Cumberland to attend college. He was there to experience it. Law school was merely one chapter in the epic George Allen story. Each day was another potential anecdote he could one day retell over martinis during a business luncheon. The measure of how well he told the story would be whether the colleague choked on a jumbo shrimp during the punch line.

     This easygoing nature didn’t make things easy for him at the university. Allen’s casual approach to life conflicted greatly with Cumberland’s commitment to standards like perseverance and hard work. He believed this to be a bunch of nonsense devised for lesser minds. How could he be expected to respect an institution that encouraged him to put forth effort?

     The whole point in life is to get what you want using the least effort as possible. Any more is just wasteful. And Allen would hate to ever be accused of being wasteful. Much of his lackadaisical approach to scholastics, he would most certainly argue, was attributed to his father while growing up in back in Booneville, Mississippi.

     Allen’s father had died when he was just eight years old, but that didn’t prevent him from making a significant impression on his young son. Though his father had been armed with a law education of his own, he possessed a similar weakness for diversion. As Allen would one day recall in his autobiography, his father was considered an artist in finding ways to evade his responsibilities in favor of more desirable activities; Typically, ones involving a fishing pole.

     “Father professed to be a pious man but of a sect that had no congregation in Booneville,” wrote Allen. “The Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches, which flourished in our town, were too lax for him, he said. This being so, he was free to go fishing on Sunday. He was also free to go fishing on most weekdays. Fishing, he once explained to me, was his true profession, and the law was only a sideline. He sometimes took me with him, and once, when I got into trouble for playing hooky, wrote a note to my teacher saying, “George Ed wasn’t in school today because he was fishing with me.” That seemed an adequate excuse to him; it was always good enough to justify the postponement of a trial.”

Being that there were only two practitioners in Booneville, and you need two counselors for each legal dispute, Allen’s father never had to worry about work. He always had enough. His uncle John M. Allen also made a significant impression on Allen. He had survived sixteen years in Congress, serving eight terms, becoming nationally known as “Private John Allen” in the process. Private John was regarded as the “foremost humorist-philosopher of Congress.”

     He was on record in the Congressional Report as once starting a speech by announcing, “Mr. Chairman, I desire to say to those present that their perfect attention will not embarrass me in the least.” When told his time was up, he closed by saying, “That’s a pity, for I had many other things of great interest to say, but as my time has expired, and not wishing to further interrupt the proceedings, I will retire to the cloakroom to receive congratulations.”

     In the fall of 1916, Allen returned from the summer break for his final year at Cumberland. He was about to begin Junior Law. What the class had gone through to get there was daunting. What the class still had to go through was even more daunting:

     The cry of man from the dark ages, down through the passing generations, has been a continuous clamor for life, liberty, and justice. Still rings through the land of every nation that inborn cry, "JUSTICE." Heeding to the voice of man and endeavoring to gratify the civil desires of the coming generations, we have humbly and willingly given our lives to the uplifting of justice in the civil and criminal spheres of our national life.

     We gathered together as Juniors of Cumberland Law in the spring of nineteen hundred sixteen; forty-four in number, and representing, in all, thirteen states, from two national governments. Having the honor of being the largest Junior law class of any spring term in the history of our school, and with a national spirit, free from selfish desires and personal motives; disbanded the personal ties of friendship, and initiatively filled every office with one of our most competent and able class members, and began our work in earnestness and sincerity.

     Realizing the possibilities of youth and the vast empires of opportunity that lie open before us, we have willingly submitted the molding of our intellects and characters to our honored professors. Dr. A. B. Martin, Judge N. Green, and Judge E. E. Beard, whose lives of consistent principles, public spirit, and private virtue have justly received our admiration and esteem.

     We believe those who aspire to attain the heights of the civil profession must struggle with their subjects, and rise from the low, dusty horizon of suspicion to the star-lit heights of genius, kneeling at the feet of the Ruler of the Universe and studying Nature's laws from divine demonstrators.

     With our diligence and sincerity of purpose, we are looking forward for January nineteen-hundred-seventeen, when we will complete our course of study, and then, with others, some of whom have attained distinction and nobility, will dwell forever in the peaceful realms of the Alumni of Cumberland Law.

     To make the degree more affordable to students, Cumberland had condensed its entire law program decades earlier into just one year. It was this hyper-accelerated law curriculum Allen was prepared to start that fall semester. Without question, this was an incredibly challenging position to be in for someone blessed with good work habits, much less someone like him. A Bachelor of Law from Cumberland would not come easy. No sir.

     Among the legal topics covered during the intense one-year program were, “Husband and Wife, Marriage and Divorce, Parent and Child, Guardian and Ward, Master and Servant, Pleading and Practice in Courts of Law, Pleading and Practice in Courts of Equity, Principal and Agent; Partnership, Factors, and Brokers; Bailments, Railways and Other Common Carriers; Administrators and Executors and Probate of Wills; Trustees, Guaranty and Suretyship; Sales, Warranties, Negotiable Instruments, Contracts, Corporations, Torts, Damages, Mortgages; Marine, Fire, and Life Insurance; Equity Jurisprudence, Criminal Law and Procedure, Real Property, Evidence, Dower, Landlord and Tenant, Law of Nations, Constitutional Law, Federal Jurisdiction, Copyrights, Patents, Trade-marks, etc.” The university laid out the rigorous coursework to be studied over the demoralizing junior and senior terms:

History of a Lawsuit (Martin's Ed.).
Bigelow on Torts.
Clark on Corporations.
Kent's Commentaries (Vols. I., II., III.).
Greenleaf on Evidence (Vol. L).  
Stephens on Pleading.

Kent's Commentaries (Vol. IV.).
Barton's Suit in Equity.
Story's Equity Jurisprudence.
Parsons on Contracts.
Black's Constitutional Law.
May's Criminal Law.

     Allen freely admitted he was well schooled, but not well educated. While he would certainly recommend a good education to others, he didn’t feel strong enough to apply himself to getting one. Still he needed to somehow sweat out a law degree and hopefully, in the process of doing so, learn enough to pass a state board. His falling behind in his studies could have been attributed to the numerous extra-curricular activities he involved himself in.

     This would likely elicit no denials from him. According to college annuals, while attending Cumberland Allen was a member of the local YMCA and contributor to the school publication, the Cumberland Weekly. He was also a member of the local Kappa Sigma fraternity, from which Allen would recruit most of his players. But Allen’s interests in school were predominantly focused in one area:

     The process of getting my degree was so painful I cannot bring myself to dwell upon it here. My principal interest in college was athletics, though even in my college days I was primarily a spectator sportsman. I have always liked to watch games of almost any kind, particularly rough games like football, where other fellows bruise each other. I can get all the exercise I want for myself - and enough bruises - climbing to my seat in the stands.

     “George was not legally-minded,” revealed Frederick Cullens in a newspaper article about Allen published decades later. “He preferred football to Blackstone and Chitty.” In the late summer of 1916, however, fortune would smile on Allen like it always did. The Athletic Association, which the 19-year-old was a member of, discovered, at the opening of the football season, that their manager would not be returning. A former star player for Cumberland by the name of John Burns had been the school’s previous coach and manager. As a sophomore, Grantland Rice had chosen Burns on the All-Southern football team. Before that, he had been chosen All-Southern two years straight in prep school. His expertise would certainly be missed.

     A hasty election was held where Allen was chosen to fill the noticeable void. It was admitted in the university yearbook that Allen brought to the position “only a meager knowledge” of the work of the former football manager, but that didn’t prevent him from setting to work with a vim. Even running up a few exorbitant phone bills for the university in the process.

     Despite being ranked second to last in his class, Allen had ensconced himself in perhaps the most enviable position in the entire university. Articles would be written. Crowds would cheer. Young women would swoon. He was a football god in the making. The lord of the sidelines they would call him with a little urging. There was not a more satisfying way Allen could imagine spending his final year at Cumberland. At parties, he would retell his gridiron tales to scores of willing listeners. Everyone laughing as hard as they had the first time they’d heard it.

     This was without question the world Allen had always imagined for himself; A life where a person could be famous and successful without exerting all that much effort; A place where talent and competence meant far less than bull crap and chutzpah. A magical land where being full of malarkey is arguably the most beneficial trait to being a king. Forget Marx, this was his utopia.

     And it all started with football. Even if his final days were spent on a bloody battlefield somewhere in France, at least he’d have some great stories to embellish in the trenches between firefights. His grand plan was coming together like he always knew it would. The Allen plan. He liked the sound of that. He liked the idea of important people listening to what he had to say. As manager of the football team he would have that. He looked forward to reading his words quoted in newspapers. He anticipated opening up the sports page to headlines such as, ‘George “Fullback” Allen leads the Cumberland Bulldogs to another glorious victory!’ or ‘Spectacular upset orchestrated by “Fullback” Allen.’

     Managing basketball and baseball was small potatoes by comparison. Football was the sport of the moment. Football got the headlines. Football got the pretty girls. Football got the “C” when it should have been an “F.” Hopefully. They would have to at least let him graduate. Then he would be a lawyer. With a degree from the most enviable law school the south had to offer.

     George Allen knew he faced his fair share of challenges. He was averse to hard work and he had a weakness for leisurely pursuits like sporting events. His father was a small-town lawyer with big plans that died with him when little “George Ed” was still in the third grade. Despite sharing a similar work ethic, Allen would not make the same mistake his father did. He wanted nothing to do with that small-town life.

     Allen was from Booneville, Mississippi. You don’t get much farther out in the boonies than Booneville, Mississippi. It was a fine enough place to grown up in, but he did not want to go back there. Allen craved a much bigger stage. He was the sort of man who would go places. This time in history was built perfectly for men like him. All around were movers, shakers and doers who were all out building, inventing and governing. He would glob on to individuals like that. There were those in the world with big ideas and then there were the opportunists like him who would be there to benefit from those big ideas. That role fit him like a T.

     It was not like Allen despised hard work. He could work extremely hard at having a good time and enjoying himself. He adored new experiences and good conversation. He just didn’t feel the need to burden himself with the conventional methods of advancement through life. The unconventional methods were infinitely more entertaining. Allen was the sort of person who carried few regrets.

     He was like a tumbleweed. At any moment, a strong wind might blow in and sweep him off to his next destination. There would be no moss on him if he could help it. While Cumberland University was all about prestige and permanence he was about getting the hell out of there and on to whatever next adventure the world had in store for him. This was one chapter in a long, but highly eventful story in which there would be many.

     For the moment, he was in the catbird seat looking out at the wonderful life waiting for him. All he had to do was not mess it up, which, in his case, was always a possibility. Later in life he would amass a fortune and lose a fortune just as easily. Each of the experiences made for an amusing story afterward. That’s the way life was for him. Whatever was going on, good or bad, things were always interesting. Maybe that was why folks were always so drawn to him. His energy and charisma made him an entertaining person to be around.

     Perhaps, that was also why so many of his classmates, all fine, upstanding students at Cumberland with bright futures of their own, chose to follow him down the calamitous road they did. As athletics and politics crossed paths at Cumberland, Allen found himself taking a stand for what he believed was right in a manner destined to go terribly wrong. He was the proverbial grasshopper. And his rainy day was just around the corner. 

Written by Scott Larson
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