Documentary photographer Will van Overbeek was a recent graduate of the University of Texas in 1979, when he decided to take his camera deep inside enemy territory—College Station. “My hair was short at the time, but on the inside I was still a hippie,” he said, so van Overbeek had doubts about how he’d be received by the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets he hoped to capture on film. “I went into it thinking how appalling it all was,” he said about the cadets’ insular world. His opinion changed after he documented their experiences. After “Being an Aggie Is No Joke” was published in January 1981, van Overbeek received the highest compliment from the cadets, who called the photos “good bull.”
Van Overbeek had pitched the idea for the photo essay to Texas Monthly art director Jim Darilek, who agreed to pay for travel expenses but offered no promise that the images would be published. Van Overbeek submitted his work at the end of 1979 and thought he was finished, but the writer assigned to the piece had disappeared. “Al could not be found,” van Overbeek remembers of journalist Al Reinert (who died in 2018). Reinert, a Texas A&M graduate, would go on to win awards as the director of the 1989 NASA documentary For All Mankind and earn an Oscar nomination as a screenwriter for Apollo 13. A year after he went off the radar in ’79, he turned up at Texas Monthly and filed his copy for the photo essay with van Overbeek.
In the spread’s opening image, one cadet yells with maniacal intensity at a football game against the University of Houston. It was Jeff Hargis (look for his name tag), class of ’83, who now lives and works in Kyle. He was a freshman at the time, and the Aggies were advancing down the field in what they hoped would be a game-winning drive. “Believing that the sheer volume and energy of our yelling could propel the ball across the goal line is what’s captured in that photo,” Hargis said recently. Alas, Houston won 17–14.
For van Overbeek, the assignment launched a successful career. He operates a photography studio in Austin, and his works are included in the permanent collections of museums across Texas. He compares the photo essay’s impact on his life to that of a Renaissance-era apprentice who had produced work that showed he had become a master of his chosen craft. “In that sense,” he said, “it was my masterpiece.”