Saturday, August 1, 2009

How I Wound Up at Antioch

Dear George,


I was a pretty maladjusted high school student.  I was shy to begin with, but when my orthodontist decided in my senior year that he should reinsert my braces which he had removed in seventh grade, I became totally self-conscious and vowed to be a hermit, abandoning all social contact in favor of solitude and devotion to my studies.  I spent a lot of time in my bedroom that year, reading the six volumes of Scientific American paperbacks that my father had given me, along with Thoreau’s Walden and the collected works of Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and George Bernard Shaw.


Perhaps because of my anti-social behavior, Ferdie Davis, Menominee High’s senior social studies teacher and college advisor, told my parents that he didn’t think I was mature enough for college and should put it off.  Ross Taylor, my geometry teacher, disagreed.  Because I was one of his best math students (just behind Earl Malcolm), he had pegged me as a candidate for an engineering career, and he recommended to my parents that I apply to the Northern Michigan School of Mining and Technology at Houghton.  My mother had read in the Saturday Evening Post that engineers were in scarce supply in America, and Mr. Taylor’s advice struck her as very sound.  My parents then met a newly hired engineer at Ansul Chemical Company in Marinette.  He was a graduate of Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, one of the more well regarded liberal arts colleges of the day.  He got together with my parents, talked about Antioch’s coop program (“More than books”), President Douglas McGregor (a well-known industrial psychologist who I later studied in graduate school), and Antioch’s reputation as a leader in liberal arts education.  My father was very impressed.  Despite Ferdie Davis’ warning, I applied in December to two colleges, the Northern Michigan School of Mining and Technology and Antioch. I was relieved though still anxious when I learned I’d been accepted to both.


Mr. Taylor thought that I should go to Houghton, and my mother leaned that way too.  My dad was undecided.  My parents talked further with the Antioch alumnus.  My mother wanted to know about the social scene at Antioch and how active fraternities and sororities were on campus.  Antioch, of course, had never allowed any sort of Greek system on campus.  I suspect that my mother so annoyed the Antioch grad that he wound up telling her that everybody on campus belonged to fraternities or sororities.  Morever, he said, every weekend Antioch held formal dress balls at which the girls wore floor-length gowns and the boys dressed in tuxedos.  He was sure I would fit in perfectly.


My mother was thrilled, and both my parents agreed that Antioch was for me.  My mom wanted to take me to Charlie Goldberg’s Men’s Store to get outfitted for a tuxedo, but I couldn’t imagine it.  I asked her to let me go and start school; then, if I definitely needed a tuxedo, I would get one over Xmas vacation.  She was a little reluctant, but she did say o.k.


My Uncle Ralph was driving down to southern Ohio that September, and he took me with him and dropped me off.  Antioch, of course, bore no resemblance whatsoever to the picture that my parents had constructed – in fact, it was the exact antithesis.  The standard attire for guys was jeans, T-shirts, sandals, and beards.  The girls threw out most of the fancy clothes that they had brought from Philadelphia or New York and replaced them with black or purple thrift shop purchases.  The only thing that approximated formal balls was barefoot Jewish folk dancing on Friday nights on the patio outside Main Hall.  My staunchly Republican parents would have been in a state of shock if confronted with Antioch’s leftwing leanings.  Self-professed Democrats were looked down upon as mealy-mouthed, and the more pertinent question was whether one leaned toward socialism or communism.  With my limited Menominee High background, I had never heard of Karl Marx, and (this is literally true) I thought that socialism was a type of venereal disease.  I was the first student to ever enter Antioch from Menominee and probably from the U.P.  My initial roommate, Les Sulzberg, had attended Bronx Science, one of the premier academic high schools in the country.  My first good friend, Bob Phillipoff, had gone to a progressive high school in Greenwich Village.  Many of my hallmates were from New York/New Jersey or other major metropolitan areas, came from liberal families, and were so far more knowledgeable and sophisticated than I that I soon decided I had no chance of ever catching up.  Needless to say, I experienced a major dose of culture shock during that turbulent first year, and I barely survived it.  Ferdie Davis wasn’t too far off base.







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