Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Stopping By Antioch: A Trip Back In Time
Recently Katja and I took an overnight camping trip to Yellow Springs, and we spent some time there walking around the campus of our alma mater, Antioch College. We visit Antioch every now and then, and we’re always filled with nostalgia. Katja and I were students at Antioch from 1955 to 1960, a time period that’s often viewed as part of the institution’s “golden age.” Along with Oberlin, Reed, Bard, and a few others, Antioch was widely regarded as one of the most innovative liberal arts colleges in the nation. It was also known as a bastion of left-wing politics and was soon to become a center for student activism and the counterculture revolution in the 1960’s. Having grown up in a staunch Republican family in a small Upper Peninsula Michigan town, it was a transformational experience for me. Intellectually exciting, sometimes mind-blowing, confusing, engaging, challenging. It’s nearly five and a half decades since we graduated from Antioch, and I still have a firm sense of identity as an “Antiochian”.
Main Hall is the college’s administration building and constitutes its iconic visual image. Along with the North and South Hall dorms, it’s one of Antioch’s three original buildings. The college was founded in 1852. It was the first coed college in the nation to offer the same educational opportunities to women and men and the first to appoint a woman professor to its faculty. Its first president was Horace Mann, an abolitionist and educational reformer who was known for founding the American public school system. Mann gave Antioch its college motto: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”
When I arrived in 1955, South Hall was the men’s freshmen dorm. I was assigned to Viking Hall, located on the west half of the third floor. My classmates were mainly from big cities, mainly on the east coast. My freshman roommates, Les S., Bob P., and Ted R., were from New York and greater Chicago. The campus was filled with bright and gifted students. Our Viking Hall bunch came to be the most cohesive group of which I’ve ever been a part. Members ate their meals together at the cafeteria, drank 3.2 beer at a local tavern, played pranks in the dorm, talked philosophy and politics, and stayed up all hours of the night playing poker for cafeteria meal tickets. As the end of our first year approached we swore that we would reconvene for a twenty-fifth reunion, but, alas, that never happened.
North Hall, the freshmen women’s dorm, was right across the quadrangle. Katja lived on one of the floors there. I’d seen her from a distance on the first day that we’d arrived on campus and fell in love at first sight, but I didn’t possess the courage to actually speak to her. When I walked into a common room area in North Hall one evening that first year, Katja was alone there, playing a mournful song on the piano. I listened for a moment, then passed on through. It would be a year and a half before we met through mutual friends while we were on coop jobs in Madison and Milwaukee.
The Science Building
My high school math teacher had strongly urged me to become an engineer, and I started Antioch as an engineering major. That was a major mistake. I shirked my studies in calculus, had trouble working the instruments in my surveying class, and stopped attending Engineering Mechanics because it was at 8 a.m., an impossible time for a late night poker player. Worst of all, I mixed the wrong chemicals together in my Organic Chemistry class, and a mixture containing sulfuric acid exploded and scalded the corneas of both my eyes.
I spent ten days in the infirmary after my chemistry accident. The blisters eventually peeled off my eyes, and, much to everyone’s relief, my vision was still intact.
Horace Mann Hall
I’d enjoyed creative writing throughout high school and, after my engineering fiasco, I declared Literature as my new major. Faculty offices and classrooms were in Horace Mann Hall. My teachers included Nolan Miller, Judson Jerome, and Bob Maurer. Nolan Miller had coined the phrase “beat generation” in one of his novels. I enjoyed his fiction writing courses the best, but, after submitting 27 short stories to various pulp magazines for publication and getting 27 rejection form letters, I began rethinking my career choice. Professor Jerome, a nationally prominent poet, despaired the lack of social and financial support for the literary arts in our society and suggested that Psychology or Sociology would be better majors for aspiring writers. I followed his advice and promptly changed my major to Psychology, a decision that would shape my adult life and career. My psychology profs included Clarence Leuba (a post-Watsonian behaviorist), Bill John (a cognitive social psychologist from Harvard), and Erling Eng (who drew from Jungian psychoanalysis, Zen Buddhism, and experiential learning techniques). I became an Eng groupie.
The Antioch Library
Antioch’s library, like the rest of the campus, operated on an honor system where you checked out your own books. I spent a lot of time browsing in the stacks and doing homework at the library’s tables. One of my best Viking Hall friends liked to read the newspaper there. He’d cut a small hole in the center of the paper so that he could look unobtrusively at the girls walking by.
The College Gym
The Gym was close to South Hall, and I spent a lot of time there during my freshman year. Physical Education was required of first-year-students, and I took tennis, basketball, and boxing (in the latter, most of my opponents were 3 or 4 inches taller and 40 pounds heavier). Antioch didn’t have any intercollegiate varsity sports but instead supported an active intramural system. Viking Hall sponsored touch football and basketball teams. I and Bob P. were the shooting guards on our basketball team, and we were runners-up for the intramural championship.
In my third year I lived in Greywood Hall, a small dorm on the edge of campus. I shared a room with my Viking Hall friend John N. and an acquaintance from California whose hobby was making keys. The grinding of the key machine was difficult to study by, but we eventually got used to it. Most nights John and I would go out at midnight to the 68 drive-in at the north edge of town and enjoy pie and a cup of coffee.
I lived in Corry Hall for a couple of years, including 1958-59 when Katja was in France and Austria on a year abroad program. The upperclass hall members had less to do with one another than had been the case in my freshman year. In my fourth year I was a freshman hall advisor in Corry. I was too quiet and shy for the role and did a half-baked job.
Birch Hall, the main upperclass women’s dorm, was designed by renowned architect Eero Saarinen and constructed in 1943. After she came back from Europe, Katja lived here with her best friend, Judy F. Unlike most schools in the 1950’s, men and women were welcome to hang out in one another’s dorm rooms until curfew time at 10 p.m. on weekdays or midnight on weekends, so I was a regular visitor to Birch Hall.
When we arrived at Antioch in 1955 the college cafeteria was housed in a pair of quonset huts that had been built on campus during World War II for military purposes. The new student union building was completed during our third year, and it housed the cafeteria, bookstore, coffee shop (C-shop, a popular evening hangout), student government offices, and the Antioch News Record. Sitting on the Student Union steps and shooting the breeze was a favorite pastime.
The Antioch Inn occupied the west end of the Student Union Building. It offered a restaurant geared to adult visitors to the campus and several hotel rooms upstairs. Katja worked as a waitress in the restaurant, and sometimes my first-year roommate Ted R. and I would have supper there, getting deluxe service. Katja and I got married at Antioch after our graduation in 1960, and our parents and siblings (Steve, Peter, Vicki, Ami, David) stayed at the Antioch Inn. We had our wedding reception there in a big upstairs room.
When we drove into Yellow Springs on our recent trip, Katja remarked that we’d spent the most significant years of our lives at Antioch. I’d have to agree. My memories are of phenomenal friends, errant ways (e.g., smoking, drinking too much beer), co-oping in New York City and San Francisco, existentialism, psychoanalysis, Kerouac and Ferlinghetti, Com’s Tavern, late night intellectual conversations, romance, jazz, anti-conformity of all sorts. I made my long-term career choice while at Antioch (social psychology), found and married my life partner, and gained credentials for admission to graduate study at the University of Michigan. We even chose to live in Cincinnati years later partly because of its proximity to Antioch and Yellow Springs. I had some of my most rewarding life experiences at Antioch, as well as some of my most personally difficult and painful experiences. I did some of the stupidest things in my life there, and some of the most adventurous. A lot of these memories came back into mind during our visit. We’ll have to go back again soon.