It was the biggest room I had ever seen. A dozen basketball courts would fit beneath the high, beamed ceiling supported by Corinthian columns. Rows of tilted drafting tables stretched across the parquet floor. Signs like those at political conventions identified tables for classes such as English 401, History 505, Phys Ed, Entomology 703—whatever that was.
Clutching my bulging envelope of Class Registration Instructions, I approached the English 401 table where a tall woman with stringy, blonde hair barked, “Fee card number?” without looking up. I dug out the perforated IBM card and read the long number. She wrote the digits as I said them and checked a box on the graph spread before her. I never saw if she had blue eyes.
“Denny Hall, Room 514, noon, M-W-F. You’ll get a curriculum schedule in the mail.” I envisioned lights flashing as OSU’s mainframe computer recorded my registration. Then I searched for the History of Western Civilization 201 table.
Maybe Percy was right when he wagged his finger in front of my face and told me, “You’re just a number at Ohio State, one of 30,000 students in a giant diploma machine.” We were seniors at St. Charles and he was accepted early at Washington and Lee, a small liberal arts school in Virginia. “You’ll have classes with five hundred students in big auditoriums and never even meet your professors. My parents have already introduced me to some of the faculty at W&L who taught them twenty-five years ago.”
“Campus is only fifteen minutes from home, and…” I began, but he cut me off with a look of alarm.
“You’re going to live at home? You’ll miss out on the authentic college experience. I’m pledging my Dad’s fraternity, Sigma Nu. He says those four years at W&L were the best years of his life. His fraternity brothers are still some of his best friends. Great house parties. That’s where he and Mom met. She’s a Chi Omega.”
I shrugged and said, “Well, I’ve always been a Buckeye fan so I’ll be rooting for the Scarlett and Gray from the student section in the fall.”
“You and 80,000 others at that gargantuan stadium. Ohio State is a football factory. The games at W&L are about having fun, not winning. First drink before the game, a few swigs from a flask at half time, and then a bus to a a big party off campus,” Percy said with growing enthusiasm.
He was one of many in my class applying to small schools like John Carroll, Loyola, and Xavier. My best friend, Bob Dilenschneider, and a few others were going to Notre Dame. They debated in a friendly way about the merits of their chosen colleges. Quite a few of us were destined for Ohio State, but we couldn’t boast about joining the hordes attending the local school where anyone with a high school diploma was automatically accepted and tuition was $300 per year.
* * * * * *
My first OSU class was in an auditorium. Political Science Professor David Kettler stepped behind a lectern on the stage. I could see a black beard and red tie, but not much else from my seat near the back of the hall. After identifying himself over a scratchy microphone, he introduced several teaching assistants who would meet with us on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in classrooms. A practiced apology followed about the impossibility of questions in the auditorium, but told us to save them for our TA. I guessed they would be graduate students absorbed with their own courses, theses, and dissertations. I sighed and recalled Percy’s smug assessment of OSU. Maybe Percy was right.
After class I went to the Student Union until my next class two hours later. I heard my name as I balanced a tray with a coffee cup and a doughnut in the cafeteria. It was Ralph Sussi, a former co-worker at Kroger’s. He introduced me to Don Poole and Tony Cordiano, guys I didn’t know, but both from my neighborhood. We soon identified mutual friends. Tony said, “Welcome to the townie’s table. We’re members of the GDI fraternity, God Damned Independents,” Tony proclaimed. We own this table.”
That table became my home base for coffee, sports, and politics. In a Republican state, we were all Democrats and fans of Kennedy’s Peace Corps, Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and Senator William Fulbright’s questions about the Vietnam War. We competed on clever ways to skewer Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.
On the next day, I found the room where our section of Dr. Kettler’s class met. The teaching assistant, Don Dinson, began by telling us that Mr. Dinson was his dad, and we should call him Don. He recapped the key topics from previous day’s lecture, called for questions, and provided background on the points made by the professor. The woman next to me said, “He’s great! Why bother with Kettler when we get it all here?” A knot of students would gather round him after class, and I usually stayed for Don’s additional tidbits as well.
One of the women in these extra curricular discussions was an outspoken leftist from Cleveland with flaming red hair cascading over her shoulders. Back at the Student Union, I walked with her to the Music Room where she regularly read and studied with classical music muting conversations. We became friends, and I soon learned she was a lesbian. Later she revealed her membership in the Communist Party of America. Both were firsts for me. I was shocked but also pleased with my new sophistication.
The Music Room became a refuge for me and my old friend Tim Dempsey. We came to know the students there, mostly philosophy, math, and physics majors. Several of the regulars were from New York City and certainly left of center politically. I heard impassioned arguments between Trotskyites and New Leftists, adding to my new-found sophistication.
One professor often cited in those arguments was Meno Lovenstein who taught a course entitled Capitalism, Socialism, and the American Economy. He was quoted by both sides. The time of his class fit into my schedule so I enrolled in the next quarter along with some other Music Room debaters.
Meno, as Dr. Lovenstein was known, arrived at the first class with an armful of books. A short, balding man in a suit and tie, he began by saying, “I’m begging you to forget everything you’ve ever been told about capitalism and socialism. Otherwise you might not learn anything in this class.” Then he dropped to his knees, spread his hands, and repeated his plea. The stunned students were silent.
Meno jumped to his feet and said, “Tabula rosa? That means blank slate for those who didn’t take Latin.” Then he held up the first of his books, The Wealth of Nations. “Did you know that Adam Smith, the founding father of capitalism, was a Professor of Moral Philosophy and concerned with heaven and hell, sin and salvation? Yet he famously wrote that ‘an invisible hand’ guides individuals and businesses to a moral society through economic self-interest. We’ll read his 1775 book, the bible of capitalism.”
“Do you know the Marx Brothers? Surely you know Groucho Marx? We’re going to read their great-grandfather’s pamphlet, The Communist Manifesto. Actually Groucho may not be related to Karl Marx. I made that up, but Karl was the first Marxist.”
He paced back and forth across the front of the room, emphatically extolling the virtues of reading these seminal documents, and stopped, turned to the class and said, “This is economics, not history. We’ll ask what Smith and Marx would say about President Kennedy’s proposal to cut taxes to stimulate the economy. Your congressional representatives will vote on this. I hope they took an economics course like this one.”
Meno couldn’t resist humorous asides that he concluded with a hearty, infectious laugh. He spoke rapidly as if trying to keep up with the ideas and associations racing through his mind that included literary allusions.
When a student in a buttoned-down, dress shirt made the argument that most people would waste money from Kennedy’s tax cuts rather than invest in the economy, Lowenstein’s mouth opened in mock horror and said, “How could a fine young man like you be so cynical? Have you read Houseman’s poems about the hopes and dreams of youth in A Shropshire Lad? When the “lad” in our class shook his head, Meno assigned him to go to the library and read those poems. When the chastised student nodded meekly and sat down, Lovenstein insisted that he go to the library immediately and shooed him out of the classroom.
We were assigned to read articles and editorials in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal for and against the tax cut. Meno moderated some lively discussions but never took a position. He said the tax cut was another of the compromises in American history that made the American economy a mix of capitalism and socialism.
Meno cited Dr. Kronke’s Survey of Modern History class on several occasions, so I signed up in the next quarter. The course began in the 18th century with the Enlightenment and usually ended with World War II, but the professor added a lecture on the 1958 Hungarian uprising. He was a student rebel behind barricades of paving stones, tires and debris when the Russian tanks rolled into Budapest to crush the revolution. As an immigrant to America, he passionately admonished us not to take our freedoms for granted.
One day, Professor Kronke announced that we would convene at Weigel Hall for our next class. A tall woman in a long white gown stood next to a grand piano when we arrived. Professor Kronke beamed as he introduced his wife, Madame Kronke, a concert pianist trained at the Royal Conservatory in Budapest. After a brief outline of government, art, and philosophy in the 1700s, Madame played selections from Hayden and Mozart, who dominated the century. Then he summarized trends after the French Revolution, and we heard the dramatic music of Schubert and Beethoven. Professor said history should convey how it felt to be alive in the past and thanked his wife for helping the class experience the evolving music of the 18th century. Spontaneously, we all stood and applauded while she bowed elegantly beside the piano.
Precisely on the hour, Professor Hans Spieker walked unsteadily to the front of the large classroom on the first day of his course on the History of Science. It was recommended by several friends, but I wondered if it was a good choice. Tall and gaunt with thinning gray hair and a pointed waxed mustache, Dr. Spieker’s voice was clear and firm. “This is the last class I’ll teach. I’m retiring at the end of spring quarter, but I have at least one more book to write on how science has made homo sapiens the dominant species on this planet. By the way, I’m not sure that’s a good thing.”
After few paragraphs about the Sumerians and the Egyptians, he spoke at length of Aristotle’s influence on scientific beliefs until the Enlightenment, Lucretius’s anticipation of molecules, and Galen’s long-held theory that four humors dictated human health. His lectures were polished gems. The gradual replacement of Aristotle’s opinions and religious dogma with findings from experimentation and the scientific method was conveyed with biographies of great scientists. He held our attention as we followed him through the centuries highlighting the contributions of DaVinci and Galileo, Newton and Darwin, and finally Einstein.
On the last day of class, a teaching assistant returned our final exams while Dr. Spieker commented on the role of science in the modern world and the importance of scientific literacy for all citizens. Anticipating early dismissal on a sunny spring day, we were ready to bolt for the door.
The hallway door flung open and a sheet cake with lighted candles rolled in on a cart. Several men and women followed. One marched to Dr. Spieker and announced, “A celebration in your honor, Professor. For your 43 years of teaching, writing, and inspiring generations. We are just the most recent young people who have been fortunate to be your teaching assistants. Thank you.” Someone began clapping, and soon we rose in a standing ovation.
Dr. Spieker wiped his eye and tried to compose himself, but could barely croak “Thank you.” The cake was cut into squares. Students came forward to express their appreciation to the venerable professor who had regained his composure and responded with his usual reserved dignity.
* * * * *
A week after we both became college graduates, Bob Dilenschneider and I met for beers at the campus bar, the Varsity Club. He had just returned from Notre Dame. We were catching up when our old classmate Percy walked by. Bob called to him, and he wheeled around and thrust forth his hand. We responded with the usual handshakes and wan smiles.
“Join us,’ Bob said as he made room in our booth. “What’re you doing now, Percy?”
“Just got home from W&L. How are you guys? Graduates?” he asked. Bob responded with a thumbs up.
“Me, too,” he said flatly. “I was planning to go to law school, but I blew the LSAT. I still can’t believe it.”
“I’ve heard it’s a bear,” I said.
“Yeah, it’s pretty damn tough. I’m going to get a Master’s at Ohio State and take it again next year.”
“Really? OSU is very different from Washington and Lee. Are you ready for a big university?” I asked.
“Not really, but I’m pumped about football games in the horseshoe,” he replied.
As Percy walked away, Bob said, “Percy’s annoying. What an elitist!”
I added, “Also an asshole.