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Friday, July 3, 2015

Harvard of the Midwest

(In 1959, anti-war protesting was introduced to Grinnell College in Iowa, courtesy of a freshman from Long Island, New York who had no idea of the fuss it would create.  Following is an excerpt from my memoir, "A Beginner's Life," new from Full Court Press.)

Grinnell in 1959 was one of the top-ranked small liberal arts colleges in the country, and my high-school guidance counselor told me not to apply, as I’d never get in with my erratic grades.  I applied anyway, and to my surprise, they treated me like a prime prospect.  A wealthy alumnus invited me for an interview in his office at Time Inc.  A few days later I got a note from him, saying I was definitely “admissible.” 
I had my doubts about the place, based on the cover of the catalog, which showed a clean-cut fellow in a letter sweater sitting under a tree.  But my first choice was Oberlin, and they put me on the waiting list, so I decided to take the invitation from Iowa.  A few months later I crossed the Mississippi River on the Rock Island Railroad, with a carload of easterners bound for Grinnell.    
We didn’t know it but we were pioneers, the vanguard of a latter-day migration engineered by the ambitious president of Grinnell, Howard Bowen.  Without announcing it, he had set out to transform Grinnell from a prestigious regional school – the “Harvard of the Midwest,” they liked to call it – to one with a national reputation.   

That didn’t sit too well with some of the Midwesterners, who regarded “eastern intellectuals” with suspicion.  The student establishment at Grinnell was composed of solid citizens from a world roughly bordered by Ohio to the east, Omaha to the west, Minnesota and Missouri north and south.  They were busy turning themselves into lawyers, bankers, doctors, ministers, politicians, insurance executives, schoolteachers and mothers of the next great generation of respectability. 
At this Harvard of the Midwest, practical knowledge was prized – economics was the favored major for men – but original thinking was considered extra-curricular.  Artists and writers were tolerated, but only as a fringe group.  Political radicals were kept on a reservation, a tumbledown rooming house off-campus called Bloom House.  There were only about a dozen of them.   Even farther off-campus, in a room of his own, lived a leering, cackling satirist, a New Yorker named Guy Gravenson, who made fun of everyone in his mimeographed newspaper, the Grinnellian Rebellion.  He called the school the “Halfheart of the Midbest.” 
Enter then into this scene our wagon train of pioneers -- unabashed artists and activists, shady entrepreneurs, Brooklyn Dodger fans, suburban girls with nails, a Park Avenue debutante, and a folksinger with a $12 guitar.  That was me.  I knew three chords in four keys, and could play most of the songs from two albums by Pete Seeger’s group, the Weavers, plus a few selections from “The People’s Songbook,” a gift from one of my left-wing comrades.   
It wasn’t long before my guitar got me into trouble, with a stunt that was the college equivalent of mooning the police – picketing the ROTC Ball.  ROTC was the Reserve Officers Training Corps, which offered U.S. military training, in uniform, to college students.  About ten to twenty percent of the male students participated, for reasons I didn’t understand.  I thought they were ridiculous, marching around the football field and going to class in their buttoned-up grays.  So when I heard they were having a formal Military Ball in the gym, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to make fun of them, and call attention to myself.  I proposed to a few friends that we stage a Pacifist’s Ball on the lawn outside the gym, in scruffy dress and with my guitar for a band.  In my view this was strictly for laughs, but when the Bloom House crowd got wind of it, they joined the plan and it took on a more serious intent.  This was to be a protest -- probably the first of its kind at Grinnell. 
On the night of the ball about twenty-five people gathered at Bloom House, and we made our way over to Darby Gym with picket signs saying “Ban the Bomb,” “Let’s Get War Out of Education.” etc.  We paraded in a ring, and I kept them singing a half-dozen anti-war songs.  “Down by the Riverside” was the fast rousing one, and “Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye” a mournful dirge. 
I expected this scene to be a minor annoyance or less to the ROTC revelers, but I was wrong.  The reaction started with raised eyebrows from the dressed-up arrivals, and built to a big buzz inside the gym, until we became the centerpiece of the occasion.  An hour into the dance, a little student lieutenant came out and stood at attention in the middle of our circle, with a prepared statement:
I whacked my guitar louder and went into another round of “Down by the Riverside.”                        
                       “I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield
                        Down by the riverside,
                        And stud-eee War No More!”  
A few minutes later a drunken middle-aged officer came out and mocked us as “fags and philosophy majors.”  I danced a little circle around him, whaling my guitar even louder. 
Only one couple turned back at the sight of our picket line.  It was my roommate, Larry Smucker, a Mennonite from Ohio, who remembered his pacifist roots and took his date for a malted milk at the student union instead.   There, he reported, a distinguished upperclassman stormed into the room, shouting,
"Do you know what those so-called intellectuals are doing??"
As the night went on a crowd built up outside the gym, and the focus turned from our picket line to angry debates among the spectators.  The student establishment was outraged, but some of the faculty turned out to support us, and keep them from breaking our picket signs over our heads.  I saw my English professor quieting a beet-faced sophomore, explaining that just because the protesters disagreed with his values didn’t mean we were all perverts. 
When the ball ended, the ROTC cadets and their dates emerged from the gym with a new plan of attack.  They all held hands and began singing “God Bless America,” trying to drown out our protest songs.

 -- Join ‘em! cried one of the Bloom House gang.

So we all sang “God Bless America.”  For me, it was the finishing touch to a perfect evening.  For Grinnell, it was a dress rehearsal for the culture wars that were to split the campus for the next ten years...  

Copyright 2015 by Tom Phillips

Kirkus Reviews calls "A Beginner's Life" an "entertaining, thoughtful memoir .... provides insight on living an authentic life."   

(To order the book, click here)