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Threads: Leaving Oberlin College

Letters written by me, updated December 2001
to include the period May 1969-January 1972

More About Threads



Background:  When I graduated from Oberlin College in 1969, I was the station director at student radio station WOBC.  "Igor" was the "computerized" voice of our homebuilt automation system, which played recorded music during the overnight hours.  I recorded Igor's announcements by speaking in a monotone into a telephone, then playing back the tape about 25% faster.  "This is Igor your auto mated dee jay.  Whoopee do."

After graduating as a physics major, I was planning to continue to Syracuse University to get a master's degree in radio and television.

 
Monday, May 26, 1969

As Chairman Louie used to say, "Freeee!  Freeee!"  I took my one and only final exam this morning, and that completes my academic work at Oberlin.  No more worries like that for three months.  I don't even really care what I got on the final; I passed it all right, and that's all that matters.  Done with physics!

Saturday, May 31, 1969

During commencement week here, I really don't have that much to do other than write letters.

The alumni have arrived.  There are more alumni (and families) on campus now than students, since all sorts of classes are having their reunions.  They're being housed in vacated dorm rooms and fed at Hi-C dining halls.

Strangely enough, the quality of the food served by Hi-C has gotten much better since about Tuesday.  Submarine sandwiches with three or four layers of lunchmeat instead of just one, excellent roast beef, well-cooked vegetables — things that we students just aren't used to.  And the waiters and waitresses are all wearing big nametags ("Sue" or "Pat" or "Bill") and big smiles.

All this has the effect of introducing a bit of a credibility gap between the parents and the seniors, who have been complaining about the food in their letters home for four years now.

Tomorrow is the Baccalaureate service.  And on Monday, of course, is Commencement itself.

 

 

 

I took these
photos at the
1968 ceremonies.
The Honorary
Marshall was
Dortha Bailey
Doolittle.

 

For both ceremonies we go through what's called the "academic procession."  All the seniors and a few assorted other people line up in front of King and Peters.  Then they begin marching two-by-two, led by an Honorary Marshall from the fifty-year class (apparently the most athletic 72-year-old that the authorities can dig up), first through the Arch and then around about a third of Tappan Square.

When the Marshall and her escort arrive at the steps of the outdoor commencement platform, the Marshall turns to her escort and says, "Shouldn't President Carr go in first?"  "Yes," says the escort, "but he's all the way back at the end of the line."

By this time the line has stopped.  A double row of mortarboards stretches all the way back to the Arch, and there stands the President with some other officials.  The Marshall says, "I guess we'll just have to go back and get him," so she and her escort turn around and start walking back down the line.

Of course, there's no room for them to walk, since the seniors are standing side-by-side in twos; so as the Marshall and escort approach, the pairs of seniors split up and move away from each other to form an eight-foot-wide lane through which the Marshall and escort can walk.

When they reach the end of the line, the President joins them and starts walking back through this lane toward the front of the line, while behind him the other officials fall in and then the seniors who were at the back of the line.  The seniors at the back of the lane fall in when the end of the line reaches them, reforming their pairs and becoming themselves the end of the line and walking through the lane.  So the whole line as originally constituted reverses itself.

Got that?  I'm not sure I do, even though I've seen it twice last year; but it's mainly follow-the-leader, so things should work out somehow.

We were warned that the marshals of the procession would not allow a student to march if he was improperly dressed.  There were some cries from the activists to hold a vote on whether caps and gowns should be worn at all, but that movement fizzled out; however, the authorities did decide that they would overlook it if the men were not wearing jackets under their gowns.  That was a big relief, since we'll be sitting for a couple of hours in the sun (unless it rains, in which case we'll be sitting not in the rain but in the chapel).

 

Here are several additional snapshots that I took during the 1968 commencement exercises and added to this website in 2014.

 

On Sunday, the dignitaries entered Finney Chapel for the Baccalaureate service.

 

 

The next day, the academic proecssion originated at Finney ...

 

 

... and proceeded half a block south on Professor Street before making a left turn to pass through the Memorial Arch.

 

 

 


Performers from the Conservatory provided the music for the march.

 

 

 

 

Seen here from the windows of the King Building across the street, the graduates in their black caps and gowns filled the center section of seats in front of the stage (on the left).

 

 

 

 

Over more than four decades, I’ve witnessed several subsequent  Oberlin commencement processions.  The links below will take you to the photos.  Also, this one leads to a 1965 speech.

1975

2003

2008

2009

 
Tuesday, June 10, 1969

I'm an aumnus!  No, I take that back; I'm an alumnus.  (Stupid typewriter.)

The commencement was held in the chapel.  That was because it was raining on June 2, at times very heavily, so Tappan Square had to be eschewed in favor of Finney.  Luckily it was not raining when we seniors marched from our assembly point, Warner Gym, to the chapel, so we didn't have to sit through the ceremony in wet caps and gowns.

At the baccalaureate service, the "sermon" was given by the missionary father of one of the seniors and was not very good.  But Monday's commencement address by the mayor of Gary was about the best I've ever heard.  He seemed to understand the student discontent rather well, and his basic message was that he couldn't say what commencement speakers traditionally say ("the world lies before you, full of glorious opportunity") because he couldn't be that optimistic.  Rather, he gave us a challenge by telling how the world needs our efforts to make it livable.

President Carr is something else again.  It finally sank through to me after four years what a terrible speechmaker he really is.  He also had to read some — what would you call them? epitaphs? — just prior to awarding each honorary degree.  Kurt TeKolste, who, alphabetical, was sitting next to me, said he thought Igor could have done a better job.

Ah, WOBC!  Without thee, my life at Oberlin would have been unimaginably dull and tiresome.  Thou wert my true love at Oberlin, not any woman.  Thou hast changed my life, set me in a new direction, turned a hobby into a career.  Hail to thee, WOBC!

All right, what brought that on?  Somebody mentioned Igor, I guess.  But what I'm getting at is a strange feeling I had when leaving the station for the last time as an undergraduate, Sunday night June 1.

It didn't give me any particular pangs to say goodbye to you (I knew I'd be writing you and hopefully seeing you again).  I didn't get emotional at all about seeing any of my other Oberlin acquaintances for the last time, including all those who worked at the station.  But I was very sad to leave WOBC!  An inanimate thing, an organization, and it's harder for me to say goodbye to it than to all the people I knew.

The reason, I think, is that WOBC is all the people I knew and then some.  The great majority of my friends have some connection with the station; if they don't work there, they listen at least.  (How'd I slip back into the present tense?)  And because of the things I can do — could do — at WOBC, I'm able to interact with them much more easily than I could without this common interest to share.

Without WOBC, I never would have had anything to do with such diverse people as Randy Bongarten, Tom Witheridge, Shira Rosan, Ted Gest, or Greg Fulkerson.  Nor would I have had the personal-accomplishment pleasure of doing an Oberlin Digest or a pop show or a plug cart and having it praised by people whose judgment on such things I respect.  WOBC is the summation of all of this, the source of the greater part of my happiness at Oberlin.

As for persons, they will pass away; but the Oberlin College Student Network endureth forever.

 

Thursday, June 26, 1969

The eleven-month M.S. course at Syracuse will be followed by a job, and eventually I'll have to start calling someplace else home.  I'll deal with the problem of leaving home when I come to it, though.  Right now, I'm still getting over leaving WOBC.

It's strange that saying goodbye to people at Oberlin whom I'll never see again didn't bother me, but I did get a little choked up about leaving the radio station.

One explanation is that the station is somehow the summation of the people I've known; almost all my friends have some connection with WOBC, the majority of them working there and the rest either listening at one time or another, or making banners for the station, or something.  And every time one set of friends would leave, through graduation or loss of interest, another set would be right there to take their place.  So the station was a permanent body of friends to me, the individual members of that body being less than permanent.

A second explanation is that I can always find other people in my later life, but I realize that I'll probably never find another station quite like this one.  Future stations with which I'm associated will be businesses, not playthings, and they won't be fun in the same way that WOBC was fun.

Oh, well.  When I left high school to go to college I had the same feeling that conditions were never going to be as good as they had been — there were as many students at Oberlin as there were people of all descriptions in Richwood, and I felt I'd just be an anonymous bookworm holed up in a corner someplace.  Things didn't turn out as boring as I feared then, so I imagine I'll get along all right when I get out in the Real World at last.

 

Sunday, February 8, 1970

When I was a freshman in Burton, some of the other dorm residents wrote a letter to one of the Ivy League colleges inquiring about the possibilities of transferring there, and signed it "Burton Hall."  Sure enough, they got a "Dear Mr. Hall" letter back.  The gist of the letter was that the Eastern school was too crowded at present for Burton Hall to transfer there.

Ah, my freshman days at Burton!  My room was in the third-floor center section, facing Kettering.  We had a dorm Open House in late November (1965).

Section 3 Center maintained a friendly rivalry with the guys living above us in the top-floor “penthouse.”  We refused to accept their superiority.  We vowed to swallow them whole and have them for lunch.

Bessel Kok, another from Section 3C, is a talented cartoonist, I recalled in a Wolfbook annotation.  “For our open house, he drew a poster showing a determined pill chasing a terrified pill down the alimentary canal, since that was the general idea of our section’s theme.”

This isn't Bessel's artwork, but you get the idea.

 

The fourth-floor section above us blacked out parts of their windows with cardboard, so that the nine dormer windows spelled out PENTHOUSE when the rooms behind them had their lights on.

A nice ad for the fourth floor, but some of us third-center people resented it, so they secretly prepared cardboard for our nine windows which spelled out, if the lights were left off in three of the rooms, EATS IT.

At the start of the open-house night we stationed people at each room's light switch and a conductor in the hall calling out the letters.  [My room remained dark, but I was assigned to operate the switch at the door of my neighbor's room, the E.]  As visitors approached Burton they saw spelled out in lights:


A reconstruction of the scene, animated in 2010

They made us stop before Mrs. Smith, housemother of Dascomb, arrived, however.  And a friendly truce was arranged.  A couple of weeks later for the Christmas season, both sections co-operated for a regular display every evening.  The lights in our eighteen rooms spelled out a greeting for everyone in the Men's Quad:


Another 2010 reconstruction.  My room was the C.

 

Tuesday, March 17, 1970

Well, WOBC must be on the air.  I've had no definite information one way or the other from anybody; the only Oberlin person who's written since January is Bob Steyer, who wrote to thank me for the information I'd sent him on what it's like here at Syracuse and to tell me that, on the basis of that information, he was going to go to Northwestern.

 

Sunday, January 9, 1972

So you're practicing being an eighth-grade math teacher.  I have a friend from high school who was a seventh-grade math teacher; he didn't like it very well, and now he's a high-school chemistry and physics teacher.

Part of the difference was the neighborhoods.  His junior-high teaching job was in a suburb near Cleveland, and the kids were sort of the adolescent spoiled brat type, I gather; wouldn't keep quiet in class.  Now he's teaching at a rural high school near Wooster, Ohio, and there the kids seem much more industrious and eager to do the work.

I imagine that no matter where you are, though, teaching junior-high math can be frustrating.  You spend a week teaching the students something they're supposed to know already, like how to add fractions with dissimilar denominators — something that seems ridiculously simple to you — and then you give them a test on it and half of them flunk.  Oh, well.

I agree with your comment about your sister Martha and her husband, about how their present jobs seem menial.  "But they're happy," you add.

I recall the the first semester of my senior year at Oberlin, when I began to realize that I didn't really want to go on to graduate work in my major, physics.  What I was interested in was radio; but being a disk jockey or a sportscaster seemed so far beneath me.  I was afraid that if I didn't become a research physicist in some big laboratory, I'd be wasting my intelligence.

But I finally decided to do what I wanted to do; and now I'm very happy in what I'm doing.  As a matter of fact, this job takes every bit of whatever intelligence I have.  Running that control room singlehandedly requires an enormous amount of concentration, inventiveness, and presence of mind.  And I'm sure Martha's husband's job does too.  He's probably a better-than-average Friden calculator repairman.  (And she might be an exceptionally efficient McDonald's waitress, too!)

Postscript: A student who graduated 50 years after me wrote "A Final Goodbye to WOBC" on her blog.

 

TBT

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