Old School

Going to Wabash College was a weird choice, but, looking back, the all-male school’s outmoded traditions gave me something to cling to when I needed it most.

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Iremember the dumb stuff, mostly.

The homecoming queen wore a tiara and a five-o’clock shadow. Clots of rouge, globs of mascara, and a fat bead of lipstick ran in the mid-autumn sun. He fussed with his bodice and momentarily lost one of his lopsided breasts (water balloons that swam in a second-hand bra), then fell into a playful (and dry) curtsy. The save drew hoots and cheers from the stands, where students, alums, and parents hailed the football game’s halftime entertainment. The queen and his similarly dressed freshman court—outfitted with clothing, makeup, and accessories culled from sisters, girlfriends, and mothers—rode on janky cardboard floats from one end of the field to the other. Nothing, aside from the stray water balloon, seemed out of place at all-male Wabash College.

Wabash College, Greased Pole Fight
The Greased Pole Fight was an annual battle between freshman and sophomores at Wabash College. The tradition ended in the late 1960s.

Photo courtesy Wabash College

As I came to learn during that fall of 1990, my first semester at the tiny school of 850, rituals and traditions enjoyed a curious prominence here, and had since 1832, when the school was founded by a group of Presbyterian ministers on the American frontier. While most institutions offered a student life reflective of the times, Wabash basked in one that defied evolution, a cultural Galapagos hidden 50 miles west of Indianapolis. A two-fisted caveman ambience (students of the Roaring Twenties proudly self-identified as “prehistoric”) cohabited with gentility, a dynamic that wrestled for my attention on the leafy 60-acre campus. No girls allowed.

While the homecoming queen debacle won the crown for most likely to leave a mental scar, my freshman year bore witness to at least a dozen other rites that seemed out of place and time. Earlier that same week, I had participated in the school’s annual Chapel Sing. Freshmen, most of whom were pledging fraternities (60 percent of Wabash students go Greek), gathered at the steps of the school’s chapel to croon “Old Wabash,” a tune written in 1901. On repeat. For the good part of an hour, I locked arm-in-arm with my pledge brothers to shout-sing the nation’s longest fight song, a sprawling, purple ditty that tests diaphragm strength, lung capacity, and memory. (Sample line: The honors won by each loyal son, In highest rank shall instate her.) Those who forgot the lyrics ran the risk of being singled out, yanked aside, and restrained as ruby-faced upperclassmen shaved a ‘W’ into their heads.

Such a haircut would have been embarrassing. But from the time I arrived at Wabash in late August until mid-November, I wore a “pot,” a dorky hat that had already stripped me of my ego. The pot was a green beanie made of twill with a scarlet button and a shallow visor. By the decree of upperclassmen, freshmen had worn similar models made of wool since the 1920s. The practice was abandoned as a campus-wide observance in 1968. One fraternity, mine, carried on the tradition.

Custom dictated that the dozen-or-so of us who still wore pots doff the caps when greeting faculty, upperclassmen from our fraternity, and alumni. Large-scale events like homecoming offered a test of our chivalry, memory, and facial recognition. Failing to tip to the proper parties, a grave insult, reflected poorly on freshmen.

The pot looked and felt awkward, but I took comfort in the notion that I shared the experience with hundreds who had come before. More importantly, for me, wearing a beanie on my head took my focus off of what was going on inside it at the time: coming to grips with the suicide of my best friend. The pot was the opposite of a thinking cap; it was a doing cap that required me to engage in dusty rituals that, however ridiculous, brought normalcy to my life—even in the most unusual environment.

As I tried to distinguish professors from parents that Saturday 25 years ago, the homecoming queen and his court milled about near the south end zone. One of his pledge brothers got grabby. The water balloon exploded. No one batted a fake eyelash. And I laughed for what felt like the first time in a long while.

 

Hats, I think, have a weird effect on people. When we wear one, we assume an identity, one that might be borrowed or aspirational or rediscovered. I used to work with a guy who told me that as a kid, he would goad his buddy into sneaking into his dad’s bedroom closet to borrow a rare piece of baseball memorabilia—a game-worn ballcap that once belonged to Willie Mays. The boys would bury their faces into the hat in the hopes of inhaling what lingered of the Hall of Famer’s essence. Then they’d go outside to play ball and take turns wearing The Say Hey Kid’s cap, occasionally breaking to smell what it was like to hit 660 home runs.

My pot, now faded and tattered, carries the faint remnants of sweat and beer. How I muddled from my friend’s death in my senior year of high school to this strange object still baffles me. But if I breathe in the bouquet of the red-and-green beanie, I can begin to connect those dots.

I don’t know the clinical term for the burden I carried, but everything appeared lesser and detached.

I have three brothers, but for a period, I had a fourth—a friend named Brad. Here’s what I remember about him. Brad was handsome and athletic but equal parts goofy and gangly—one of our football coaches called him Bambi. He grinned a lot but was prone to bouts of poutiness, especially over girls. He was smart, but naive enough to let us talk him into throwing a party in his backyard, where we pushed a trampoline beneath a basketball goal and for the good part of a Saturday night drank beer, dunked, and threw each other onto the soft muddy lawn and the cheering crowd below. Brad could be shy, but he felt comfortable enough to walk into my house without knocking, grab a plate from our cabinet, and help himself to dinner. He called my mom “Mom,” which for some reason irked me, and it wasn’t unusual for me to return home from a date to find Brad in my basement with one or two of my younger brothers playing video games.

I remember the dumb stuff, mostly.

We talked in meaningless banter, shtick stolen from favorite television shows and movie characters. We made fun of each other, wished we had cooler cars, and complained about girls. That was how we talked out the uncertain transition from boyhood to adulthood—we talked around it. And that inability to be vulnerable is probably why I couldn’t help him when he called one night shortly before his death to say he was feeling down.

On March 11, 1989, Brad pulled into my driveway just before my family sat down to eat dinner. Though he had played in a varsity basketball game earlier that day, the finest one of his career, we shot baskets with one of my little brothers. Brad seemed strangely content. When it was time to eat, he popped inside, grinned, and called my mom “Mom.” But he didn’t take a plate—he had things to do. The sun was going down. Brad drove away. We never saw him again. In the early-morning hours of March 12, he shot and killed himself. I don’t remember much after getting the phone call. I can’t even remember color from that time. Just black. Then gray. More than a year of my life, a smudge, an ellipsis … until Wabash.

 

After graduating from high school, I attended what was then a junior college called Holy Cross in South Bend, Indiana. My original plan was to get an academic makeover and attend Notre Dame. Looking back, I think the subconscious notion was to join something big, grand—something that would make me think beyond myself and the loss of Brad.

The first part of the scheme worked: By December my grades had improved. But the more time I spent at the little school across the highway from “Our Lady,” the more I felt like an uninvited guest, like I didn’t belong anywhere. For the first semester at Holy Cross, which was largely a commuter college, I lived by myself in an off-campus apartment, alone in my head. Two of my cousins were attending Notre Dame and were kind enough to occasionally involve me in their plans. But the guilt I felt over Brad’s death came with a cruel tension. I didn’t want to be alone, but I thought I deserved to be. I sentenced myself to isolation but hoped for a reprieve.

I never really talked to my friends—or my brothers or parents—about the suicide. I didn’t see the point; they looked shell-shocked, too. I attended things but didn’t participate. I dated, but didn’t commit.

I don’t know the clinical term for the burden I carried, but everything appeared lesser and detached. It was like bobbing in waves just off a shoreline. I could see people on the beach having fun, but when I tried to make my way forward to join them, the undertow carried me down, sideways, and back. The waves continued. The water grew deeper. The shore seemed farther.

Wabash College, Chapel Sing
Chapel Sing at Wabash is a test of endurance and style, like ‘The Hunger Games’ meets ‘America’s Got Talent.’

Photo courtesy Wabash College

That year, over Christmas break, I met up with a pair of older friends from high school, Mark and Mike, both of whom had been friends with Brad. They were Wabash guys. Though I’d never been, I remembered receiving the school’s literature while in high school and distinctly recalled the tagline, which had the ring of an Army ad: “Wabash. It won’t be easy. It will be worth it.” My friends gave strange testimony to the mantra. Mark, a former high-school quarterback whose musical tastes ran south from the Rocky soundtracks to Whitesnake, was suddenly talking about Rachmaninoff. Mike, who in the past had spent hours in his basement at home watching Married … with Children reruns, spoke about economist John Maynard Keynes in a tone once reserved for shoe salesman Al Bundy. They referred to their professors like they were drinking buddies (calling one religion professor Yahweh, for God’s sake) and told unhinged stories of friends known only by nicknames: Puddin’, Tricky, Buck, Rip, Rot.

Wabash seemed like a welcome diversion, and, perhaps, a chance to rediscover the same dumb stuff I cherished in my friendship with Brad. So, in February 1990, I drove through a snowstorm for a party at the school. When I arrived, my friends introduced me to the nickname guys and showed me around their fraternity house, which included a Coke machine that held a secret: If you inserted the proper change and pushed on a picture of either Pope John Paul II or one of the college’s past presidents, you got a beer. That night, I wooed girls who were visiting from Ball State, almost burned down the house library doing a flaming shot, and drank several John Paul IIs with guys I had just met.

The following Monday I applied, never thinking twice about the school’s all-male status—something I have given considerable contemplation since.

 

The no-women thing, in retrospect, was a gross oversight, and my whirlwind visit and hasty application to Wabash resembled the lost weekend of a guy who’d gone on a bender, enlisted in the Marines, and woke up with a tattoo of a screaming eagle inked across his back. I had signed up to be shipped off to a faraway land, somewhere that scarcely existed in the modern world.

As an all-male school, Wabash made its home in a cultural no-man’s land, territory occupied by only two other schools: Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia and Morehouse College, a historically black institution in Atlanta. (In contrast, there were 93 colleges for women then.) At one point, the country was filled with single-sex educational opportunities for men, but by the 1970s and with the advent of women’s lib, they had largely disappeared.

Life inside the Wabash bubble was governed by the school’s one and only commandment, the Gentleman’s Rule: The student is expected to conduct himself at all times, both on and off the campus, as a gentleman and responsible citizen. Credit for the original precept goes to George Kendall, a man who served Wabash from 1920 to 1957 in several capacities, including dean. “He did not believe in wet-nursing students,” wrote Byron K. Trippet, a 1930 graduate and Wabash’s ninth president, serving from 1955 to 1965. (Plus, adding wet nurses into the mix didn’t jibe with the school’s men-only mandate.)

I often wonder if I didn’t just trade one bubble—my self-created exile after Brad’s death—with another, losing something crucial in my development in the process.

Like all good laws, the Gentleman’s Rule provided a wide berth for interpretation. In the hands of skillful counsel, the fuzziness clearly permitted the opportunity for ad-hocracy, from which sprang the strange traditions of student life. Beginning in 1920, the Senior Council administered its “freshman indoctrination” program, which typically ran the course of the fall semester. “RHYNIES! Read and Reading Tremble.” Posters with that proclamation littered the campus for decades, a dos-and-don’ts-or-else list for “rhynies,” Wabash-speak for newbies. Part of the flyer’s verbiage pertained to pots, which were worn until (if) the newcomers won the annual Freshman-Sophomore Fight, a three-bout test of manliness that included something called the Greased Pole Fight.

By the time I arrived, the trials of hyper-masculinity had long passed, and while the Gentleman’s Rule endured, the school’s trustees did flirt with the idea of admitting women. During the early 1990s, two-thirds of the faculty endorsed co-education—some even threatened to quit if such a policy change wasn’t adopted—but, by my guess, roughly the same percentage of students favored keeping the status quo. In the spring of 1992, after a two-year study, the trustees voted to keep Wabash exclusively for men, explaining their decision by calling the college a place “where tradition is more highly valued than trend.”

Even though decision-makers pulled up the rope ladder to the clubhouse, many of the more politically minded professors—men and women alike—pushed toward inclusion any way they could. They added feminist readings to syllabi, introduced straw-women into classroom debates, and built entire courses around gender in an effort to provide us with a well-rounded, real-world liberal-arts education.

In 2001, then–school president Andrew Ford said the scarcity of men’s colleges provided opportunities for Wabash: “There’s a real potential here for us to become a laboratory for what works in higher education.” And yet I rarely contemplated the exclusion of women in the classroom, never felt I was more or less likely to share in a “safe,” all-male environment, never thought about what I wore to class (except for the pot). But I had plenty of time to feel the absence of women outside of the classroom—and our professors’ efforts to represent the female perspective paled in comparison to learning how to conduct ourselves, academically or otherwise, in front of the real thing.

Wabash College, football, all-male school
Football weekends at Wabash provide students at the all-male school an opportunity to mingle with the opposite sex.

Photo courtesy Wabash College

When women did make their way to campus, it typically occurred in the fall during football weekends and parties. Usually, a girlfriend brought her classmates, or a friend from high school brought hers. A few times each year my fraternity would partner with a sorority from Ball State or DePauw or Purdue for a party, and we’d use money earmarked for our room-and-board (sorry, Mom and Dad) to pay for a charter bus. Admittedly, this arrangement now feels off. But the affairs were quite courtly. We would clean out one of our dorms (where the girls would stay), convert one of the bathrooms to a women-only facility, and gather around the front door upon their arrival. Of course, things devolved from there (we knew how we were supposed to behave, though without women around on a full-time basis, our development was arrested). But by the next morning, when we occupied the fraternity-house kitchen to make breakfast for our guests, they thought we were gentlemen—or at least often said so.

Apart from that, contact with women was often limited to road trips and, in the pre-Internet and social-media era, letter-writing. The existence could be lonely—particularly in the winter when parties were few—and crushing. But at least the loneliness was a shared experience, like doing time on a cellblock with the other inmates as opposed to the solitary confinement I had experienced at Holy Cross.

 

Women or no, the college fostered an intense academic environment, one that enriched the scholarly makeover I had begun at Holy Cross (and that, looking back, is the part I’m most unequivocally thankful for today). Take a legion of Spartans, swap the spears and shields with concepts and ideas, and you’d have the phalanx of a Wabash education, which shows well in special editions of magazines like U.S. News & World Report and pops up as a regular on “best” lists.

Classes are small. More than 70 percent have 20 or fewer students, who are often engaged and display an eagerness to participate in intellectual combat with both peers and professors. Those professors put a premium on a student’s ability to develop a perspective and then defend that position in both class discussions and 10-page papers. There is lots of reading. A ton of writing. When we tested, a single prompt yielded a hand-filled blue book or two. I can’t ever recall taking, say, some silly multiple-choice quiz. Before seniors graduate, they are required to pass both written and oral comprehensive exams.

Wabash College, Caveman Bouts
Wabash schools students in academic combat, but, in the past, some there have opted for the hand-to-hand variety.

Photo courtesy Michael Rubino

Because the school remains steadfast in its liberal-arts mission, students get an intense taste of just about everything. At Wabash, I deconstructed Willa Cather; learned, from a scratchy 78-rpm record, to identify the sound of the German Stuka, a two-man Nazi dive-bomber; and wanted to blind myself after a long classroom discussion of Oedipus. If nothing else, I am excellent at Jeopardy!.

Proud alums donate lots of money. According to the school website, “the value of Wabash’s endowment was approximately $342 million, which places Wabash among the highest colleges in the nation in per-student endowment.” (Tuition is $39,330 per year, though 90 percent of students receive some form of aid.) People obviously felt they got their money’s worth, but I found value elsewhere.

Socially, especially during the school week, Wabash assumed a monastic quality—if those monks were beer-loving Trappists. The student body exhibited a work-hard-play-hard attitude. Now and again, academics intertwined with indulging.

Once, I excused myself from class because I had a paper due that wasn’t complete. Later that evening, the professor I owed showed up outside the front door of my fraternity unannounced. He invited himself to dinner, dined at my table, and afterward adjourned with a group of us to my room, where we watched several hours of television and drank Milwaukee’s Best. The professor said very little and nothing about my absence or missing paper, but proceeded to drain my mini-fridge. At the end of the night, just when I thought I was home free, he rubbed his belly, burped, and said, “You’ve got until morning.” Broken and half-drunk, I went to work.

Wabash, one of only three men’s colleges in the country, builds strong male friendships, says one graduate.

Another time, a professor treated us to an elegant Bordeaux tasting. We returned the favor by introducing him to a flight of Mogen David varietals: grape, strawberry-kiwi, and something called Blue Hawaiian. (Bumwine.com says Mogen David, also known as Mad Dog 20/20, is “as majestic as the cascading waters of a drain pipe,” to which the professor can attest.)

I blame a faculty-student cocktail mixer for one of the worst hangovers of my life and Greek ouzo for unflattering things I said to my academic advisor about his wife at the afterparty. I spent the next week lying low in my room and binged on a Nick at Nite marathon of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which augmented my gender studies and prepared me for the advent of Netflix.

Bypassing work took other forms. We pulled pranks; talked about movies, books, and music; and ruminated about girls—or a lack thereof. Dumb stuff, mostly.

Crawfordsville, Wabash’s home, offered basic small-town conveniences, but little in the way of off-campus attractions geared toward college boys. Friday-night trips to the grocery store for junk food or a pack of cigarettes passed for fun. Sometimes, we even went to—shudder—the library. In those quiet moments, when the college looked like a ghost town, my friends and I would fantasize about goings-on at other schools, talks that veered into cul-de-sacs of envy and doubt. We resolved that, yes, we were missing out, but we convinced ourselves that male bonds trumped blondes.

 

Now that I’m a quarter-century removed from my first days at Wabash, many aspects of the college and my time there seem out of place and ridiculous—things that I still find difficult to explain or defend, like busing girls to our parties. It’s as if I went to school on another planet, a sentiment not typically shared by Wabash alums who attended during an era when men’s colleges were in vogue. We all served, but we fought in  vastly different wars.

And what of the current state of things? I’ve been back to campus twice in the last year to check myself, once in the fall and the other in the dead of winter. The homecoming queen was still a guy. The library was still the place to be when the snow was on the ground. The school with the steady enrollment of 850, the one that turns down more than 30 percent of those who apply, hadn’t changed. But I had, and that really messed with my head as I went about putting together this story. To me, the school was like an old sweater that no longer fit. Yet, once upon a time, it did, and I loved it.

Wabash College, pots
The author wearing his pot—and jorts.

Photo courtesy Michael Rubino

Recently, I had lunch with a friend, an attorney who graduated from Wabash a few years before me. I told him about this story and asked what he thought was the value in Wabash. He prefaced his answer by saying that he was “a balance guy,” and that while college delivered a well-rounded education, it did so in the absence of half of the population. “That’s not good balance,” he said. “But what Wabash does is build strong male friendships.” Experience, he said, taught him that isn’t the norm on other campuses. Parents of prospective students often ask him to talk to their sons about the college, assuming he’ll give Wabash a glowing endorsement. He doesn’t.

“I tell them that it’s not for everyone,” he said.

He’s right. And I often wonder if I didn’t just trade one bubble—my self-created exile after Brad’s death—with another, losing something crucial in my development in the process. In defending an all-male education, Stephen Webb, a graduate and onetime religion professor at the college, wrote: “We live in a culture that has shockingly few rituals and traditions to guide boys into manhood. We have become suspicious of all-male clubs, organizations, or fraternities. Our increasingly secular sensibility has rejected the importance of public rituals and traditions.” Wabash, Webb argued, should be that place.

For me, the things that happened outside of Wabash’s classrooms, those antiquated and goofy rituals and traditions and bonding that didn’t matter, ended up mattering most. After being forced out of the innocence of my childhood by Brad’s death, Wabash might not have prepared me for the real world—but the dumb stuff, the male-fueled silliness, saved me from it for a time.

This article appeared in the October 2015 Issue.

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