What was Indiana University like in my college years? Through the mist of more than fifty years it is difficult for me to recall precisely the features of my own life as a student here. But of one thing I am certain: my collegiate experience profoundly changed my life.
The Bloomington campus in the 1920s had a colorful student body. Many highly individualistic characters were drawn to the university from other, less hospitable places, and they contributed an effervescent quality to the student life. With companions like these life was never humdrum. Although the university had conventional rules and a strong tradition of in loco parentis, tolerant officers and faculty, if they chanced upon infractions, for the most part looked the other way.
We shared unquestioning pride in our university and a firm faith in its future. Student publications reflected this loyal stance, praising student activities when possible and, when not, revealing improvements in the offing. Unfortunate circumstances were the culprit when our teams lost, circumstances that were certain not to reoccur and hamper the teams next year. Such is my rosy recollection.
At night with studies completed, “boress” sessions, the rap sessions of today, formed around the den fireplace at the fraternity house, at the Book Nook, or elsewhere, frequently running until the small hours of the morning. On the spur of the moment a safari was launched: a trip to Indianapolis, to a home-brew speakeasy cabin on the banks of White River beyond Bedford, or even to Chicago for a weekend to listen to great jazz in the South Side night spots. Football weekends were regularly observed, ostensibly to back the team whether the game was played at home or away, and the score little altered the ritual of the occasion.
It was an era of elaborate formal dances, junior proms, formal Greek-letter State Day dinners at the Lincoln or the Claypool hotel in Indianapolis, and a variety of other regularly observed social occasions. For me at least it was a time of nearly unlimited physical vitality and exuberance. Little sleep was required. There was not much of the expensive decadence of the Ivy League collegiate life during that era, yet F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise served to picture much the same world as ours and was avidly read even by students largely unread.
The nightly boresses went on endlessly, solving the world’s problems, sometimes stimulated by horrible home brew or white-lightning moonshine from nearby Jasper, the mere memory of which makes me shudder. In these sessions and in many other forums, I found a glittering, swirling atmosphere of ideas, fed by regular reading of the Nation, the New Republic, or our own magazine, the Vagabond, and, if I or my friends became a trifle complacent, H. L. Mencken would prick our egos in a new number of the American Mercury. Then Carl Van Vechten, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Zona Gale, Sherwood Anderson, and other contemporary novelists opened new vistas of the human condition and revealed Huneker’s “pathos of distance.”
For me it was an efflorescent period when my mind was open to receive a myriad of new ideas. It was also a time when my senses were so keen that they eagerly absorbed the beauty of the changing seasons in southern Indiana, the delicate pastel colors of spring, the drowsy lushness of summer, the brilliance of the fall foliage, and the still but invigorating atmosphere of winter. Music, literature, and art—my whole being responded to the stimuli of collegiate life, in and out of the classroom. It was for me a time of response, growth, transformation, and inspiration. Finally, toward the end of my college days, I discovered the excitement and the responsibility of leadership. Those years revealed a hitherto unimagined world to a smalltown boy.
For all of us it was a time of dreams of future usefulness and achievement.
My own dreams were realized far beyond all of my expectations. When the incredible opportunity came for me to serve Indiana University, my personal ambitions became ambitions for the university’s greatness, for the realization of the university’s full potential, including the wish that every student, undergraduate and graduate, could enjoy as exciting and stimulating an experience as I had had.