The University of the South was an all-boys college from 1857 until 1969. The first class of women appeared the following year. If you had known the “Class of ’69” like I did—you’d understand why they waited.
I’m not saying the guys in that class were wild, crazy, uninhibited, fun-seeking, free spirited, gusto grabbing maniacs. But I will say at times I thought me and Marshall Boon were the only sane members in the whole group!
In the first five minutes of arriving on campus I saw a guy jump out of a second story window at Gailor Hall. I wondered if it wasn’t an omen. By the end of the first week I had been run over so many times at football practice I looked like Wile E. Coyote after the paving machine steamed him into the asphalt.
My first class had eleven boys, no girls of course, and three dogs. Dr. McLeod explained we were studying the new math. I didn’t know it had been updated.
As a group we began to understand that “liberal arts” meant impossible to comprehend!
My girl friend of two and a half years, who pledged to love me forever, sent the Dear John letter three weeks into the school year. It turned cold, rained every day and the fog followed you around like a shadow. I would have left but we were six miles up on a Mountain, in the middle of nowhere, and the four foot snow drifts were more than I could transverse.
Dr. Webb talked in a low monotone as he meticulously explained Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis”. Abbo Martin wobbled into our literature class, stared me down when I couldn’t tell him which was the most civilized of all Indian tribes and finally spoke, “Mr. Colbert, stay down where your are.”
One of the books we were required to read over the course of our studies was “The Naked Ape”. I don’t remember the contents but the title was certainly apropos.
I was lost, lonely, scared, out of my element and in over my head.
I decided to brave the snow and slide off this Mountain forever……until my classmates jumped in. They didn’t actually tie me to a chair in the library, mind you. But I got to thinking, “If Tommy Ellis, Bill Blount and especially John Stewart could learn this stuff….I ought to be able to do it standing on my head, blind folded, with my hands tied behind my back!”
I didn’t have a car or any money but no one seemed to notice, or care. They’d come by as individuals or in groups and take me to the Friday night “Owl Flick”. Someone would drive us out to Tubby’s for pizza and scintillating discussion on Peter, Paul and Mary, Lyndon Johnson, the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and the war in Vietnam.
They loaned me haircut money. They dragged me to mandatory chapel. They took me to see Muddy Waters and Percy Sledge. They drove me down the Mountain to look for valley girls. They named one of the loose running dogs after me.
We threw English peas, roast beef and globs of mashed potatoes at each other during semester ending food riots in the dining room. It was a scene right out of the mead-hall in Beowulf!
We laughed, worked, joked, studied, pushed each other, pulled sometimes and shared together the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. We fought the college wars side by side.
And you know those teachers that we couldn’t figure out at the beginning; that we made sport of from time to time. Dr. Webb became a cherished mentor. Andrew Lytle was a quiet giant. And Abbo Martin, I came to realize, didn’t teach me literature…..he loved it into my heart!
I showed up August 15, 1965, a boy. With the help of the University, a gifted collection of dedicated professors and the watch care of an entire class, I graduated June 8, 1969, a man!
The “Class of 1969” held their Fifty Year Reunion last week. I would have crawled on my hands and knees up that Mountain to see them again. That’s how much each one of them meant to me.
It was as if 50 years had faded away as I shook their hands and hugged their necks. Time and distance has not dampened my love and appreciation for each one of those guys…..and I realized all over again…..
I wouldn’t be me without them.