Donald Trump finished college almost 50 years ago, on the cusp of the Counterculture. So did I. We didn’t learn much about girls.
Self-immolation was a popular activity in the mid-1960s for Buddhist priests in Vietnam. Not to be outdone, Concordiensis, the student newspaper of Union College, in Schenectady, N.Y., ran a photograph, on Nov. 12, 1965, of a campus cop standing dutifully in his brass-buttoned coat while a pyre of flaming timbers consumed him. It looked that way, anyhow. Decades before fake news, Photoshop and the Drudge Report, Concordy manipulated reality with the best of them.
America was so great back then. Union, founded in 1795, was “a small, nondenominational school for men nestled in the heart of the Mohawk Vale,” as its catalog said. The student weekly was a pillar of erudition, densely packed with critiques of Bergman films and analyses of coups and counter coups in Indonesia. As we staffers matured into true journalists, however, Concordy’s focus shifted to our era’s central educational issues: Sex, Drugs, and Rock ’n’ Roll. And sex.
Did I mention sex?
Hillary was a Young Republican at Wellesley in 1965; the Donald was groping his way from Fordham to Wharton. Her social rules seem to have evolved more than his. What about ours? A young woman I know has a dad about our age. I asked her how he deals with gender nonconformity. “Totally disoriented,” she said. “Things move, but people get stuck. It’s so absurd when some old dude comes in from a different time period.”
Time-traveling dudes require “womansplaining” today, yet in the ‘60s, our own aged alums struck us as equally out-of-it. Witness a fictional profile from Supposium, Concordy’s winter ‘65 humor issue: The life story of Roscoe C. “Smelly” Smeldon, ‘21, “who started with nothing, but through dishonesty, greed, selfishness, and complete lack of moral sense made himself a respected figure on the international scene.” (For his 1931 novel, “Lust Queen.”)
We imagined ourselves members of the mellow avant-garde, but if there was a drug scene at Union, Concordy missed it — a shameful omission at a school whose anthem was the work of Fitz Hugh Ludlow, class of 1856, author of “The Hasheesh Eater.” Fitz Hugh seems to have composed the song while tripping, which explains how he confused “the brook that bounds thro’ old Union’s grounds” with the River Styx. No, in the 1960s our drug of choice was beer. As Concordy reported, Union College was “the home of the boor,” “animal” was the word for “a significant portion” of Union men, and “vandalism and drunkenness still characterize much of Union’s ‘fun.’”
Rock ’n’ roll affected Concordy mainly as noise coming from WRUC, the campus radio station’s studio, down the hall in Old Gym. Our top story on Oct. 8, 1965 was the Committee on Religious Life’s decision to ban rock ’n’ roll from Memorial Chapel. The aim was “to have in the Chapel that which represents the standards of the college,” Dr. Norman Johnson, the chairman, told the paper. “Rock ’n’ roll,” he said, “is not that sort of thing.” Dean of Students O. Edward Pollock backed him up. He called rock ’n’ roll “primitive, relying on beat rather than music,” and apt to induce violence in the (probably drunken) audience.
Outrage erupted. Petitions circulated. The religion committee caved. And Winter Weekend, 1966, went off as a controlled blast: Jimmy Soul, the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Drifters, the Ronettes. After it was over, Concordy reported, “Union returned to its old ways. The girls left, the liquor was stored, the bands received their checks, and the damage done to fraternities and motels was paid for and repaired.”
“The girls left….” That brings us to sex.
Slowly. When we arrived at the Monastery on the Hill in the autumn of 1963, Concordiensis was a tweedy, pipe-puffing publication. Rereading old issues, I’ve been falling asleep halfway through the headlines: “Brown to Discuss Maintaining Values;” “Glueck Will Discuss History of Holy Land;” “Doctor Eisley Discusses Man, Time.” With pained reluctance, the paper endorsed Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election. “It is a fear of the Republican standard bearer that has sent the masses flocking to Johnson rather than any great admiration for the man himself,” said our editorial. (Sound familiar?)
That October, the National Security Agency took out an ad in Concordy, offering “creative research opportunities in the art and science of sophisticated communications.” The following May, we reported on the second-annual Mother’s Day Riot, in which “mobs of freshmen” engaged in “general noisemaking.” Damage was reported to a bridge over the brook. A window in Hale House was broken. I was Concordy’s editor by then. My riot editorial in that issue hints that the times, maybe, were a changin’ at Union. “The biggest mistake of last Sunday,” I wrote, “was the absence of a cause.”
The most vivid memory I have of my editing year is of a Friday morning at the Schenectady Printing Company. The hot-lead type had been set into the page-one frame. The printer was wheeling the page to the press when it slipped off the cart, crashed to the floor and scattered, line by leaden line. That day’s frantically re-made paper had more than its usual complement of typos. But looking back on 1965, I see something else in Concordy’s copy that wasn’t all-thumbs. We were dipping our ink-stained fingers into “The Sixties.”
We covered the Civil Rights Movement. “For the first time in many years, the people of the United States are fighting for something — not simply against,” Alon Jeffrey wrote. Bob Stolzberg attacked the “social acceptability” clauses in fraternity constitutions. An editorial of mine said “Negroes do not decry the establishment in defiant protest” at Union “because Negroes in any recognizable number do not exist at Union.” Concordy dissected Berkeley’s free-speech uprising, and condemned the loyalty oaths our professors had to sign. It opposed the “epidemic insanity” of the Vietnam War, resisted (theoretically) the draft, debated the burning of our draft cards (without burning any).
Then, at last, Union’s men found a cause. You guessed it.
The sexual revolution earned a tepid headline on Nov. 20, 1964: “Gynecologist to Discuss Birth Control.” Concordy confined its “harassment” coverage that year to the practice of making freshmen do push-ups if they stepped on the grass. But when Hamilton College went coed in April, 1965, I editorialized that Union had “made as little progress in integrating sexually as we have racially.” Larry Briskman was assigned to survey the social rules at other small colleges. “According to the Haverford honor system,” he reported, “only acts of sexual intercourse are to be considered violations of college policy.”
Briskman and I had skipped grades in New York City schools, and were two years younger than most of our classmates. I can attest that we gathered sex news with uncompromising journalistic detachment. Even so, we and the paper’s staff laid into the hot topic of Union’s buttoned-up social rules with an orgy of awful puns. A letter to the editor in our mock issue of Skidmore News worried that Skidmore’s new campus would be slightly closer to Union’s: “To a campus familiar with the refined touch of Dartmouth’s men, the gross, uncouth groping of Union’s inmates would be utterly repulsive.” Skidmore women, we joked, would be equipped with a “gas-pellet guns” to “ward off molesters.”
It sounded funny. By that Spring, though, our urge to ease the social rules — they absolutely banned women from dorm rooms — had become a crusade. On May 8, my editorial argued that “a relaxation of dormitory restrictions and other precautions against fearful vice, sin and corruption would, in the long run, reduce the number of appalling atavisms that occur on weekends when the social rules can no longer stem the tide.” I was still at it the following November: “Never, throughout his four years of attendance here, does the student find himself alone with a woman, even for an instant.”
If he obeyed the rules. Given the opportunity, hardly anybody did — as I observed from afar. But all we were officially demanding was a few hours of privacy without guilt.
In April, 1966, we won.
Concordy’s outline of the monastery-release plan:
- Student lounges open to guests at specified times.
2. Women allowed in student rooms at specified times.
3. Alcoholic beverages allowed in dormitories under specified conditions.”
The headline — “TRUSTEES ALLOW CHANGE” — was our biggest since ex-president Carter Davidson fell dead of a heart attack while waiting for a bus in Washington the previous October. President Harold Martin and Student Council President Jeffrey Ratner presented the rules at a special convocation the next week. The president received a standing ovation from 600 students, the paper reported. Our headline: “MARTIN URGES RESTRAINT”
By then, I had closed out my term at Concordiensis with an editorial concerning the small matter of the editor’s right to choose a successor. My parting shot charged the Student Council’s Publications Committee with trampling on press freedom by trying to appoint a successor of its own. The editorial inspired the Council to “censure” me, producing another big headline. That whole mess has troubled me for 51 years. However, I recently was happy to learn that it had set a precedent. Only two years later, the new All College Council censured another Concordy editor, this time for a review of a movie called “Dutchman.” It began: “Union’s insensitivity stood out at the showing of ‘Dutchman’ like an erection in the gym shower.”
The author was Alan Ziegler, ‘69, who went on to run the Writing Program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.
A second standout passage is this:
“Only when girls become part of the everyday environment will they be accepted and treated as people to whom you must relate fully, not just as things. Maybe then Union men will learn that breasts are on the girl, and not that incidentally there is a girl attached to the breasts. And maybe they’ll learn that sex is much better when it is part of a full relationship.”
In 1970, the girls arrived. But our well-rounded class of ‘67 had already been cast out into the generation gap. Some of us traded tweeds for work shirts. Some went to law school, some to Vietnam. Some did all of that. A half-century later, the dorms are coed. Union has groups for Muslims and Buddhists, an LGBTQ Ally Program, a chief diversity officer, and safe spaces for “identity dialogs.”
I faintly recall, as I faced the draft at age 18, taking the stairs to the cool depths of Schaffer Library’s basement and pulling from the stacks 50-year-old bound volumes of Concordiensis. The typeface was so tiny, the prose so fusty. I found no guidance in the coverage of the Great War, saw no role model in the pictures of school-boys in stiff collars. The Great War’s torch had passed. Today, a man who could have joined any 1960s Union frat house is moving into the White House. Has the torch passed back? Is the way we were the way we still are? What would Concordy’s 2017 editor see in us now, if she (or he) pulled our bound volumes from the library’s basement stacks?