My senior year of high school meant that decisions had to be made about college. Many of our relatives, including my parents and my older sister Andrea, had all gone to Blackburn College in Illinois where much of the tuition was paid through work on the campus. I, however, felt no pull in that direction.
“Here, Steve, look through these catalogues and see what you think of the schools,” the guidance counselor said. “None of them are state schools so they cost a little more, but they have high standards. This one, Gettysburg College, is very selective. You have to be in the top 5% of your class to even be considered—that wouldn’t be any problem for you since you have the 4th highest grade point in your class.”
I looked at the stack of catalogues and sighed. This business of choosing a college was overwhelming, but I took them home and leafed through some.
Nothing really grabbed my attention until I was setting the stack down. The Gettysburg catalogue was on top, and it suddenly struck me that the first letter of the college name was the same as that of my high school. And, the picture on the catalogue’s cover, a shot of the main room of the library, was somehow intriguing. I decided to apply.
The acceptance letter came sooner than I expected. My parents were content with my going to Gettysburg as it was a lot closer to Connecticut than Illinois and had high academic standards.
That summer Dad made a deal with me. I could use his tractors and equipment to do haying for the neighbors if I used the money I made to pay for college. Whatever I couldn’t cover, he would.
In those days the cost of college was less daunting than now– $2500 for a whole year, room and board included–so this was a realistic plan.
There was one other part of the deal: when I got out of college and began to work, I would help pay for the cost of my younger siblings’ college. Sounded good to me!
Chapter 6 Off To Pennsylvania
The six hour trip from Canterbury down to Gettysburg in the fall of 1964 was a somber one for my parents. I was the first one of their flock to go somewhere new.
They were, however impressed with the campus, although Mom was horrified at the dorm room I got. It was in “Old Dorm,” a structure built before the Civil War, and it looked like it had been through several wars.
I tried to assure her, “Don’t worry, Mom, this is great, much better than the sterile brick and tile places over there.” I waved my hand towards the neat brick buildings across the quad. Mom, however, was not convinced and later told me that she cried much of the night she and Dad spent in a motel on the way home.
Oblivious of my mother’s distress, that first evening I walked across campus to the dining hall, reading Lord of the Flies as I went. After supper all the freshmen were given their “beanie” caps and a sign with their name and home address to wear around their necks. I thought it was pretty childish and was embarrassed by this, but went with the flow.
Two days later when I walked into my first class I noticed that none of my classmates were wearing their beanie or sign.
“Where were you last night?” one of my new friends asked. “Don’t you know that all the freshmen had a bonfire and burned our signs and beanies?”
No, I didn’t know; like a good farm boy I’d gone to bed by 10 and slept through the whole thing. Actually I slept through a lot of foolishness that went on in my college years, by virtue of my farm training: early to bed and early to rise.
Gettysburg College was unusual in that the fraternities and sororities had their “rush,” recruiting new members, right at the beginning of the freshman year. This made adjustment to college life doubly difficult, adding more decisions to the many we already had to make.
I got an invitation from one fraternity and attended a couple of events, but decided that it was not for me. I had not come to college to be involved in foolish initiation rites, and to take part in the time-consuming and often degrading work given to the “pledges”.
I was there to put my time and energy into learning, so I chose to remain an “independent” for the next four years, a decision that left me an outsider and often lonely during the second semester of each year.
In the first semesters, however, I had a “family” in the cross-country team. I had joined up right away and found the level of competition a lot higher than what I’d experienced in high school. There I’d ended up coming in third in the whole high school county conference, but here I was dead last in the early meets!
The coach, however, encouraged me to keep trying, and I spent many golden afternoons running with my teammates across the battlefields of Gettysburg.
There were a number of meets at other schools, which meant that we runners got to skip classes, eat special meals in the cafeteria, and sometimes take road long trips where we had great times getting to know each other better. Each fall was a warm, positive time with my fellow runners, a time of belonging to something worthwhile.
Winter was another matter, as was Spring; without any group to belong to, I was again an outsider. These cyclical dark, lonely times slowly fed my growing depression.