George Fitch, Father of Old Siwash
by Terry Hogan
Life is a funny thing. You’d think colleges would figure this out. Some of the most troublesome and outlandish students turn out to be successful and influence their old alma mater in strange ways. Such is the case of George Fitch and Knox College. George was a local boy, being born in Galva. But he left a footprint that Knox College is still trying to reshape in its own image. And if failing that, Knox is trying to leave it behind.
George brought some level of fame to Knox College with a series of novels based on Knox College. The fictionalized Knox was named “Old Siwash”. This was the name of one of his books. Thus Knox adopted “Old Siwash” as its own until the 1993 era of political correctness. Although the phrase “Old Siwash” was based on Fitch’s writings which had absolutely nothing to do with “Indians” (oops, “Native Americans” who weren’t really native to North America), Knox dropped the name so as not to be offensive*.
So how does Knox College treat its old alumni and “Old Siwash”? Knox offers its own “spin” on the Internet:
In a lighter vein, Knox is also proud of its past as the inspiration for the rambunctious and lively college immortalized in George Fitch’s humorous stories about "Good Old Siwash," which were hugely popular in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Fitch, a Knox graduate of 1897, published his stories in the Saturday Evening Post, fondly depicting a college of high-spirited young men and women making the most out of the extracurricular, athletic and social aspects of a residential college. Knox students were delighted to find themselves parodied in stories that grew into several books and eventually a Hollywood movie (Those Were the Days, starring William Holden, filmed on the Knox campus in 1940). They adopted "Old Siwash" as a cherished College nickname, symbolizing for generations the deep affection and attachment to friends, professors and the College they carry with them for a lifetime after graduation. The memory of "Old Siwash" may have faded in the public mind, remaining now only as a somewhat obscure and controversial addition to the English language, but for generations of Knox alumni it lives on as the beloved nickname for their alma mater. (http://www.knox.edu/x1049.xml; Office of the Registrar, 2005-2006, in “A Knox Education”) (Emphasis added).
The term, “Old Siwash” will long outlive Knox’s political correctness. It is rooted in history and is found in current usage. Time Magazine (September 24, 1944) had an article on a South Pacific veteran “Old Siwash”. Old Siwash was a marine, or a marine mascot. He was also a duck.
From ducks to flowers, a “Goggle” Internet search will show that there is even an “Old Siwash” Peony (Paeonia lactiflora).
In current lingo, “Old Siwash” is used as a generic term representing a college, usually a generic alma mater. Thus the usage is now broader than just Knox College. But it is clearly rooted to George Fitch’s writings.
George Helgesen Fitch was born in Galva, Illinois in 1877. He attended and graduated from Knox College in 1897. He worked for a number of Midwestern newspapers and wrote for several national magazines. Beginning in 1908, he wrote a series of articles for the Saturday Evening Post. The articles (Good Old Siwash College), based on his days at Knox, had Swedish characters including Ole Skjarsen, and the fraternity Eta Bita Pie. I assume the fraternity name was based on the Beta fraternity at Knox. There is a circa 1910 photo of George in his Buick Roadster sitting in front of the Beta House at Knox (Galesburg Public Library achives).
The Good Old Siwash College articles became a book (At Good Old Siwash, in 1915) that became the basis for movie, Those Were the Days (1940) starring William Holden. Portions of the movie were filmed at Knox College and the world premier of the movie was at the Orpheum Theater in Galesburg. Glasses were handed out at the premier that can still be found from time to time for sale in local antique stores. The glasses include a view of Old Main. Unfortunately, George Fitch did not live long enough to see his book made into a movie. He died at age 38 from a ruptured appendix.
Fitch also wrote two other Siwash books, entitiled Petey Simmons at Siwash (1916) and The Big Strike at Siwash (1919) that continued the exploits at the small, Midwestern college. Many of Fitch’s papers are deposited at the Knox College archives. These were donated to Knox by George Fitch’s daughter, Elinor Fitch Griffin.
Fitch did not limit himself to writing humor, or even to just writing. Fitch was also an editor of the Peoria Herald-Transcript and a syndicated columnist. It is reported that he was elected to the Illinois legislature in 1912. His writings appeared in a number of national magazines including not only the Saturday Evening Post, mentioned above, but also The Red Book Magazine, The American Magazine, Colliers, and the Ladies Home Journal, mostly in the period of about 1908 to 1915.
Another one of Galesburg’s authors, Martin Litvin, published a biography of George Fitch, I'm Going to Be Somebody!: Biography of George Fitch.(1991). It is reported that Martin discovered some of the personal materials of George Fitch that are now in the Knox College archives, while researching the biography.
I obviously don’t know George Fitch, but I have read a book or two by him. My guess is that if he were alive in 1993 when Knox abandoned “Old Siwash” in favor of “Prairie Fire”, he’d be writing another humorous Old Siwash book. This book would find his fictitious Midwestern college trying to change its nickname for fear that it might reflect poorly on the College’s liberal, activist history. Perhaps the book would include a book-burning chapter where the college burns all its copies of Old Siwash books in an attempt to rewrite history. But the fire “got out of hand” when poor old Ole Skjarsen inadvertly threw gasoline rather than water on the fire. The result was not only singeing all the hair off Ole, including his blond eyebrows, but also the torching of Old Main, a historical debate site concerning freedom of speech and tolerance. The fire spread to the adjoining countryside causing one of the county’s largest “prairie fires” in recorded history.
I just can’t help stirring the pot about Old Siwash and political correctness. It is too bad that George Fitch isn’t around for all this.
Old Siwash, Class of ‘68
*Siwash is a name for a group of Indians in northwest U.S. and Canada. The term is considered by some, to be derogatory. However, a search on the Internet will reveal that “Siwash” is used frequently in the Northwest, including a name for a park and in numerous local business names. Knox, apparently worried that it would be seen as politically incorrect, abandoned its history of the real use of the term as established by Fitch.