View from the center

By Lynn McKeown


How Monmouth College almost killed me


Long before I enrolled in Monmouth College — back in the dark ages of the '50s — I had some familiarity with the school, since I was born and raised in Monmouth. In the winter we would go over to the College and use the hills around the Gym and Wallace Hall for sledding, the same location where Ronald Reagan went sledding when he lived in Monmouth about 30 years earlier.

In those days, when children roamed around more freely than they do today, we sometimes even went into the College buildings. Once, my sister and some other kids and I went wandering through the halls of the old science building, fascinated by the specimens of small animals preserved in jars of formaldehyde in glass cases. After a while I realized my sister was no longer with us. Maybe I imagined she had been captured by a mad scientist and pickled in a jar. After asking some students if they had seen her (they hadn’t), I went on home and found her there. Being independent-minded — as she still is — she had decided to go home without informing her big brother (and had never been in any danger of being pickled).

I heard about the reputation of the College from my father, an alum as were many other relatives and family friends. The science departments had a high reputation, and my father spoke fondly of classes he took from the legendary Professor Haldeman. I didn’t find out till later that he was the little man I sometimes encountered when walking downtown on Second Avenue. He was always dressed rather formally in a suit, but the unusual thing was that he always said “Hello” to me (and presumably everyone else he met) as if I were as important as he was.

Years later when I was a student, Professor Haldeman had retired but I had several classes with another legendary figure, Sam Thompson, professor of philosophy (the only philosophy professor, since it was a department of one). I took Doctor Thompson’s class in introduction to philosophy, using a textbook he had written himself, and later his class in philosophy of religion — also using his own book, said to be used as a text in one of the Ivy League schools. He was a rather intimidating professor — as I remember, no one but philosophy majors ever raised their hands with comments or questions — but he really gave you the impression that you and he were involved in thinking about important questions, and I would say he taught us something about how to think clearly.

There were other good professors at the college. For my foreign language requirement I took an introductory French class from Dorothy Donald. She was a good teacher and an absolute dynamo of activity and enthusiasm. One time I made a mistake, however. I happened to meet her walking along the sidewalk on my way to a class and decided to show off my knowledge by saying “Bon jour.” She responded by rattling off several sentences in French that I couldn't begin to follow, and I was left standing in stunned silence as she waited for a reply.

The College was affiliated with the Presbyterian Church and had always had ministers as presidents. The president when I was there was Robert Gibson, who turned out to be the last in the line of minister-presidents. He was a rather genial figure who looked somewhat like an ex-prize-fighter because of a broken nose, which I believe he received many years before playing football. From time to time he gave talks in chapel which tended to be along the same general lines — I think what would be called ‘‘muscular Christianity,’’ religion based in practical reality and optimism. It was said that he always gave essentially the same talk — the “We Build Bridges” speech.

We were required to attend chapel and vesper services — something that was discontinued a few years after I was there. The required chapel sessions were held several times a week, with various speakers or forms of high-minded entertainment. Some of the episodes that occurred at chapel may have had something to do with its eventual demise.

There was, for instance, the rolling penny trick. The chapel floor was gradually slanted downward. Someone in the back, with a slight amount of dexterity, could start a coin rolling and it could be heard on its journey all the way to the front, to the general amusement of everyone — except the monitors charged with keeping order.

Sometimes faculty members gave talks. A science professor gave a talk saying he could accept the truth of most Christian doctrine except for  the virgin birth. And then there was the eccentric professor who gave a quite strange rendition of his early life, including a story of how his mother, dissatisfied with him for some reason, had come close to throwing him into the Grand Canyon.

Another faculty member, Ken Meyer, an instructor in English and one of my favorite teachers, once gave a talk intended to show the negative effects of alcohol. As part of the talk he described his experience working in a brewery, when he found (from his co-workers) that it was possible to drink more if the beer was warm. This was met with signs of gleeful approval from the audience, and Mr. Meyer told me later that he hadn’t intended the story to have quite the effect it did.

Another time, in what was probably an attempt to give students a taste of high culture, we were entertained by a travelling troupe of ballet dancers. This didn’t have quite the desired effect either. One of the women in the tight-costumed troupe was more well-endowed than the usual skinny ballet performer, and when she bounced across the stage she was met by raucously uncouth cheers of approval from the male students. High culture fell victim to low-brow voyeurism.

Generally, I think my experience at Monmouth College was a good one, and prepared me well for life after college. I often think back to the Monmouth College of those days when we hear, as we do periodically from “conservatives, “ of the supposed morally undermining effect of colleges and universities. While a student, I sometimes wrote letters to the editor of the college newspaper expressing mildly liberal, democratic opinions, and once a non-student Monmouth resident wrote in saying that I and others were being led astray by the malevolent “liberal” influence of the school.

The ridiculous thing about this was that the faculty were genteel paragons of middle-class morality who, in the first place, tended to avoid politics and, secondly, were anything but revolutionary or leftist. (I also found this to be true later, when I did graduate study at two large state universities.) I really believe there is a “conservative” fantasy about the bad effect colleges and universities have on students. This has little or no basis in reality but is hard to prove false, especially to people with no experience of college, since it’s hard to prove a negative.

I think Monmouth College gave me a good education and start in life. (How do we ever know for sure about something like this. We take a certain course, and will never know what would have happened if we had taken a different one.) The education I received was similar to what I would have received in other colleges, very much dominated by science — as is the whole of the modern world. But the college also taught that religion was something of value for society and the individual. (They apparently got away from that somewhat in later years, but now are moving back to some extent, offering a number of courses in religion.)

At the time I was a student, Monmouth College may not have had quite as good an academic reputation as it now has. Outside of the science departments and a few others, many of the faculty members were rather mediocre, or so it seemed to me in my arrogant youth. The college also definitely didn’t have its current financial resources. I am amazed now when I return to Monmouth and see the new buildings that have gone up in the last few years.

I have heard a theory about this: Monmouth, it is theorized, was not too high-brow — like some other, similar liberal arts colleges — to provide courses preparing students for a career in business. Some of those students went out and made a lot of money, some of which they eventually gave back in donations to the college.

Oh, and how was it that Monmouth College almost killed me? It happened like this. One of those times when I was sledding down one of the hills, following the path of Ronald Reagan and many others, I had an experience that almost ended in disaster. At the bottom of the hill behind Wallace Hall was a road, and along the edge of the road were a number of metal posts about five feet high. As I was scooting down the hill I realized I was headed directly for one of those posts.

As you may remember, children’s sleds are not very maneuverable, and I couldn’t steer away from the post, but at the last moment I rolled off the sled into the snow and averted catastrophe, thus living on until a later date when I could enroll as a student. I remember I was somewhat amazed at how the instinct of self-preservation took over and, as Mark Twain might have said, “concentrated the mind.” You could say it was my first important learning experience at Monmouth College.