Recollections of Wesleyan in the 1930s

Nineteen-thirty was a tough year: my father’s real estate business had been an early casualty of the Depression, my parents had to adjust to a yearly income of less than $2,500, and I had given up hopes of going East to college.

However, a miracle came in the form of a phone call from a Mr. John Wing. He was on a committee at Wesleyan University to recruit students from outside its usual geographic base; would I like more information?

I knew enough not to ask him whether it was Ohio or Illinois Wesleyan. When I told him that I doubted whether I could afford the tuition at any private school, he told me about the regional Olin scholarship for excellent, well-rounded students. While I was a good student, I certainly did not qualify as excellent, nor did I make it as well-rounded. I was a minor editor on the school paper, but definitely a triple-S athlete: small, slow, and scared. But the competition for midwestern students was virtually non-existent that year, so they gave it to me.

My first impression in that fall of 1931 was of the extraordinary beauty of the Wesleyan campus. I know, it is still beautiful, but you should have seen it before the 1938 hurricane took down so many magnificent trees. They were old, those trees, as old as Wesleyan, but well nourished by all the rain that regularly doused the campus.

At the time we walked across the campus on wooden walks, made of parallel planks. My mother (Smith College, 1903) was happy that I had made it East, but at first seemed a little neutral about the college. It turned out that she had had a Wesleyan wannabe beau, Joe, whom she thought of as a little too square, in part because he always wore his overshoes. When my mother first visited Wesleyan it rained, of course, and as she stepped on the walkway the water squished up between the planks and soaked her feet and ankles. “Finally,” she said, “I know why Joe always wore his overshoes.”

One of the first stops I made at Wesleyan was to the library to apply for a job. It was a great place to work; the student supervisor, Gert McKenna, was consistently helpful and encouraging, and on quiet evenings you could get a lot of studying done. It didn’t pay much but it is probably the reason for my longevity: every time I thought of starting to smoke I remembered that cigarettes at 15 cents a pack equaled almost a half hour’s work. I remained at the library all four years, and along with waiting on tables at Eclectic and fixing the fire at the Faculty Club and doing some selling for Hazen’s Bookstore, I made enough for meals and books and laundry and travel.

In those days, Wesleyan relied on fraternities for meals since it had no dining services, so before classes started we went through a complicated set of visits, including several free meals, to help us find out which House provided the best cuisine. Actually, I thought that the fraternity was a major contributor to my maturing years; the brothers were serious about their classes and about helping the freshmen learn how to study. Prohibition was repealed while I was there, but we still didn’t drink much. Who could afford it?
We selected our classes while still selecting our fraternities. I was happy to “place out” of freshman English and physics, but soon found that was a mistake. I never did discover what basic physics was all about; with English I had to take a composition course instead of the freshman course. My first four papers came back at the same time; my best grade was a B-minus. I’d never received a grade below B in my life, so I asked Charley Olson ’32, an English major at Eclectic, what I should do about it. He said to take them to Mr. Banks, my instructor; I had assumed somehow that he was too important to worry about me. Anyway, that’s what I did, then and thereafter. He went through my papers play by play, ending by grumbling, “You should have learned this in Freshman English.” And so I should have. The accessibility of faculty was one of Wesleyan’s best assets.

We griped about having to take required courses, but I never would have taken Professor Bell’s English History course if I hadn’t had to, and I later wished that I had taken more: learning the historian’s way of thinking is good preparation for any profession. Poetry wasn’t my thing, but classmate Keith Huntress ’35 told me that I shouldn’t leave Wesleyan without taking Professor Snow’s modern poetry course. I waited until my senior year—when I had been admitted to medical school and grades weren’t so important—before risking it. There was a man who really loved his work.

I felt that I should make up for my athletic deficiencies by getting into extracurricular activities, so I worked on the Argus and in the theater, and became manager of swimming. We did a lot of Shakespeare, as all-male colleges liked to do because most of the parts are for males. I recall that Mrs. Banks helped out in the female roles, as did the lovely and talented townie Ginny, who later married classmate Gil Clee. As manager of swimming I remember watching Ken Degnan ’36 learn how to master the new-fangled butterfly, which then was still considered a breaststroke.

I had an eccentric but well-to-do distant relative who, when she heard that I was going to Wesleyan, said that she would match my scholarship if I went to a proper university like Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. I turned her down, and I have never regretted it. Most important in my decision was that Wesleyan’s main target was teaching undergraduates. At Wesleyan I learned a lot, I matured a lot, I made many good friends, and I made career decisions that turned out to be the right ones. I owe a lot to the University. —Knight Aldrich ’35, M.D.UPFRONT

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Cynthia Rockwell, MALS ’19, P’11