Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Back to college!

I love the two universities I attended! I spent four years at the University of Charleston getting my bachelor’s degree in political science, and then I spent about four years in Morgantown at West Virginia University getting my master’s in public administration and my doctorate of jurisprudence. Both schools are near and dear to my heart.

The capital city of Charleston holds a big event called “FestivALL,” celebrating all sorts of arts and music. The riverbank in front of the University of Charleston, with its excellent view of the state capitol building, is the site for two main FestivALL musical events—“Blues, Brews, and BBQ” on Friday night, and “Wine and all that Jazz” on Saturday night. Anna and I decided to travel to Charleston for the weekend because UC offered alumni not only discount tickets to these two events, but also the unique opportunity to live in a student dorm room for the weekend.

Although I have taught part-time at WVU-Parkersburg over the years, I am grateful that I didn’t stay at home and attend this community college. Going away and living in a dorm was one of the best times of my life. I learned a great deal in the classrooms at UC (particularly Room 306 of Riggleman Hall, where all the political science classes were taught), but I learned even more about life by living in the dorms. I was exposed to living in close quarters with people from far away exotic places, such as Africa and the Middle East, as well as from Joizey and Lon Gisland (New Jersey and Long Island, each spelled with their particular vernacular). Being on your own, getting along with a myriad of other people, budgeting your limited funds, doing your own laundry, planning your schedules, eating new foods (for example, I had never eaten a bagel until college)—all these contributed greatly to the learning process at a residential liberal arts college.

So with great anticipation, Anna and I headed south on I-77 to Charleston, to move back into a dorm room at UC. Since it was just for a weekend, the Prius was not jam packed with stuff like the 1970 Volkswagen Beetle was for my first trip to college (actually, fellow Parkersburg High School crew team member Richard C. rode down to UC with me, so the VW was packed to the max with stuff for two freshman to move into the dorms). However, I did bring a few extras to decorate the room for this nostalgic trip back to my life in the late ‘70s.

We checked in at the UC Alumni Office, and received our keys from Alumni Director Bridgette Borst (a 2007 grad from UC). Our room was in one of the new dorms, Middle Hall, and it uses a “smart card” to open the outside doors (no need for someone to “work the desk” to control access like the girls dorm had back in the old days—on the other hand, the boys dorms back then were pretty much wide open all the time).

However, once you got through the front door by holding your smart card near the reader, the key to your actual room is still one of those bronze “Schalge” keys like we had in the ‘70s—minus the plastic key fob with your room number and a “postage guaranteed if found” message. The room itself was much bigger (probably twice as large, plus the ceilings are much higher) than what the old dorms offered. In addition, there was a private bathroom, opened only with your room key, directly across the hall! The community bathroom and showers are a thing of the past, just like the pay phone booths that used to be found in each section of the old dorms. All the furniture was modular, allowing for easy redesign of the basic layout (including moving the beds together). The study chairs were uniquely designed—they were not rocking chairs, but did offer two separate seating angles. A person could choose to sit upright or could lean the chair back—without putting all the weight on just two legs.

To recreate my dorm room, I brought with me an old UC crew poster to put up in my room, along with one of the wooden blades that Roger B’s dad had carved, to give it the crew team motif. Roger and I had rowed together at PHS, and then roomed together for my first two years at college. I also brought with me the old plaster cast from when I had broken my leg while ice skating at the Charleston Civic Center ice rink my freshman year. It contains dozens of autographs from my friends at college during that era. In addition, I brought an empty champagne bottle from the gala celebration held on September 7, 1997, for the fancy dedication of the new Clay Tower building on the UC campus. Although I had long since graduated, it seemed fitting to have this 9/7/97 bottle in the room to represent my long-time involvement as an alum. Although I thought about it, I didn’t bother to add a candle to create one of those wine bottle candlestick holders that were popular in the old days—I didn’t want to get kicked out of the dorm for having an open flame.

I couldn’t find any of my undergraduate textbooks, but I did bring along former West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Richard Neely’s book entitled “How Courts Govern America.” I had taken Justice Neely’s economics classes at UC, and he was a very interesting adjunct professor. You had to get up early because he only taught 8:00 classes, but there are few teachers who can make the “dismal science” of economics interesting. Thus his book was placed on my bookshelf in the room to represent all the college textbooks I would have had back in my student days.

Although most of the UC students were gone for the summer, there was a group of students from George Mason University staying in our dorm. I got into some interesting conversations with these students at various times over the weekend, both inside and at the picnic tables just outside, which reminded me of the discussions we used to have in the dorms back in the '70s. Speaking of that era, these George Mason students (located in Fairfax, VA) were surprised to learn that their Lt. Governor Bill Bolling had graduated from UC with me. I also got to regale them with some West Virginia history, plus I impressed the African exchange student by describing precisely where his home country of Togo was located. Fun times!

After getting moved into the dorm room, we strolled around campus as I often do when time allows in Charleston. I love sitting in my old classroom, venturing through the student union, peering into the gym, walking around the boathouse, or hanging out on the riverbank. See my previous blog posting at http://inquisineer.blogspot.com/2011/03/ucs-hallowed-ground.html for a discussion of how special the UC riverbank is for many of us.

For these big events, temporary fencing is installed around the riverbank to control admission. We were among the first to arrive on Friday and enjoyed a long evening of very good blues performers. We were able to eat some good barbecue as well. Surprisingly, our favorite food vendor was the UC cafeteria’s tent. Their barbecue sandwiches were delicious, and Anna loves their homemade potato chips, which we have previously enjoyed at other alumni events like Homecoming and the Governor’s Cup Regatta.

On Saturday morning, we headed out to spend the day visiting relatives, but made our way back to campus for that evening’s jazz performance. Apparently wine and jazz are more popular in Charleston than beer and blues music, because the crowd was definitely larger on Saturday (of course, Saturday is easier to do things since one is not generally dealing with workplace obligations that day). The entire riverbank seemed to be packed with people, clear back to the barbecue trailers set up near the boathouse.

As for me, if I had to pick I think I like blues better than jazz, but I can certainly appreciate both styles of music—Anna and I both have eclectic tastes and can enjoy all forms of music. As we entered the riverbank area, I was thrilled to hear the loudspeakers playing the entire Steely Dan “Aja” album as filler before the band started. I didn’t buy a lot of music during my college days, but this album was one of the few that I spent my precious dollars on, and I played it a lot. It was the perfect music for me to hear during this nostalgic weekend!

The jazz performers were just as talented as the blues performers the night before, and it was great sitting along the Kanawha River for hours as the sun went down behind us and the stars came out in the night sky. The weather was perfect for the entire weekend (a bit of rain had fallen Friday afternoon, but had moved out before the show was to start, which may have also contributed to the lower attendance the first night). Coal barges moved up and down the river as pleasure boats anchored off the riverbank to listen on the festivities both nights. The entire event was a visual and auditory delight.

After Friday’s show, Anna and I walked the gravel trail the length of the riverbank and then down to the crew team’s boat dock in the dark to hang out on the river for a while. After Saturday’s show, we did what students of my era often did—hang out on the steps of the student union. From those steps, you could see all the way down to Dickinson Hall (the girls dorm) on your left, and both Benedum and Cox Halls (the boys dorms) to your right. It was a great meeting place in the days before video games and hundred-channel cable TV packages started keeping today’s students more isolated unto themselves in their rooms.

We then headed into our dorm, but (not having brought our own TV for just the weekend) decided to watch Saturday Night Live in the lounge. During my first two years on campus, I didn’t have a TV in my room, so the concept of watching TV in the lounge was not new to me. Not only did we get to watch SNL, but they also had an old-fashioned foosball table in the lounge—and it didn’t require quarters to play it. We had a good time before calling it a night.

All in all, we had a great weekend pretending to be college students again and living in a dormitory. It’s not possible to turn the clocks back to the late ‘70s, but I always enjoy revisiting my past. I am grateful for the good start to my adult life that I got at UC, as well as the sound academic foundation that enabled me to graduate from law school. Although I didn’t see as many alums from my era as I had hoped, Anna and I had such a good time that we will likely do this again in the future. After a weekend of re-living my college days, I will now head back to adult life and Monday morning at work. If only to be 18 again!

The old University of Charleston crew poster I brought with me to decorate my weekend dorm room, leaning on the bookshelf.

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