Kenyon College Alumni
You are Kenyon

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

One step at a time

by Emily Resnik Conn ’85

I keep coming back to this story that, for me, defines a Kenyon education: the quintessential Kenyon story.

As a student, all through school, I did well enough on the essay portions of tests, but I always struggled with the multiple-choice portions. My time at Kenyon was no exception.

One semester, I was taking “Abnormal Psychology” with Michael Levine, and I was having this very problem. After I bombed on the multiple-choice portion of one exam, I went to speak with him in his office. We discussed the problem, he suggested a number of ideas to me, and, finally, he reminded me not to panic when I got to that portion. Instead, I should remember to take it all “one step at a time.”

The class was held in one of the bowling-alley type classrooms in Sam Mather--the long, narrow, auditorium-style rooms with stairs going up to the back of the room. On the day of the next exam, I purposely placed myself at the back of the room, away from the masses, so I could attempt to concentrate.

At Professor Levine’s suggestion, I tackled the essay portion of the exam first and got it over with so I could have all of the rest of the time to “struggle” (my word, not his) with the multiple-choice questions.

As I turned the page from the essays back to the multiple-choice portion, which had come first, Professor Levine started walking very slowly and deliberately up the stairs of the classroom--of which everybody in the classroom was well aware. And then he arrived right at my desk. He handed me a little ripped-off corner of a piece of paper.

I know there had to have been a collective gasp in that room as everyone, at the same time, probably wondered what happened and if I had been cheating.

On that ripped piece of paper I read five very simple words that, twenty-plus years since, have not been erased from my memory. Professor Levine watched me through the exam and waited for me to commence addressing the multiple-choice questions. As a morale booster, that little piece of paper simply said, “ONE STEP AT A TIME.”

I am still hard-pressed to think of any other educational institution where a student would get that type of attention from a professor. For nearly twenty-five years, Michael Levine’s concern has meant the world to me. It will never be forgotten.

The Kenyon Revue

by Douglas W. Downey ’51

During the spring semester of 1949, when I was a sophomore, I roomed with C. Ray Smith ’51, who was active in Kenyon’s drama group. I had recently written a little closet drama called “Modern Disc Jockey Technique in This, the Atomic Age” and had submitted it to The New Yorker. Ray, who had better taste than The New Yorker, which had sent me one of their snooty little rejection slips, thought it was hilarious. When he learned that Paul Newman ’49, who was then a senior, was seeking collaborators for a show he wanted to write, he recommended me.

I attended a brief meeting with Paul and several other potential collaborators, but I was the only one who would be able to remain at the College over spring break and get the show written. I was living in a small building that was part of a complex of temporary buildings (“the Barracks”) constructed to house returning war veterans. (In actual fact, they housed anyone who couldn’t be squeezed into the regular dormitories, whether they were veterans or not.) The smaller buildings were to be closed over spring break, but the largest one--the T-Barracks (named for the shape of its floor plan)--was to remain open. This is where Newman lived; bringing my Royal portable typewriter and a ream of paper, I moved in with him on the Saturday that spring break began. Our first order of business was to drive into Mount Vernon to purchase necessary supplies at the state liquor store: a fifth of Dixie Belle gin and a tiny bottle of dry vermouth.

The show was to be titled The Kenyon Revue. In the first act, the dean of a fictitious college called Kenyon was to take a prospective freshman on a tour of the campus. The second act, set in the local tavern, would be a sort of talent show, with various students doing vaudeville-like acts to entertain the prospective freshmen. The second act would more or less take care of itself; it was the first act we had to write.

The show was to be a musical. We’d pick tunes that everybody already knew, and Paul would write lyrics to fit. I’d write the dialogue. In practice, I did some of the lyrics and he wrote some of the dialogue, especially catch phrases and punch lines. We sat in his room, me at his desk in front of my typewriter, he on the lower bunk, and the words just flowed. We were very impressed with our cleverness and spent a great deal of time laughing at our own stuff. At five o’clock, we’d break out the Dixie Belle gin and sip our room-temperature martinis until it was time to go to the Village Inn for a bite. After dinner, we’d work some more, and at 10:00 p.m. we’d retire to Dorothy’s, the local tavern, for a couple of bottles of Old Dutch, a brand of beer that was to be lauded in one of the show’s concluding songs.

The principal characters were to be the college dean, whom we named Bailey (coincidentally the name of Kenyon’s actual dean at the time), and a prospective freshman tentatively named Doe. (Doe eventually became Dilly, the nickname of the student who played the role.) The original plan was for Paul to direct the show but not to act in it; I was to be the dean and I gave him the best lines. Paul then decided that the role needed an actor with more experience than I could offer and decided to take it himself.

We began writing on Saturday, and by Thursday’s martini-time we had completed our script. On Friday, Paul drove me in his Model A Ford into Mount Vernon, where I boarded the evening train--known to students as the Night Crawler--to Chicago. I arrived home the next morning and immediately began typing mimeograph stencils so we could duplicate the script. (The mimeograph was a Stone Age duplicating machine widely used by offices, schools, and churches--and by my father, who had obtained one when he set up a home office for his freelance advertising business.) The script for Act I filled twenty legal-size pages. There was no script for Act II.

I returned to Kenyon on Sunday with about fifty copies. Classes resumed the next day, and Paul immediately began assembling a cast. He picked a few of the usual suspects--fellows with acting experience--but also recruited jocks, boozers, intellectuals, and aesthetes. (These various groups were not necessarily mutually exclusive). We were not able to get access to Hill Theater in Shaffer Speech Building for our rehearsals--faculty members were putting on their own musical and had first dibs--so we used Rosse Hall instead.

Reading the script some sixty years later, I see much of the humor as being sophomoric (appropriately so, since I was a sophomore at the time), very much like what is found in the sitcoms of today. (Perhaps I missed my calling.) The lyrics, written almost entirely by Newman, are much better.

On May 3, 1949, we were finally able to get access to Hill Theater and held our dress rehearsal. The show ran on May 4 and 5. I have no memory of the actual performances, but I do have a copy of the program with notes I made at the time. The show was apparently a hit, but I was critical of many of the participants. In the “Cast” section, I noted that the actor who played Dilly (Dilly himself) was “was excellent for the job,” but after Newman’s name I wrote, “Miscast, but good job.” In the section where he was listed as the show’s director, I noted, without explanation, “Should never have directed.” Part of the problem was that he considered it to be his show--which it most assuredly was--while I considered it to be my show.

In the summer of 1949 I wrote a sequel: The Kenyon Preview. It took place in the distant future--1990, I believe. Unlike The Kenyon Revue, with its episodic first act and its amateur-show second act, the Preview was an actual drama. (Or so I thought.) It, too, was a musical, but I stole the music from classier sources than Paul had used. (One of the Revue’s tunes, for example, was from a radio commercial for bananas, another from a drinking song called “Fie on You Medical Bastards.” For the Preview, I used such material as Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” and Paul Dresser’s “On the Banks of the Wabash.”)

I was working that summer for an advertising agency in Chicago, filling in for vacationing women in the checking department. We leafed through newspapers and magazines to make sure the ads the agency had placed were actually running. I was able to do a day’s worth of checking in several hours, but I was ordered by the supervisor to slow down or I’d spoil it for the full-time employees. By carefully arranging the day’s work materials on my desk, I was able to camouflage what I was actually doing--writing a play.

I returned to Kenyon in the fall with my completed script and asked Jim Michael, chairman of the drama department, how I should proceed.

“When you’ve assembled a cast,” he told me, “we can talk about finding time for you to use the theater.”

Assemble a cast?

Clearly, I was no Paul Newman and the Preview went no further. It was an excellent piece of work, I’m sure. But the script has disappeared, so I don’t have to face the disillusionment that might occur if I were to read it today.

Pledge Master: Another Perspective

By Thomas “Art” Hensley ’68

Dwight “Hatch” Hatcher ’70 (who later worked in Kenyon’s admissions office from 1976 to 1978) had a sometimes stentorian voice, and the build of a drill instructor, so he was the perfect choice to be the Beta Theta Pi pledge master for 1967-68. It was his job to keep the pledges in line and make them do things like study or paint the hallways of South Leonard, and to assign them sometimes silly and sometimes profane nicknames (pity John Foulkrod ’70). The pledges from the Class of 1972 were a creative mass, and one had access to a plane. Hatch was kidnaped and taken by air to a small airport outside Pittsburgh, I believe it was, and left there wearing nothing but his underwear. He was able to call his mom collect, I recall, and make his way back to Gambier. The pledge class’s punishment was that they had to buy a keg and share it with the upperclassmen, or something like that. If Murray Horwitz was the funniest person from that era, Hatch was probably next in line.

Pledge Master

by Dwight D. Hatcher II ’70

I was the Beta Theta Pi pledge master in 1967, and as many will recall, it was fratclub protocol for the pledges to kidnap the pledge master. Working the last dinner shift at Peirce Hall, I was approached by one of my pledges--I believe it was Chris Myers ’71 (All-American footballer)--who managed a doleful expression and sad tale about a home-town honey as I recall. Eager to show that I was not simply the cruel, humiliating director of the weekly lineups, I tossed a paternal arm around his shoulder--metaphorically, since he was much taller than I--and encouraged him to share his pain. As we emerged from the Peirce loading dock, the other pledges surrounded me and announced that I was being taken for a ride. They tossed me into a car and drove to the Mount Vernon airport, where they had rented a small plane and secured the services of one of the student pilots (there was lots of giggling and cackling at the misery they were about to visit on me), exacting just vengeance, in their minds, for my harsh reign.
They flew me to Dubois, a town about the size of Mount Vernon, located in northern central Pennsylvania. They almost literally tossed me out of the plane, and I made my way to the “terminal,” which, despite its small size, had a rather cozy bar that appeared to be home to a cast of local regulars who were so dazzled by my story that I was supplied with drinks for the rest of the evening while the bartender helped me make arrangements to fly to Pittsburgh. The mail plane flew to Pittsburgh twice each evening, the first to the main airport and a later flight to a smaller, general-aviation airport. By 9:30 p.m., I was on the plane and headed to the smaller of the two airports, which necessitated my hitchhiking across Pittsburgh in the middle of the night on a very cold February 13. Dressed in jeans, a black t-shirt, and a loden coat, sporting a three-day growth of beard, and a day or so away from a shower, I think I ended up walking most of the way, arriving at the main airport around 5:00 a.m. I warmed up and dozed for an hour and then approached the United Airlines counter and explained my situation (I had about $3 on me) and that I needed a ticket to Columbus. The counter folks were amused and pretty accommodating, telling me that if I could get someone to vouch for me, they would front me the $30 ticket for the 8:00 a.m. flight. So, I found myself calling my mom at 7:00 a.m., wishing her a Happy Valentine’s Day from Pittsburgh (Who loves ya, Mom?), and then passing the phone to a ticket agent who took down her name and address (credit cards were pretty rare among common folk) and, assured that United would get paid, issued me a ticket.
One of the last to board the plane, I was greeted by the stewardess (in that era, they all looked like they were from the Miss America pageant) who ushered me to a first-class seat despite my grubby--very grubby--appearance and pungent aroma because I think my tale had so amused and amazed the airline staff. Last I recall of the flight, I was being offered freshly squeezed OJ, some sort of breakfast entree (actual food), a warm, damp towel (their idea, no doubt!), and some Jordan almonds. I had called South Leonard before boarding and gotten Greg Johnson to pick me up at the airport. He drove a white ’Vette, and he had me back in Gambier by 10:30 a.m. I showered and headed for lunch at Peirce. The whole incident was known to all eight hundred of us, and as I came through the doors of the Great Hall, applause rippled along the main aisle as I walked up to the top of the hall and the Beta tables, filled with smirking pledges who figured that I would probably never return. As their heads turned toward the applause, the smirks disappeared. Ironically, and much to my amusement, on their return from Dubois, the pledges’ plane had to land near Cleveland when an engine warning light went on, and so I actually beat them back to campus. It was a very good year.