Janet L. Carpenter
A friend of mine confessed to me not long ago that she had just undergone a slight but rather painful shock. This friend comes of sturdy middle-class English ancestry and like her forbears is decidedly conservative. It does not occur to her to part with her comfortable furniture because its style (in household stuff) dates back to her own childhood. A short time ago a rather recent acquaintance of hers came in to call. The conversation chanced to light upon the subject of furniture, whereupon the caller commented admiringly upon what she called my friend’s “antiques.” The owner of the antiques later confessed to me that, realizing as she did, that she and her chairs and tables were now nearly of the same age, she was more than a little startled at the implication of her own antiquity.
I felt something of the same shock when I realized that I had been asked to talk on the subject of “Pioneering in Education.” Merciful heavens: Was I as old as that? I survived the shock very comfortably, as you can see. No native New Englander is ever very much impressed with the number of birthdays he has weathered. Later, when I took time to look back to my undergraduate days in Hastings College, I had to admit that those were still the days of pioneers. We weren’t so many years away from the fear of Indian raids and the plagues of grasshoppers. I can hardly yet realize that when I entered college the school was barely six years old, the town itself still well under twenty. Certainly the men who ventured to plant a college here in those days deserve the name “pioneers.”
My father, whose forbears had been content, generation after generation, to remain in the same small section of New England, had broken the family tradition and moved West. Our westward migration was interrupted by a brief pause in Iowa, where five-foot snowbanks in winter, bottomless mud in spring, and floods that inundated the town in two successive summers put us out of liking with that particular part of the country and inspired us to continue our westward trek. My father decided to seek a higher – and drier – country. He found it.
Not immediately, however. You who in these lonesome latter years have grown up on drouths and dust storms and grasshoppers, would never guess what was our first introduction to Hall County, Nebraska, on our way to Adams County and Hastings. We had reached Grand Island without incident. There we transferred from the transcontinental express to a very abbreviated little train and started across country, south. But we didn’t get far. It was June, and the Platte was out of its banks. Banks! It had no banks. So far as we could see, there was nothing to stop it from spreading clear across the state, if there was enough water coming down. And it looked as if there were.
It was no use. We couldn’t get across. So our little train backed cautiously away from the river and returned to Grand Island, where we spent our first night in Nebraska in a hotel facing a street lined with more saloons than I had ever seen before, all told, in the whole of my brief existence.
The next afternoon we tried it again, and this time we got across. It was a thrilling ride, for the river was still so high that in some places the water was over the tracks. I remember standing with my brother at the rear of the train looking out over an expanse of water that dwarfed anything I had seen since I had had my last sight of the Atlantic Ocean. I little dreamed that years later I should go picnicking, as I had done, on the Platte River, in the midst of an expanse of sand almost as wide as the expanse of water at which I was then gazing.
Our arrival in Hastings was nothing like so thrilling as our approach had been. It was dark when we reached the town, and when we awoke the next morning, Hastings was revealed to us as the flattest, crudest, most treeless piece of desolation that human perversity had ever denominated a town.1
I arrived in Hastings a very small eighth grader, so my interest was centered chiefly on the high school. However, it was only a week or two until I was escorted out to the east part of town by my ambitious Dad to see the new and equally ambitious college I was sometime to attend.
The half mile that still lies between the St. Joe tracks and the campus no longer seems a very great distance; but when there were no trees and no fences and only three or four houses in the whole half mile, it seemed much longer. The stretch wasn’t absolutely treeless, for University Avenue had already been laid out and been given its imposing name; however, the trees were saplings, their trunks still so slender that I could almost have closed the fingers of one hand around them.
McCormick Hall had been completed and looked just as it does today. Ringland was under construction. It was to be the girls’ dormitory, and when I was in college, it was.
Four years at high school passed very quickly. Meanwhile the town grew, amazingly; the College grew; I grew – a little, though I turned up at college a very minute and unnoticeable freshman. Strange as it may seem, I have no recollection of any registration days. How I got located in my classes I have no idea. Who advised me, or whether anyone did, I do not know. In any case I did not get such a bad line-up for my freshman year: college algebra, a fifth year of Latin – I had had four in high school – German, Greek, English, and Bible. Very old-fashioned, and pretty stiff for a small freshman, but we had all our time for study; “activities” hadn’t yet spread this far west.
So far as I can recall, there were no classrooms at that time in Ringland Hall; all classes were held in McCormick. Classes, of course, were small. I remember that Dr. William F. Ringland, who was our president, held his classes in a room that was later an office on the first floor of McCormick. How well I remember those classes of Doctor Ringland’s. I had my psychology with him, and the history of philosophy, and I also had him for two of my Bible courses: Uhlhorn’s Conflict of Christianity with Heathenism and Canon Farrar’s History of Free Thought. I think these last two courses, which were certainly not milk for babes, must have come in my junior or senior years, though I am not sure. At all events, they were fascinating courses that greatly enlarged my eager young mind.
At this distance, I have some difficulty in keeping the experiences of my college life sorted out and assigned to the four successive years; but one experience of my freshman year – a most unacademic experience – I have no difficulty in recalling. It was the custom in those days, along in the spring, to have what was known as “the Freshman Picnic.” The whole school attended, faculty and students; but the freshmen had the responsibility of attending to all the arrangements. As you might naturally suppose, this outing was largely a date affair. Now I was tremendously fond of picnics, but I had no particular enthusiasm about dates. Oh, the boys were all right; in fact I liked them – that is, some of them. Dates were all right too, say for a party, or the theatre, or some other evening entertainment. But for a picnic – no! Who wanted a boy tagging one around all day at a picnic? And so one small freshman rather disloyally elected to remain at home.
But there was in our class a couple – really a couple – engaged, you understand. Engaged couples among college students weren’t very common in those days, so Ed and Bertha were rather distinguished. Just how old these two young people were I really have no idea; to me they seemed years older than I, though I don’t believe they could have been. I was fond of them both. Ed and I were in the same Greek class, and we used frequently to translate our lessons together.
Of course Ed and Bertha were going to the picnic. And what did that kind-hearted young couple do but ask me to go along with them! Can you feature it? And I went! We drove down to the “Blue” – in a one-seated buggy. How many times I have laughed over the recollection of that drive!
What Ed and Bertha did all day I can’t say. As for me, I have only the vaguest memories of the picnic – eating potato salad (which I did not like) for lunch, and being swung in a big swing by some big boy – but I didn’t lack for entertainment. There was a delightful little river – I’d have called it a brook – and a fine big mill pond with rowboats on it, and big trees, elms and cottonwoods, overgrown with wild grapevines, and an old flour mill that was really grinding flour. Oh, it was quite a perfect day! And the drive home just after sunset was beautiful. Ed and Bertha were married later and finally drifted out of my knowledge, but I have always loved them.
As I noted previously, I have tried, sometimes, to sort out into their respective years the various subjects that made up my college course of study, but with little success. It was all a four years’ feast to my greedy young mind, though in what order the viands were served I cannot tell you. I know that Greek lasted the four years, and I loved every bit of it. Three years of German satisfied me, and a year and a half of math. I suspect that our laboratory equipment in those days must have been very meager, but even with poor equipment a year each of chemistry, biology, and physics served a least to make me an interested and fairly intelligent recipient of later information in all three of those fields, though with physics always as my prime favorite. A semester’s dip into geology for some reason left me cold to that science, and a similar dip into astronomy did little more for me. History appealed to me. Strange as it may seem, I can recall but one of my English courses, and that only in the vaguest fashion. I must have had others, but I have no idea what they were. But don’t think I didn’t get a course in literature! We had open stacks in our library in those days – wide open. Our library was housed in what later became the mathematics room in McCormick Hall. The room was a little larger in those days, before the east end had been partitioned off for offices, and there was an east window that afforded a fine view off across the Nebraska prairies. Many a time have I sat in class facing the east window and watched a little Burlington train puffing busily off for Aurora, that town with the charming classical name. Yes, we had classes in the library – Greek classes. Somehow Aeschylus and Sophocles are all mixed up in my mind with books – delightful shelves of books – and east windows opening out toward level horizons. One could not have read the Antigone or the Oedipus and Colonus under happier circumstances.
Classrooms have changed considerably since those early days, and offices have sprung up all over the place in most unlikely locations. My office, for instance, at that time was nothing but a sort of back eddy of the main hall – no partition between –†a vacant and rather unsightly space where the boys were allowed to hang their coats and hats. The four classrooms on the first floor of McCormick remained unchanged. As for Ringland, while its exterior remained unaltered, its interior was remodeled so many times that the oldest inhabitants could hardly recall its original anatomy. As I have told you, it was at that time the girls’ dormitory, and I do recall that in my day, discreet young gentlemen and demure young ladies had their tender passages in the section of the building in which Mr. Jones and his assistants later carried on the college business – and directly across the hall were the rooms of the black-eyed preceptress.
1Although the word “dominated” appears at this point in the early typescript (which purports to have been transcribed from Professor Carpenter’s handwritten notes), we believe she intended the sentence to read: “Hastings was revealed to us as the flattest, crudest, most treeless piece of desolation that human perversity had ever denominated a town.”