EXCERPTS FROM THE MAKING OF A MINISTER’S WIFE
BY ANNA FRENCH JOHNSON – A STUDENT IN THE ACADEMY DIVISION OF HASTINGS COLLEGE DURING THE ACADEMIC YEARS
1885-86 AND 1886-87
Recalling her decision to enter the Academy Division of Hastings College, Anna French wrote as follows in the 1930s:
When the time came, I journeyed with a group of companions to Hastings College. No Rhodes Scholar arriving at Oxford ever had a greater thrill than was mine as I gazed for the first time upon the rows of spindly trees and the two great gaunt red-brick buildings that comprised the Hastings campus in the mid-eighties.
The girls’ dormitory was newly finished that fall. The harassed president, Doctor William F. Ringland, was struggling to provide accommodations for the rapidly arriving girls. All over the state, Presbyterian women’s societies were raising money to furnish individual rooms.
Twenty precious dollars reposed deep in my skirt pocket, given to me by the York society to furnish my half of the bedroom. This, joined to the twenty that Maud, my roommate, brought from the Plum Creek ladies, bought a complete outfit for our room and alcove. Our forty dollars purchased an ingrain carpet, a study table, two straight chairs, and a rocker, a wash-stand and the necessary crockery, flowered silkoline for curtains, and for the drapery around a dry-goods-box dressing-table, a shaded oil lamp, and a bed. I mention that bed last because of its tendency to buckle in the middle of the night and let us down on the bare alcove floor with a thud. How often we two scrambled out of the wreckage, dazed and sleepy, to wrestle with the slats and side-pieces!
During those first unsettled weeks, Dr. Ringland appealed to us, more than once, to share our room with some belated girl until he could sprint old Prince downtown for another bed and bureau. It was one of these three-in-a-bed emergencies that brought me one of my life-long friends – Virginia H. Corbett. She spent her first night at College in that temperamental bed with us. Of course it collapsed, so we were soon acquainted. All of her busy years afterward as a college dean of women never dimmed the memory of that night.
This normal, happy school life, where no one had any money, and where everyone worked his way, was ideal for me. I was one of the lucky girls who waited on table – the president’s table! It was a scramble to get down in time on dark, cold mornings; and sometimes I was too tired to eat. However, one lesson learned in that dormitory pantry has been invaluable to me as a minister’s wife – and that is how to sharpen a carving knife. I have since whetted countless dull knives at home, at Ladies’ Aid Bazaars, and at Sunday-School picnics.
Of late years I have read indictments of the small co-educational school, but my own experience at Hastings proved it to be a pretty good training for living. The students came from religious-minded pioneer families. We were not enervated by luxuries. Though it has long since become patrician, the once-plebian prune still gives me a bit of a qualm. President Ringland had to buy them by the barrel – it was that or the monotony of choke-cherries, wild plums, and wild grapes.
Each girl bought her own coal at twelve dollars a ton, and then lugged it upstairs from her private coal-bin located out in the wind-swept backyard. Usually it took two girls to do this – one to shovel coal into the scuttle, and the other to fight off the belligerent old turkey gobbler who made our lives a misery until the President gave him to us just before Thanksgiving Day. The turkey story is one of the legends of the College. The boys who did not board at the dormitory stole the bird after he was ready for the oven. The boys who boarded in the dorm traced him to a downtown baker’s oven, rescued him, and brought him back in an old suitcase in the night, dripping a trail of sizzling juice along the street. The dormitory cook welcomed him with relief and finished him to a turn by Thanksgiving noon. Triumphantly, we ate him behind locked doors, with the defeated mob howling outside.
Our crockery water-pitchers had to be filled from the pump in the same backyard. Hot water was achieved by heating it on our own tiny stoves. Nobody grumbled. The President himself carried coal and water, and shoveled out ashes.
When I hear talk these days about the dangers of co-education, I smile as I remember Hastings College. There were no fraternities, no sororities, no organized athletics. Our chief diversion was gathering around the piano in a certain professor’s third-floor apartment and singing at the top of our voices to his wife’s accompaniments. This was exactly as romantic as being near one’s beloved-of-the-moment at a football game or a movie today.
Moonlight walks were as popular then as they are now, and for the same reason. When one of the boys was in funds, he would escort the girl of his choice downtown to lavish upon her a nickel dish of ice-cream. Don’t think we had no fun! No modern institution ever staged a more hilarious stampede than Maud and I occasioned when we introduced the style of bobbed hair. It had a serious origin, for because of frequent headaches, Maud’s physician ordered the removal of her heavy hair. It was unthinkable in that day. Finally I offered to keep her company. My hair was long, and I was rushed with my work and with my efforts to learn to study.
Late one afternoon, we sneaked down to a barber-shop, an unfamiliar place for girls then. An hour later, two forlorn-looking figures with their hats down over their ears and small packages under their arms, trudged back through the wintry dusk feeling very, very queer. Quietly we slipped into the dining-room. One and another looked up, and presently the whole room was in a tumult. We stood it bravely – or I did – until my special admirer broke out with a groan, “Oh, Jo, your only beauty!”
Within six weeks, Nebraska was a state full of exasperated mothers, for nearly every girl in the dormitory had short locks. We were very happy about it and adopted blue flannel caps with ribbon bands across the front, bearing the words, “Hastings College” stamped in gilt. We felt quite collegiate until we heard the remark, as we passed along the street, “Humph, they look like a bunch of railroad brakemen, don’t they?” – Which considerably damaged our pride.
Perhaps the strongest influence at Hastings was the one of which I was least conscious at the time. It came from the students themselves. An astonishing proportion of the boys were planning on entering the ministry, and a number of them were foreign-mission volunteers. Many of the girls were engaged to marry these same budding ministers. Although I firmly turned down several invitations to join this band of future ministers’ wives, and although I was still convinced that I would never marry a farmer or a minister, I know now how deep an impression their devotion to a great cause made upon me.