I was still living at 3607 Baring St. – the home of the kitten with two broken legs – when I started at Penn in 1957. I almost didn’t end up at Penn and have no idea what would have become of me if I hadn’t.
The only colleges I applied to were Penn and Harvard. I got on the Harvard waiting list, but also received something called the Philadelphia Mayor’s Scholarship that, at the time, paid full tuition to Penn (the lordly sum of $1,000 a year). So I should have been a shoo-in for Penn admission – and would have been but for the minor impediment of my high school failing to send my transcript.
Luck again: An amazingly concerned man in Penn admissions (I wish I could recall his name) took the trouble to phone and ask if I had decided to change my mind, since the transcript had not come through. He asked me to come in for a meeting, where he made it clear that he (and the university) were definitely interested in my attendance, so he hounded the high school until they finally produced my papers.
On one level, I owe this man my mental life. A square-faced presence with a deep baritone voice, he treated me like an equal and was caring-decency personified. Many years later, while a recovered alcoholic, he phoned me for reasons my memory can’t decipher (maybe he’d read one of my columns in the Welcomat?), and, like so many recovered alcoholics, could talk about nothing beyond being a recovered alcoholic. We had a couple good chats, but at heart I wish he hadn’t made those calls and shattered my idealistic (and unrealistic) mental portrait of him.
Did the failure to send my records reflect a simple oversight on the high school’s part, or was it more deliberate? I suspect the latter. St. Thomas More was a hidebound Catholic holding tank, where the sour-faced, sour-dispositioned principal had boomed his displeasure that I would dare apply only to secular colleges, rather than attending a local Catholic enclave. I have to credit my mother – an intelligent, independent soul – for insisting that I aim for the best. If only she had done so earlier and not propelled me through eight years of Papist mindpoop.
At Penn, besides side-stepping math and science (by sliding sideways into courses like symbolic logic), I tanked up on English, philosophy, anthropology, the social sciences and comparative religion – but majored in journalism.
Journalism was widely recognized as the most useless major on campus. Its anemic requirements suited me because they left room for more electives than any other major, at a time when limiting electives was a defining trait of Penn’s old-school outlook.
Most of the journalism classes were held in a condemned rowhouse that had once served as a magistrate’s court. The teacher would sit behind the old wooden railing, under weak, low-hung ceiling lights. Ancient wallpaper peeled in strips.
The department chair, a small, withered man, would shake with suppressed rage as he verbally flayed former Penn president (and occasional U.S. presidential candidate) Harold Stassen. If he had once known the fundamentals of journalism, they had become lost in a mildewed haze. The summer after he retired, he shot himself. A year later, the department was disbanded.
What about the real classes? My tops was a lit course on drama taught by Gerald Weales, then in his first year at Penn. He’d published reviews here, there and elsewhere and was coming out with a book on off-off-Broadway. Wide-faced, wide-mouthed, goofy-grinned, he’d sit on his desk, legs crossed, looking like a giant frog. But god could that man dissect and analyze plays.
For The Chalk Garden, by Enid Bagnol, he read the article he’d written for a journal. Enlightening, riveting, complete. Twenty years later, Gerald wrote reviews for me at the Welcomat, an odd and humbling turnaround.
Froelich Rainey taught an introductory archaeology course in the bowels of the University Museum, of which he was then director. Rainey was also host of “What in the World?” the only TV quiz show ever devoted to anthropology and archaeology, in which experts (including Penn’s Carleton Coon) attempted to identify odd artifacts that had been retrieved.
In class, Rainey was folksy, approachable, with a meandering storytelling style that didn’t impart a lot of information but certainly entertained. The most fun was walking to the course through one of the most intriguing museums in the world.
I took a criminology course with Thorsten Sellin, then a major figure in criminology. He was also well into his 60s, with startlingly bad teeth and a lecturing style that could bore the siding off a clapboard house. The class was held in a sad old room on the second floor of College Hall, right after lunch when my digestion wanted none of it. To look minimally interested and keep myself awake I’d prop my eyelids open with my fingers.
I had scarfed up so many courses that by mid senior year I was one credit short of graduating a semester early – something I’d taken so little note of that I piled on five more courses. I ended up tenth in my class without putting out significant effort.
Along the way, I went to an on-campus “performance” by Ayn Rand. A nasty, snarling lady, she grumbled on about the fundamental need to choose between “reason” and “whim.” During the concluding Q and A session, someone in the audience asked her, “How do you make the choice? Isn’t that choice itself based on whim?” an interesting question that deserved discussion. Rand’s response: “Humph!” and she stomped off stage. I’ve never since had the least respect for her or anything she might have promulgated (but then, I’d never had any respect for her before either).
I scouted a few of the fraternities during their annual sort-out-the-freshmen tour of the frat houses. Non-joiner that I’d always been, I should have known better. I skirted the pre-Animal House ones where the inmates threw water on people who passed below their windows (at least you hoped it was water). A couple others seemed friendly, so though as ill at ease as ever, I settled on one that felt gentle and decent. With the gentlest and decentest of obliteration, they rejected me out of hand. I felt as much relieved as chagrined.
Where I failed most miserably was in phys ed. Passing swimming was a requirement for graduation at Penn. (Why, for shit’s sake? I wasn’t planning to live underwater!) I’ve never been fond of the ocean and had not felt the need to learn to swim (despite older-brother Rod having been a champion swimmer in New York City schools).
So once a week I struggled the length of the pool in the Hutchinson Gym, invariably getting great snorts of chlorinated water up by nose. At last I managed to agonize through the required 36 lengths, mostly using sidestroke and backstroke. To this day I haven’t figured how to coordinate my breathing to allow me to turn my head under water without incipient suffocation.