Unlike so many Columbia students today, as well as those from years past, as a high school student I didn't worry about what college I would attend. I was an excellent student and had already, in my senior year, been sent invitations from several universities interested in me attending their institution.
My family and I had only been in the United States for four years when I graduated from high school in Dallas, Texas. We arrived there from London, where I grew up. I had gone to an all-boys school there, preparing for Oxford or Cambridge, and had been academically very well prepared. I really wanted to go to the University of Texas at Austin, where I had already been exposed, on several occasions, to the pleasures of big-time football and fraternity life.
Sadly, my father had other plans for me. As far as he was concerned, there was only one university in the United States worth attending, and it was Columbia.
I had been an officer in the National Honor Society, president of the High Scholarship Club as well as a member of five other clubs. I had had my paintings exhibited in the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (now the Dallas Museum of Art) in my senior year. So quite naturally I, a brazen 16-year-old, thinking how lucky Columbia would be to have me, only applied to Columbia.
I was accepted, but imagine my horror after a few days of classes when I soon learned how much brighter, better prepared, and academically accomplished my classmates were than I was. I knew that I was in trouble in a math class when I was having difficulty following the complicated equations being written on the chalkboard by our professor, and one of my classmates pointed out to him that he had made a mistake several steps back.
I soon learned that many of my classmates were graduates of Stuyvesant and Bronx High School of Science, probably the best public schools in the nation at the time. They were smart, aggressive, ambitious, and mostly the first in their families to attend college. If I remember correctly, despite our small class size, Columbia had more students go on to medical school than any other university in the nation.
It was painful at first to find myself in such a group where I was no longer the smartest in the bunch, but I soon came to not only appreciate this challenging atmosphere but to embrace it.
Columbia at that time had some of the finest and most highly regarded professors in the nation: C. Wright Mills, Moses Hadas, Lionel Trilling, Mark Van Doren, and Polykarp Kusch, to name just a few. And we undergraduates were all taught by full professors, not by graduate students.
The combination of exceptional teachers and bright articulate classmates made for me the best of all possible environments for growth and learning, and I shall ever be grateful for the four years I spent there. My closest friends are still the ones I made then, and they are as challenging and creative now as they were when we were young, in spite of us being in our 80s.
Of course, as students, we were involved in both the internal world of the university of which we were a part and the outside world as well.
Perhaps the most frightening period was during the McCarthy era when professors in the university and those elsewhere were being accused of being Communists or in sympathy with them. We were all glued to the television set during the hearings and spent many hours in discussion of the serious dangers that lay ahead if McCarthy and his henchmen were to succeed in their witch hunts.
There were happier occasions too, like the 1954 celebration of Columbia's bicentennial anniversary, attended by dignitaries from around the world.
Not to be forgotten, of course, were the infamous panty raids that occurred quite frequently throughout the decade. The Columbia men, as I recall, entered the Barnard buildings, after which the cops came, and there was quite a display of sirens and lights on Broadway. It wasn't a one-way affair, as the girls got into it too, throwing their bras and panties out of their dorm windows.
I remember that the newspaper reports referred to the boys as marauding beasts (or something like that) scooping up trophies as the "terrified" girls looked on. It was great fun, enjoyed by both sides as I remember.
Courtesy of Leonard Wolfe
At the time, Columbia College was all male, so we dated Barnard girls quite regularly. I was romantically involved with one my senior year and wonder what ever happened to her and the other girls I dated during the four years at Columbia. I always found them to be quite intelligent, charming, and beautiful, despite the occasional snide remarks made by some Columbia boys at the time.
I was in a fraternity—Phi Gamma Delta—with a house on 114th Street. We always had Saturday night parties attended by many Barnard girls, who were personally invited there by the fraternity brothers. So, over time I got to know many of them who were dating others.
Among other fond members, going back to our first year, there was also the election of Dwight Eisenhower, who was president of Columbia when we entered. From the campaign trail, he sent our first-year class a note of congratulations filled with words of wisdom. It was a nice gesture.
And as any good University president should, he sided with Columbia, his alma mater, when we played Army. When asked who he was going to support he replied, "I'm rooting for Columbia." Later, he added, "The cadets may express displeasure, but even though I played on the cadet team this memory is not as close to me as Columbia." What a diplomat.
Looking back over the four years I spent at Columbia, there were so many events that are worth remembering. There are too many to mention in detail, but a look at some headlines tell a little of the times:
At one point, I was also taking a philosophy seminar in which I was one of two students. The professor kept us quite late, and I missed a date with a very charming Barnard girl from Baltimore, which is where my family lived. I never had a chance to apologize as it was graduation time, and somehow things got in the way. I still feel guilty about that some 50 years or so later. It's silly, I know.
Leonard Wolfe CC '56
The author received his B.A. in philosophy and literature as a member of the Columbia College class of 1956. He received his M.F.A. in graphic design from the Yale School of Architecture in 1958. Click here to read the other pieces in this week's Scope.
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