John Eby: 40 years after Woodstock, I’m ready to go to college again

Published 8:45 am Monday, August 17, 2009

ebyA longing gaze must have crossed my face – or maybe I was just drooling – because several people told me Sunday I looked like I wanted to return to college. Who wouldn’t?
While I haven’t given up on the newspaper industry, Southwestern Michigan College Board of Trustees Chairman Fred Mathews was ready to sign me up for classes. He decided I’m male nurse material.

College combined the mobility of adulthood with the absence of mortgages and kids.
Not only did I see “Animal House” with Greeks when it was new, but the scene where they shoot the horse was filmed in our former president’s office.

This came to mind while touring Keith McKenzie Hall, SMC’s first residence hall and home to 130 students when classes start on my birthday. A year from now there will be another dorm so 260 students can live a complete college experience.

As I told college officials when they first hatched this idea, I would have attended SMC, which in those days was more like high school with ashtrays than the awesome experience available today. I played in SMC’s pep band with Al Potter when I was in seventh grade.

I graduated at 17, took some tests and, by the time I turned 18, and could legally tend bar at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, I was a college sophomore.

The country club back at school had no interest in hiring me until I mentioned where I toiled for two summers.

I still have a Grand letter saying I’m welcome back any time.

I wrote news releases for the university, including one feature on a student eating steak and watching TV while living in a tent to save money, which appeared in papers across the country. I gave campus tours for Student Foundation. SF created Captain Kilowatt, a costumed superhero who went around campus saving energy.

I truly do envy the high-caliber dorm living SMC students are going to enjoy. I toured the Cleveland Institute of Art dorm last month and it reminded me more of where I lived than SMC.

When I moved off-campus it was into a three-guy apartment over a garage since torn down.

Being born in the peak year of the baby boom was grade school all over again. At Patrick Hamilton, where I first worked on a paper, we never had a gym because a curtain hung down the middle dividing it into two classrooms.

At college, where it rained all fall, we double-bunked five guys in a four-man room with a common area in the center. No kitchen, just a filthy bathroom.

SMC’s security suites appeal to me because my first roommate, Still Bill, whom we paid $5 to swallow a goldfish, was one of those guys who saved himself from drugs with religion as a crutch. He kept “hiding” my Alice Cooper eight-tracks as “devil’s music.” Phil was a studious senior surrounded by freshmen. He eventually got into medical school and became a doctor, but shocked us all when he took his own life.

Chuck married Pam, who acclimated me to my first computer. He was like the missing link, a menacing football player who could pitch softballs with his feet, but also the Betty Crocker home economics champion of his Thumb school.

Mark was there on a basketball scholarship, pining away for his girlfriend in Ohio.
He left after first semester and last I knew was spearing trash with a stick on the turnpike, reported some Dowagiac Lions who met him. Another Mark was a Marching Chip on trombone.

He spent so much time with his pants cuffs rolled up that he became Huck, like Finn.
I also roomed with Don, a gay guy whose father owned a downriver strip club.

We had an area in the lobby with a television. I rarely went there because upperclassmen ruled it, but happened to be there for the 1975 debut of a new show, “Saturday Night Live.”

The only way our dorm room ever had a decorating scheme was if milk crates matched.
My college selection process was no more sophisticated than Ron Kirkwood went there, so I would, too. He was an “in” as sports editor of the paper.
I lived on Terrace, a euphemism for basement.

We lived under the head resident, so occasionally when Mark tested his stereo with Wings’ “Beware My Love” or the Uriah Hump he loved, Uncle Miltie would drop down. I ran into Bill near the Ren Cen when Mike and I went to Cobo Hall for a Bob Seger concert that wound up on the live album “Nine Tonight.” I knew little about the regional rocker who made it to the Hall of Fame except for “Get Out of Denver,” which he never played at concerts I heard, but he was the first concert I saw in old Finch Fieldhouse (even Blue Oyster Cult’s laser show had trouble penetrating the pot smoke).

At Rose Arena, where I saw Larry Bird set a scoring record in one half the week he was on the SI cover, Seger played a new song, “Night Moves.”

The late, great Harry Chapin, came to Boogie Records and signed autographs.
What SMC calls college life is all I remember. I cut loose after being serious in high school and reinvented myself.
I saw Jane Fonda, Jerry Rubin, Mark Lane on the JFK assassination, Vincent Bugliosi on Charles Manson and concerts, from Kiss (sans makeup at a time Gene Simmons was dating Cher) to Ram Jam (“Black Betty”).
My African politics prof, who married a Dowagiac girl, brought in a speaker who turned out to be Alan Paton, author of “Cry the Beloved Country.” I had reporting classes with John Grogan, author of “Marley and Me,” and participated in the Guinness Book of World Records lap sit.

We played a lot of ping-pong and climbed the fence to sled down the football stadium on cafeteria trays. My picture appeared in CM Life delivering a football onto the field at Northern Michigan that we ran across the Upper Peninsula.

I lobbied Syl, a friend on Program Board, to bring Dr. Hunter S. Thompson to campus, but it never happened because of his gonzo antics at previous appearances. College is best summed up by Animal House’s “We can do anything we want, we’re college students.” An invincible feeling guides you at that age.

But it whizzes by like a comet and comes around again about as often, so enjoy dorm life.
And see you at nursing school.

John Eby is Daily News managing editor. E-mail him at john.eby