In the fall of 1947 my oldest brother, newly married and not long out of World War II, began to attend Hastings College on the G.I. Bill. That put Hastings College on the map for our family. Three years later, just before I entered tenth grade, the parental home moved from the edge of a village twenty-five miles away to a second floor apartment in the city of Hastings. There I became a city boy (after all, nearly 20,000 people lived there!), a student at an excellent high school, and a Hastings College prospect. Ten years after my first brother entered Hastings College, I graduated.
In all, five of us six brothers attended Hastings College; the sixth was already in the U.S. Naval Academy when our run on Hastings College began.
Most of the readers of this column have their own "Hastings College" that they remember with gratitude. In no way am I suggesting that mine was superior, but I am guessing that for most of us they were even better than we realized.
Because I lived off campus, College was not the same experience for me as it was for the residential students. But it was my experience. College was financially possible for me because I could live at home. At that time, anything else would have been impossible for us, and I appreciated what I had.
I wasn't much of a student, though. I worked too many hours off campus, and spent too much time acting in the college theater to be that focused as a student. I didn't become a good student until I was in my forties, working on my second graduate degree, and even getting a few "scholarly" articles published because of an editor who liked my stuff. I learned how to be a good student at Hastings, even though I didn't follow through at the time.
I am writing about Nebraska in the 1950's, with the men of the college mostly in denim jeans (called "levis" no matter who made them) and the women dressed to look good in their own eyes and the eyes of the Dean of Women - not to impress or dazzle the men. At least I wasn't impressed or dazzled. They looked like girls were supposed to look, which I found satisfactory.
I'm afraid, twerp that I was – I was barely seventeen when I started college - that I didn't appreciate the qualities of my male classmates. These guys from the sandhills weren't quite cowboys but they sounded like it. Then I passed by the Little Theatre one day, heard classical music that was beyond my capacity to understand much less name, and saw one of those cowboys at the grand piano playing from memory. Nobody else was there. He was playing for himself.
I suspect now that many of those cowboys were the sons of millionaires who had manure on their boots. In Nebraska, the Beef State, the smell of manure is the smell of money.
These are things about Hastings College that I realize now, that I wish I had known then:
- That Hastings College, like most church colleges before federal subsidies began pouring in, was a labor of love for the faculty, administration, churches, and students;
- That the faculty was good; until we went elsewhere to graduate school, we didn't realize how good.
- That the beauty of the campus, though run-down here and there from deferred maintenance, was an achievement, not an accident.
I also couldn't have guessed that the pleasant young man who worked for my oldest brother in the admissions office when I was a junior would become a very long-term member of the House of Representatives – or that the freshman boy whose English themes I was grading would succeed him in Congress.
At our fortieth reunion some of us renewed acquaintance. I realized that in their youth they had been good people, and in their prime they still were. I hope we can see them, and others, at our fiftieth in a couple of years.