ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DALE SUDERMAN
Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of small colleges were founded by churches in America. Most shut down, some continue on as state universities-for example, Wichita State University.
The survivors continue to move between cycles of prosperity and poverty.
I graduated from such a school, Tabor College, in 1965-a small, liberal arts school founded in Hillsboro at the turn of the century by Mennonite Brethren immigrants from Russia.
Forty years later, I will join my classmates for a reunion and homecoming on campus in October.
I will stand in front of the remarkable Greek columns framing the administration building and ponder how the intellectual dreamers who founded Tabor persuaded dirt farmers to pay for such an alien extravagance.
(For decades, once a month a collection was taken up in Mennonite Brethren churches for unsere schule-[our school] Tabor College.)
I was a first-generation college student who had been outside of Kansas less than a dozen times with all the academic acumen that a one-room school and a bit of high school could provide a freshman.
(This was not unique in my class.)
Women wore skirts and men often wore suits and ties to class and carried briefcases filled with books and papers. We used formal names for professors, “Dr. Franz,” even though he was “L.J.” when out of earshot.
Church colleges struggled to get professors with advanced degrees due to their low salaries and a limited hiring pool.
(Today’s surplus of doctorates was unthinkable.)
Thus, the faculty was often very old or very young and just out of graduate school. But they all taught small classes, had open office doors and probably taught us best when they shared coffee breaks and meals with us.
We cranked out term papers using manual typewriters, carbon paper and white out. If we needed research materials, we depended on a slow inter-library loan system or a frantic late night trip to the Wichita State library.
Movies were forbidden, dances unthinkable, chapels compulsory and women (but not men) had a nightly curfew. Drugs were unknown.
(But adjacent towns were grateful for the beer sales from Tabor students.)
All-night study sessions were done at a gas station with a coffee shop located on old U.S. Highway 81, south of Newton.
Today, Newell’s continues to provide a term-paper and bull-session heaven for college students-and even female college students stay out late pretending to study.
My sister, Elva-then a secretary/bookkeeper at the MB Publishing house-typed some of my term papers.
“You can’t spell, your grammar is atrocious and your papers are boring,” she would say when she gave the finished product back to me.
Today, she edits my columns for the Free Press via the Internet but she still makes the same critique of my writing. (Sisters are the ultimate reality check.)
The outside world was very far away. Martin Luther King was a fiery preacher who got no closer than Bethel College and a third of the nearly all white Tabor student body was learning to say “Negro” without grimacing.
John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963. I remember this event in two ways. First, in October 1963, Tabor College got a torrent of national publicity because of students doing “Work Days” to raise money for the college.
I worked with the press agencies and they told me they would do a follow up story about Tabor in November.
When I called to inquire about the follow up stories, the reporters just laughed and said, “Forget it kid-Dallas is everything.”
Second, the death of JFK made the world seem suddenly less orderly and rational than I imagined it would be.
Vietnam was a cloud on the horizon no larger than a man’s fist-to paraphrase the prophet. A junior faculty member, Delbert Wiens, enthralled us with his experiences there as a relief worker in the 1950s.
But there was little discussion and certainly no protest of the looming war.
Yet in a few years the reality of Vietnam intruded. The draft forced the men in my class to serve as conscientious objectors or be drafted into the military. Others would avoid the issue through prolonged sanctuary in graduate schools or a “call” to the ministry.
I am returning to the school where I wrote my first student newspaper columns for the Tabor View. Now I write, “A View from Afar” from Chicago.
Tabor taught me to be more modern and less rural and traditional. But now I live in a world that is post-modern and I must struggle to learn what that means.