Recollections of Davidson College, 1946-1950
(For this column the editors are happy to share some reminiscences by a guest columnist, Bill DuBose, Davidson class of 1950.)
Freshman orientation marks the first vivid recollection I associate with my experience at Davidson. We were assembled in the auditorium for a review of the college’s Rules and Regulations. Prominent was the “fear of God” demand that the consumption of alcoholic beverages while a student would result in expulsion from the student body. Upon dismissal from this session, my roommate, who was known by his friends as “Bum,” led the way as we returned to 409 East. Once in the room, Bum locked the door and retrieved a wooden lockbox, from which he drew a fifth of distilled spirits. Forthwith, he went directly to the lavatory, opened the bottle, and poured its contents down the drain. Not being a participant in such activities, in the following four years only one time did I again view a liquor bottle on the campus, that in the Kappa Sigma house on a dance weekend. There were a couple of watering holes frequented by my friends. One was a beer joint just over the county line in Iredell and the other, the Bamboo Room in the Barringer Hotel in Charlotte, or so I was told.
In more recent years, I have been reminded of the many other ways that college life today differs from my experience. About the year 2000, I was attending a Davidson baseball game when a student took her seat in front of me. As she spread her personal effects on the seat beside her, I was reminded of the stark contrasts between the life of a contemporary student and one of a student of my generation. Beside her were spread her car keys, her phone, a credit card, and a grocery store loyalty tag.
Car keys! When I entered Davidson, a large number of those entering with me were veterans, some as freshmen and some returning from war to complete their college educations. Of entering students, only veterans were allowed to have automobiles on campus. Car keys such as those belonging to this young lady at the ball game would have been of no use to me.
Cell phone! Only Dick Tracy was so equipped in 1946. East Dorm had rooms on four and a half floors. There was only one black wall phone, serving the entire dorm. On top were slots for nickels, dimes, and quarters. It cost fifty cents to call your girlfriend at Queens. To do so, you dialed Operator, and when you told her the destination of your call, she would tell you to deposit fifty cents. Each coin gave a distinctive ting, which alerted the operator. Once your contributions reached fifty cents, she would connect your call.
College students in that day were sometimes quite creative in gaming the system. A friend, who later became a minister, showed me how to do this with a ball point pen and a Baby Ben alarm clock. If you struck the side of the clock with the pen as you held the clock before the phone’s mouthpiece, each time it sounded to the operator like you had dropped a dime in its slot. Five tings completed the transaction.
Credit card! The first credit card was issued by American Express in 1958, and they would not come into general use until the 1970s. My pockets were more apt to contain coins than bills. Those of us with limited finances engaged in what we spoke of as rackets. I picked up dry cleaning on Sunday nights and turned my take over to my friend who had a jeep in addition to his Baby Ben alarm clock. He had an arrangement with a dry-cleaning shop on Main Street where he dropped of what his soldiers had picked up the night before. It took about three months for the college laundry to figure out why their dry-cleaning business had plummeted. A summons to the Dean’s office marked the end of that racket. Some wag put this notice on a bulletin board just outside the side door to Chambers: “The College Laundry: they bust the buttons off your shirts and shoot ‘em through your socks.” [Editor’s note: The buttons were still disappearing in the 1980s.]
Supermarket loyalty tag! The closest thing Davidson had to a food market was one that reminded you of Lum and Abner’s “Jot ‘em down store.” Mr. Johnson’s grocery on Main Street was adequate for a village, but in no sense was it super.
Davidson students have always attached nicknames to certain professors. More recently, there were “Max the axe Polley” and “T-Bird Tommy Clark.” I recall several from my student days. F.L. Jackson, College Treasurer, was known as “Cash.” Professor Blythe, who never smiled or flunked an athlete, was spoken of as “Happy Blythe.” Because only a fringe of hair circled his head, students spoke of Dean of Students John C. Bailey as “The Skull.” The single security staff member was “Cop” Linker. And not to be forgotten is the nickname attached to Davidson’s debonair President John Rood Cunningham, “Slick John.” With never a strand of hair out of place or a broken crease on his trousers, Dr. Cunningham always appeared as though he had just arrived from his tailor.
Let me hasten to add that all of those on the faculty and staff, whether they had nicknames or not, were highly respected. Dean Bailey in his classes taught me more about life than about his subject matter. “Happy” Blythe was occasionally present at a practice field, indicating personal regard for student athletes. Dr. Cunningham was very personable and took a keen interest in the well-being of individuals within the student body.
I remember one notable student prank from those days. During exam week in January of 1948, the weather was unseasonably warm. The steam was up in the radiators and the windows were up in every dorm. It was a time when both passenger and freight trains passed daily through Davidson. About nine o’clock one night, as a train passed and whistled, the whistle emitted a very uncharacteristic sound. Someone in West Dorm did an imitation out of his window. Someone in East answered back. With the tension of exam week also in the air, students poured out of the dorms and gathered in the area between the two.
Someone shouted, “let’s go to ‘Slick John’s’.” Up the street that then ran right behind dormitory row, we marched. Unexpectedly, the house was dark as the Cunninghams were away. Not ready to disperse, someone shouted “let’s go to ‘Cash Jacksons’!” Along Main Street the crowd moved, and up Concord Road. Mr. Jackson came out on the porch smiling, apparently enjoying the moment. Then there was a call to go to the ‘Skull’s’. Dean Bailey appeared, displaying obvious anxiety. He did not know what to think of this mob that had gathered in front of his home. Spontaneously the participants made their way back to their dorms, and the event ran its course. Two days later the episode was written up in the Charlotte Observer. Fifty years later to the day, the paper reprinted the story in one of those columns which mark the anniversary of memorable events.
In athletics, students had a lot to cheer about. We had excellent basketball and tennis teams and competed against schools that left the Southern Conference to form the ACC in 1954. In 1949 we defeated N.C. State in football when, in the closing minutes, Jake Wade intercepted a pass and ran 95 yards for the winning touchdown. In May of 1950, Bo Roddey was singles tennis champion of the Southern Conference and teamed with Whit Cobb for the doubles championship. During the 1949-1950 school year, Johnston Gym opened, providing a brand-new venue for basketball. We were also proud of our academic achievements, especially when a beloved member of our class, Charles Till Davis, was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.
Religious life on campus had a complexion significantly different from that to be found in generations going forward. Attendance was required at Sunday night vespers and at chapel five days a week. Bible courses in the two Testaments were a part of every student’s class schedule during freshman and sophomore years. The college had no chaplain, but the YMCA, in the location where the Guest House now sits, had a visible role in college life. The Secretary was customarily a graduate who had declared himself a candidate for the ministry. The campus church occupied the same prominent corner as the Davidson College Presbyterian Church does now. The cornerstone for the present church was laid during commencement weekend of my senior year, 1950, and the sanctuary was designed to accommodate the whole student body. Its design and quality are tributes Dr. Cunningham’s wisdom and attention to detail.
Over the years since I graduated, the connection between the college and the Presbyterian Church has weakened. In 1950 Davidson College was Presbyterian in a distinctive sense, in the view of the community at large, in the amount of monetary support that was received from denominational bodies, and in representation on the Board of Trustees from supporting presbyteries. Dr. Cunningham, who was himself an ordained minister, invited the Moderator of the church’s General Assembly, William Edgar Price, to be present at the laying of the cornerstone of the new church. My sense is that much of this ecclesiastical association has been abandoned. Nevertheless, Davidson has produced scores of graduates who have been faithful pastors of local churches and leaders in their denominations. At least eight, two of whom were Rhodes Scholars, have become presidents of schools of theological higher education. While the college may no longer reflect its heritage with the Presbyterian Church as it once did, in its history it has made a great impression on the Church through those who have gone forth as ministers and as Christian community leaders in business and the professions.
The other day at a baseball game I met two football players. I asked them if they knew the words to our fight song, “O Davidson.” They smiled and acknowledged that they did not. The fact that our class was taught to sing it during orientation, “down Erskine College as through their lines we run,” Erskine being the first school our team played that fall, still dwells in the back of my mind when I rehearse “O Davidson.”
Go Cats! Long live Davidson College, “our dear old Alma Mater.”