Nontraditional Student is a Lifelong Learner

Nontraditional Student is a Lifelong Learner

While some students are on the five-year plan, this student is on the 50-year plan. Having first taken classes at the College in the late 1960s and picking up his second degree last May, this alumnus is now aiming for a third diploma.

By Randolph Hille ’74 & ’18

I walked the Cistern – for a second time – this past May. What would a third time be like, I wondered as former President Glenn McConnell ’69 conferred our degrees in Latin, if I also receive the B.S. in sociology I’m working on now? I thought over the three stages in my college career and the three presidents who personified them: the “municipal,” quasi-private College of Walter Coppedge; the “state” College of Ted Stern; and the “modern” College of President McConnell. But how did I get here?

I’m a Dutch Creole from a long line of orphans. New Orleans had been fetid with flu, TB, bad air and the lemon hots. At age 14, I passed a property-casualty licensing exam and sold coverage (even on some bridges). Hart Crane’s uncle’s press brought out a book of my poems. That’s how I met people tied to the College in the 1960s: John McCrady, who ran the art school in the French Quarter near my office and whose cousin Ned would later teach my Science and Belief course at the College. My friend (and policyholder), the poet Jim Jones – then an English “ABD” at Tulane about to decamp to the College – quoted Coppedge, the new prez, to me: “There are more great students than there are great colleges to receive them. The College wants to become one of those great colleges.” And Harrison Randolph, of “the Hall,” was born in New Orleans. So, I began to keep an eye on the College.

In the 1960s, you couldn’t take the GED until you were 19; I waited, passed it and signed up at LSUNO (known today as the University of New Orleans). I took lit courses and acted in plays, film and local TV. Then I served in the stateside Peace Corps in New York and Boston, where I experienced rent strikes, grocery boycotts and “forcing” clinics to treat the sick who’d long been turned away. While in Boston, I’d taken the SAT and applied to the College.

Jump cut: Now I’m in Charleston. It feels like the Big Easy of the 1950s, but mostly missing New Orleans’ German Catholics, Sicilians and Southern Italians. And it’s light on Charleston “Creoles.” I hear students put down for wearing blue jeans to class; profs (they’re all profs of one rank or another) call us Mr. or Miss and they call each other Miss, Mrs. or Mr. (or General!), not Doctor or Professor. I meet Oxbridgeans who teach at the College. Charlestonians have always been taken with Brits and near-Brits. I face a scheme of class periods that starts with A and ends a third of the way through the ABCs; all my classes meet at odd times. I notice the top “prof” is “President of the Faculty.” That’s Walter Raleigh Coppedge.

Chance and mischance had twice before taken me from New Orleans to Charleston. That’s how I met Coppedge. As students, we’re often with him; he eats lunch with us at the Three Nags, a pub on George Street at the heart of the city’s with-it goings-on. He’s always turned out in the perfect suit (style and color make it “a Coppedge suit”), but he’s at home “among the commons.” Good manners during the Coppedge administration keep things cool on the stovetop, but the oven thermometer reads hot. Pressure is applied to admit students with black roots. The board’s opposed. Funds run out. We hear that only “payment arrangements” with SCE&G keep the lights on. I meet the penny-pincher who guards the purse. Profs tell me they must state why they want lightbulbs or paper. I think about leaving town. Coppedge is out.

The College pipes aboard Captain Theodore Sanders Stern, U.S.N. He finesses South Carolina’s takeover of the College. I learn that he’s a cousin of the “master builder” Robert Moses of New York City fame. After a rough patch – “Keep the College out of the papers!” – the new prexy and progs like me, members of acronymically monikered clubs, reach a truce. Worth Waring ’74, an editor of the school paper, later tells me Stern was an acquired taste. “And I suppose I was an acquired taste for him.” For me, too. I find I can count on him to get the job done. I note he now comfortably brooks our demos: The College is a state school. A done deal. I’m one of a dozen who picket the Medical College of South Carolina (now MUSC) with Dr. Ralph Abernathy, the late Dr. King’s No. 2 and currently head of the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference). A court order has me expecting us to be jailed; somehow we’re passed over.

Stern remakes the College, down to the Navy-style memos I see everywhere. Everything’s now possible, given a superabundance of state funds. A radio celeb threatens me with “impeachment” if a Maroons football team doesn’t soon suit up; I tell Stern. He says football would be money down the drain, the biggest mistake the College could make. Basketball successes prove Stern’s smarts in pumping basketball and nixing football.

Now – finally! – blacks and whites attend class together in Harrison Randolph Hall. The first black graduate, Eddie Ganaway ’71 , and I become good friends. We go to places of “public accommodation.” He never mentions bad treatment to me, though he must be under stress: The trads who’d wished that he’d never come must still wish him gone. But I see nothing overt. Our racial stats and slurs improve. I’m hired as a tutor-counselor with Upward Bound; most of our kids come from black roots.

Student jobs are scarce and low paid. Today’s “four C-note” tip days for waiters are a pipe dream; rickshaws don’t yet run. The dean of students maintains an in-house job pool that hands out chits for “casual labor”: paleo internships. I get gigs painting stair risers for a retired Chicago teacher and salvaging cloth on the waterfront. Two friends and I get a dollar an hour at the art museum, with fringes of sherry and benne wafers. My score on a spelling test – did I get Duncan Phyfe right? – lands me a job as a proofreader and tele-typesetter at the morning paper, with a 2 1/2-cent–per-hour topper over a copy boy’s pay.

Absence and tardiness rules plant their kiss of death on me. You must be in class, on time; lateness can count as a no-show. I have two jobs to pay tuition, a third to live on: a taxing triad of work, school, sleep. Letters from “the Dean” warn me I’ve “obtained excessive absences.” Lax rules for making up “Incompletes” (my specialty) are a mixed blessing, carrying the dread from one term over to the next. “Good morning!” the head librarian greets me. “What did you fail today?” I graduate anyway.

Jump cut to the 2010s: Changed norms within society are reflected during the McConnell and earlier administrations in a decline in the kind and quality of connections between older students and those of “college age.” Age balkanization is all that younger students know. Older students remember that instructors and students once attended each others’ parties; intergenerational friendships have been as natural as they still are in many foreign countries. The gradual increase in the legal drinking age from 18 to 21 is an initial separating influence: Younger and older friends can no longer frequent the same spots; beer’s no longer sold at the Stern Student Center; Wiggy’s New York Deli closes! Even so, I still make some friends.

Tens of thousands of students have matriculated since the transfer of the College to the state; they’ll be numerous for a long time to come; two books about the College competently tell its social and institutional history, further proof against amnesia. Grads like me, though, whose tenure in whole or in part predates the state transfer, can probably be counted in the thousands, with that number dwindling toward the hundreds. What recorded history cannot tell will be lost with us. The toll on the faculty has been even heavier. I feel particular affection, gratitude and admiration for many of them, but mention here only Lorin Browning, the late Jim Jones and Larry Simms – each of them inspires exploration, gumption and guts. The passions of those days have dissipated. I recognize as I write that remembering “even these things” – unified through person and place, time and event – will someday, perhaps, give us pleasure, as Vergil says in sardonic Latin scrolled into the wrought iron of the gate to Cougar Mall: forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.

– Randolph Hille ’74 & ’18 holds a B.A. in philosophy and an A.B. in Spanish and is completing a B.S. in sociology. He has been president of the student body, manager of Center Stage and (with Wendy Salinger) was co-founder of the College of Charleston Writers Conference.


Illustration by Timothy Banks