A Year at Parsons College The Last Days of Fairfield's "Second Chance" College
I   went   to   Parsons   College   for   one   year,   from   1967   to   1968.   Basically,   I couldn’t   get   in   anywhere   else.   I   was   a   terrible   student   in   high   school.   I went    to    a    very    competitive    high    school,    Cheltenham    High    in    the suburbs    of    Philadelphia.    Benjamin    Netanyahu,    the    future    prime minister   of   Israel,   was   in   the   school,   along   with   Barbara   DeAngelis, Reggie   Jackson,   and   lots   of   other   smart   kids   and   luminaries.   I   was always at the solid bottom of the bell curve. I was lucky to get a C in anything. When I applied to colleges, most of them said, in essence, “You have got to be kidding,” but Parsons wrote back and said yes. Back then, guidance counselors all over the U.S. knew about Parsons. It was a place that would take students nobody else would. It must have been true because they took me, and the next thing I knew I was on the plane to a place called Ottumwa, Iowa. When   I   arrived   on   campus,   they   gave   me   a   room   in   one   of   the   high   rises,   in   Building 141,    also    known    as    MacArthur    Hall.    It seemed    kind    of    funny    to    me,    someone from   the   East,   that   these   would   be   called high   rises—they   were   barely   three   stories tall.   We   had   two   guys   in   a   room   in   those days,   mostly   other   fellows   from   the   East   or West   Coast   who   didn’t   do   so   well   in   their high    school    or    last    college.    And    what    a collection of characters we were. Parsons had just gotten into trouble and was on the way out. There were just over 1,000 students on campus, but in its heyday just a year or two before, there were over 5,000 students. The high rises had three gents to a room at that time. If you have ever seen of those rooms, you know that was a serious feat of compression. They had two beds next to each other and a bunk over one of them. If one guy wanted to turn around, he had to let his roommates know ahead of time. Auspicious Beginnings Parsons College had an interesting history. The man who founded Parsons was a wealthy merchant whose father was a Revolutionary War officer.  He died in 1855 and left his money to establish a college somewhere in Iowa. A group of three ministers was appointed to find a suitable location. When they visited Fairfield, the meeting was begun with a prayer. This made an impression on the group because it was the only place where a prayer was offered, and it was a key reason they chose Fairfield as the site for Parsons. A group of 25 citizens of Fairfield raised $27,500 to buy land and help start the school. It was a small Midwestern college with a Presbyterian affiliation for most of its life. Enter Millard Roberts Then   in   1955   Millard   G.   Roberts   was   appointed   president.   A    Presbyterian minister   from   New   York,   he   had   very   radical   and   innovative   ideas   about what    a    college    should    be.    He    thought    a    college    should    be    run    like    a business,   and   students   were   the   products.   He   believed   a   school   could   be expanded    and    grown    just    like    any    other    business.    So    he    started aggressively recruiting students from all over the country. Roberts believed that students should be given a second chance at college no matter how they had performed before, so he accepted students who had dropped out or flunked out of other colleges. This earned him the nickname “The Wizard of Flunk-Out U.” He also recruited top faculty members from all over the country and paid them top dollar. At one time they were the second highest paid teachers in the country—only Harvard paid more. With his Parsons plan in place, the school zoomed up from 350 students to over 5,000 in a few years. He started a massive building program and started his own construction company on campus. Party On! Parsons was also a big-time party school. There were lots of fraternities and sororities. As I remember, one of the wildest ones was called One Time Greeks, or OTG. This was made up of guys who had been kicked out of a fraternity for one reason or another. Another was called WTBA, or Where the Boys Are. Many of the guys in this group had both a motorcycle and a sports car. There   were   a   lot   of   rich   kids   at   Parsons,   many   of   them   avoiding   the   draft.   For   a   while   during   the 1960s,   you   could   stay   out   of   the   draft   and   the   Vietnam   War   as   long   as   you   were   in   school,   no matter   what   grades   you   got.   So   guys   would   stay   in   school   year   after   year,   flunking   most   of   the classes,   and   their   parents   would   sign   them   up   again   next   time   around.   There   was   some   major partying   going   on.   Because   the   campus   did   not   allow   alcohol,   many   “party   houses”   were   located in   the   countryside.   One   of   them   was   equipped   with   a   dance   floor,   a   full   bar,   and   a   swimming pond. Then   in   1966   Life   magazine   published   a   famous   article   about   Parsons,   Millard   Roberts,    and    all    the    partying.    That    was    the    beginning    of    the    end    for    the innovative   college.   Parsons   lost   its   accreditation,   Millard   Roberts   was   fired, and   the   enrollment   went   down   to   1,500   students.   I’m   still   not   exactly   sure what    really    caused    the    school’s    downfall.    It    may    have    been    that    the accreditation board just didn’t like Roberts and his philosophy of education. Student Life When I got there, the big crash had just happened, but a lot of good teachers were still there. I heard lectures from some of the top professors in the country. Roberts had the idea that all of the faculty should focus on teaching, not publishing articles, like at other schools. All the freshmen had to take the same classes. We went to big lectures with these star teachers in physics, history, music, English, and literature.  Then we’d break into small groups with a faculty assistant so we could ask questions and get personal attention. One teacher I remember was Dr. Louise Roberts, the wife of Millard Roberts. She taught a very interesting class in ancient literature, including the Iliad and the Odyssey. Another talented pair were musicians who taught the music appreciation class and played piano duets. Believe it or not, they were named the Medleys. The physics teacher inhaled some helium one day in class and lectured in a Donald Duck voice. I was paying attention and learning things. I became a good student. I knew all the answers. I raised my hand whenever a question was asked. I even made the dean’s list, and my name was in my local paper back in Philadelphia. Local boy makes good. I can’t say a lot of other students were giving much effort in class. Most of them didn’t even go. Local people who were students took the school seriously, but many out-of-towners kept their flunk-out habits going strong. A lot of classes only had a quarter or a third of the students even showing up. I remember one guy who lived in our dorm. He was about to flunk Spanish for the third time in a row. The final test was coming up, and he knew he was doomed. So he built a radio receiver disguised in a cigarette pack that he kept in his shirt pocket. A little light on top would blink out answers to him in some kind of code. His accomplice was another student in the class who had a transmitter and wires on his person somehow. The thing started working but then broke down mid-test, and he got yet another F. He took it all in stride. I was thinking for all that work he could have learned Spanish, but I guess that wouldn’t have been as much fun. Parsons   had   a   male   to   female   ratio   of   four   to   one   at that     time,    so    as    a    skinny    freshman    with    no    sports car—or   any   other   kind   of   car—I   didn’t   have   much   of   a dating   life.   In   fact,   if   I   am   remembering   correctly,   I had   exactly   one   conversation   with   a   female   student during    the    whole    year.    I    can    recall    it    like    it    was yesterday.     We     were     outside     building     402,     the classroom   building,   in   the   parking   lot.   It   was   a   fine spring   day.   This   young   lady   suddenly   started   talking to   me   about   something   in   our   English   class.   I   was   stunned.   After   a   minute   somebody   came   by and butted in to ask me a question, and she wandered off. And that was that. I lived my life in my high-rise room. I didn’t have much contact with the fraternity crowd, except for one time when I was walking to class and some frat guys sprayed me with water from a pump and hose setup they had in the back seat of their car, as they were driving by. They got a hearty laugh out of it, and I had to go back to my room and change my clothes. I really made their day. At one point during the year, all the freshmen were issued green Parsons beanies. These were little round caps that we were supposed to wear to show our school spirit. There was also a vague threat that if we were caught not wearing our beanies, an upperclassman could exact some kind of unnamed punishment on us. For a week or so, it looked like the whole freshman class had converted to Judaism. After a while we figured out nobody was going to do anything to us, so we stopped wearing them.  Hanging Out Most of my classes were in building 402, Spayde Theater, and Foster Hall. My favorite hangout was the Student Union because of the pinball machines in the downstairs room. Pinball was my hobby. They had some excellent machines there, some of the best I ever played, including Sing Along, Magic City, and the great Bazaar. There was also a bowling alley in the room, which is now a dance floor. The small cafe just off that room had some good live music on the weekends, especially a campus band called JC and the Penetrators. Since   I   didn’t   have   a   car   or   a   bike,   there   was   a   lot   about    Fairfield   that   I   didn’t   know.   Somehow   in my   year   of   living   there,   I   never   found   out   about   Waterworks   Park   and   the   reservoir   right   next door   to   campus.   But   a   couple   of   times   a   week,   if   the   weather   was good,   I’d   walk   into   town   and   visit   stores   on   the   square.   I   went   to Kramer’s   Card   and   Gift   shop,   which   had   a   good   selection   of funny    greeting    cards    to    send    back    home.    A    favorite    of    all Parsons    students    was    Gobble    Clothing    Store,    which    is    now ICON   art   gallery.   Owned   by   Fairfield   personality   Lee   Gobble, this   store   sold   all   kinds   of   Parsons   T-shirts   and   sweatshirts,   and some    custom    shirts    he    had    made    up.    One classic    shirt    said “Parsons College, as advertised in Life.”  Near campus, in the spot that is now the BP station, there was a fast food place called Scotti’s. They featured a double hamburger called the Big Scotchman, similar to the Big Mac, but Scottish. If the meal in the dining room wasn’t so hot, we could always go to Scotti’s. Then   there   was   the   Co-ed   movie   theater.   I   might   have   seen   every   movie   that   came   though.   At   that time   it   was   not   divided   in   half.   It   was   all   one   big theater   with   a   balcony   in   the   back.   The   only   time   I ever   saw   the   theater   completely   full   was   for   a   movie called   Sadismo,   which   was   a   lurid   sequel   to   a   lurid “shockumentary”   film   called   Mondo   Cane.   I   think people were actually throwing up at that movie. One night Tommy James and the Shondells gave a concert in the old field house. They played their big hits like “Hanky Panky,” “Crimson and Clover,” and “I Think We’re Alone Now.” I guess people called it bubblegum music. I thought it was a good show. Games and Parades Parsons    had    a    serious    football    team.    Roberts    thought    a    big-time   football   program   would   help   put   the   school   on   the   map.   He   recruited a   bunch   of   really   big   guys   to   play   and   built   a   5,000-seat   football stadium   in   1966.   The   team   was   pretty   good   and   went   to   the   Pecan Bowl   in   Texas.   They   were   a   mediocre   team   when   I   was   there,   but everybody   liked   going   to   see   the   games.   Lots   of   people   from   town liked to come and watch as well. There was also a big parade that was connected with the homecoming game. Each building or frat on campus was supposed to make a float for the parade. We spent a lot of time in our building stuffing paper napkins into chicken wire. When you spray painted the whole thing later, it sort of looked like a panel of flowers, if you used your imagination. Our float was a dragon that was supposed to breathe fire and move its head up and down, but I don’t think it did anything when its big moment came. Turbulence in the ’60s It was the 1960s and times were changing. I started out the year as a member of the Young Republican Club. By the end of the year I was going to meetings of the radical left-wing group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). One day there was a big meeting on campus to discuss race relations. Tempers flared when some black students called one speaker a white liberal. I don’t know why he got so mad, because that’s what he was. The upshot of this meeting was that a group of black students decided to live in their own dormitory. This seemed like segregation all over again, but in reverse. It was a confusing time. I was starting to grow my hair long. My music taste changed from the Monkees to the Mothers of Invention.  Like my fellow scientist Bill Clinton, I “experimented” with marijuana. But in my case, I didn’t exhale. Once a week a lot of students would go to the TV room in Howard dorm to watch Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in, which I thought was amazing. I hung up a black light in my room, put up some day-glow posters, and colored the wall with day-glow chalk. You bet your sweet bippy! My friend Jeff Poland had an all-night radio show on the campus station. This was in the basement of Foster Hall. We stayed awake all night on Thursday nights and played songs like “White Rabbit” and “Do You Believe in Magic?” Then I would go to morning class, get something to eat, and sleep the rest of the day. It was something to do. My   hair   was   growing,   my   bell   bottom   pants   were   flaring   wide,   and   my   belt   buckle   was   huge.   I   wanted   to   go   to   a   big   city   where   the action   was.   I   applied   to   New   York   University   and   was   accepted because   of   my   improved   grades.   Millard   Roberts’s   second   chance really   worked   for   me.   I   was   off   to   hobnob   with   my   fellow   hippies around   Washington   Square.   My   year   at   Parsons   College   was   over.   I thought that was the last time I would ever see Fairfield, Iowa. The Long & Winding Road Years later I started Transcendental Meditation. One day I was sitting in a lecture and somebody mentioned that the TM organization had just bought a college campus. I couldn’t believe it when he said which campus it was. I came back for a visit. Soon I was buying a house. I have lived here now for almost 30 years. I spend a lot of time on campus, but most times I don’t think about Parsons. Every now and then, in certain buildings, I will suddenly have a flashback. I used to live here, back in that other lifetime. It seems like a dream now.
Actors from the Parsons College production of Barefoot in the Park hang out in the Fairfield square, 1968. (from Peira Yearbook)
Aerial view of Parsons College in 1969.
Parsons College in 1969.
Trustee Gymnasium on a 1928 postcard.
Aerial view of Parsons College in 1964.
Parsons College in 1964.
A young and astute looking Lee Gobble (left), "Haberdasher Emeritus," leads a collection of wanabee musicians in a rendition of the Parsons College Fight Song.
Students of the late 1960's will always remember the inexpensive dates and their trips to Scotti's Hamburgers.
The infamous 1966 article in Life magazine that eventually sank Parsons College.
The Sigma Pi fraternity appears to have gone all out for this Greek Week event, as they parade proudly down the north side of the beautiful Fairfield Town Square in their ancient Greek warrior attire.
Head Football Coach Marcilino "Chelo" Huerta gathers his team for one final strategy briefing prior to taking the field and notching another Parsons College Wildcats victory.
The history of the Co-Ed Twin Theatre dates back to July 28, 1910, when it originally opened the Orpheum Theater. In 1940, students at Parsons College won a contest to develop the best idea for the planned remodeling. The name "Co-Ed" was adopted in honor