By James Mack Adams
It seems to me many university graduates reach senior citizenship status before they have any interest in returning to campus for alumni weekends and other such events. That can be explained. During our prime years, we are busy with work, career, and family. As far as the old alma mater is concerned, we have been there, done that, and are ready to move on. No looking back. Right?
That feeling will sometimes change after our working life ends and retirement begins. Memories from our past start to kick in. We wonder how the old university has changed since we walked its halls in our white buckskin shoes those many years ago. We remember classmates and friends and try to visualize how they must look now. Would we recognize them? Would they remember us? Yearbook pictures might not be too helpful 50 or 60 years later. We might, however, recognize the twinkle in the eyes, the shape of a chin, the gait in a walk.
I am writing this from personal experience. I graduated from East Tennessee State College, now East Tennessee State University, in June 1957. I never returned for an alumni homecoming, nor had a real desire to, until the spring of 2007. That was the year the class of 1957 was honored, and its members were inducted into the university’s “Golden Fifties” club.
Jo and I have attended the annual “Golden Fifties” reunions for the past several years. She and I were classmates during our years at ETSC. Jo volunteered for several years as a class agent for the reunions. Her job was to make personal contacts with alumni and encourage them to attend.
My first impression on my return to ETSU was that things certainly have changed since the day I received that coveted degree. During those years I was away, my little college grew up to be a major university. It is still growing.
I recall attending the freshman class orientation in the fall of 1953. If my memory is correct, at least half or more of the incoming freshman class could be seated in the auditorium of the old Administration building. Dr. Burgin Dossett was the president of ETSC. Frank G. Clement was the governor of Tennessee. James H. Quillen (Quillen College of Medicine) was elected to the Tennessee General Assembly in 1954.
The Korean War was in cease fire, and many veterans were enrolling in ETSC under the GI Bill. I remember Jesse Hurst and Woodson Harris, two combat vets of the 24th Infantry Division and residents of Rogersville.
Woodson and Jesse became my housemates on one of the tree streets. Jesse was rather quiet and reserved, but Woodson shared stories of being dug in at night only a few yards from the enemy positions. A shrapnel scar from an enemy grenade was visual evidence of his combat service.
Under the universal military training legislation, all physically able male students were required to take two years of military training through the ROTC program. Veterans were exempt. The training involved classroom instruction and military drill. I wanted to try for a commission, so I applied and was accepted for the four-year ROTC program. Twelve members of my commissioning class attended the 2007 reunion. Some have since passed.
I still try to attend ROTC events on campus when I can. One day I was chatting with two cadets in Brooks Gym. One of the cadets asked me what years I attended ETSU. I told him, “Well, when I was a student here, Madison Brooks, whose name is on this building, was the basketball coach.” He looked at me like he was thinking, ‘This guy is old as dirt.’ Of course, he was too respectful to comment.
The mode of student campus dress was very different in the 1950s. The style was shirt and slacks for boys and skirts and tops for girls. Shorts were worn only during athletic participation. Jeans were a no-no.
Jo and I now often take a short cut through part of the campus when driving to medical appointments on State of Franklin. In doing so we observe students on their way to or from classes. We laugh together and jokingly say, “Ella Ross would be appalled.” Ross was dean of women during our campus days.
It’s the same place, but a different time. Several young people in our Parish are now enrolled in ETSU. They love to hear Jo and me tell stories about how it was in ‘the old days.’ And we love to share them.