On the 17th of September, 1979, I climbed into the beatup Chevy Monza that Luther College assigned me for road trips and drove the 5+ hours to the Chicago market for the first college fair of the fall season.
For those unfamiliar with the college admissions process in the good old days, it was basically a semi-controlled crapshoot in which college recruiters attempted to make contact with 18-year-old kids trying to make college decisions in their last year of high school. We’d meet a share of junior-year students as well, and getting them to apply was basically seed stock for the coming years. But the money game was landing commitments from seniors. First, you tried to meet a student and their parents. Then get a college visit, followed by an application, and finally, if you did your job well enough, a full-on commitment to attend Luther indicated by a deposit toward their education.
My assigned quota was to recruit 70 students from Chicago and the State of Illinois. After scheduling high school visitation days and college fairs with counselors and organizers, I’d sent out postcards to prospective students in hopes of meeting them during in-school visits. From there, it was a matter of making some sort of connection with the kids, finding out what they might like to student, or learning other reasons why they were interested in Luther, including the great music or athletic programs.
We carried applications to hand out and a binder with photos of the Luther campus. Sometimes, we even had a slide projector and presentation tool to show the same basic images. Before the Internet, there was no website or other material to share with students. Basically, the information that today exists on a website was all kept in your head.
The first time I drove to the Chicago market in that beatup Chevy, the engine quit when I reached Park Ridge. I had to rely on the help of a loyal alumnus to help me get the car to the shop for a repair and still make it to that night’s college fair.
I wrote, “Did OK the first day. Little depressions set in. Hard to stay UP. Run was strained attempt at normalcy. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to this. I miss her company. Thrushes at Illinois beach.”
I’d driven 270 miles to start the week in Zion and worked my way down the North Shore stopping at high schools on the way to Park Ridge. To my stunned disappointment, I learned that some of the scheduled schools were basically shut down due to Jewish holidays. Why hadn’t the guidance counselors at those schools warned me? I was angry about the wasted opportunities to meet some really good prospects. In any case, I made it through that first week and eagerly drove the 256 miles back to the Luther campus Friday afternoon. Back in town, I went for a three-mile run with my former teammates Elly and Moon, then collapsed into bed.
The next day, I gathered up some cash and bought my girlfriend that cat-eye stone pre-engagement ring she’d picked out at a local jeweler. But I was so busy working in the admissions office that Saturday that I held off a week for a better time to give it to her.
On Sunday night, I turned around and drove back to the western suburbs of Chicago. The autumn sunset faded fast behind me as I crossed Wisconsin through Fennimore to Dodgeville and Madison, where I typically stopped at the McDonalds on Route 18 before swinging around the Beltline and heading south on 1-90 to Chicago.
When I returned the following weekend, I gave the ring to my girlfriend and wrote, “Felt good about it.”
I worked all day in the Admissions office, as was the requirement every other week. That’s how it went throughout the fall, including long downstate trips to far-flung places like Danville and Decatur, Springfield and Lincoln, Illinois, where I was invited to dinner with a warm and welcoming family whose son would later commit to Luther after they flew up by small plane to the Decorah airport. After their campus visit and the tour I gave them, I drove them to the airport where the kid’s father pressed a twenty-dollar bill into my hand during our goodbyes, and told me “Thanks, you’re doing a good job.”
I thought so. The student applications were starting to come in, and kids were paying deposit fees as well. But my boss still did not seem to trust me. That made life on the road a bit tougher, as it fed an already unhealthy level of self-doubt and the inevitable loneliness of staying in hotels and motels on the outskirts of dark little towns or the bustling suburbs of Chicago. One depressing episode found me staying at a Motel 6 next to a trainyard where long lines of coal and freight rattled loud and angrily from end to end as the engines moved them into position for the next day’s journey. I couldn’t sleep that night for the terminal racket, and I left that Motel cursing at the place. I drove the three hours back to the Chicago market and finished up a Friday of high school visits before piling back into the car to drive the 5+ hours back up to Luther.
Typically, the weekly driving mileage ranged between 1000 and 1500 miles. That was necessary to reach all the high schools and college fairs I could manage between September and the end of November. On several trips, I joined Luther professors and administrators for special projects including science student recruitment fairs and alumni fundraisers as well.
By October 22, I was feeling the mental strain of all that traveling, and wrote, “Cut out on a college fair. The work on the weekend fucked my attitude up. This Admissions job comes and goes. I hope I can make tomorrow go better on the South Side.”
Recruiting inner-city students was one of the more interesting aspects of the job. I had little knowledge about the location of Chicago high schools, and relied on a giant city map to find my way around. I was told by my bosses to wait for colder weather to visit the city schools. “There’s less crime when it’s cold out,” they insisted. I’d wear my three-piece suits to visit with inner-city students. Most would show up prepared with their grades and ACT scores in hand.
On some trips, I’d be accompanied by my former Luther track coach Aubrey Taylor. One day we were scheduled to do some home visits with a couple football prospects, and as we pulled up in front of the Robert Taylor homes on the south side of Chicago, Aubrey instructed me, “You stay here in the car. It’s not safe for you to come up in there.”
He met with the kids and we drove to the far southern suburbs and met with the family of a brilliant young woman whose family was eager for her to gain admission to Luther. The meeting in their living room was both informative and cordial. I was excited to meet the family and as we walked out with the front door closing behind us, I was set to pause with Aubrey on the sidewalk when he shot a glance my way and said, “Keep on walking.”
I trusted Aubrey on many levels, so I followed him out the front walk and back to our car. We sat down inside and he turned to me with an earnest look and said. “You didn’t do anything wrong. But don’t stop and talk like that in front of the family. It sends a bad message… like you’re talking behind their back.”
We attended a daytime college fair at one of the technical high schools the next day. The culinary program served lunch for us. I sat chatting with a group of students and faculty, and absentmindedly starting cutting one of my baked potatoes in two when half of it shot up from the lip of the plate and landed !plop! down the front of my vest. Everyone saw it, but no one laughed. They were too polite. But I did. “Okay, I’m an idiot,” I chuckled. Only then did people smile and nod in sympathy. The potatoes were a bit undercooked. Otherwise, the meal was delicious.
Recruiting minority students was actually one of my favorite parts of the job. Luther had around one-hundred black students on campus out of a student body at that time of about 2400. I’d roomed many times with black teammates in track, and saw the social dynamics at work in other ways. Many of the black students dined together at the far end of the Union cafeteria. That was never a sign of malice, but a sign of commonality. The Black Student Union was formed to give students support on campus.
I’d grown up south of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a racially rich city. At the mere age of five or six years old, I got to be a batboy with my oldest brother’s team. Sometimes I’d go up on the athletic fields above the baseball stadium and run around with groups of other kids. A set of twins became my favorite playmates. Their sense of humor and playful intellect even at the age of three or four years old made me want to hang out with them. But one night I accidentally ran smack into one of the brothers with my boney elbow. He ran home crying. I didn’t see the twins for several weeks. But when they finally showed up again, one of the twins still had a black eye, and they told me, “Our momma said we can’t play with you, because you hurt us.”
Surely their mother thought the boy’s black eye was no accident. What I learned from that incident was that people can get the wrong impression even when you’re trying to do the right thing. I also learned that black children perhaps live in a different world than me. That may seem like a simplified civil rights lesson, but it stuck with me all my life.
That’s why I listened so closely to Aubrey Taylor during our recruiting trips. I also trusted the other Luther coaches and faculty, because I’d seen their commitment to equality in education firsthand. It wasn’t easy for some black kids from the city to attend a small liberal arts college out in farm country. The same held true for Asian people and for that matter, gay students in the 1970s. I’d made a few gay friends through my girlfriend that senior year in college. Getting to know them changed everything about my perception of what it meant to be gay.
My Life As An Art Major
Part of my empathy stemmed from the fact that I had my own issues with self-perception relative to my artistic brain and how it did or didn’t mesh with the world. A few years after college, I wrote an article titled “My Life As an Art Major: Or why we qualify for the Americans With Disabilities Act.” I guess I’ve always empathized with people over their struggles. Whether I did so perfectly or not, I cannot say. But the key point in life from my perspective was trying to understand others. To me, that was what working in college admissions was all about. Making those connections. Helping people find their path.
I had so many alternative aspects of character within me, from the birdwatching to the art, my writing and a weird sense of humor, that there were times when I wondered if I just a hopeless oddball compared to other people that seemed to have a central purpose and a plan in life. It didn’t help that during the 1970s, runners were considered oddballs as well. But I kept on.
Back and forth I went from Decorah to Illinois in the long commute from the college to my territory. I planned extended trips and roamed all over the state some weeks. Then I’d take a week and concentrate on the “hot spots” for students from the Chicago area. In all, I’d made that 500-mile round trip drive from Luther to Chicago and back nine times by the middle of October. That rattletrap Chevy Monza was a terror to drive. One day, the stick knob just popped off in my hand. The inside core was a spiral of solid porcelain, and the grooves just wore out. There I was, rolling up I-90 from Janesville toward Madison with the stick knob in my hand and a bundle of wires and parts justting out from the stick shift lever. I rolled the car to the side of the road and eased the stick knob back onto the shifter, and blessedly, it worked.
But a week later, real calamity struck on October 26. I’d stopped on my way back from Chicago to pick up my girlfriend after she visited her parents that week in the Northwest suburbs. I was looking forward to all that time in the car with her, but her mother was less sanguine, repeatedly reminding me to drive carefully.
We were chatting merrily and catching up on things when I pulled to a stoplight in Delavan, Wisconsin, and waited for the light to change. When it turned green, the car ahead of us just sat there for several seconds. I was about to honk the horn when the car finally started to move. I shoved the stick knob into gear, stomped on the clutch and lurched the car forward with that half-assed stick knob still doing its job. They couldn’t get a replacement for it quick enough for my next trip. So I’d made the best of it.
I was focused on shifting the gears while looking down at the stick knob when the car ahead of us slammed on the brakes for some reason. I was going fast enough that the hood of that Chevy Monza piled right under the rear fender of the Ford Granada.
The impact slammed my girlfrien’ds face into the dashboard. When she sat back, blood streamed out her nose. I started cursing and reached over to hold her in my arms.
The police soon arrived and she got treatment for her banged-up nose. I called the college long-distance to let them know about the accident. For some reason that I can’t recall, the car had to be hauled all the way over to Beloit for repairs.
Let’s spend the night together
She and I stayed that night in Beloit, then called her parents in the morning. They were incensed upon hearing that we’d spent a night in the hotel together. I don’t know what they thought we were up to all that time dating each other, but it was certainly not the first time that we’d spent the night together––including several hotels along the way. Her folks were angry, and demanded to come pick her up, but I’d already rented a car, so we told them we were okay, and drove the rest of the way to Luther. We made an ice pack for her nose, and at that point, finally found some humor in the whole scene. By the next day, things were basically back to normal and we went out for a bird walk together in Decorah. That walk felt good because my running mileage thanks to all the traveling had dwindled to less than 20 miles a week.
By that point, I really couldn’t afford to care about how much running I did. But during that last week of scheduled high school visits, I dropped in at Carl Sandburg HS and asked the cross country coach if I could run with the team that day. The varsity had already left the building for their run, so I joined a group of sophomores and freshman. Seven inches of snow had fallen, and we wound up running ten miles on the trails of a local forest preserve. By the end of the run, our feet were caked with snow and I was so exhausted I could barely managed to get changed back at the hotel and make it to the college fair that night at Sandburg. But I did go, because despite what my boss thought of me, I was dedicated to hitting my quota of 70 students that year. I may not have been a conventional admissions counselor in some ways, but I took pride in the relationship building aspect of my work. I could feel that I was making good connections with students. Plus, the applications were coming in, and the deposits too.
Despite all the adversity I’d been facing with the admissions and the lack of running and the back and forth of our relationship, I still maintained a positive attitude the best I could.
But I’ve always been an analytical person when it comes to the sense of right and wrong, and the best way to do things. During all those miles spent driving around Chicago and the state of Illinois, I kept thinking, “There has to be a better way to do this.” At that time, no one could imagine the miracle of the Internet, the convenience of email or the connections made possible through remote video conferencing. Back in 1979. That all seemed like Dick Tracy stuff. I still had the sense that the admissions process was one fucked up mess.
As I later learned, I was not alone in that perspective. But we’ll get to that.
All I was trying to do was survive in the face of the circumstances I was given. That included trying to keep on running and holding together the relationship I treasured with my girlfriend. The lyrics to the 1977 song Running On Empty by Jackson Browne seemed to fit my life precisely, with just a tweak of one number:
Gotta do what you can just to keep your love alive
Trying not to confuse it, with what you do to survive
In ’79, I was 21 and I called the road my own
I don’t know when that road turned into the road I’m on
Running on (running on empty)
Running on (running blind)
Running on (running into the sun)
But I’m running behind