Respect Must Prevail

I was quite fascinated to read Robert Field's letter, "College Image May Be Blurred by Liberal Traditions" (March 1999).

We are to understand that at Oberlin "the number of gay students has grown far beyond its proportion in the general population;" that these people "are quite vocal," and the result is that "many straight students" feel intimidated. We are further invited to speculate that news of this unfortunate situation may account for a decline in enrollments to the College.

Now this is indeed alarming. Vocal students at Oberlin? I am shocked, I tell you shocked. What can we expect then-agitation against the slave trade? (Oh dear, sorry-wrong century, isn't that?)

I would regret to learn that anyone, at Oberlin or elsewhere, of whatever sexual orientation, should experience intimidation of any kind on that basis-or any other. Honest and open discussion of issues concerning sexuality, gender identity, and related subjects may be difficult by nature, but surely no more so than frank and respectful exchanges on topics such as religion or ethnicity.

Note my emphasis on respect. It is, one hopes, still the prevailing climate at Oberlin College, if nowhere else.

I would be interested to know what data Mr. Field may have to offer as to the numbers of lesbian, gay, and/or bisexual students (or, for that matter, those who may be questioning their sexuality during their college years) at Oberlin. Or in the population as a whole.

I would be even more interested to know what Mr. Field would consider the percentage of students of minority sexual orientation that would not seem "disproportionate," especially as he speaks of his "fervent" belief "that providing accurate information to the public will lead to wiser policies and practices over time." Had he not assured us that he would not "advocate restrictive quotas for any minority group," I would find myself wondering what wiser policies he might be suggesting. Don't ask, don't tell, perhaps?

Mr. Field apparently believes that his political activism on drug policy reform and his "fundraising for liberal causes" entitle him to the presumption that he is no bigot on matters of sexuality.

I would dearly love to believe that my own similar activities exempt me from examining myself for prejudices of whatever kind, but I'm afraid the exemplary education I received at Oberlin disabused me of that notion. It was sometimes uncomfortable to face the challenge, for example, voiced by fellow students who were African-American, to abandon the complacent certainty of my "liberalism" and hear their testimony as to their lives. But is the unexamined life worth living?

Karen e. dennis '78
Member, Oberlin Lambda Alumni
Cliffside Park, New Jersey

Keep Your Shirt On

Just the other day I found myself with some time to kill in between a dentist and eye doctor's appointment, both of which are located on the upper east side of Manhattan, a neighborhood I rarely frequent. I decided to pass some time browsing in the Ralph Lauren Sport store on Madison Avenue and 72nd Street. Ralph has an area in the shop called his vintage selection; basically a wonderful assortment of vintage clothing articles that his staff has found in flea markets and auctions around the country and purchased for a song. He, in turn, sells the merchandise at a marked-up price that would feed a small village!

Amongst the $3,000 used motorcycle jackets and $500 frayed and worn chinos, lo and behold, there was for all to see and buy, an Oberlin College sweatshirt. It was certainly well-worn and a fashionable shade of gray, and I couldn't resist asking the salesperson for the price.

He replied, without a blink, $145. I, however, certainly blinked and let out quite a laugh. This sweatshirt wasn't even the hooded style! Needless to say, I will now wear my Oberlin College sweatshirt, and all my other Oberlin paraphernalia in fact, with a renewed sense of its value. I suggest you do the same!

Daniel Sager '83
New York, New York

A Well-Deserved Honor

Sadly, it's now too late to try once more to persuade Andrew Bongiorno to accept an honorary degree from the college he served so long and so well. Twice he declined the honor on the ground that he was not a famous scholar. On the second occasion, I had hoped, as his student and lifelong friend, to say this about him:

"Of all the teachers I've known, Andrew Bongiorno has had, I believe, a nearly unique influence on his students. A child of immigrant parents, the experience of attending Oberlin in the '20s deeply shaped his mind and aspirations, and perhaps it was his Mediterranean origin that gave to his teaching and wide learning a classical cast. For those who studied with him, he became, for their lifetimes, an austere but benign sentinel, returning them, when they were tempted to take intellectual shortcuts, to the high road that his teaching, personal example, and respectful friendship had set them on."

Which reminds us that, in the end, a great teacher is honored most by those who knew him and learned from him.

F. Champion Ward '32
North Branford, Connecticut

The Beginnings of Oberlin Ultimate

I am most pleased that OAM published Mr. Doyle's eloquent article about Oberlin's Ultimate. The article captures the spirit and essence of the game I have played since the autumn of 1970. Doyle is correct, I think, in making the case that the sport of Ultimate is well-suited to the Oberlin experience. The spirit of the game is a different athletic mind-set from what our culture is accustomed to in highly competitive sports, just as Oberlin is a unique experience in education.

This letter is intended to correct a minor detail of Mr. Doyle's research and assure credit is given to the appropriate individual who brought the game, early in its development, to my alma mater. Being there, I recall how Ultimate actually arrived on campus.

In the autumn of 1970, Oberlin matriculated a student from Columbia High School in New Jersey, where the game was invented. This fellow's brother or cousin was one of the founders of the game. The new Oberlin student, Bruce Mitteldorf, had been a sophomore in high school when he started playing the game that was created by other students at the encouragement of their high-school gym teacher.

I was also a freshman that fall and was learning how to toss and catch a disc when word reached me that on Friday afternoons after dinner and on Sundays, there was a regular game of "frisbee football, but they don't call it that," being played outside the South dining hall. The game Bruce taught us was exactly the same game as Ultimate is today, minus a few improvements in the stall count and how fouls are called.

Thus, I believe that Mr. Doyle is mistaken in saying that Doug Powers first got the disc spinning with an ExCo class in 1975. In fact, I still have a copy of the Fall 1973 ExCo class catalog that offers a class in Frisbee taught by me and Mr. Mitteldorf.

The class essentially consisted of getting enough people together to play Ultimate on the lawn north of Warner Gym. However, very often we started the class sessions with skills development and by teaching the rules of the game to newcomers. The ExCo class continued informally into the spring of '74, when I believe I met Houston Miller. But the person who deserves the credit for first bringing Ultimate to Oberlin within two years of the sport's invention was Bruce Mitteldorf, '74.

The above correction notwithstanding, Mr. Doyle's Ultimate article shows us again that Oberlin remains in the vanguard of thought and action, and it is not the first time the subject was sports and athletics. A rich history of sports firsts, both in the philosophy of physical education and the practical application on the field, belongs to Oberlin. Whether it was a little-known major league baseball player who first broke the color barrier before the turn of the last century, or the early development of Joe Heisman's coaching career, we have much to make us proud.

Robert A. Huston '74
Royal Oaks, Michigan

Action is the Key

Please thank Sara Marcus '99 for her inspiring essay on the protest against the School of the Americas (March 1999). I had read about the school over the years and felt great dismay about it, but it never occurred to me to do anything about it. (That may be the difference between liberalism and activism.) I'm glad it occurred to Ms. Marcus and to thousands of others to do something. They not only call attention to the continuing dark side of U.S. involvement in Latin America, they also remind the rest of us that action, and not just noble thoughts, are necessary to fight the problems of the world.

Rich Orloff '73
New York, New York

The Struggle Continues

Many thanks for Sara Marcus' wonderful article on her experiences with SOAWatch and the struggle to close the School of the Americas. It is one of the many dreadful things our government supports, and it is inspiring to know that Oberlinians of today are carrying on the struggle.

Ruth calvin emerson '43
New Haven, Connecticut

Alumni Loyalty Helps Image

The recent recommendation by Doug McInnes et al. (Fall 1998) that Oberlin reengineer to lower costs oversimplified the recruitment problem. Apparently, it is common knowledge that just showing up in class at Princeton will earn a B (The New York Times, 2/18/98). Princeton is more expensive than Oberlin; nevertheless, admissions remain competitive, so there must be other forces at work.

One difference between Oberlin and the Ivy League can only be addressed by alumni. Oberlin's penchant for self-criticism doesn't help our image. If you want to hear Harvard criticized, you have to go to Yale, and vice versa. Alumni loyalty and willingness to give fellow graduates a hand are a big part of the Ivies' desirability. Even admitting that they, as research institutions, had neglected undergraduate education didn't hurt their standing! Prospective students believe if they get into the club, the old boys' network will blow air into their wings. Oberlin alumni could do more of that, and do it more publicly. We can also improve the image of the college by sending something-anything-to the Oberlin fund every year. If we each sent $10, Oberlin would only reap $400,000 in cash, but would top the ratings for alumni satisfaction in U.S. News and World Report, because rate of giving (not quantity, but percentage of alumni giving) is how satisfaction is measured; a high percentage of giving also enables the college to get grants.

My daughter, a freshman, benefitted from two alumni over Winter Term. One, John Clancy '86, is artistic director of The Present Company Theatorium in New York, and he sponsors interns for Winter Term. The other, Marc Agger '88, serendipitously discovered the Oberlin connection as another intern was looking for housing for a month, and he came through with reasonable, safe accommodations. Iam grateful for their many kindnesses and pleased that the Oberlin network has already helped her. Over time, it would help Oberlin if we were all more intentional about reaching out.

Oberlin alumni have a large role to play, even those of us who are neither rich nor famous. We need to be as free and public with our praise and mutual support as we are with our criticism.

Linda Hotchkiss Mehta '72
Woodbridge, Connecticut

Hepburn's Household Better!

I enjoyed "A Pawling Summer" (March 1999) by Ruth Graf which contrasts with my own summer of 1940 when I served as a nanny in a famous household. I'd written, on a whim, to Katharine Hepburn, who had a summer home near my grandmother in Connecticut. To my surprise, the senior Mrs. Hepburn replied, asking if I could serve as a nanny for her first grandchild, son of Katharine's sister, Marian Grant. I accepted eagerly: room and board plus $10 a week looked like big money to a poor college freshman back then.

Unlike Ruth Graf, I was treated like one of the family. Though I had to share a room with the baby, who was only 3 months old when I got there, and was responsible for making his formula, doing his laundry, and keeping three rooms clean in one wing of the big Hepburn summer house, I got Mondays off to go into town to visit family. Though I socialized with the kitchen servants, Iate with the family, shared in their discussions, played parlor games with them after dinner, talked with their guests, and was taken under everyone's wings. I was given books to read, including The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, which Ruth Graf read, too, oddly enough.

I wish Ruth Graf had told us about the Deweys earlier;it might have spared us Dewey's presidential nomination in '44 and '48.

Laura White Neville '43
Cotuit, Massachusetts