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Coming of Age

The following excerpt is from Augustana President Emeritus Thomas Tredway’s Coming of Age: A History of Augustana College 1935-1975, Chapter 3: And the Dance Went On (Student Life, 1935-62).

Drink and the Dance

Greek letter social groups and their initiation rites did not constitute the only student body issues troubling Augustana’s peace in these years. The school was related closely to a church that had been deeply influenced by the crusade against alcohol in America during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Prohibition had been repealed almost simultaneously with Bergendoff’s inauguration, but that did not mean that Augustana, either the church or the college, approved of alcohol. “Our young men are being taught not to use it even temperately, but to keep away from the stuff entirely,” the new president wrote in 1938. Smoking was tolerated; the Observer even ran cigarette ads, though the administration tried to block them. In 1945 the Dean of Women wrote the President that since women were smoking in the residence halls, it might as well be made legal. The veterans who flooded the campus after 1945 brought, along with their colorful language, alcohol and tobacco with them; on campus they evidently met women who used them as well.

Bergendoff spoke in chapel about the “unnecessary evil of drinking that creeps into the lives of too many college students because they are too weak and spineless to face the reality of their own situation in life.” He reminded the board in 1949 that the original constitution of the college had for-bidden students from visiting saloons, dance halls, billiard rooms, and theaters. But now students saw nothing wrong in pool halls or theaters and “I fear even the saloon.” And they certainly continued to drink.

Through the fifties students appeared periodically before the deans to explain how they came to be discovered, often underage, in bars. In 1962 eleven men and one woman were found using fake identification “to indicate that they had reached the age of their majority” and could therefore drink legally. In spite of the deep disapproval with which drinking was regarded by the school’s leaders, such students usually received penalties short of expulsio

If drinking, legal or not, was a problem for the college during these years, the matter of dancing, strange as it now seems, was even more troublesome. In this matter student behavior and the awareness and even tacit acceptance of it by the school’s leaders stood in direct opposition to the stated position of the Augustana Lutheran Church. Bergendoff had hardly moved into his new office in 1935 when he got a note from one of the deans telling him that she had found two women “dancing just in front of the double doors in the living room” of the women’s residence. The new president wrote to the students that he could not “go beyond what those who support and maintain the institution have declared shall be the policy of the institution.” The records do not indicate what kind of dance had been going on in front of the double doors. It was probably a waltz, but Benny Goodman’s popular radio show, “Let’s Dance!” had debuted only a year earlier, and Tommy Dorsey’s “Lullaby of Broadway” with Bob Crosby on vocal was a No. 1 hit in 1935, so the two women could have been moving to swing. Whichever it was, the Augustana Synod flatly prohibited dancing on the campuses of its five colleges. In his first annual report Bergendoff told the church that these standards for the colleges and the similar ones preached in its congregations “often seem quite negative.” On campus he sought alternatives, even while with seeming reluctance he disciplined students who violated the prohibitions. The board authorized a social committee composed of students and faculty to look for more positive social programs. But students wanted to waltz and swing. In 1938 a group of local alumni organized a dance off campus; Bergendoff asked them not to identify the event with Augustana. He was evidently concerned that the church would see this as a violation of its policy.

When military units were stationed at the college during the war, reports had it that the USO actually held dances for the soldiers in the college gymnasium. Student dancing was reported after the war; the veterans had been to USOs all over the country. Bergendoff told one pastor that there was no more dancing on campus than there was by members of Augustana congregations. He wrote that he had informed the students of the church’s position, and “those who have ‘talked back’ are in many cases the sons and daughters of pastors, even conference officials.” The issue between church and college came to a head in 1949. The synod agreed to review its position, partly as a result of a request by the Augustana Board of Directors. That group had met with six students (two of whom, Peter Beckman and Dorothy Koch [Bjornson], later taught at the college). The six bore with them a petition signed by hundreds of their peers asking that a Homecoming Dance and a Graduation Ball be allowed in the gymnasium. The petition was accompanied by poll results: of 429 Lutheran students surveyed, only six objected to “the modern dance.” Bergendoff spoke two days later to a meeting of students cautioning them that the church did have good reason for its stance: “There is plenty of evidence as to what dancing may lead to.” He admitted however that in spite of the dangers that lurked ahead for dancers, most young people went on with it anyway. But he reminded the students that a college “was more than just students” and a solution must be found agreeable to everyone in “that constituency which we call Augustana.”

Like Bergendoff, many in the synod feared that drinking and promiscuity might follow dancing. Peter Beckman, the student body president, wrote in the Observer that it was not fair to associate dancing and liquor and reminded the president that students wanted to dance on campus “without some barfly blowing his beery breath over their shoulders.” The school looked away when students danced in North Hall, just above Fifth Avenue on the north edge of the campus, which had become their Student Union, he said. The college tolerated Greek groups and other organizations that held dances away from campus; why not on college grounds? (Dancing in “Stu-U,” located in the old Bethany Children’s Home on the far north edge of the campus had gone on since the end of the war, from which time the building had been used as a student center; it continued there until the building was razed with the construction of the College Union, dedicated in 1960.) At least one solitary pre-theological student did hew to the church’s position, however. In a letter to the editor of the college paper he insisted, “There’s no time or place for dancing in the life of one who is preparing to work for the advancement of His Kingdom on earth.” And aren’t we all? he added. It was a question the answer to which would be increasingly uncertain in the next decades.

The matter had, in any event, been referred to the Com-mission on Higher Education of the Augustana Synod. That body passed it along to a second body, the Commission on Morals and Social Problems. Bergendoff supported this referral. He warned the directors of the college that “there is such a marked chasm between what we preach and what our youth do that we face a serious moral situation.” The college could not correct in a few years what the church had not been able over many to solve. The report of the Commission on Morals and Social Problems, when it was presented at the synod’s 1950 national meeting in Washington, D.C., “went all around the subject without touching it,” Bergendoff later said. After long debate—it was the hottest issue at the meeting that year—the delegates passed a resolution that “there shall be no official sponsoring of dances on or off the campus by the colleges.” That would imply “unqualified approval of the dance.” But a final amend-ment did permit the schools to supervise off-campus dancing when it was not officially sponsored.

So the dance went on. It was now ecclesiastically permitted to social groups to hold their dinner dances. And faculty chaperones could attend; some even danced them-selves. By the late fifties dances were held in the new Westerlin Hall for Women, in the gymnasium, at Homecoming, Santa Lucia, and even in the new Bergendoff Hall of Fine Arts. As in the case of drinking, student behavior had gradually worn away administrative disapproval and resistance. The President of the College understood that whatever formal positions the college or church took, young people did not really feel bound by them: “It is in the field of conduct that I feel the Church has no deep hold upon them.”

The Student Voice

The expression of student views in each of these contre-temps came either in the columns of the Observer or through the channels of the student government.

The college paper was the older of the two. In the late 1930s the paper was tabloid size, printed on good stock, and won several awards for editorial content and layout in competition with other Illinois college newspapers. After the war it received an All-American rating from the Collegiate Press Association in national competition. The editors complained periodically about indifference; they received too few letters from students. The faculty advisor told the president in 1937 that she was concerned that faculty thought she read Observer material pre-publication and was therefore in some sense responsible for the moments when it seemed inappropriate or excessive. But such moments were, by later standards, relatively rare. A 1938 editorial on “You and Syphilis” told students, “Your chastity is your own business,” but warned them that if they did not abstain, they were morally liable for medical exams. In the fifties, until the administration clamped down, the paper ran ads for ladies’ undergarments. The editor was angry in 1952 over more serious censorship, this time from other students. A reporter had been excluded from an Inter-Fraternity meeting during one of the administration-fraternity face-offs. The editor quoted Milton’s Areopagitica in defense of the right to let the campus know what the Greeks were up to. A year later the paper got into something like real trouble with the Dean of Men when it reported that students had petitioned to keep at Augustana a man who had been expelled from school for a series of offenses. ”Rumors and shadowed truth concerning the administration were rampant.” The dean would only say that the student in question had had a “string of mis-demeanors” and was given the choice of being expelled or withdrawing himself from school. Again John Milton was cited in the newspaper’s defense. The student did leave the college, in any case. The question of whether the Observer appropriately reported and discussed matters of student discipline and other personal questions was left unresolved, but such stories did not appear in the paper thereafter.

The role of students in setting the direction and character of college life, academic and social, became a subject of heated debate on campus and across the country by the sixties. But in the Bergendoff years, it was not so controversial.

In 1937 the Observer editor noted ruefully that while Augustana claimed to be training students for life, it was the administration and the faculty who were in fact being trained: “A person of college age is generally considered to have some power of judgment, some faculties of reason. But not at Augustana. Students don’t have these things here. Their elders do.” The particular point of complaint was the (temporary) removal of cigarette ads from the Observer as well as the refusal of the administration to consider student requests for changing certain dormitory regulations.

After the war students gained a major victory when they convinced college leaders that they should be granted the use of North Hall, an aging red brick house located just west of the athletic field, as a Student Union. The building was cleaned, to some degree remodel-ed, and dedicated for student use in February, 1946. In the course of the next several years students took over the operation of the building and its snack bar. Dancing started there, and in 1950 a television set was installed. These steps repre-sented major achievements for the nascent student government at the college. In 1947 people who had attended a conference on student life at the University of Wisconsin had come back vowing to establish a functioning student government at Augustana. By the mid-fifties it was up and running effectively. Concern remained focused on a student activities building; in 1953 Richard Swanson, President of “Stu-U” and eventually College Pastor for over three decades, said the college must decide whether to continue to put money into the somewhat decrepit present building with its serious structural problems or push for a new one. It was “an ulcer-developing situation,” Swanson admitted. While nothing happened just then regard-ing that problem, Stu-U President Swanson did lead the effort to turn the slough, which needed to be “de-odorized,” into an amphitheater for outdoor rallies, church services, and other gatherings. In 1955, 70% of the half of the students voting called for a fourteen dollar per semester assessment on each person to pay for a new student union building. The board rejected the idea, but did agree to explore government loan funds to finance con-struction, which finally did begin in the late fifties. Clearly, student demand had influ-enced college plans and was a major factor in the erection of the College Union, opened in 1960.

By the late fifties there began to be signs of students’ insistence that their views be considered, not simply in the matter of an activities building, but in the development of college curriculum, residential policy and even financial matters. Until then these had clearly been the business of the college administration alone. The directors approved a new Student Union Constitution in 1956. Its preamble emphasized academic freedom and student rights as well as the obligation of students to “the school, community, humanity, and God.” Two years later Knut Erickson became the first college officer other than Dr. Bergendoff to meet with student government; Erickson explained the budget to what must have been a rapt audience. In 1959 the student government, by now the “Representative Assembly,” asked for and received the right to have one student attend meetings of the central college academic body, the Educational Policies Committee. The committee chair did, however, reserve the right to review that student’s report to his constituents before it was released.During Bergendoff’s last year as president, twenty-two students and sixteen faculty (including some administrators) spent an entire Saturday in a conference on “Visions of Augustana,” concerned to discover just what a “Church college” ought to be. A few years earlier the Observer editor had ironically hailed “la Triumverate” which ran the school (Dr. Bergendoff, Conductor Henry Veld, and Becky Beckstrom, manager of the Food Service). But now students were in on the conversation about the future of the college itself. The sixties had arrived.