Madison classmates fess up
Bluestone Journal: A look back at Madison and the Normal
Madison classmates from the '30s, '40s, '50s and '60s wind their way up the stairs of the high-tech Integrated Science and Technology Building. Some ooh and ahh over the architecture, while others stop and give grandmotherly advice to students studying in the hallways.
"It's not a seniors' tour," laughs one alumna. "We're here to give confession." Her cohort giggles in agreement. Their "confessions" are shared memories they expressed at the Madison Confessional, an Alumni Reunion Weekend program that is becoming a smash hit.
Each May, JMU Special Collections Librarian Chris Bolgiano offers reunion weekend participants a forum to renew memories and discover things they didn't know about their own years at Madison.
The common memories forge a bond and evoke tears of joy as well as hearty belly laughs. The program always includes a rehash of strict campus rules, and the 2001 confessional wove a common thread around the lone 1950s campus policeman Frank Roberts.
"He made you feel guilty even if you hadn't done anything," chimes an alumna to nods all around. "I don't know how one man could be so visible in so many places at one time," another agrees.
"But he took care of people too," comes a surprising rejoinder. "You weren't supposed to have cars on campus, and one of the people I knew from an early '50s class had an illegal car on campus. Well, they would park right off campus. Apparently some young professor invited some of the girls over to play cards, and they drank beer, and --" Gasps chorus around the room.
"From his house," the alumna continues, "they drove home drunk and parked the car on the sidewalk in front of whatever sorority they were in. The next morning they woke up, and the car wasn't there. They had no idea where it was. They had left the keys in the car, and Frank Roberts had seen it and moved it so they wouldn't get in trouble. So he took care of people, too."
Strict guidelines ruled every aspect of student life from the earliest days of the Normal School through the mid '60s. One alumna at the 2002 Madison Confessional explains why there were so few student rebellions. "We didn't protest because we were brought up to follow rules. We came from protective homes. Parents expected and supported the strictness."
Emily Lee ('43) recalls a failed rebellion during her senior year, when students were required to wear hose to the dining room each night. "It was during World War II, and the hose were not only uncomfortable but also hard to get," says Lee. "We marched against Dr. Duke until Mrs. Cook explained they wanted Madison girls to have the same graces as Hollins girls. So we complied."
Among memories of common pranks -- like Vaseline smeared on toilet seats, short-sheeted beds, kittens hidden in dorms, and dining-room doors closed on you only 6 feet away -- comes a unique Halloween story. An alumna recalls, "One year, a bunch of us were trick-or-treating on Halloween. At a house beyond the railroad track, we went to the door and the lady said, 'We don't have any candy left, but I have these puppies.' There were three Dalmatian-like puppies, and three of us brought them back to campus and hid them in our rooms. Now two got caught and had to take them back, but I kept mine concealed. I put her in the bathroom when we went to class and turned on the radio up loud and all that. We'd put her under our raincoats and carry her outside to hockey practice every afternoon, and she'd run around the field. She was in the picture in the yearbook, and the hockey team and about everybody on campus knew we had her, except the powers that be. It took me two weeks before I was able to get her home, and she lived with my family for 15 years."
Male classmates, who returned to campus as GIs after WWII, recount the frustrations of not being able to date, being consigned to eat by themselves in a corner of the dining hall, and having to be out of the library by 8 p.m. Even as students, veterans had to get on the approved list to date. As one puts it, "Our position was 'Standing on the corner, watching all the girls go by…"
But amid the anecdotes of restrictions, one '57 graduate who went to summer school found the rules less overwhelming. In the summer, there were more men around, and car regulations were more easily breached. "Summer school was a blast. It was wide open with many age groups, and Blue Hole saw us every Saturday afternoon."
Some things never change. Blue Hole is still a favorite JMU escape. And friendships forged at Madison are important at any age. Bolgiano's closing confessional question usually evokes a common answer. "What would you say are your dominant memories? When you think of Madison, what comes to mind?" she queries.
"Friends," comes a unified shout from around the room. "Our Madison friends … and just the principles that we ignored while we were here but carried away with us … education and good friends."
What could be better goals for any institution of higher learning -- establishing sound principles for living, education to earn a living, and lasting friendships?
Story by Nancy Bondurant Jones
Photos by Diane Elliott ('00) and courtesy of the Bluestone