College Days

by Henry F. Tonn


In the summer of 1962, I managed to be in the right place at the right time and grab the job of lifeguard at the Duke University indoor swimming pool. A rising junior, I was in the process of transferring from a small, Methodist-affiliated school called High Point College to the considerably larger and more prestigious University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The plan was to enter graduate school in two years and eventually become a psychologist. I had taken the lifeguard job because I had no money, plain and simple, having evolved from modest middle class stock. My father was a policeman and my mother a secretary and the family had lived from check to check for as long as I could remember.

It was a memorable summer. Despite being nineteen, I had only recently managed to land my first girlfriend, Jo, a high school senior and daughter of a professor in the Duke University biology department. I had met Jo on the tennis courts one day while practicing my serve. “It really stinks, you know,” she observed while casually crossing her long legs. “The motion is all wrong.”

“Well, why don’t you come out here and give me a free tennis lesson, then,” I suggested.

The rest was history. We had instant chemistry, the relationship blossomed, and by the time I garnered the lifeguard job she was actively teaching me the intricacies of French kissing and other exotic activities that evolve at this age.

It could have been a perfect summer, filled with daily sojourns to the tennis court, nightly escapades at the Duke University gardens, and a much needed weekly paycheck, had I not received a letter from the registrar’s office at Chapel Hill informing me of a slight problem. They had discovered in the process of transferring my credits from High Point College that my grade point average was three quality points below the required C. It would be necessary, they informed me, to take a course at any accredited college of my choice and make a B before I could quality to enter their institution in the fall.

This created a serious dilemma. It was mandatory that I continue my lifeguard job at the pool to support my impending education, but it was equally necessary that I take the required class in order to attain said education. What to do? Well, there was only one solution: I would take the course right here on the Duke University campus.

That evening I discussed the situation with my mother. “You need a B,” she repeated, making certain she understood the necessary facts. My mother had never attended college, but was the most verbally fluent member of the family due to a considerable amount of reading in her youth.

“Right. And it can be any course I choose. They don’t care.”

“So, you need an easy course.”

“Yes. The easier the better.”

“I’ll talk to the head of the religion department,” she said. “He comes into our office almost daily.”

My mother worked for the North Carolina Council of Churches, located on the Duke east campus, and the head of the Religion Department turned out to be a kind man who understood the situation instantly. “Um,” he responded diplomatically, “I understand your son’s situation, and I think I have a recommendation. There is a course being taught next session entitled ‘Saint Augustine and Martin Luther’. It’s being taught by Dr. Baker who is from England. Dr. Baker is not... um... um... as oriented toward grades as some of our other professors. I believe your son would find this course most satisfactory to his needs.”

Translated: He gave good grades. Just what I needed.

But then another unexpected hurdle popped up. I received notice from the Duke University dean of admissions requesting an audience with me. I could not imagine why the dean of admissions would be interested in seeing my person, but I suspected the worst. Had my reputation for sloth, for preferring tennis courts over the classroom already reached the highest strata of this esteemed institution?

I was ushered into the office of a man possessing an owl-like appearance, with dark glasses, and twelve strands of hair combed carefully across the top of his bald head, reminding me somewhat of my father’s tailor. The man was engaged in an activity I feared most among college administrators: he was reviewing my file.

“Mr. Tonn,” he said, looking up without preamble from the papers and removing his glasses, “I understand you wish to take a religion course at our university this summer.”

“Yes, sir.” I wanted to say, “Guilty, your honor,” but suspected levity would not be rewarded under these circumstances. College administrators have never been known for their sense of humor, particularly when perusing the file of an academic deadbeat.

“Why, if I may be so bold as to ask?”

“Because I can’t enter Carolina in the fall until I’ve made a B in a course here,” I answered.

“Why not take the course at Carolina?”

“Because I have a job here, and because Carolina says I can’t take the course there in order to get into their school. It’s the rule.”

“So, as I understand it,” he said very carefully, “you’re not qualified to get into Carolina, but you’re planning to take a course at Duke.”

“I’m qualified to take a summer course at Carolina,” I corrected him, “just as I am at Duke. But I can’t take the course at Carolina in order to get into Carolina. I have to take it somewhere else. Hence, Duke.”

He became quite agitated. Carolina and Duke were then, as now, rivals both academically and athletically. “Mr. Tonn,” he said, “you are not going to take a course at Duke if you are not qualified to enter Carolina. It’s not appropriate.”

“You don’t understand,” I explained patiently. “I’m qualified to go to summer school classes at both schools. I’m just not qualified to enter Carolina in the fall till I’ve taken a course and made a B, and it can’t be there.”

“Nonetheless, Mr. Tonn, I’m dean of admissions, and I decide who does and does not enroll at Duke. And you, sir, are not going to take a course at this university in order to go to Carolina in the fall. That’s not going to happen.”

“If you don’t let me take this course,” I said with rising desperation, “I’m not going to be able to get into school at all. My college career will be ruined.”

“That isn’t my problem, Mr. Tonn. My job is to safeguard the integrity of this institution. Good day, sir.” And with that I was summarily dismissed.

I staggered out of his office stunned and bewildered. There was something very unfair about this but I was presently helpless to do anything about it. I returned home and informed my mother of what had just transpired. She listened intently and then said, “Wait till your father comes home.”

My father arrived shortly thereafter and listened while I gave him the details. “Let me get this straight,” he said after I had finished. “You’re definitely qualified to take a summer course at Duke. This guy at admissions won’t let you do it because of this rivalry thing.”

“That’s essentially it.”

“Let me look into it,” he said. And that was all. He ate his supper and then went off to his night job.

The next morning at precisely eight o’clock the phone rang, awakening me from a deep sleep. It was the dean of admissions. “Welcome to Duke University, Mr. Tonn,” he sang out. “Your application has been accepted.”

This is absolutely true as written. I never knew what my father, a mere foot patrolman on the Durham Police Force, did between eight o’clock that evening and the following morning to effect this sudden change of heart. I suspect he must have known something awfully bad about somebody awfully important. It wasn’t my business to ask, and he wouldn’t have told me anyway. But it makes for intriguing speculation.

Several weeks later I walked into the classroom of “Saint Augustine and Martin Luther” and checked out the competition. A group of football jocks were sprawled out in the back of the class burping and farting and telling off-color jokes. Other students sat around quietly staring into space. They didn’t look particularly bright to me, and I didn’t understand what the big deal was about Duke University. If grades were determined by the usual curve, then I was fairly certain I could establish myself somewhere near the top of the class.

I was wrong.

For the first time ever I attended every class, paid rapt attention to what was being said, and took copious notes. I read everything assigned to us, underlined important sections, and usually tried to go over my notes before each class. On the day of the first test I felt I was as ready as I could possibly be. The questions were not particularly difficult and I answered everything to the best of my ability. I left feeling fairly confident. Several days later we got back the results: I had made the second lowest grade in the class. My first thought was, who was the idiot who made the lowest grade?

I also realized making a B at Duke University wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought. The students were obviously smarter than they looked.

I vowed to try harder. I listened more intently, took more notes, and read the text more carefully. The second test arrived and my score fell approximately in the middle of the class. I was improving but still had a long way to go if I was to make a B.

The professor explained that 60% of our grade would come from two tests and a paper we would be required to do, and 40% from the final exam. The paper was due in several weeks and I was determined to do my very best on it, then knock out the final exam.

I decided the subject of my paper would be John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church. Not only was I relatively interested in the subject, since I had attended a Methodist church in my youth, but our esteemed professor was a world-renown scholar on this particular individual. He actually wrote the definitive articles on John Wesley for such worthy publications as the Encyclopedia Britannica. Why not pick a subject dear to his heart?

I researched the subject thoroughly, wrote assiduously, and produced something I felt I could submit with pride. I discussed it with my girlfriend and she suggested I have it typed rather than submit it in longhand. “It looks better,” she opined. “That in itself is worth half a grade.”

“I can’t type.”

“Well, bring it to my house and I’ll type it for you.”

That evening I handed her my fifteen-page handwritten script. She read through it and then slowly shook her head . “This is...” she struggled to find the right words... “awful. You can’t write worth a damn.”

“Hey!” I exclaimed, offended. “I’ll have you know I made “A’s” and “B’s” on my papers at High Point College.”

She brushed back her long hair and regarded me placidly. She was a pretty girl with huge brown eyes and terrific legs. The only thing I didn’t like about her was her chronic nicotine addiction and the resultant bitter taste in her mouth.

“This isn’t High Point,” she said patiently. “It’s Duke. It’s another league. You’ll never get by with a paper like this.”

“How do you know?” I protested. “You’re a senior in high school.”

She let out a long sigh “I’ll tell you what. I’ll rewrite the paper for you as I type it. And then you can decide which version you prefer.”

“You got a deal,” I agreed. “I’ll go watch television with your mother.”

I went into their den where I knew the mother would be absorbed in one of her favorite situational comedies. Jo’s mother had never been to college, and was certainly not an intellectual, but she ran the household with an iron grip. Both the headstrong daughter and the bookwormish husband pretty much followed her directives.

Her best quality, however, as far as I was concerned, was that she liked me. Despite my humble background — not having been associated much with the rich, well-heeled, and educated yet — she considered me a good influence on her daughter.

“Don’t worry, son,” she said, patting me affectionately on the knee. “She’s editor of the school newspaper. You’ve got a good thing going here.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Two and a half hours later the headstrong school-editor-girlfriend emerged, yawning slightly but holding a neat, typewritten copy in her hand. “That’s the best I can do,” she announced. “See what you think.”

I read it over and had to admit it was much better. “Thank you very much,” I said, kissing her cute little nose. “I take back everything I said about you. I will love you till the end of time.”

“I need a cig,” she said.

Several days later the papers were returned and mine had a big fat B on it. I was ecstatic. I called the girlfriend and informed her of the news.

“Yeah,” she said, “not one of my better papers, but not bad considering the limitations I was working under.”

Ever the smart-ass.

The final exam came and I studied for days, taking every available moment I had to review material over and over again. I even studied during my lifeguarding job. People could have drowned and I would never have noticed.

On the day of the exam I felt I had done everything I could in preparation. I took the test slowly, answering every question as thoroughly as possible, trying not to leave out anything I knew. I lingered in the class long after everyone else had departed and did not turn in my paper until the fully allotted three hours had elapsed.

“I want you to know, Dr. Baker,” I said as I dropped my test booklet on top of his pile, “that I have really enjoyed this course.” It was, as I fully admit, suck-up time.

“Thank you, Mr. Tonn,” he replied, smiling engagingly at me. He was a distinguished-looking gray-haired man who always dressed very British, with vest and a perpetually crooked tie. “I’m glad to hear it.”

I was surprised he knew my name. “I’m planning to attend Carolina in the fall,” I added.

“Excellent,” he said, gathering up his papers. “What will you be majoring in?”

“Psychology,” I replied. I accompanied him out of the classroom and just naturally fell in step with him as we began making our way to his car. “I’m planning to become a psychologist and work for the poor.” I thought this was a good spontaneous touch given that I had learned he was a devout Christian man who believed in charity and stuff.

“Even more excellent,” he said, reaching his car and unlocking it. “A very worthy profession.”

“Unfortunately, sir,” I continued in my most unctuous manner, “if I don’t make a B in this course, I won’t be getting in. A technicality due to my transferring from one college to another, you see.”

“You don’t say,” he replied, pursing his lips thoughtfully. “Well, don’t worry. You’ll probably make a B.” He patted me amiably on the shoulder.

Only with maximum effort did I manage not to prostrate myself in humility and gratitude before him and bang my head on the pavement like an ancient Chinese peasant.

“That would be wonderful, sir,” I said, handing him a self-addressed, stamped postcard. “Would you be so kind as to mail this card to me when you know my grade? I need it right away for registration at Carolina.”

“Be glad to. Be glad to,” he said enthusiastically, taking the card and climbing into his automobile. “And good luck at Carolina, Mr. Tonn. A fine school,” he said, nodding amiably as he started the automobile. “A fine school.”

“Thank you, sir,” I replied, almost bowing in obeisance. “And I hope you have a nice day.”

He waved as he drove away. I stood there for a long time sort of nodding my head absently. The man held my academic future in his hands.

Several days later I received my card in the mail with a “B” on it, and let out a whoop of joy. The next day I entered the dean of admissions office at Duke and presented him with the card.

He regarded it without expression. “That’s very good, Mr. Tonn,” he said, lifting his eyebrows. “You’ve done well.”

“Thank you, sir. I need to let Carolina know immediately so I can get a dormitory room. Could you write them a note confirming this grade?”

He shrugged. “Mrs. Williams, take a dictation.”

A lady in a red dress entered the office with a steno pad in hand. She sat down and crossed her legs in a very secretarial manner and the dean of admissions intoned, “This is to inform you that Henry Tonn has...” It comprised a total of six lines when he was finished and he instructed the secretary to type it up immediately.

Five minutes later she was back with the document. He signed it and handed it to me. “Good luck at Carolina, Mr. Tonn,” the dean said without conviction. “I hope you do well.”

“Thank you, sir.” I replied. “Best of luck to you and this wonderful university.”

I was sucking up right to the end.

When I got outside the sun was shining and the sky was blue. The tennis courts were beckoning and the girlfriend was awaiting my appearance that evening to teach me more things about life and pleasures of the flesh. I had a future again. It was grand to be alive.


Copyright © 2010 by Henry F. Tonn

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