- Historic Sites
Last Of Four Installments A Michigan Boyhood
A FAMOUS HISTORIAN RECALLS THE COUNTRY WHERE HE GREW UP
August 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 5
Of all of this I at that time knew nothing. I was thinking about myself, and about the great things that lay ahead of me; the place that had been all the world was about to become nothing more than a receding milestone, growing ever smaller with increasing distance but not really changing. The institution that had shaped me (and in a sense it was simply an extension of my own home) would remain just as it always had been: always, that is, for the last ten or twelve years. Changes that took place would happen to me, not to what I left behind. My background was immutable, and when I finally went off to Oberlin I felt no need to take a fond backward glance.
A college freshman was as far from maturity then as he is today, but it did seem to me that I was just about grown up. Boyhood certainly was ended. Youth indeed remained, to be squandered as blithely as if it came from an inexhaustible fountain, but the mere fact that I could be prodigal of it if I wished made a difference. I felt that by getting to college, exchanging a small campus for a large one, I was being set free.
That was something of an exaggeration, considering the Oberlin of 1916; there were innumerable laws against all known forms of misconduct, and they were enforced with ferocious rigor. Fraternities, for instance, were outlawed; and in that same fall of 1916, just before the college year opened, it was learned that practically the entire football squad had formed, and gave allegiance to, a secret fraternity. The entire football squad, accordingly, was thrown out of college without further ado, and a pickup team that was hastily organized with untaught volunteers, who went nobly forth to slaughter for the honor of the school, took a fearful beating every Saturday of the season; I believe Ohio State, which was just then emerging to big-league status, beat Oberlin by 128 to nothing.
The college authorities, in other words, meant what they said, and they could be grim. And yet (to repeat) I was at least away from home, and I felt that I had freedom. One autumn evening, greatly daring, I went with another boy to the nearby city of Elyria, walked uncertainly into a saloon, and drank a glass of beer, after which we slunk out, boarded an interurban, full of the consciousness of guilt and high adventure, and went hastily back to Oberlin. Never have I committed a sin that was as pleasurable and as exciting.
All of this, to be sure, is beside the point. Benzonia Academy was my fixed point of reference, and everything that happened to me was to be compared with what had happened in Benzonia. This put an unusual gloss on commonplace adventures, now and then, so that the innocent little trip to Elyria seemed like a weekend lost around Sodom and Gomorrah; but it did no harm, and I had a deep affection for the place which, in a way, had seemed so repressive. The academy would always be there, and some day I would return, probably as a famous foreign correspondent on furlough, and tell the impressionable young people graphic tales about gathering the news in places like Paris and London.
The one thing I did not dream of at that time was that the academy was not going to wait for me. My own class of 1916 was second from the last class ever to be graduated there. At the end of the 1917 school year Father resigned his post, and one year later, in the summer of 1918, the academy closed its doors forever. Barber Hall was torn down a few years later; it was a fire hazard, a place subject to being broken into by rowdies, and a building of no conceivable use. The boys’ dormitory, which had been a rambling collection of gable ends stuck together almost at haphazard, was cut to pieces and the pieces were taken away to make dwelling places. And the girls’ dormitory, on the first floor of which our family had lived for several years, was turned into a village community house. It survives to this day, a most serviceable old building, looking rather hollow-eyed because its upper floors are boarded up and present blank, uncurtained windows to the public gaze. It has been in existence for well over half a century, and less than a decade of its life was devoted to the function for which its builders intended it. Nothing less dramatic than this building’s story, and nothing less important than the death of the academy which had built it, could easily be imagined. But in an almost unnoticeable way the affair marked the closing of an era.
A graduate of the academy, meeting Father in the fall of 1918, asked him why the academy had disintegrated. Father replied that any small, undernourished institution ofthat sort was simply the reflection of one man’s activity: when the man ceased to be active the institution ceased to exist. Whether he was consciously adapting Emerson’s remark that an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man or worked the thought out for himself I do not know, but he had the right explanation. Benzonia Academy, founded by dedicated men to light an educational lamp in a wilderness which, left to itself, would remain in darkness, had outlived the condition that called it into being. The wilderness had been destroyed, and without exactly meaning to, the men who destroyed it had let in the light. The academy had become an anachronism. Once it existed because a state needed it and a community willed it; in the end, no longer really essential, it existed because one man willed it. When America went to war in the spring of 1917 he focused his will on another objective. It took the academy just a year to die.