It was the late sixties and early seventies when a group of students and faculty settled in at a small Swedenborgian college, Urbana College in Ohio, to engage in learning experiences that would change their view of the world and the paths they would take in that world, paths which would enable them to make positive differences in the lives of thousands of others. I want to share the trajectories of the lives of a few of them.
Some of those in the aforementioned group did not live to be senior adults: one was a bush pilot in Alaska who died in a plane crash; another traveled to San Francisco and died of AIDs before treatments were available. Others became teachers, school administrators, social workers, medical personnel (one became a judge); others donned cloaks of invisibility. And although one lived to collect her pension as president of a college, a dream she held close for decades before realizing it, Parkinson’s invaded her body and robbed her of her athleticism and her ability to cleverly debate issues she had long valued.
Some prefer to come of age during times of quiet, but we have no choice in the matter. We know that those of you who are entering college this fall somehow believe that the issues confronting you are unique, i.e., COVID and its variants, inflation, Russia’s attack on Ukraine, racism, the destruction of the planet, political divisions, attacks on democracy, and that others have not entered a world of chaos.
The period of the coming-of-age of persons about whom I’m writing was a time of tumultuous change as well, a time of chaos with challenging divisions as some, led by young, outstanding professors, were calling for inclusion and the changes that would be necessary to create a different America, an honorable, fair, accepting country that would welcome all to come to the table and have a voice in candidly and critically examining the history of the past and designing strategies to move ahead to a better future. That time period included a new focus on empowering women, opposing the war in Vietnam and Watergate shenanigans, grieving with the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, showing anger with the killings at Kent State University, taking pride in the moon landing, and singing/performing in a plethora of venues throughout the country as they cried out against injustices and advocated for hope and peace.
William Peter Collins, a student at Hopkinsville Community College, a part of the University of Kentucky System at the time, registered as a conscientious objector at age 18, but his draft board in Urbana, Ohio, denied his claim and, according to Collins, spread the word around town that he was a trouble maker and that they were going to make sure he was drafted. He left Kentucky and enrolled at Urbana College to manage a long battle with that draft board. Today he reports, “I was then- and will forever be- opposed to any act or threat of violence unless used defensively as a last resort.” He recounts the impact of the Vietnam War and concedes, “No one escaped unscarred.”
After college, Collins left Urbana and as a college friend Dennis McCurdy sang in his first CD, ‘Leaving Clark County,’ “I had to leave to find room to grow.” His leaving took him to employment with IBM and other large tech-driven corporations. At retirement, he gave his wardrobe to charity and as he says, made “a small bonfire of the walnut plaques I’d accumulated.”
Dennis MCCurdy was in high school when his counselor called his parents and him in for a counseling session in which the counselor said, “Let’s face it: Denny just isn’t college material.” His high school psychology teacher, however, had a different perspective and brought Ohio State University admission papers to a hospital where McCurdy was recovering from a ruptured appendix. Soon McCurdy was attending classes at the university, but that arrangement failed to work out. He heard about Urbana College and enrolled. At Urbana, McCurdy reports, “I felt embraced and cared for and encouraged to challenge and learn.”
After his first term at Urbana College, McCurdy went to visit his beloved grandmother who was on her deathbed. She asked if he had received his grades. He said, “Yes, all As and Bs.”
Her response was, “Well, then, Denny Boy, you’re gonna be okay, aren’t you?” She died that night.
And McCurdy has been much more than okay. After graduating from Urbana College, he went on to earn a law degree from the University of Pittsburg, and his resume has dozens of accolades: research, presentations, professional honors, key cases, and service as a trustee/ board member. Through his company, Lonesome No More Productions, he brings national touring groups to the Harmony, Pa, area.
McCurdy is a long-time advocate in Butler County, Pa., for juveniles and orphans in the courtroom in addition to handling all the administrative responsibilities in training personnel and keeping updated personally. And still he says, “I always fear I have never repaid what I owe, but working in the juvenile justice court system, I do all I can to help struggling children find their course and master their lives instead of letting our cruel systems house them and restrain/retrain them.”
Another from this time period is Vivian Hazell who writes, “My life’s journey began in a way that assumed poverty and failure, and my relationships began with all the darkness of risk.”
But them at age 17, Hazell’s life took a dramatic turn when Owen McCusker and she came to Urbana College and discovered a host of faculty and students who, as she indicates, “Saw ME beyond my past.” She details specific events and places: the Hub; Tent City ; UTOPIA 451, a course which was a living experiment in the development of community; the Kent State tragedy; the arrest of Owen and 33 others for sitting in a polling place to demand the right to vote; the Lancer; campus speakers like Thomas Wolfe and Madlyn Murray O’Hair.
These experiences immersed her into social justice issues where she decided that someone should do something and that she was that someone. After Urbana, it was graduate school and a life spent in working in non-profits on behalf of those with Alzheimer’s, autism, trauma, and developmental disabilities. And she still is working and says, “Urbana College is every part of who I am.”
Another Urbana graduate who has spent his life in addressing social issues is Terry Pellman who reports that his birth occurred not on a cold December day in 1950 but on a fall day in 1968 at Urbana College when he quickly felt “more free, more challenged, and more hopeful than I had ever felt before.” He says, “It was as if all of us in the student body were to finish the construction of something special, brick by brick, class by class, and evening bull sessions in the dormitories. Further, on the day I graduated from Urbana College, my mother told my oldest brother that she didn’t think I would ever make it.” On that same day, Pellman’s middle brother was graduating from the University of Loyola College of Law and would move on to have a stellar career in California.
And Pellman’s life has been stellar as well, and he considers himself blessed. After graduating from Urbana College with a degree in social work, he was a case worker for three years before the position of Director of Shelby County Job and Family Services became vacant. He was 25 at the time and applied. He got the job and worked in that position for 27 years until his retirement. Of that work, he says, “I wanted to help the disadvantaged, those who had things going against them, to make their lives better.”
A search of Amazon will show that Pellman has six volumes for sell, novels and collections of short stories. He indicates that he has been more prolific than successful in terms of sales, but that when he walks the streets of his hometown, he is frequently asked about his writing. He terms himself “an obscure writer from a small Midwestern city.”
Four stories of the ways in which a positive college experience has made important differences to individuals. My advice to students entering college for the first time this fall is as follows: You are living in a time of chaos as have others before you. Select a college that feels right, that resonates with you, and then put your all into that experience as you continue to develop the knowledge and skills to create/recreate yourself and a better America.
Finally, I always think of Thoreau’s Walden and the chapter “Where I Lived and What I Lived For” in which he writes of his two years in a cabin at Walden Pond, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…and not, when I came to die, discover I had not lived.” Additionally are these words by George Bernard Shaw to which McCurdy frequently refers, “I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live.”