My Vanderbilt University education has been such a blessing to me for four decades that I’ve never really been able to put it into words. But I had lots of opportunities to reflect about it last October when my wife, Carla, and I attended my 40-year reunion.
It was a great weekend on campus, except for unusually cold weather. The temperature was in the upper 30s, and there was a stiff wind during the Saturday afternoon football game. The outcome of that—the Georgia Bulldogs beat our Commodores 34–10—was harsh, too. But our turnout of more than 200 classmates set a new attendance record for 40-year Reunion classes, as did the class’s special Reunion fund drive of more than $5 million.
Until about September 1964, when I was starting my senior year of high school in Shenandoah, Iowa, I knew of Vanderbilt only from the agate score lists in the sports sections of the Des Moines Register and Omaha World-Herald. I thought I’d probably go to a college or university in Iowa or Nebraska. I knew there’d have to be major financial help, as my dad had died when I was 13 and my mother provided for both me and my sister four years younger. But one morning a letter arrived in the offices of The Evening Sentinel in Shenandoah where, despite my young age, I was in my fourth year as sports editor.
“Dear sports editors,” the letter began, “Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., is the alma mater of the late Grantland Rice, one of the best and most famous sports writers in America in the first half of this century.” It went on to say that we might know Rice from his poetry, including one poem called “Alumni Football,” which ends with the lines: “For when the One Great Scorer comes to write against your name, He writes not whether you won or lost, but how you played the game.”
The letter said that an organization had endowed a four-year, full-ride scholarship to Vanderbilt each year “for a high school senior who is a promising sports writer.” Sports editors were asked to look around their coverage areas for just such a high school senior, and nominate him or her for the Grantland Rice Scholarship.
So I did! I gathered up a bunch of my clippings. I solicited letters of recommendation from Sentinel Managing Editor R.K. Tindall, St. Mary’s Catholic Church pastor Msgr. Paul Marasco, Shenandoah High School Principal Alvin Carlsen and Athletic Director George Haws, and maybe a few others. I sent it all off to Nashville, expecting nothing would come from it.
Within a couple of weeks, Vanderbilt requested my high school transcript and told me that while I had already planned to take the ACT college-qualification test, I also needed to take the SAT. In early 1965 I learned I’d been accepted as a potential student at Vanderbilt, but the results of the scholarship contest would not be announced until March or early April. Therefore, I also sent applications to the University of Iowa and Creighton University, schools that some of my brothers and sisters attended.
Then in early spring, the letter arrived. I was not the Grantland Rice Scholarship winner, but I was runner-up. Vanderbilt was trying to broaden its student body, which up to then had been mostly from the South and New England. When they saw “Iowa” on my application, it got their attention. They offered me a scholarship and low- interest loan that would cover more than half the $4,000-per-year costs. It was the best financial offer I’d received—better than Creighton’s and Iowa’s—so I accepted.
I had never seen the place, other than in a couple of impressive brochures I’d received. I think I’d had two long-distance telephone conversations with administrators on campus. But I had learned about the long list of successful sports writers at national publications who’d gone to Vanderbilt, as well as other media figures, and that was good enough for me. My big brother, Tom, drove me to Nashville so I could enroll in early September 1965.
It was a beautiful, stately campus, about half the size it is today. You could see and feel Southern tradition everywhere. I’d never been any place like that before. Tom and I walked and drove the campus, looking for the Landon House freshman dormitory to which I’d been assigned. We were finally told, oh, that’s not really a dorm—it’s an old brick house on the west edge of the campus, right next to the football stadium and gym. There were 964 freshmen in the new class, too many for the beds available in the regular dorms, so Vanderbilt had quickly renovated three rickety houses for the overflow.
Landon House, in my view, looked to be a dump. I began feeling like a real outsider. There’d be 11 other freshmen living there, with a law school student as our resident adviser. The others were coming from New England, the South, California and Wisconsin. I felt even more out of it. I was one of the first arrivals. I hauled my stuff to my second-floor room, said goodbye to my brother, and started setting up my desk, manual typewriter and reference books.
Soon the door swung open, and in walked my roommate, Nicholas Rutgers Duke, BA’69, a prep-schooler from New Haven, Conn., wearing a blue blazer, button-down oxford cloth shirt, club necktie, khaki pants and penny loafers. After we talked a bit, he answered my obvious question: Yes, he was indeed related to the families that had founded Rutgers University and Duke University. I now really felt out of it. Why, I finally asked, had he picked Vanderbilt?
“Well, because I am a five-string banjo player,” Duke said, “and Nashville is the country music capital of the world.” I nearly fell off my chair!
In that little flash, everything began to change for me. I quickly began to realize that Vanderbilt was full of people who might be brighter than me and who thought a whole lot differently than I did. A lot of them came from wealthy families, many had graduated from exclusive prep schools, and I was the first Iowan most of them had ever met. But when I talked to them—and I was as curious and inquisitive as a somewhat experienced sports writer might be—I quickly realized they were some of the most imaginative, talented, fun and downright peculiar people I’d ever been around.
Landon House turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me, and through the years I’ve stayed in touch with many of the dozen other fellows who lived there with me. It was a like a mini fraternity house. In my freshman year I met the fellow who 44 years later is still my best friend, Douglas T. Bates III, BA’69, another small-town nerd like I was. We stayed with Doug and his wife, Molly, last October in his hometown of Centerville, Tenn., where he is a country lawyer.
I was a mediocre-to-poor student most of my four years at Vanderbilt. I was a political science major and English minor, and I took as broad a range of courses as I could get—including art appreciation, Russian history, music appreciation, geology, poetry and economics.
I threw myself wholeheartedly behind the racial integration happening at Vanderbilt, including our school’s breaking of the “color line” in the Southeastern Conference my sophomore year. I attended as many curious-sounding guest lectures, concerts and theatrical productions as I could. I seldom missed home sporting events, and I followed the Commodores on the road several times for games against the big bully state schools in the SEC.
I worked for the student newspaper, The Vanderbilt Hustler, as well as the sports department of The Tennessean. I played baseball as a freshman and until I got cut as a sophomore. I co-founded a campus humor magazine. I wrote for Nashville’s city magazine. Several times I hired out as a pallbearer for funerals of indigents at the nearby Catholic Cathedral in Nashville.
Sometimes to get back and forth between Nashville and Shenandoah on my infrequent trips home, I rode passenger trains connecting Nashville and Hamburg, Iowa, with transfers in Kansas City and St. Louis. Other times I hitchhiked all 800 miles. In my last couple of years, I’d fly student stand-by, or drive my third-hand Volkswagen bug that had no radio or heater.
I’d carry Nick Duke’s banjo case for him to jam sessions at Nashville honky-tonks with many country music stars like bluegrass legends Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. I was in the audience for tapings of Johnny Cash’s TV show, and I squeezed into a Nashville studio to listen while Elvis Presley recorded “In the Ghetto.” Brother Tom, based in Atlanta, introduced me to his boss, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and other leaders of the American Civil Rights Movement. I covered the early 1968 anti-war march on the Pentagon. And that spring in Memphis, Tom’s pals took me in to stay up all night with them in King’s room at the Lorraine Motel after their leader had been assassinated on the walkway outside the room door. I covered riots in Nashville and demonstrations on our campus and others. I never missed the appearances of any U.S. presidential candidate who came through Nashville.
I wound up being editor of the student newspaper for a semester—a rather radical editor, befitting the crazy times in the late 1960s. Because I was out of money, I lived in my editor’s office in Alumni Hall. But then I was removed as editor after I quit going to classes that fall and rang up a 0.0 grade point. Newspapering had been more fun and more important, according to my 21-year-old reasoning. The kindly dean of men persuaded me I’d made a major mistake, reinstated me as a student, and gave me a dorm room and a cafeteria meal ticket good for that spring. “We’ve decided you’re good for Vanderbilt,” he explained to me.
He may have saved my life and career. That spring I redeemed myself as a student and became the journalism comeback player of the season. Doug Bates and I decided to cover Vanderbilt baseball like it had never been covered before, and through our enthusiastic, colorful stories, we turned home games into major campus events. Ever a sports writer at heart, I guess.
Much about my college experience of long ago wouldn’t happen today. But for current high school students, I hope it demonstrates that even if you’re a poor kid from a small town in the Midwest, if you jump on opportunities when they pop up in front of you, if you throw yourself into sometimes uncomfortable challenges, if you make yourself become curious about everything, if you seek out and get to know people who are different than you are, and even if you go to a college a long way from home—well, 40 years from now, you’ll probably be heading off to a reunion at a place you’ll love as much as I love Vanderbilt.
Chuck Offenburger, BA’69, first wrote about his 40th Vanderbilt reunion for the KMAland Newsletter and on his website. This piece is adapted from those earlier columns. Offenburger got his start in print at age 13 in his hometown of Shenandoah, Iowa, writing sports news for the Shenandoah Evening Sentinel. After a long career as a Des Moines Register featured columnist, he now writes from his farm home in Greene County, Iowa. The author of four books, he serves as a visiting instructor at colleges and high schools, teaching journalism and courses about Iowa. For 16 years Offenburger was co-host of the internationally known RAGBRAI—the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.