• Oppyman

    I was the nominal head of West College at the time these festivals began. I was a classmate of Mr. Roth’s and did not know him well, although I was lucky enough to be in two seminars with him during my years at Wesleyan. His brilliance AND his seriousness were quite evident then. I don’t know about the controversy over these celebrations, but trying to get back into my 1970s head for a minute, I have these reflections.

    1) Those were different days. I remember sitting on the slopes behind Olin watching baseball games with a core group of five or six West College men and women, no matter what the weather. I remember lighting up joints on sunny weekend afternoons with members of the administration sitting ten yards away. I also recall one cold rainy weekday afternoon when we were virtually the only fans there, and we brought a large hookah out with us. One of the pitchers on the team was an acquaintance of mine, and I asked him if our antics bothered the coach, the wonderful Coach Costacoupolis (I apologize for the spelling) and I was told that he loved us and that he thought we had made the difference to the team in at least two games.

    These kind of antics would not have survived the Reagan years. Faulting President Roth for not endorsing what is patently illegal activity seems to me to be foolish and unrealistic because:

    2) We created the Zonker day as a West College celebration. Like a lot of things we did at West College in those years, it was done in the spirit of being outside the norms of conventional, officially endorsed activities. Although things were looser then, although we were used to giving Wesleyan security officers hits of our joints as their toke tax, and although we indulged in some public displays of rule-bending as I noted above, we also were very careful to not push it with the authorities. There was always a bit of outlaw spirit in the upper middle class white students of West College, but we tacitly understood that we were in a privileged cocoon and that if we were smart, we would keep most of our antics private. We did amazing things within that cocoon to amuse ourselves. One thing we did not expect, never mind demand, was an endorsement of our activities by the administration.

    3) I don’t know how much the students of the classes of 1978 and after knew about the activities of our West College predecessors. I was fortunate enough to get ahold of all of their records and archives and read about the organization of the anti-war protests that engaged in. I read their angry underground newsletters and their reflections of Vietnam. We faced none of these serious issues. Most of our activities were for fun. We always contributed to the causes of our times. West College paid for most of the buses that went up to Seabrook in Maine to protest the nuclear power plant and some of the buses that went to the protests against the erection of a gym at Kent State on the site of the student massacre. (I also remember using parliamentary maneuvers to get a measure to fund the latter to pass, after the self-righteous styling radicals asking for assistance demanded we fund the entire pilgrimage since we were selfish to preserve any of our self-sustaining budget on things like parties. They had so offended the West College assembly that it took some clever wheeling and dealing and the generation of numerous counter-proposals and the use of plurality voting to get them the cash we came up with. I also remember seeing the radical’s leading couple hopping into her BMW to go out to dinner at a fancy steak house, her dashing to her car to avoid ruining her leather jacket. By I digress.)

    But what me mostly did was kid stuff, playing, fun. Drawing a giant yellow Boon Tan on the roof of the field house the night before homecoming. (Yes, we scouted out security patrol patterns for weeks before the event and yes ingenious engineering was used to get the Boon drawn quickly and brilliantly, but still kid stuff.) Finding the cache of stuffed animals in the walls of the tunnels beneath West College and leaving them in interesting arrangements all over campus. (Not our fault that the taxidermists used cyanide in their preparation, I suppose …) What we did, we did on our own, making up our own traditions as we went along. And again, we did it on our own because we didn’t trust the authorities to do it for us.

    The university completely defunded West College in 1975. Where we once were given a large stipend, we got nothing. The university did collect dues for us, and we then sat down and came up with an attractive brochure to entice freshmen to join us. Only 12 signed up for West College as freshmen in the fall of 1974; the housing office dumped a lot of us there on their own, and I am glad they did. The West College Coffee house was funded out of the pockets of four West College juniors and put on a profitable basis through creative cheese cutting, setting aside a portion of all food purchased to be eaten by the staff, and constant runs to the coop to prevent any loss through spoilage.

    We had had to go toe to toe with Dean Shanahan to get one floor of West College co-ed. He reneged on agreements, reducing our hardbitten negotiators to tears until we started the practice of sending confirming letters after every meeting. And I took it upon myself to ask him if he was proud that he could get 19 year old girls to cry. Then he insisted that there be a male and female RA on the hall and that they would each get only half compensation. Then he bragged about how innovative his co-education initiatives were to the Argus. (Giving credit where credit is due, he did have the bathrooms reconstructed at no little cost and rapidly spread co-education over the next two years once the pilot project was a stunning success. And it should be no surprise that the residents of the first co-ed hall were instrumental in conceiving of the first Zonker Harris day.)

    Given our ambiguous relationship with the powers that were (and have no doubt that they were much more benign then they are now, given how our society and culture have changed) we never ever ever would look to the authorities to condone Zonker Harris day.

    Give President Roth a break; let him raise as much money from as many donors as he can, without asking him to be your entertainment chairman. It sounds like you have some pretty good campus-wide celebrations; enjoy them. To hell with what they are called. After all, it was named by a lot of people who are bald and wrinkled and were searching through their teenagers closets ten years ago to make sure that the drugs they were doing weren’t really bad ones. From everything I’ve read (and it isn’t much because I am not all that interested with Wesleyan as it is today), the priorities of the school are still excellent and money raised goes for many of the right things. It seems bratty to sacrifice any of that over the name of a party. Let it go.

    Then figure out how to have the best spring and winter celebrations you can, on your own. Don’t ask for a public endorsement of your right to party. Figure out how to do it without getting caught by the man. Make up your own names for it.

    Oh. One last thought. Do you really think Uncle Duke would rely on the administration to cooperate with his self-destructive behavior?

  • anon

    As a rich, future alum, I only plan to donate if Wesleyan keeps the free-speech spirit alive…

  • Sara PM, ’97

    Well, as a Wes alum who fondly remembers Zonker Day (and the giant banners accompanying it that would hang in MoCon), I’ll be writing in to the administration to support changing the name back. After all, Trudeau has worked hard to build his brand. ;)

  • guest

    y’all realize this is not President Roth by fiat, right? this is the fault of some crazy old rich guy who refused to donate piles of money until the school made some sort of token gesture of becoming less “druggie”, because who wants a building named after them when all anyone’s gonna do is smoke pot near it?

    but seriously though, I’m pretty sure Roth likes doonesbury and this is killing him inside.

    • Wes Alum

      I hope this kills Roth inside. Maybe it will inspire him to find that Wesleyan spirit he once had and stand up for free speech at Wesleyan. Do you really think he’s completely powerless to donors? Isn’t he supposed to be a charming intellectual? By that measure, shouldn’t he be able to convince rich alumni that “kids will be kids” and they should donate anyway?

  • Wes Mom

    What a hoot!