Or, Why Wesleyan in 1983 Was Basically Just Like Europe in 1415.
About a month ago, in the aftermath of the megablizzard, Public Safety came under criticism for threatening to tow cars buried under mountains of snow that made it rather difficult for their owners to reach them. If retweets are endorsements, a handful of students echoed the complaint.
There’s not much that’s interesting about the history of Snow Parking Bans (side note: we’re more than midway through March and as I look out my window right now, it’s again snowing), but piecing through the Argives last week I was oddly enthralled by an Argus story that ran 30 years ago last month with the headline “100 Cars Towed as a Result of Snowstorm.” After this particular 1983 storm, Middletown Police Sergeant Wood was unforgiving: “If they’re not off streets, they’re towed. It’s as simple as that,” he told the Argus.
But as then-Argus reporter (and current literary agent) Linda Loewenthal ’85 tells it, the problem was that many students simply weren’t aware that the parking ban was in effect. Why would they be? In 1983, before email or Pinterest or Friendster or whatever, it was damn hard to get information out quickly on a college campus:
Despite several WESU announcements on Monday morning, many Wesleyan students were unaware that an emergency parking ban was in effect, and returned home to find their cars gone. Parul Kapur, a resident of the International House on Lincoln Street whose car was towed Monday evening, said, “it was a hassle to get out to the garage to retrieve my car, and once I had, I was told I had to pay a 40 dollars fine for something I was never even told about.”
The authorities get a chance to defend themselves, however, noting that all the radio stations were informed, man, you should’ve known:
“All surrounding radio stations were informed and numerous announcements were made,” said Don Fazzino of the Department of Public works; “we knocked on doors whenever possible but after that there’s very little to be done,” he added.[ . . . ] According to [Director of Public Safety] Kinney, “WESU, in addition to as many special interest houses as could be reached, were called. Head residents were also informed.”
Plus, Kinney scolds at the end of the piece, “drivers should stay tuned in to their radios as much as possible after a big storm.”
Reading this tortured account of a communication breakdown before the advent of instant communication technologies, I was immediately reminded of a recent Atlantic account of how “mass media” functioned the last time a pope resigned—600 years ago. Perhaps Wesleyan in 1983 could have taken a hint from medieval Europe in 1415, when townsfolk on their farms or villages relied on a traveling network of mendicant friars, “preachers who brought the gospel to the people by foot, opting out of monastery life,” for newsworthy updates and reports. Here’s historian Donald Prudlo explaining how it all worked:
Mendicant friars “were sort of the mass media of the age. If you take the Internet and Twitter and television and radio, they were it. These were the men who traveled all around Europe. And in addition to their preaching, which sometimes lasted several hours, they would intersperse their religious material with news of the Holy Land, news of England, news of the Spanish succession.”
Might these mendicant friars have functioned like the head residents Officer Kinney claims to have informed in 1983, who may well have slacked in their duty to spread news from the Holy Land to Clark and
Fauver West College? Of course, for those peasants who lived in far-off rural areas (like the Butts, or—God forbid—BuHo), the news would have taken a lot longer to arrive, and it may not have arrived at all. According to one historian quoted, the route “would have been from the council to the seat of a diocese—that is, a cathedral city—via horse in most cases, I would think. And from there, copies would be made for the churches within that diocese.”
From there, the news would spread to the masses by way of the only mass media that existed—the sermon at the next Mass. (I used “mass” three times in that sentence.) If you didn’t go to mass? Too bad, you’re out of the loop. It’s sort of like forgetting to tune in to your radio after a storm.
Here’s the Atlantic piece. And here’s the full Argus article, published on February 15, 1983: