Thursday, November 29, 2012

Milton College

Main Hall, Milton College
I graduated from Milton College, the college my father and my grandfather attended. Milton was one of the oldest institutions of higher education in Wisconsin, founded before the Civil War and chartered by the state in 1867. Seventh Day Baptists created it and, although it never had a formal relationship with the denomination, that connection sustained it for much of its history, supplying both faculty and students. The college never prospered financially, depending for its survival on dedicated faculty willing to serve sacrificially. My father, for instance, was persuaded to return to the college by its president after World War II. He had been teaching at CCNY. His salary at Milton was never significant — I believe my brother and I each made more in our first years of employment than he did after decades there although he had served as professor of mathematics, interim college president, and, for many years, registrar. The school had no endowment. I vividly recall the happiness in our house when the Main Hall bell would ring some evening to let everyone know that the budget had been raised and the college could continue for another year.

When I was growing up, life centered around the college. We lived across the street from campus and my alarm clock was the 7:25 ringing of the Main Hall bell. Both public high school and Milton College football was played on the college field. My brother and I were taken to every college basketball game. Our parents' closest friends were members of the faculty, many of whom were also members of our church. The college library was the village library. We attended Glee Club reunions and commencement ceremonies. We learned the fight song, and "The Song of the Bell" and the alma mater. We attended music recitals, choral concerts, and plays as did most on campus and many from the community. My parents would read us the plot from Lamb's Shakespeare before taking us to the Shakespearean play on campus — a play which continued an annual tradition begun in the 19th century not even broken during world wars when male roles were performed by women. In high school and college I worked in the college library and, during the summers, on the maintenance crew. Because both our parents worked at the college [Mom was a phys ed teacher and councilor for women students], we participated in just about every event — athletic, dramatic, social, musical — at the school.

It was foreordained that I and my brother would attend Milton. Not only had grandfather and Dad gone to Milton but, because our parents were faculty members, we could attend on a "faculty scholarship," that is, we could attend tuition-free and, since we could live at home, there was essentially no expense at all. I don't recall ever even considering going anywhere else. I graduated in 1968.

Brick walk to the Music Studio
The college closed in 1982, burdened by debt, and really no longer the institution it had been. The curriculum had devolved, pursuing the faddish educational nonsense common to the '60s and '70s  — I remember accounts of long-serving faculty, including my father, being subjected to "sensitivity training" involving "trust walks" and other idiocy. By the time my brother attended some classes were self-graded. The on-campus student body had dwindled and some of the once strong departments had been eviscerated. And many of those who had served the college faithfully and sacrificially, including my parents, were gone.

Almost all the college buildings were sold and converted to other uses. Main Hall, the oldest building, was turned over to the alumni association and has been restored and maintained as a museum. Since the last class graduated thirty years ago the youngest alumni are now in their fifties. Our numbers are dwindling. So some years ago the alumni gave over Main Hall to the "Milton College Preservation Society" which dedicates itself to "Keeping the Spirit Alive." I'm not certain what spirit that is. My own emotional connection probably has more to do with the years before I was a student — the '50s and early '60s before everything started to change, or even, based on stories told and read, what I imagine the place was like when my grandfather attended before the turn of the last century, or my father in the '30s, or my uncle in the '20s.

I received the 2013 renewal notice today for my membership in the "Milton College Preservation Society."  I will write the check.