The man to know to be (almost) cool for school
If you’re looking for a story about university freshmen friendships forged for life in a near Gothic dormitory (complete with beanies, stupid songs, and “naughty” midnight cookie raids), this will not be the piece for you.
No, the university freshman orientation story I want to tell involves a guy who took a young and rather frightened girl who couldn’t believe she’d actually found a way to make it to that university and showed her that if you really wanted to get on at the place (and as it turned out, in the world) you had to make your mark in the student union. And you would end up buying him a lot of Michelobs. But more on the beer later.
Anyway, this story took place, oh, a long time ago at Marquette University, a (then and now) basketball-mad Jesuit school located in downtown Milwaukee, about a mile or so up Wisconsin Avenue from Lake Michigan. In those days, downtown Milwaukee was quite a bit grittier than it is now, although Gimbels department store was still there, as were a fair number of smaller shops.
Unlike most of the students who then comprised a large portion of Marquette’s student body, I was not of Irish descent, nor was I from Chicago, New York-New Jersey-Connecticut or Boston. Many of these kids were from affluent families, although a few were from truly rich backgrounds. And a great number of them were quite devout Roman Catholics, although they never let religion get in the way of their drinking.
I was different. I was the first from my father’s side of the family to go to university and I had to work pretty hard just to come up with the private school-level tuition and fees. There would be no Gothic dormitories for me. I commuted from home on the city bus for the three semesters I attended the school, until I decided that a collegiate Mary Tyler Moore-style life at the University of Minnesota would be better.
So when one is a commuter at a fairly large urban Jesuit school, one can either spend time between classes in the library, in church, or at the student union. I often did go to the library. But most of the time I fell for the lure of the raucous union, with its not terrible food and on-site bar (keep in mind this was a school situated in a city where the Pabst, Schlitz and Miller breweries were still powerful forces, scenting the air with the most distinct aroma of malt) and assortment of faculty and students the likes of which I had not seen outside of movies or episodes of Hugh Hefner’s old show (“Hef After Dark”).
It took me a few weeks to suck up the courage to leave the library and actually go to the fairly dimly lit basement “main salon” of the union. In those days, smoking was rampant and as I was not keen on the odor, I remember trying to find a seat on that first day away from most of the smokers. I didn’t have much luck.
As I had started school during the winter semester, a winter marked by particularly brutal cold, I often wore what I thought (and maybe still do) was a pretty attractive new white princess-lined parka with a fur-trimmed hood. Since there were no seats away from the smokers, I put my parka on the back of the only chair in the room’s only unoccupied table. I started to read my world history, actually becoming fascinated with Babylonia and happy I was at a place where I could drink Coca-Cola any time I wanted, when an older guy (all of 23, it turned out) in a bright orange sweatshirt, raven black longish hair and a mustache in need of trimming came up to me and said “hey, Claudine Longet, you need to come here and sit with us right now.”
(First, some of you may need to be told that Claudine Longet was the French and supposedly hot first wife of singer Andy Williams. She became especially famous in 1976 for what she claimed was her accidental shooting of her boyfriend, Olympic skier Spider Sabich.)
Well, I was not behind with my reading and as I did want to experience as much university life as a non-affluent commuter could, I said okay and followed this guy, Dick Roberts, to his table.
My God. The memory makes me wince, given that I like to think of myself as almost a woman of the world, but I remember how shocked I was when I saw who was at the table that was undeniably chaired by Mr. Roberts.
There was a really handsome guy I recognized from the posters advertising his candidacy for the presidency of the Associated Students of Marquette University. He’s now a pretty big-time lawyer. Another guy, not very handsome at all, was the editor of the student newspaper. Another who looked like a guy who had just stepped out of a Norwegian sardine boat was there and it turned out he was one of the main bartenders in the union’s bar. One was a man I actually have stayed in some contact with through the years, now a Jesuit priest and a nurse and public health professor. And his brother, who looked as if he would have been happier smoking Gauloises at the Sorbonne instead of drinking diluted coffee at a school in Milwaukee. And a political science professor who reminded me of Paul Simon, one of the university’s most popular faculty members, wearing a rather interesting beige corduroy suit. There were a few women too. All I recall is that one of them who later became a bit of a friend of mine smoked a lot of Kools and looked like a pre-cosmetic surgery version of Suzanne Somers.
I sat down as if one might for an interview to work at the White House during the Kennedy administration. One of the guys later told me he’d never seen such wide eyes on a human before. Before long, Dick started slamming me with questions about my background, why was I studying journalism, how interesting it was that I was a commuter, and did I have a boyfriend or not and if not, was I even 18 yet, would I be available for someone, someone he might know. Occasionally he would let one of the other guys put in a word or three. After about 15 minutes, Dick asked me if I would lend him a few bucks so he could get a Michelob. I did give him the money to buy a beer. It was the first of many I would “lend” him the money to buy.
Before long (well, within about a week), I was known as a Dick Roberts favorite and never had to worry about finding a place to sit in the union. People I had never met before recognized me as I walked about the campus, some of them excited to know someone who was a friend of Dick’s. One of them was a member of the basketball team. That was a little bit thrilling, but not as much as you might hope.
As it was, it turned out that Dick not only didn’t have money on him much of the time but he didn’t make much time to actually attend class. Still, as a friend and drinking pal of more than a few famous faculty members, he managed to stay in school for another year or so before leaving to take a job (arranged by a faculty member) in Chicago. One of the celebrity professors Dick was friends with was George Reedy, who had served as press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson. Dick introduced me to him when we went for lunch at the bar he and Reedy liked a lot. I remember he was impressed as one might be of a six-year-old who could do calculus by my knowledge of the Johnson administration, and, of course, his role in it. Another faculty member, a history professor I was friends with until he died, was another Dick buddy and it was good that he was, as he saved me a spot in his massively overbooked European history class for the next semester.
I lost touch with Dick shortly after he moved to Chicago, though I used to visit his mother, a university counselor, for some years after I left Marquette. Dick didn’t stay in Chicago long. He took off for New York, where I heard he worked at one of the city’s most celebrity-favored nightclubs. At age 27, he apparently fell back on a chair, hit his head on the patio concrete, and died.
Despite spending a lot of time in the union with Mr. Roberts and his club that first year at Marquette, I did well enough academically. Thanks to Dick, I met people I never would have encountered, never would have tried to encounter, and never would have had the courage to think I could befriend. And unlike most nobody freshmen, I never had to worry about not getting into a class I wanted for the next term. Most importantly, I learned what many before me had already found out, that even if you didn’t drink much yourself, you could learn a lot about people and the world from a seat in a bar not populated by a bunch of drunken kids your own age. Not all of it was pretty but it was stuff, as legend says, you would find very useful later in life. None of it would be found in even the best of textbooks or classrooms. When I transferred to the massive University of Minnesota, I easily struck up friendships with professors and the economists I worked for at my (really great) part-time job. One of them said, you know, you’re unusual for a kid, as it seems as if you’ve spent a lot of time with adults.
I had indeed. Dick Roberts, wherever you are, I hope you’re still the chairman of your club and that you never have to borrow a few bucks to get yourself a Michelob. Thanks for the education.