STUDENT LIFE! What a kaleidescopic picture it presents! Exacting study, demanding laboratory and library assignments and all that goes with the pursuit of academic achievement. But also much more. Opportunities to participate in a variety of extracurricular activities: social, religious, dramatic athletic, musical, and the like. It is a far cry from that lone out-of-door trapeze bar by Old Main that constituted the gymnasium in the early 1880's to the present Skoglund Athletic Center. But baseball teams were organized early, and games with Carleton, Shattuck, and other outside teams were played regularly. From these simple beginnings our present extensive physical education and athletic programs developed through the years.
Music has always been an integral part of St. Olaf life and many an informal and formal music group has throughout the years added color and inspiration to campus life. So too, have the voluntary religious organizations, Bible study classes, mission study groups, Wednesday evening L.D.R. (Lutheran Daughters of the Reformation) and Lutheran Brotherhood devotional meetings, and now the Student Congregation. All have given depth to the students' spiritual life and have offered varied opportunities for Christian service. But this is not to be a history of such organizations or student activities, just some random accounts and facts that might give a glimpse of student life in earlier days.
For some twenty-five years from the 1900's on, much of the extra-curricular activity of the students was centered in the literary societies. Originating with ABX (Alpha Beta Chi) founded in 1888 and shortly followed by the Gamma Delta (1900), the Alpha Kappa (1906), and later by others as the number of students grew, the men's societies were the training ground for the college debaters and orators. There was no speech department in the college for many years. Though the subjects for debate were at times lightweight and frivolous, ordinarily they were of substantial and serious nature. When it came to the annual inter-society debates, there was debate at its best. Though a process first of debates within the society, an affirmative and a negative team were selected by each society. These participated in a regular inter-society tournament to determine which affirmative and which negative team should represent the college in the inter-collegiate debate. Interest in debate ran high among the students. On several occasions classes were called off for the day in order to give them the opportunity to attend the tournament held in the classrooms of Old Main, and they attended en masse.
It was, however, when the inter-collegiate debates were on that there was much excitement. While not as vociferous, feeling was almost as intense as at any football game of more recent years. The Chapel was packed on these occasions.
But even more exciting, if possible, were the annual oratorical contests. First there was a contest in February, promoted by Mr. A. K. Ware of the Ware Auditorium (now the Grand Theater), between Carleton and St. Olaf, with each college represented by three seniors. Monetary prizes for the first three places were awarded. This was the big event of the second semester and the Auditorium was filled with students and faculty from both colleges and as many of the townsfolk as could get in. Representatives of the senior classes of the two colleges and their dates sat in the upper tier of boxes of the Auditorium, each properly identified with a large pennant of the institution represented. The tension of the moment when the presiding officer was to announce the decision of the group was almost excruciating. Sometimes St. Olaf won first place and sometimes Carleton. When St. Olaf won, there was always a group of couriers who rushed up the Hill and lit a hopefully pre-arranged bonfire in front of Old Main around which the student body assembled after their long march from the Auditorium, singing all the way:
All Hail St. Olaf, St. Olaf, St. Olaf
All Hail St. Olaf, St. Olaf, St. Olaf
Hail to St. Olaf, St. Olaf, St. Olaf
Long live St. Old, St. Olaf, St. Olaf . . .
When all had gathered there were impromptu speeches of jubilation and congratulations culminating with a rousing round of the official college yell:
Eh! Ah! Ah! Oh!
Yah! Yah! Yum! Yo!
AnaKanick! Kanick! Kanick!
Waho Manitou! Rick! Rick! Rick!
Arrapah! Arrapah! Alamaha!
St. Olaf! St. Olaf! Hi-Orah!
St. Olaf on the whole did very well in oratory. Once St. Olaf won all three first places. The audience went wild. The boys rushed upon the stage and tossed the speakers high in the air. One sedate, tall, and angular orator with long arms and legs made quite a picture as he was bounced over their heads by his fellow students. Of course there followed the usual bonfire, singing and cheering, and even more. The students gathered in front of the president's house and chanted, "We want a holiday." Just why they should have it might be a question. But so important was this victory to them that it seemed to merit something extra.
The highest ranking Carleton and St. Olaf orators in the Ware contest automatically represented their colleges in the State contest which was regularly held in March. The State winner went on to the Inter-state contest which was usually held at some institution quite far from Northfield.
In 1910 Sigurd Sorenson won both the local Ware and the State contests and so became Minnesota's representative to the Inter-state which that year was held at Gustavus Adolphus College. Since this contest was to be held so nearby, arrangements were made for a special train to take the student body of 500 to St. Peter for the event. And then tragedy struck! We got the smallpox and the entire college was quarantined. The only ones permitted to go to the contest were the speaker, Sigurd Sorenson, and his coach, C. O. Solberg. But the spirit of the students was undaunted. It was common in those days to write parodies of songs or poems for all sorts of occasions. This was certainly one that called for expression. The following songs are illustrative of the "poetry" produced:
Someone to have the smallpox
Some one to stay at home,
Some one to do the cheering,
When the good news has come.
At the returning
O, we have the smallpox
And quarantined are we,
The doctor comes to vaccinate
And draw from us his fee.
Formaldehyde and vaccine
And all the other stuff
To scare away the mi-cro-bes
And all the other toughs.
O we have got the smallpox
On the evening of the contest just before he was going on the stage to give his famous and later oft-repeated oration on St. Paul, Sigurd Sorenson was handed this telegram, "St. Peter, St. Olaf, St. Paul, S. T. Sorenson. This combination spells victory. Five hundred students and a million microbes behind you." And a victory it was. The next morning there was a half holiday. Representative students were permitted to go down to the Milwaukee Station to meet the victor and his coach and to draw them in a decorated "chariot" up to the campus where they were welcomed by all the unhospitalized students with cheers and songs. Bunting and slogans draped the buildings. Whether they knew Norwegian or not, all sang lustily to the tune of Norway's national anthem:
Ja vi elsker Sorenson
Jamen gjör vi saa,
Han er fra St. Olaf College
Det kan du forstaa,
Ja, han vandt, ban vandt, ban vandt,
Og vi blev saa hjertens glade
Her paa Manitou
Og vi blev saa hjertens glade
Glade her paa Manitou.
Baseball games, basketball games, debates were exciting, but this was the most thrilling event of that year.
Something further should be recorded about the contribution literary societies made during the period of their greatest activity. We have mentioned debate as one of the major activities of the men's societies. The women too had their organizations. In the Academy there was the Utile Dulci. When the enrollment of college women increased, the Minerva was organized with membership composed of all the women of the college department. Later the name was changed to Phi Kappa Phi. Then came the Delta Chi in 1909. By that time there were three men's societies to the women's two: the ABX, the Alpha Kappa, and the Gamma Delta. In order to provide a few more social occasions the ABX, the oldest men's society, asked the Phi Kappa Phi, the oldest among the women's organizations, to be its "sister society." This proposal was happily accepted. Then the Alpha Kappa and Gamma Delta extended similar invitations to the Delta Chi. That posed a problem for the Delta Chi, for they were faced with a choice. Since Alpha Kappa was the newer men's society and the Delta Chi the newer women's society, the decision was made on this impersonal numerical basis and the Alpha Kappa became the brother society of the Delta Chi. Meanwhile in 1911 the men's Pi Sigma Alpha and the women's Nu Sigma Rho were organized to provide for the increasing number of students. By this time the brother and sister society tradition had been established. Again Gamma Delta extended an invitation, this time to the Nu Sigma Rho. But so also did the new Pi Sigma Alpha. Since they were the newest women's society, the Nu Sigma Rhos decided they would accept the invitation of the newest men's society. Besides their names sounded rather impressive together. After these rebuffs the Gamma Delta decided it would remain a bachelor society and make no more overtures to the women.
The societies met weekly in classrooms assigned to them in Old Main. Saturday evenings from 7 to 9 o'clock the place hummed with activity. In their quarters on third floor and part of second the men debated and orated. The women on first floor and part of second had their program of papers, readings, discussions, music, and sometimes debates, mock or serious. One feature of almost every meeting was a couple of "impromptus" when two or three members were called upon to discuss some subject sprung upon them at the moment. This was a regular procedure in initiating new members. Later in order to make this type of public speaking more meaningful, impromptu subjects would be taken from the current issue of a designated magazine or an area of interest specified before the meeting. Regularly a faculty member was invited to serve as a critic of the program. He would comment on the individual numbers and on the program as a whole, give suggestions for improvement where needed and correct mispronunciations.
Once or twice a year there would be a joint meeting of the brother and sister society. Every year there was a banquet with the men as hosts one year and the women the next. Most of these banquets were held in St. John's church parlors and served by the Ladies Aid. Expenditures for these banquets were strictly limited by the faculty social committee. One of the nice features of the brother and sister society arrangement was that for such occasions no one was left out. There were no personally chosen dates. The men drew by lot, or however else they chose to arrange it, the girl for whom they were to serve as escort for the evening. Once in a while there might have been some finagling on the part of some of the young men to get certain girls for their dates. There was of course suppressed excitement among the young women as to who would call to tell them that they were their date for the evening. This arrangement worked well for many years and made possible interesting and varied social contacts. At length, however, the time came when the men wanted to invite someone special outside the society membership when they were hosts and likewise some of the young women wanted to invite as guest someone outside of the brother society when it was their turn. After that the brother and sister society arrangement became more tenuous, and finally was discontinued.
During the earlier years it was customary for all the societies to join in putting on a public program to which the new students were invited. The women's societies particularly developed some interesting traditional numbers, some of the nature of operettas, others in the form of dramatic, poetic narratives, and the like. One recalls particularly "The Phi Kappa Phi Fantasy," Delta Chi's "The Feast of the Red Corn," and Nu Sigma Rho's "The Toy Shop."
One of the cooperative contributions of some of the brother and sister societies was the presentation of plays. There was no drama department at the time. It is interesting to note for many years the literary societies served as the medium through which interest in drama and debate, musicals as well as sundry other literary efforts were given opportunity for expression. As these various areas of interest were by degrees given departmental status in the college or taken over by departmental clubs, the societies lost much of their original purpose. Nor could the students give the time to them that was formerly possible. Hence those that do exist have now become largely social groups. However, under the direction of the Inter-Society Board they continue to contribute to a number of worthy all-college projects, variety programs, benefits, and the like.