By Janet Vass Sarjeant '73
What was it like to attend Roanoke College in the 1970s? It was groovy. It was far out. It was radical. OK, so maybe not all of us talked that way, but we often felt that way. Looking in the rearview mirror, we can see that those years had a distinct feel to them, and for most of us, they were good years that helped define the rest of our lives.
Through the pages of the Roanoke College newspaper, The Brackety-Ack; through a camera's lens, and mostly through people's memories, the spirit of a decade emerges. What follows are reflections from the 1970s...
In the early 1970s, the Vietnam War was still weighing upon the nation and upon Roanoke College. Young men of 18 had their lottery numbers for the draft. Young people across the nation were leading the efforts to stop the war. Henry Linhart '70, our student body president, and others in the greater Roanoke community, marched on Moratorium Day, Oct. 15, 1969, through the city of Roanoke. U.S. President Richard Nixon came to the Civic Center to speak that same month. Those lucky enough to attend college, especially the men, knew what a deferment from war really meant: a protected place, albeit a temporary one. The Brackety-Ack printed editorials on the subject and even took a poll in 1970: 54.2% favored immediate withdrawal from Vietnam. (Interesting that 45.8% did not.) Civil Rights remained at the forefront of the nation's collective mind, and Roanoke College's black students, though a small group, raised awareness and pride through their United Black Students organization.
As for the Women's Rights Movement, Roanoke College played a vocal role in equalizing housing rules. Beginning in 1970, the Visitation Policy was front-page news. The Brackety-Ack carried nonstop coverage as the students, both men and women, fought the administration over wording of the policy, wanting 24-hour visitation in every dorm. The compromise? A 23-hour visitation policy, circumscribed because of a Virginia law restricting co-habitation. No more housemothers, no more signing in and out of women's dorms, no more restrictions-radical changes in a short period of time.
While these nationwide causes were at the forefront, there was plenty of other activity at the College: drinking games, cabin parties, dorm parties, Frisbees on the Back Quad, rock music emanating from every living space, contests, food fights, intramural sports and the rise of drug use. On the fashion front, 1969 College rules prohibited pants for women on campus or in downtown Salem, and men had to wear ties to dinner. By 1970, those rules were gone; there were bare midriffs, short skirts, bell-bottom jeans and long hair for women. For men, there were bell-bottom jeans, flannel shirts and long hair. Tie-dyed shirts were everywhere.
As for classes, the world's interest in the Space Race and the 1969 American triumph of landing men on the moon, led to an Interterm course called "Space Exploration." John Mulheren '71, took that Interterm course to a new level by building and setting off his own rocket into the "space" over the Roanoke College Back Quad. There were study abroad courses for foreign language majors, biology-inspired study trips to the Caribbean and beyond, and experiments in newly styled senior English seminars. New business models were started, controversial dramas performed, and much more.
Like students in every time and place, many of us exited more enlightened than we entered, always with the codicil that some of what we learned was negative, and some was positive. To paraphrase John Mulheren's keynote address at the 2002 commencement, we weren't at Roanoke College for a long time, but for a good time. Most of us feel that it was a good time, no matter how broadly or narrowly we interpret the word "good." That's why we return, again and again, to "the place that proudly bore us," to quote our Alma Mater.
On April 7-9, 2017, Roanoke College will celebrate the 175th Anniversary of the College. The classes of 1969-1979 will gather in a multi-year reunion celebrating the 45th Anniversary of the Class of 1972. Many of us will return to this place that poured into us the education we've been living out ever since.
Now that's groovy.
Peace, brothers and sisters,
Janet Vass Sarjeant '73