Gonzaga University, just down the street from our house near Boone Avenue in Spokane, admitted women to their previously all-male student body for the first time in 1948, and for the first time a college education was within my reach.
“There’s really no use sending Dorothy to college,” my father said plaintively and frequently, “she’ll just get married and waste all that money.”
Although the $84 tuition per semester was a stretch for my folks, it was manageable. Even for a girl with marriage on her mind, Gonzaga was a great choice. There were seven men for every woman on campus. If you couldn’t find a degree and a husband there, you just weren’t using your time wisely.
My nemesis was the required algebra class. Father Simons, the instructor, taught in a perpetual cloud of chalk dust and low tolerance for women. His teaching plan was to write incredibly complex equations on the blackboard. These problems went on and on, all around the room. Finally, when every square inch of blackboard and Father Simons were covered with chalk, he’d make the last stroke of the last number and turn to the class and call on some hapless student, usually female, and say “all right?” We were too bemused to answer, and he somehow took our silence for assent and began to swiftly erase the equation, starting at the solution. I had been in the class only three weeks and seven days when I knew there was no hope that I would ever know any of the answers, all right or not.
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I was close to giving up in despair when some distracting excitement among the upper classmen changed everything.
One of the engineering students — it would be an engineer — was seized with the conviction that he could single-handedly dismantle a Volkswagen Bug and reassemble it in another location without losing any parts. This might have been passed off as the kind of thing engineers will do, except that the Bug in question belonged to the dean of men, and the location in which this creative person chose to reassemble it was inside that very same august person’s teeny, tiny room in the venerable DeSmet Hall. When the dean turned on his lights, he found his bright yellow Volkswagen sitting squarely in the room, and touching every wall. No parts were lost.
Of course, there was an outcry. The school bulletin called for the miscreant to show up and take his punishment — or at least get that car out of the dorm. “Roger Wilhelm, report to the Dean’s Office,” the first announcement said. The second week it was “Roger Wilhelm, report to the President’s Office,”
I did not know who Roger Wilhelm was, but it seemed that he’d be a handy person to know if you had a car that needed to be moved. Things got back to normal when they finally made a deal to forget the whole thing if only he’d assemble the car in the parking lot again.
It’s been wonderful fun to enjoy Gonzaga being in the news again. Of course this column had to go to press before Gonzaga’s victory in the Final Four, so I can’t know for sure how it came out, but I have a good feeling. Former Washington State Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Guy, a classmate who was way better at algebra than I, recalled that Gonzaga has a history of fielding first class hoop stars. He reminded me that the great black All American basketball player Frank Burgess played for Gonzaga from 1958 to 1961 and later was named a federal judge in Tacoma. I pretended to remember.
It’s been fun to see my children planning to cheer for my team since I’ve spent years cheering for theirs.
It was 35 years before I finally passed algebra and got my degree. It was only six months until I married the man whose idea of fun was taking a car apart and putting it back together in a very small place.
It turns out that the hardest part of reassembling a Volkswagen Bug is not keeping track of the small parts. The real problem is not dropping the parts, as you lift them to the new location, onto the heads of passersby, who will surely take it badly. I’ve learned that a degree is just as sweet whether you earn it at 50 or 18. I’ve learned that the light keeps shining through. All right?
Dorothy Wilhelm is a professional speaker and writer. Follow Dorothy’s blog at itsnevertoolate.com. Contact her at P.O. Box 881, DuPont WA, 98327. Phone 800-548-9264, email Dorothy@itsnevertoolate. com.