Surprising as it sounds, I accidentally came to attend and graduate from the University of Chicago, at the time ranked as one of the top four or five colleges in the country. It was a matter of chance and surprising luck for someone attending a small, rural high school next door to nowhere. Actually, next to Fargo, North Dakota, which is almost the same thing.
From an early age, for the older children at least, I was gone after that, our mother drilled into our heads, “You will leave this house, go to college, someone will move into your room and it will be theirs. And, whatever else you do, don’t bring home your dirty laundry expecting me to wash it for you.” OK, Mom, got it. She and my father clearly believed in the value of education and in the need to get the house emptied out a bit to make room for the younger kids who were growing like weeds. “College, college, college,” there was never a question what I was going to do, just where I was going to do it. During my senior year, everything was building up to the big launch and by the end of it my mother had made sure that I knew how to run the washing machine and the dryer, fold my clothes and iron my shirts, cook my own meals, wash up the pots and pans (that skill I’d been practicing for a LONG time), make my bed, and change a tire by myself. Yes, my mom showed me how. A year of typing class at high school put me way ahead of most college students of the day. These were all skills she felt were needed for independent living.
On my father’s side of my family no one had ever attended college so far as I know although my mother allowed in an unguarded moment that, “all the Wickers are pretty smart people.” I only heard her say it once, which is probably all the times she said it. His people of that generation and prior were, so far as I know, skilled blue-collar workers, plumbers, steamfitters, carpenters, road builders and boiler operators.
On my mother’s side of the family, her father had attended college in Des Moines and this helped him secure a white-collar railroad job and later a position as manager of a lumber yard business in a very small town, Kilduff, IA, which is located near Newton, IA. My mother attended business college in Des Moines for two years after high school and then found work in the accounts department of a large publishing company. Her only brother attended college after serving in the navy in WWII (He was a sailor on one of the battleships in Pearl Harbor, when it was bombed and sunk) and I am uncertain whether her sisters, my aunts, went to college.
I think that to our Mom going to college meant having better opportunities open for us in life than she had and having a wider world for us to live in than hers. I also think that our achievements provided her with a visible measure of the difference she had made. I think that my achievements and those of my brothers and sisters were deservedly hers to take pride in; normal parent stuff.
Being programmed to want to go to college, the question of gathering resources to do so began to come to mind as I made my way into high school. My family didn’t always have enough money to get us all shoes, coats and boots when we needed them, so where was the money for college going to come from? It was mysterious to me – how would this work, exactly? When my older sister graduated from high school, 3 years before me, she went off to Concordia College, so I saw it could be done, somehow.
Reading the youth novels stocked in the school library that were common at the time brought me an answer – I could attend a service academy, the Naval Academy, the Air Force Academy, or West Point, and in this way, I would get a first-class education paid for by someone else. I started looking into it as a high school sophomore, and as a junior began the lengthy application process with both Minnesota senators, Walter Mondale and Eugene McCarthy, and our 9th district congressman, Odin Langen. Another student from Hawley had accepted an appointment to West Point the previous year so I knew it could be done.
There were multiple rounds of applications, tests, and interviews to go through, a screening by the FBI, and letters of recommendation to be gathered. The summer between my junior and senior year I was called in for my first Academy physical, for the Air Force, at the Grand Forks, ND air force base. That fall I had a physical for the Naval Academy scheduled at the Naval Air Station in Minneapolis, and my dad drove me down to The Cities for that. In the early spring of my senior year I received the news by telegram that I had been named principal nominee for an appointment to the Naval Academy by Senator Walter Mondale, and was excited about it.
I had applied in the fall to other colleges, too, of course, to Concordia College which my older sister was attending, and to the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Technology in Minneapolis, not knowing how my academy applications would fare. Most of my classmates who went to college after high school went to Moorhead State or Concordia College in Moorhead, MN, or to North Dakota State University, across the river in Fargo, ND.
One day in the winter of my senior year my high school principal, Mr. Peterson, stopped me in the hall near my locker to hand me a college application and say, “Fill this out and send it in.” It was an application for admittance and financial aid from the University of Chicago. I didn’t know much of anything about the school, but the principal didn’t have to twist my arm to get me to fill it out and send it in. It turned out the University had a special program for students from small towns and rural areas and I appeared to fit the bill.
When the spring came, I was lucky enough to be offered scholarships by all three colleges I had applied to. I sat down at the living room table, compared the aid packages and estimated costs for each school, and simply picked the college that was the least expensive after financial aid and guaranteed jobs were factored in. That was Chicago; I don’t recall if there was a large gap to the next-cheapest school. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the greater distance from home or the higher quality of the education available in Chicago, just the cost, but having this option bumped the Naval Academy from consideration. I didn’t tell them although I should have. I merely stopped sending back their paperwork and they eventually stopped sending me more of it, and eventually that was that.
Decisions made by unreasoning instinct aren’t always better than those made after deliberate study, but sometimes they do just fine. I missed out on the Viet Nam war because of this decision, and I believe that was a good thing. Had I accepted the appointment I would have graduated from the Naval Academy in 1971. I have always pictured myself as being shipped off to the Far East, being assigned to river boats going up the Mekong River, as in the movie Apocalypse Now, and shuddered at the image in thinking about it.
I never wondered how it came to be that my principal gave me that University of Chicago application, but I heard the story sometime in the late 1980’s when I ran into Principal Peterson at a funeral in Fargo for someone from my home town. He had a twinkle in his eye when he told me he had telephoned the admissions office at the University of Chicago during the fall of my senior year, out of the blue, and told them he had a student they should want to have, and they sent him an application to hand on to me. What made him think of doing this for me, I’ll never know.
The scholarship program that I fit the bill for was an odd, 1960’s type of diversity program aimed at bringing into the University students from rural areas and small town high schools in Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, and elsewhere. All of us who came were dumped into a very alien environment, the south side of Chicago, where academia and gangland were living side by side in the Hyde Park neighborhood. The University’s purpose, as I said, was to leaven the student body, mostly composed of East coast and Chicago-area city and suburban students, with a rural and small town element. My scholarship program had two names, the Small School Talent Search, which sounded OK to me, and the Grass Roots Talent Search (GRTS, pronounced GRITS), which my fellow, non-rural students found very amusing, as in, “What rock did they find you under?” (My first wife was a Vermont GRTS student and we met at a GRTS event.) Chicago offered me free tuition for four years, free room at a campus dormitory, one cafeteria meal a day, and a part-time job to cover the rest. I lost 15 pounds my first year, and gained it back after that. Tuition that first year, for three quarters of classes, was $1,850.
So, it was off to Chicago at the end of the summer, although my entire previous city experience was an overnight High School Senior Lettermen’s trip to Minneapolis to watch the Twins play baseball, an overnight for the Star Tribune World Affairs Competition and a day visit to the Naval Air Station at MSP for a physical. As my summer of lifeguarding ran to a close my friends headed off for their colleges, which all started earlier than mine, and things got very quiet for a couple of weeks. Some of us got together again for a few days in mid-September when the building contractor constructing the new high school needed a work crew to assemble the bleachers in the new gymnasium, and thanks to my uncle, I was able to recruit my friends for the work.
Shortly after that my mother drove me to Fargo and bought me a London Fog rain coat at DeLendrecie’s department store. She also cashed in a bag full of books of S&H Green Stamps to get me a suitcase and a portable typewriter. Finally, at the end of September 1967, my parents drove me to the train station in Wadena, MN where I collected good-by hugs, my father handed me a fifty-dollar bill (the first I had ever seen), and I climbed onto a southbound Northern Pacific Railway train headed for Chicago, where I had never been before. I was seventeen years old.
Not surprisingly, this was one of the most defining events of my life.