Several events in the last couple of months brought the summer of 1968 to mind. This summer we’ve been to high school graduation parties and friends told us about their kids trips to various colleges. There are stories on the radio about what’s happening with tuition rates. For some time there’s been a story in the news about for profit colleges and student loans. I remember 1968 being a lot simpler time. Or maybe quite complicated, the more I think about it.
I had already decided to become an electrical engineer. Not that I had any idea what that meant. I had never met anyone with an engineering degree, for all I know there may not have been any engineers in Jamestown, except maybe one or two mechanical engineers at the plant that manufactured some sort of agricultural implements. My decision was the right one, but based on serendipity, not knowledge.
Three colleges fit the bill for my engineering education, at least that’s how many I applied to. In 1968 the automobile industry was still on a high. General Motors was the epitome of corporate perfection. They were so big they sponsored their own university to train engineers to design cars. Attending General Motors Institute would meet a couple of goals, engineering and cars. I sent an application. No answer.
I briefly considered a college in Minnesota. They had an engineering program, and they didn’t charge as much tuition. Maybe I could afford to go there. When I told friends and family that Bemidji State was on my list, they just rolled their eyes. Eventually I got the word and made the right decision.
This is where it got complicated. My parents had divorced. Mom had remarried and moved to Colorado. Dad was in the army. He may have been in California or Korea, I’ve blanked on that fact. Neither parent was really in North Dakota. To make this work I needed in state tuition. Even after I started school in the fall of 1968 I had interviews with the admissions office where I convinced them (somehow!) to let me keep the in state tuition. I told them that Dad had custody and his legal residence was Jamestown. Never mind the facts. They didn’t ask for documentation and I was in, they never asked again. The college charged $140 per quarter for tuition. Total. That investment has paid off a hundred times over.
In August before school started the college hosted an event for incoming freshmen, which I went to. My favorite part was the young lady from Sanborn. Or maybe it was Ekelson. I may be conflating a couple of stories here, but that’s what makes these stories fun. I get to tell them. My way. The two of us hit it off immediately and toured the campus, going to several of the events together. That’s what summers and mixers are for.
When school started in the fall, freshmen moved in the week before upperclassmen. I offered to pick up my new friend and drive her to school. This led to the best part of our relationship. She lived on a farm, just outside Sanborn, a little town just east of Jamestown. Her parents served a classic farm lunch; at three o’clock in the afternoon. There were two things on the table for the large family. A small, well done pot roast, and more fresh sweet corn than any family of humans could consume. There was excitement in the air as we prepared to head off to college, and this feast highlighted the sweetness of the moment. No sweet corn since has been as sweet.
They also told me the story of the lake between the two towns on the interstate highway. The towns were Sanborn and Eckelson. This little lake had no name. Never did. Nobody cared until 1958 when the highway planners came through. They insisted on a name. The two villages had a debate over the name of this lake, or slough.
The Sanborn residents wanted to call it an extension Lake Eckelson, which was the name of the lake just north of the Interstate.
The Eckelson residents wanted it called Lake Sanborn, because it was not a pretty thing.
I can’t vouch for the truth of that story, it’s probably just a weird uncle riffing on his niece’s boy friend. There is no sign on the highway identifying the name of the little lake. Being a good friend, I bought the story.
School started in the fall and I lost touch with the young lady. I kept busy as hundreds of students signed up for engineering. Few of us made it through the fall semester. Calculus. Chemistry. I thrived in that challenge. Physics. Differential Equations. The thriving continued until the spring of 1970 when I met a new girl, from Fargo. My attention wandered. I couldn’t focus on school. Phone calls every night. Dates every other night. Dreaming all day. Looking back at it, I had discovered heaven on earth.
One of my professors, Floyd Patterson, figured out what was going on and taught me a tough lesson. He taught the introductory electrical engineering class. I enjoyed that class more than any other. This would be my life. Engineering. My test scores and homework evaluations were fantastic. Floyd and I hit it off, to the point where he would eventually become my thesis advisor during graduate school. That spring he had a lesson to deliver. He gave me a “B,” which completely surprised me. I challenged the grade.
He sat down with his grade book, showed me the test scores, and asked what I thought. It’s obvious, I said. My grade was second highest in the class. In my mind that deserved an A. Dig deeper, he said, look at the scores over time. From the day I met Judy, each quiz, test, and homework score was lower than the previous score. A straight line to failure. The only thing holding me afloat was that week before I met the girl of my dreams when my scores were perfect. I had to do something.