A typical Old Willard Hall room in 1881


The May Pageant in 1916, which combined nature and patriotism



Naval trainees parading on Deering Meadow during World War II







Couple from the early 1940s

Shepard Hall residents in 1977

When the first class entered Northwestern in 1855, student life was so simple that the original eight students could not possibly have fathomed the changes that would take place over the next 150 years.

Extracurricular activities were nonexistent. Only men, of course, were admitted, and that was first-come, first-served for decades.

University Hall, the oldest building in existence today, wasn't completed until 1869. Students were expected to board in Evanston with local families or in their own homes if their residences were close enough. When registration reached 29 in the University's fourth year, all but two students lived with local families.

In the earliest days the countryside surrounding embryonic Evanston was completely undeveloped. Mrs. O'Leary's cow had yet to be blamed for Chicago's Great Fire, which sent great numbers of refugees to Evanston when the fire did burn through the Windy City.

A major improvement in student life, certainly for the men, arrived in 1869 with coeducation. However, women's rules for much of the early history dictated nearly every aspect of the female students' lives, from what to wear to church to which men were allowed to pay supervised visits. Nonetheless, although the conduct of the women was regimented, they were not totally excluded from activities. Supervised dancing was allowed between students in 1880, nine years after the first major campus group, a literary society, opened its doors to the opposite sex.

The society dominated students' social lives until the Greek system became the center of social life in the 1890s.

Rooted in History

Yet for all the differences of earlier eras, not everything relating to student life has changed.

The student council formed in 1914. The Daily Northwestern and the Syllabus, which first appeared in one form or another in the 1870s and 1880s, have continued to chronicle Northwestern doings.

Homecoming, the University's longest surviving annual event, began in 1911. "It's the second [oldest] homecoming staged in the United States," says University archivist Patrick Quinn. "The parade's been held every year except for two years in World War II."

One popular contemporary student life celebration traces its origin back even further. "Armadillo Day is a descendant of a Mayfest that started 125 years ago," Quinn says. Back then a queen was selected and girls in white gowns danced around the Maypole -- a quaint celebration of the end of winter. "It was transformed into its present form in the 1960s," Quinn adds. "Dillo Day is [now] simply a celebration of the rites of spring."

Starting in 1886 freshman hatred of trigonometry class led to the burning of trig textbooks at the end of spring quarter, a ceremony that grew into a theatrical performance. The Men's Union ran the event, which eventually moved inside and became even more elaborate. In 1916 the MU left trigonometry behind completely, and the performance became the Hermit & Crow, a comic opera.

While the men turned burning their trig books into theater, the women staged their own revue, a fundraiser for the Women's Athletic Association. In 1922 the performance was renamed the WAA Show and continued to prosper.

The Hermit & Crow did not. Its last show was in 1926, but in 1929 a newly re-formed Men's Union asked to merge theatrically with the women's performance. The result of that merger was the birth of the still successful and well-known Waa-Mu Show.

The Rock, a landmark that needs no explanation, was a gift from the class of 1902. Students intended the large boulder from the Devil's Lake region of Wisconsin to be used as a water fountain, says Quinn. Although the pipes broke during a bitter winter, the chunk of Midwestern quartzite has survived as a student gathering place, a canvas for hundreds if not thousands of layers of artwork, a political rallying point and much more. "There are very few comparable icons," Quinn says. "It's a marvelous tradition."

Fraternities and sororities, still thriving at Northwestern, were sanctioned early on by the administration, and they flourished from the start. But the Greeks also had their critics early on. "Fraternities are exclusive boarding clubs which thrive most luxuriantly in the university atmosphere," went one passage in 1914's Syllabus. "Frat is of Latin origin coming from the word frater, meaning 'We all drink together.' Sorority comes from the same language and means 'Do unto others before you get done.'"

War and Its Aftermath

The entry of the United States into World War I in 1917 brought many changes to student life at Northwestern. Military recruiters were on campus for the duration of the war, the medical school offered military training courses, and a Northwestern ambulance unit was formed. Many students signed up, and many other male undergraduates became trainees in the Students' Army Training Corps. The corps set up a site on Evanston's campus in 1918.

With men away at war or in training, gender stereotypes broke down to some extent on campus -- during the 1918-19 academic year, all class offices for the College of Liberal Arts were held by women.

By the signing of the armistice, 65 Northwestern students had given their lives in Europe.
  Participants in the annual Northwestern Circus in the 1920s

On a happier note, students during this era and afterward organized and performed in an annual collegiate circus, greatly expanding a small "country fair" fundraiser for the YMCA that began in 1908. One program called the three-ring event "a stupendous exhibition of youth, beauty, brawn, and mirth." During its heyday the circus attracted thousands. But the spring event ended after 1932 because planning it took too much time away from classes and studying.

After the war administrators focused on improving the quality of incoming students. Consequently the mid-1920s saw the introduction of something all too familiar to students of later decades -- college entrance exams. By 1930 nine out of 10 students in the University's entering freshmen class came from the top half of their high school classes; six out of 10 were from the top quarter, according to University records.

Higher standards for entrance, however, didn't mean the students of this era were grinds. The interwar decades were a time when "there was a party for every taste," according to one account. Every year brought the Freshman Frolic, the Sophomore Hop, the Junior Prom and the Senior Ball.

"Dancing is what we did on dates mostly," says Dorothy Johnson (Mu29). "I don't remember any time when I was really bored."

One development did not faze student life on campus: Prohibition. Over the decades students over 21 were creative in the ways they circumvented Evanston's dryness, continuing after Prohibition's repeal took effect in 1934. A favored tactic was flight -- south to Chicago's Howard Street and bars such as Talbott's, Lil's and the Marine or west into Skokie to watering holes like the Little Club and Muhlke's Clover Club. In reference to this fact, one line from "To the Memories," a song that has been sung at the end of every Waa-Mu Show since 1951, goes: "[to] those happy times out west on the night before a test."

Prohibition was a small-scale item, of course, compared with the Great Depression and the growing concern by the late 1930s over war abroad. Yet however major these issues were beyond the confines of campus, students didn't talk much about war or politics then, according to Johnson. "It was a calm time," she says. "I don't remember any particular emergencies."

There were, however, pockets of concern about what was happening in the outside world. Jessica Nashold (J34) remembers politics being a hot topic within the journalism school. "Everyone was extremely liberal in the journalism department," Nashold, a commuter student, remembers. "All the arguments for communism were there."

Another notable hotbed of political activism was the Daily Northwestern. Columnist Stanley Frankel (WCAS40) led the student paper in taking a pacifist stance against U.S. involvement abroad, writing that "America must stay out of this mess. Our ancestors came to this country to get away from the endless wars and battles and hates of the other hemisphere."

War Again and Its Aftermath

After Pearl Harbor, of course, the Daily, like most other student newspapers in the country, gave 100 percent support to the war effort.

Northwestern's campuses mobilized to an even greater degree this time. On the Chicago campus, naval uniforms were everywhere, as the University provided space in Abbott and Wieboldt Halls for a V7 Reserve Midshipmen's Training Unit that saw future president John F. Kennedy, among some 25,000 other "90-day wonders," pass through its doors before military assignment.

By the time the war effort had fully geared up, both campuses were essentially transformed into military training centers. Regular civilian programs were sharply cut back, and once again women took over most of the leadership slots, with the Daily at one point being largely a female operation. In all it is estimated that 50,000 men and women received some type of military training at Northwestern between 1942 and 1945.

Some Northwestern students and faculty members paid the ultimate price: Almost 300 alumni were killed before World War II ended.

The end of the war brought thousands of eager new students, many of them former GIs, onto campus. The pent-up postwar housing demand plus the eventual arrival of the baby boomers boosted the need for new or remodeled facilities. Between 1949 and 1974 more than 40 buildings, including many residence halls, were constructed or refurbished. Retired associate provost Jeremy Wilson (WCAS55, GSESP61, 71) points out that having more undergraduates living on campus led to a profound transformation of student life. With the University able to accommodate more students from other parts of the country, the number of commuters declined. "The whole economics of the thing had altered," he says, feeling a bit wistful for the days when the student body had a more local makeup. "Those were interesting kids."

Yet not all things changed at this time.

Freshmen still wore beanies in the early 1950s, a tradition dating back to the 1880s. Any freshman caught without one risked a dunking in the lake.

Although every fraternity and sorority sponsored a formal or informal get-together each quarter, campuswide dances were still major social events. The 1950 Sophomore Cotillion at the Grand Ballroom of the Edgewater Beach Hotel attracted more than 500 couples. "Evenings at the Edgewater Beach Hotel were very special," recalls Virginia Landwehr (S54). "You could walk down to the lake, and this added to the romance of the evening."

Football outings were still more formal than today's games. "If you had a date you usually dressed up a bit in a plaid kilt and sweater, and your date bought you a mum corsage," says Carol Fisher Crabtree (EB62).

"It was entirely different than it is now," adds Sudie Shelton Moseley (WCAS56). "We girls dressed more. Blue jeans hadn't come in. If there were any drugs, we didn't know about them."

That wasn't the only difference in student life. Women, unlike men, still had enforced curfews. However, Crabtree recalls that curfews offered one advantage. "If your date was boring or obnoxious, you knew there was a specific time when you could escape," she says.

One aspect of student life that took too long to change was segregation. Up until the 1950s male African American students were denied Northwestern housing and forced to find lodging off campus, with many ending up at a local YMCA for blacks only. At one point in the early 1950s, the University accommodated the few African American women undergraduates at Northwestern by establishing what was called International House just off campus. The residence hall had a mixture of blacks, whites and students from abroad.

Yet despite the prevailing "status quo" atmosphere, some social change was taking place on campus, however slowly. Students voted in 1953 in favor of allowing interracial rooming in residential halls, despite a poll just six years earlier in which whites overwhelmingly nixed the idea. "Since the [1953] poll just completed indicates considerable change in student attitude, the present policy of roommate assignment can be reexamined," James McGuigan, dean of men, was quoted as saying in the Daily Northwestern.

Changing Times

As on other campuses, change came abruptly in the mid-1960s. Yearbook photos of dances and May queens and text giddy with excitement about college life had given way to cynicism.

"The Legendary coed: old too soon, young too long," read the 1965 Syllabus. "An artful combination of the ruthless and innocent. She sobs on Sunday, somehow learns that madras is Out, and endures the institutionalized double-standard known as women's rules: she is signed-out, hemmed in, perfumed, pinned and seldom pampered. For some college is a liberation: others graduate to put hubby on the 9:15 and dust the yellowing textbooks on the top shelf."

Even with women's rules still governing female students' lives, the idealism of 1950s romance and student life had disappeared. "Demand a full return for the Best Four Years of Your Life," the same Syllabus stated. Soon students did start making demands, not for a tuition refund but for overhaul of the entire system.

The year 1968 brought demonstrations for black students' rights, something that surprised the outside world. "2 NU Offices Invaded!" screamed a May 3, 1968, Chicago Tribune headline. More than 100 African American students took over the Bursar's Office for two days, demanding changes in areas such as housing, admission, financial aid and curriculum. The administration responded to the demonstration in part by forming the Department of African American Studies and the Northwestern Advisory Council, designed to look into minority students' concerns.

A student strike followed the May 1970 shootings of four undergraduates at Kent State University in Ohio and two students at Jackson State University in Mississippi and the U.S. involvement in Cambodia. The 5,000 student protestors who converged on Northwestern's Deering Meadow represented a major shift for a university long known for its conservatism.

Eva Jefferson Paterson (WCAS71), the first African American and first woman elected president of the Associated Student Government, rose to prominence during the protests. She is credited with helping avert violent confrontations between students and police. "I can see torches out there," she said over loudspeakers when a contingent of radical students started a nighttime raid on the Naval ROTC building. "I don't know what they are, but they remind me of other torches on other nights." Her strong words with their indirect reference to the Ku Klux Klan helped prevent what could have been an ugly incident.

The student protests resulted in the University suspending classes for nearly a week that spring, with students receiving a grade of T for classes taken. But the political momentum didn't sustain itself.

After a smaller strike was held in 1972, students announced the end of the strike movement. "As far as I'm concerned, it died today," one student activist told the Daily Northwestern. "Only God in His infinite wisdom could pull it off now, and I have my doubts about Him."

Yet the student movement did leave its mark on Northwestern. One ancillary result of the 1970 protest was that it helped bring an end to women's rules. That year President Miller called for "student self-determination," and some residence halls became coed.

The Evanston Review reported that coed residence halls on campus actually improved dormitory life: "[Coed housing] fosters the improvement of manners and promotes a valuing of personal care ... sexual behavior patterns and values of individuals haven't changed; however, fewer problems involving sexual matters develop in coed halls than in all-men or all-women halls."

Alex Rorke (S74, G75), who lived in Sargent Hall, also believes coed living was better. "The real impact was that the dorm became more civilized," he says.

Not unexpectedly, the major concerns over coed housing came from off campus. "The students adjusted beautifully," Landwehr says. "It took the parents a long time."

Despite the growing familiarity and proximity of the sexes, getting married while still a student had become a foreign concept. "I don't know anyone who got married or engaged their junior year," says Rorke. In earlier times not being at least engaged by then was cause for concern. "An undercurrent of 'Am I going to find the right person?' was still there. You'd hear joking ...[but] lots of folks weren't dating then. Social life was often built around group activities rather than formal dating."

Another significant shift around this time tied in to the changing attitudes among women, according to Landwehr. "Women were beginning to apply to law school and medical school" in greater numbers, she says, offering just one example.

Nor were women the only ones asserting themselves. By the 1970s gay and lesbian organizations also appeared at Northwestern for the first time. "They were separate worlds, but there was tolerance," Rorke says.

Live and Learn

The first residential college opened its doors in 1972, but not to universal acclaim. "Lindgren House ... is one of those educational experiments that people always expect too much of," the Daily stated. "Nobody really knows what's supposed to happen in a res college."

Yet the experiment has worked well. Northwestern now has 11 residential colleges and celebrated the 25th anniversary of the res college system in 1997. "These colleges were not established from the top, as at other schools," says Thomas William Heyck, a history professor who chaired a committee on undergraduate housing in 1970 and 1971. "They've grown from the bottom up, and each has taken on its own life. The res colleges build a sense of identity."

The majority of the res colleges are thematic, focused on areas such as drama or international studies. Bringing together students who already share interests seems to help build lifelong friendships and even post-collegiate relationships.

"Live in CRC [Communications Residential College], wed in matrimony," read one of the sayings tucked inside fortune cookies served at last September's wedding of Steven Dube (WCAS96) and Jennifer Schueler (S96). Theirs was the second of three weddings that month where both partners had lived in CRC.

In fact, the phenomenon appears to cross over Northwestern generations. Stephanie D'Abruzzo Shemin (S93) met her husband, Craig (S88), through the mutual experience of living in CRC, even though he graduated before she started college. "I know of at least a dozen other CRC couples who've gotten married," she says.

Over the years Greek life has remained strong on campus, but it too has changed. Hell Week, which in the past had occasionally resulted in violent hazing, was outlawed in the 1950s. Bias clauses, which imposed racial or religious restrictions on fraternity and sorority membership, were gone by 1963. And many of the charitable campaigns have in recent years been Greek-led.

One example is Dance Marathon, which has been a tradition since the 1970s. The Alpha Tau Omega fraternity and the Associated Student Government held the first one in 1975 in Blomquist Gym. In the marathon's inaugural year, 21 couples started dancing, with 15 finishing after 52 hours. Two years later the marathon moved to a bigger venue and has continued to grow while still raising money -- about $4 million since the beginning -- for charity.

At the same time some once-popular student life activities have moved into the realm of memories: outdated, rejected or replaced by something newer. Long gone, for example, are the North Shore Music Festival, the Symposium (a popular speakers' forum in the 1950s and 1960s) and publications such as the Purple Parrot and Rubber Teeth.

Student life most certainly will continue to evolve. When Northwestern celebrates its Bicentennial in 2051, only time will tell which aspects from today will remain vibrant and which will disappear into its archives.

Sarah A. Meisch (J97, GJ97) is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago.