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If only these walls could talk

Here on the College’s campus, the well-manicured lawns and stately brick buildings with white columns project the ultimate image of academia. The College is more than an institution of higher education though. For thousands of students across the years, it’s been a temporary home away from home, one where they’ve created memories and learned lessons lasting a lifetime.

From the 1950s, when female students abided by a strict 9 p.m. curfew to the 1970s, when the first coeducational dorms were built, the College’s residence life has been a sign of the times, changing as social values loosened. Whereas men and women were once separated by building, they now live on the same floors-in some cases, tight-knit couples even unofficially share a room.

Construction over the years changed the residence halls physically as well. The first three dormitories, Allen, Brewster and Ely, which were built in 1931, still stand but have since been modernized inside. A former men’s dormitory, Bliss Hall, now houses the English and Modern Language departments and military barracks that once accommodated male students no longer exists.

Alumni who lived on campus throughout the 20th century carry their own unique stories, which vary from ghost sightings to pranks on roommates and a chaotic move-in experience. Connecting them all is the same Ewing campus, which since 1932 has given many students their first taste of independence.

1950s: The Golden Years

The dorm life of a student at the College in the 1950s depended entirely on his or her sex. The women, like Aggie (Hoehn) Schwartz, who graduated in 1956 and once lived in Brewster Hall, were accustomed to abiding by a strictly enforced 9 p.m. curfew.

“Most of us obeyed the rules, but there were a handful of rebels,” she said. “Their friends would let them in through the windows.”

The men, on the other hand, lived in Bliss Hall and could pretty much come and go as they pleased, according to Leonard Tharney, who lived there for three years before graduating in 1954.

Tharney attributes the double standard to World War II. “Those days, society used the College in loco parentis, acting on behalf of parents’ right to set rules and obligations,” he said. “They didn’t do that with men because some of those guys had already fought their way across World War II.”

Although men and women were treated differently, they both faced the same rules when it came to visitors of the opposite sex. Men could only entertain lady friends in the social room of Bliss Hall, even in the daytime, Tharney said. Schwartz said it was the same for females with their male visitors.

“It was a suitcase college because girls had boyfriends at home and went home to see them,” she said. At home, couples could avoid the watchful eyes of Vernetta Decker, who Schwartz called the primary housemother.

Decker, remembered for her strictness, did all she could to instill etiquette in her female residents. She insisted they always wear skirts and dresses and learn how to serve tea. As Dean of Women, it was her job to “promote the ideals of right living,” which was how the position was described when created in 1924.

The women were restricted in their social activities. Schwartz said there weren’t many events on campus and she and her friends couldn’t go out to the movie theatre with the men because they’d miss curfew. To entertain themselves, they’d “sit and gab,” play board games or watch a movie shown in the lounge. “Basically, your life was within the dorm,” she said.

Tharney said men also passed their free time with conversation. In stark contrast to frat houses today, the hot spot back then was none other than the vending machine. This new invention was located in the social room, where the men would throw holiday parties around Christmastime or just sit around and relax the rest of the year. “Once in a while there was hard cider, which was the poor man’s way of having a drink,” he said, explaining how apple cider was allowed to sit on a dorm windowsill for a month so the sugar could turn to alcohol. The men who owned cars might occasionally venture off to the local burger joint with friends or go out to play darts.

Despite the fact that only males lived in Bliss Hall, Tharney said there was a female presence thanks to the cleaning woman, Ms. Asay, who was in her early ’70s and developed a grandmotherly relationship with the residents.

“We really got to know her,” he said. “She was charming. She had this amazing capacity for using word substitution. For example, her husband died of celebrated hemorrhage (as opposed to cerebral) and she had to sit down because she had very close veins in her legs (meaning varicose).”

In 1955, the College celebrated its 100th anniversary with the opening of Centennial Hall, a women’s dormitory, which was completed just in time for Schwartz to move in her senior year. “We thought we were in heaven,” she said, mentioning how her peers marveled at the large windows in the rooms. The fact that students today see Centennial Hall as the worst housing on campus shows just how much times have changed.

After Schultz graduated in 1956, Tharney returned to the College as an alum to serve as assistant Dean of Men, a position that would now be like a mix between Residence Director and Community Advisor.

“There was a certain camaraderie among faculty advisors and male students,” he said. As an advisor, he said that he’d receive reports of his residents’ academic progress and have conferences with them at certain points during the semester. “It was a great time to get to know people,” he said.

Instead of Bliss Hall, Tharney was now living in New House, named for the fact that it was new to the campus. The dormitory was actually a one-story barrack from World War II. He said that through government agencies, the College bought it for one dollar, using it to house 50 men.

Though Tharney said the men more or less respected the rules of the residence living, he admitted there was “a lot of behind the scenes horseplay.” A favorite prank was wiring up a bedspring with an automobile battery to shock an unsuspecting friend when he went to bed. Noise could also be an occasional problem due to the thinness of the barrack walls.

Tharney had to leave his position in January of 1960 when he was called back to serve in the Army National Guard. Soon after, he said New House burned to the ground, presumably due to an overloaded electric system, but fortunately all students safely escaped the blaze.

1970s: Going Coed

It was 1971, the United States was knee-deep in the Vietnam War and college campuses across the country were staging anti-war protests. At the College specifically, this year was also a turning point in residence life, as women and men were now living together in Travers and Wolfe Halls, albeit on same-sex floors.

Barbara (Dietz) Yesalavich, class of 1975, moved into the dorms when they were brand-new her freshman year. She lived on the 10th floor of Travers her first year and on the 10th floor of Wolfe her other three.

“Decker and Cromwell were all girls and they still had a curfew,” she said. However, it was different situation in the Towers. “The rules were relaxed. They didn’t know how to make the rules because they couldn’t tell the difference between the men who belonged and those who didn’t,” she said.

She vividly recalls her first move-in day. After lugging all her dorm essentials up nine flights of stairs, Yesalavich found a room furnished with much the same furniture as now.

The buildings’ fire drills and the tendency of its elevators to break down is another aspect of life in the Towers that hasn’t changed, as Yesalavich experienced these inconveniences just as the freshmen do today. What students may have a hard time relating to though is the fact that Yesalavich had to attend classes on Saturdays, since classes met three times a week for 50 minutes on an alternating day schedule.

The 1980s: A Haunted Dorm

Ann DeGennaro, who graduated in 1983 and is now director of Campus Wellness, lived on the second floor of Norsworthy Hall, then an all-female dormitory, in a room she swears was haunted by the ghost of Naomi Norsworthy.

Naomi Norsworthy had graduated from the College in 1895, when it was the New Jersey State Normal School in Trenton. She died from cancer at the age of 39, cutting short an academic career that had been going strong.

When DeGennaro moved into room 216, she had heard urban legends about the building’s long-dead namesake but never really believed them. It wasn’t until an eerie occurrence one day when she was cleaning the room that she changed her mind.

DeGennaro described how she used to have a stereo on top of her dresser that she would protect from the dust with a plastic cover. She had taken the cover off the stereo speaker and laid albums on top. When she was concentrated with her work on the floor, the cover fell off and hit her in the head-but the albums hadn’t moved.

The second inexplicable experience came when she was visiting a friend on the third floor. Her friend was typing at her desk, which she had decorated with pictures of family, as many college students do. The lights suddenly went off in the hallway, but the young woman shrugged it off. It was only after she noticed that a picture of her family was turned upside down that she started to panic.

DeGennaro said her third encounter with Naomi Norsworthy was the most terrifying. Although she admits to drinking a couple cocktails at the Rathskellar the night it happened, she assures that she was still in the right frame of mind. She had gone into the bathroom to brush her teeth, when she heard the door mysteriously open. She then noticed the screws on the lighting fixture above begin to unscrew and fall to the ground, but the fixture itself remained attached to the ceiling.

Her terrified reaction woke the whole floor up. She and her roommate then stood in the middle of their room and said, “Naomi, we believe in you. Now please leave us alone!” From then on, there were no more sightings. However, DeGennaro will never forget Naomi, whose haunting visits she’ll “spiritedly” relate when reminiscing about her days in the dorm, which she calls some of the best of her life.

2005: Here and Now

While students today may have some bones to pick with Residence Life, many would not trade living within footsteps of their friends for anything. There’s no telling what memories students from the new millennium will recount when the College’s 200th anniversary rolls around. Maybe all we really need to know now is, as the saying goes, that these are the good old days we’ll miss in the years ahead.


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