The Old Sheepskin Blues - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Old Sheepskin Blues

My college diploma is 50 years old today. Good grief. What does that make me?

Looking for something else in my filing cabinet recently, I ran across my diploma from the University of South Florida in Tampa. It informs me, in bold and fancy type-face, that by authority of something called the Board of Control of the State of Florida, and the recommendation of the faculty (which must have been a close thing), that the degree of Bachelor of Arts “with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities appertaining thereto” is hereby conferred upon Larry N. Thornberry on August 5, 1964.

To this day, a half-century out, I’ve yet to figure out what those rights and privileges are. Though one responsibility stared me in the face fairly soon after USF told me I didn’t have to come back anymore and gave me the diploma. (Specifically, they mailed it to me, as 1964 was only the fourth year of the university’s operation and there weren’t yet enough summer graduates to justify a graduation ceremony.) The responsibility came courtesy of my draft board, whose members were eager that I — as was the custom then for young men of a certain age no longer idling in school — should become part of the defense team for a couple of years.

USF is now a sprawling institution with more than 45,000 students and more campuses than there were buildings when I, and the woman who is now my wife, attended. It’s prestigious in various areas now. At least that’s what its boosters say, and they may be right. But it was a small commuter school when I attended and hardly on anyone’s map. It had no graduate school, did no research, had no athletic teams. It was Nowhere U.

During processing in basic training, I recall winding up in front of an NCO in a large room, just one of many from lines of woebegone, skin-headed recruits in front of tables manned by unsmiling NCOs. He asked, “What’s the name of that college you went to, son?” “The University of South Florida, Sir,” came my reply. He turned to the NCO at the table next to him and said, “That’s the third off-the-wall college I’ve heard today.” 

USF is no longer off-the-wall. It does plenty of research, has a medical school, and fields teams in all of the major, minor, and even a couple of the nonsensical sports. But my connection with the place is nil (my word choice here is not necessarily related to my remark about nonsensical sports). The campus is large, traffic-choked, and no one has found a parking place there in years. I get lost every time I visit.

USF is larded with experts in every imaginable field now, as well as some fields no one could have imagined in 1964. No way in those laid-back, JFK-then-LBJ-before-the-war-got-out-of-hand days to imagine something as exotic as an associate professor of gender bending, an associate dean of diversity, or an assistant provost for speech codes. The campus is also infested with bureaucrats without end who, like bugs under a flat rock, multiply and make work for each other. The old railroads have nothing on the modern university when it comes to feather-bedding. (No wonder no one can find a parking place on campus. The associate deans’ cars alone take up several acres.)

Ok, I’ll temper my cynicism a bit on the leviathan the Big University Industry has become. Without doubt much good professional and business training goes on (at great expense) at USF and at its many clones across the republic. And one office at USF I must praise, for tenaciousness if for nothing else. The USF Alumni Association has somehow managed to keep up with my various addresses through the decades and has mailed hundreds of communications to me. They’ve soldiered on in what they see as their duty despite the fact that, as far as I can remember, I’ve never opened a single piece of mail from them.

As an undergraduate I worked about 25 hours a week sacking groceries and stocking shelves at a supermarket near my parents’ home. With tips, I could average around $2 an hour. Lots of men worked full-time for $50 a week then, and this amount, aided by the fact I was living at my parent’s home, was enough to enable me to pay all of my college expenses. I doubt this stunt could be pulled off today. Bag boys — now a co-ed job with the classier but more abstract title of service personnel — make more per hour now. But college costs have lapped inflation several times since 1964, and would no doubt overwhelm the contemporary bag-person’s resources.

A challenge during my four years at USF was getting back and forth from south Tampa to USF daily (about a 12-mile trip one-way) without blowing too much of my grocery-sacking money on gasoline and car maintenance. So several pals and I car-pooled, rotating the various sleds and beaters we owned at the time. One week it was my ’52 Ford (purchased in 1959 for $195). Another week it was my wife-to-be’s 1950-something Renault, the one that was shaped like a teardrop and wasn’t much bigger. At 6-3 and about 190 pounds, I wasn’t the biggest of our lot, so on Renault days we sometimes had to resort to a shoehorn and a gallon of Crisco to get us all in. (An intimate business — good thing we were all friends.) When we used my pal Fred’s ’49 Chevy coupe, we had to carry a five-gallon jug of water in the trunk to refresh the radiator along the way. It leaked more than any White House ever has. Things improved when Fred took the hood off the coupe, made it into a planter, and bought a ’52 Mercury (for which he paid less than for the suit he was married in just a few years later).

When I started at university I planned to major in accounting. (I still laugh about this.) This lasted until I looked through an accounting textbook and was taken by projectile boredom. So it was the liberal arts for me. This was before liberal arts faculties were politicized and overwhelmed by theory — most professors back then were merely dotty.

I was at first bewitched by the behavioral sciences. This soon wore off when I became aware of how mushy the variables were in sociology, and how many different schools of psychology there were then (many more have been discovered since). The schools often presented directly contradictory explanations of the human enterprise, and it didn’t seem to me that my professors even noticed this. So for my last two years I took mostly literature and history courses.

USF didn’t make a scholar of me. But it did awaken in me genuine intellectual interest, and helped establish in me a lifetime habit of reading. For this I will always be thankful. It took me a few years after graduation to figure it out, but my USF experience had perfectly prepared me for a misspent career in journalism.

By the way, real intellectual interest was rare among my liberal arts classmates, even among the “good” students. I suspect it still is among the current crowd. A pre-law classmate and friend made good grades in his major, history, but never spoke of anything historical outside of class. (And this wasn’t for lack of dramatic events going on during the four years — a presidential assassination, a missile crisis, a civil rights revolution.) He told me that as far as college went, all he was interested in was getting grades, getting laid, and getting out. He spent his adult life several tax brackets above mine. (But the poor sod had to practice law all week — so things even out.) 

Earning a college degree was less common and a bigger deal in 1964 than it is now, especially in my family, neither side of which had yet to cough up even a high school graduate until I came along. I was pleased, and my parents could barely contain themselves the day my diploma showed up in the mailbox. It was widely thought back then that a college degree was the open sesame to success and prosperity. I suspected even then it was more complicated than that, as it turned out to be.

My four years at USF were mostly well spent, even the hours in student watering holes, and the time dozing in the back of Professor ——-’s Literary Criticism class. (Professor ——- was a nice enough fellow, but he could put a leprechaun to sleep on Saint Patrick’s Day.) The four years weren’t all laughs, of course. There was the woman whose company I fancied except when she dragged me off to Ingmar Bergman movies at the cheapie on-campus theater. I remember these turgid flicks as being as long as soccer matches and even less engaging. I finally had to tell her that just because Bergman suffered for his art is no reason why I should.

I can’t always relate what I later did vocationally to what I learned sitting directly on my bum in college classrooms. But I know my life would have been different if I had not gone, and probably not as good. With 70 now in the rear view mirror, it would be nice to finally figure out what those rights and privileges are while there’s still time to enjoy them. Though I strongly suspect I’ve been enjoying them all along without actually having them spelled out.

Larry Thornberry
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Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.
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