Sixteen alumni from the class of ’67 and five from the class of ’57 gathered on campus last week for the alumni reunion: a week of cocktails, dinners, and tours.
Art Robell ’57, Dorothy Olsson Messinger ’57, and Robert “Bob” Messinger ’54 sat together on couches on the upper level of the Dow Leadership Center, reminiscing and quickly discovering that during and after Hillsdale, they led parallel lives.
Robell originally wanted to become a Roman Catholic priest. He even went to school six days a week to prepare for the priesthood until two events transpired that would change his plans and lead him to Hillsdale. First, God told him in a dream he would marry a woman named Sandra (“This is a terrible dream,” he said, understandable for someone planning to become a priest) and second, he got recruited to play football for the University of Michigan. In a meeting with a UM adviser, however, Robell was told that since he came from a parochial environment, he wouldn’t like the campus culture or many of the women. The adviser instead recommended his own alma mater, Hillsdale.
“Long story short, Monday I was on a Greyhound bus for Jonesville,” Robell said. He’d join the football team as a defensive end and knock a player out on his first collegiate tackle.
Orientation day, the first girl he met was Sandra “Sandie” Sherk, ’54.
After the tour, a buddy of his nudged him and made an appreciative comment about Sherk.
“Sorry, she’s already taken,” Robell replied.
He looked up at the ceiling and water rimmed his eyes before continuing his story.
“She was a senior, I was a freshman. She robbed the cradle,” he joked. They married June 23, 1956, and had three boys. She died July 30, 2014, after 58 years of marriage.
As he told his story, Robell began tugging on a necklace below his shirt. Finally freeing the chain from its hiding place on his chest, he showed us his wedding rings, commemorating 25 and 50 years of marriage.
“I lost both soon after she died,” he said. While doing the wash one day, he decided he’d better check the pants pockets, even though he had already checked them before. He found both rings.
Robell slipped one on his finger but when he swung his hand down, it fell to the ground: “That’s how much weight I lost,” he said. He’s worn them around his neck ever since.
Robell and Sherk’s story was not the only love story of the weekend. Bob and Dorothy Messinger’s was strikingly similar.
On a dare from his Delta Sigma Phi brother, Bob Messinger, a senior and baseball player, asked Dorothy Olsson on a date the April of his senior year. The date, unlike Bob Messinger, didn’t come out of left field, since both of Dorothy’s roommates at the time were dating Delta Sigma Pis as well.
June 25, 1955, a year and three months after their first date, Bob and Dorothy Messinger married, and the fraternity brother who dared Bob to the date was best man. They had three girls. (“Isn’t that amazing,” Robell interjected, overwhelmed by the near parallels in anniversary dates and children. Dorothy Messinger just winked.)
Robell referenced his impressive children and grandchildren frequently. The alumni were grandparents happy to recount the success stories of their children, like Janet Mallett ’57, the mother of Jef Mallett, the artist behind the nationally syndicated column, “Frazz.” The comic strip, which began in the 2000s, follows a high school janitor and unexpected role model and appears in 200 newspapers worldwide, including the Los Angeles Times, Seattle Times, Chicago Tribune and Detroit News. Jane Mallett reads it everyday, and swears she learns something new from it every time, from discussions of race to obscure lunar eclipse factoids.
“He’s been drawing comics since before he was born,” she joked. “That’s how he got through school, drawing comics, not following directions.”
Janet Mallett’s eyes lit up when she talked about Jef and his comic strip, and she deflected questions about herself, finding ways to circle the conversation back to her children and grandchildren.
“I’m nothing more than a mom and a grandmother,” she said. Wearing a white sweatshirt appliquéd with instruments, she described her duties as a grandmother: To make, box, and ship roll-out cookies for every major holiday — St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas — to children eagerly waiting for the next shipment, and to knit mittens for every Christmas. For any readers of “Frazz,” the perpetually-knitting grandmother should sound familiar — because it’s her.
The mittens stopped coming for Christmas following one comic in which Frazz receives only one mitten for Christmas and an IOU, prompting her to do the same in real life. Since many of her children migrated to warmer climates, Jane Mallett now knits mittens for Native Americans living on reservations in South Dakota.)
During her collegiate years, Jane Mallett spent her time in the Old Fine Arts building studying organ and violin, playing organ at College Baptist Church and violin in the orchestra, and accompanying the choir and solo vocalists. She even guesses that’s where she met her husband Gordon. After getting married, she became a special education teacher and left the profession of teaching music to her husband. But she said her biggest accomplishment is being a mom.
“It’s OK,” she said, with a satisfied smile. “They make it all worth it.”
“When we were on campus, there were 400 students in total,” Dorothy Messinger said. It cost $350 a semester. The library was one very small room, and Bob Messinger’s senior year, the college enlisted all the students to carry books from the old Mossey Library to the new one.
The day of the change, it poured. Bob Messinger said they were walking on wet plywood, and if they weren’t careful, they would’ve slipped, with all those books.
Baseball isn’t all black and white.
David Armstrong was the only left-handed pitcher on the baseball team, then-known as the Dales. He’s a self-proclaimed “pro-traveler and pro-eater, but not a great player.”
He remembers piling into monstrous station wagons with five or six other players and all their gear and driving all the way down South for week-long baseball tournaments.
On one such trip, the team traveled to an all-black school in Georgia. J.J. Simmons, the only African-American on Hillsdale’s team — as well as a co-captain for both baseball and football — suddenly turned to his teammates and cracked a joke: “Now you know how I feel.”
“It was the funniest thing,” Armstrong said. Sporting a cream suit and a braided salt-and-pepper beard, Simmons just did a jig (momentarily forgetting his cane) and flashed a toothy grin.
Here lies “The Hut.” Long live pinball.
On the bus tour, David Armstrong ’67 recalled hearing alumni exclaim “Oh, the Hut used to be there!”
The College Tavern, fondly nicknamed “The Tav,” and later renamed “The Hut,” was the social hub in those days, a cottage house by Mary Randall Preschool that “probably did more business than the student union,” Bob said. Dorothy remembers pinball machines, shuffleboard, sandwiches, and pop.
Armstrong remembers it as a hub of social activity: “Everybody was always there, it was always busy, there were always cars parked in front of the library.”
The Peacock, an anonymous Collegian columnist during the 1960s, wrote on April 18, 1962 about a controversy between the union and the Hut, in other words, between the independents and the Greeks. He expressed hope that the Hut would last because students need an independent gathering place, but more importantly, there are too many stories and traditions to let it die (matches were free, too). By 1966, the Hut was torn down and the union reigned champion of social activity.
The lean, green, teetotaling dean.
Harold Munn, the associate dean of Hillsdale College during the ’60s, was better known as “the green dean” because he always wore a green suit.
But he also ran for president of the United States three terms in a row: 1964, 1968, 1972, representing the Prohibition Party. (“Prohibition at Hillsdale College, can you believe it?” Director of Alumni Relations Grigor Hasted said.)
His teaching career at Hillsdale began in 1939, as an associate professor of education who also taught American Heritage. He then became the associate dean at Hillsdale College, in addition to being the executive of four Michigan radio stations.