The 1930s: High Spirits in the Depths of The Depression

Omicron Oracle
March 20, 1997

Editor’s note: In 1999, our chapter house at 125 Edgemoor Lane will be 100 years old; we have occupied the house since 1920. To help celebrate the anniversary, The Omicron Oracle is asking certain alumni to recall life at 125 Edgemoor Lane over the various decades that it has housed our fraternity. This article is by Edward W. Shineman, Jr. ’37 and appeared in the March 1997 issue of the Oracle.

Brother Frank Schaefer ’29’s article in the last Omicron Oracle brought back fond memories of life at Cornell in the 1930s. But there was a big difference: While Frank was in college, the U.S. economy was booming. When I entered in 1933, the country was in the depths of the Depression.

An alumus who later became my father-in-law wrote three tuition checks for his three Cornell daughters— only to have all of them bounce when the bank on which they were drawn closed.

My first exposure to Lambda Chi Alpha was on registration day. As I emerged from my room in Boldt Hall to head for the bathroom, I encountered a line of tight-lipped fellows. Thinking that they were waiting to perform the morning ablutions, I returned to my room to wait until the line shortened. After a half-hour I looked again, only to find the line still there.

But when I opened the bathroom door, no one was inside. After washing up, I went back to my room, meanwhile spotting a familiar face in line. It was Sam Shanaman, with whom I had attended the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan. (We had gotten to know each other because of the similarity in our last names— Shineman and Shanaman.)

I went over and greeted him warmly, but his reception was anything but warm. He put his fingers to his lips, indicating he could not talk to me. Puzzled, I returned to my room to get dressed.

At precisely eight o’clock, there was a rap on the door. It was Sam. It was then I learned why he had given me the cool treatment: university rules. Sam, a Lambda Chi, informed me that if he had said even one word to me before 8:00 a.m., the fraternity would have run the risk of being blackballed by the Interfraternity Council.

Then Sam invited me to the house for dinner. I accepted.

I’d entered college with a preconceived notion of so-called “frat” houses based on the movies of the time, so I had my guard up. After dinner, when asked if I would like a “demitasse,” I politely refused. I’d studied enough French to know that the word meant “half a cup"— but half a cup of what? With Prohibition about to be repealed, were the brothers planning to jump the gun and get us all pie-eyed with half-cups of liquor?

Then I saw coffee being poured from an urn in the living room, and I changed my mind. I would take a demitasse after all.

I enjoyed my subsequent visits to the house, and ultimately decided to pledge. My principal recollection of Hell Week is that it was my job to paint the ceiling of the summerhouse. Although I was inside the structure, I still had some anxious moments swinging a brush so far above the gorge.

My roommate throughout my three years in the house was Bill Basset, who has since died. I believe we were the only brothers who could claim that we always slept on the sleeping porch, no matter what the weather. I wonder whether anyone else remembers the time when the thermometer dipped to 40 degrees below?

Bill lettered in both track and cross-country; my athletic prowess was confined to intramurals. Although I was a member of Lambda Chi’s winning relay team, my cross-country effort was less notable. This is partly because ROTC band rehearsals lasted into the late afternoon. After it got dark, I could practice running only on Schoellkopf Field, which had lights. That was fine for running on the level, but it didn’t help me conquer the cross-country course over Ithaca’s hills.

When we returned late from intramural activities, we were permitted to eat dinner at the house without the required coats and ties.

Parties at Edgemoor Lane in the 1930s were gala affairs that usually culminated in formal dinners. At one of these, my eye fell on a coed whom I subsequently learned was named Doris. It was a cardinal sin to contact another brother’s date, but after two weeks I couldn’t help myself. She was somewhat hesitant, but did accept my invitation to go to a movie.

After a few more dates, she invited me to dinner at Balch Hall; the spacious rooms were luxurious, and we dined in style. (Returning recently to Balch for a visit, I have to admit being disappointed. All of the splendor has disappeared— that is, except for the beauty of Doris, who married me 57 years ago and was at my side when we visited.)

In New York City, where we now live, there’s a famous joke: “How do you get to Carnegie hall?” asks a tourist. A New Yorker replied: “Practice, practice, practice.” A few years ago, the Big Red Band indeed got to Carnegie Hall, and alumni were asked to participate. With a couple of months’ notice, I got my old cornet out of mothballs and— you guessed it— practiced, practiced, practiced. The concert was an experience I shall never forget.

I mention it to illustrate how worthwhile it can be to stay in touch with Cornell. I also keep up the contacts through my sons Tom (Edward T.) and Alan, both in Omicron Zeta in the 1960s. Homecomings and annual meetings of the Cornell Council have given me regular opportunities to visit the house and observe the changes. The biggest disappointment is the loss of the magnificent center stairway pictured in the last Oracle. It was taken out to meet fire regulations.

My advice to all brothers who read this: Don’t let Cornell and Lambda Chi Alpha be forgotten after you graduate!