The 1950s: We Liked Ike… And Dixieland

Omicron Oracle

February 28, 1998

Editor’s note: In 1999, our chapter house at 125 Edgemoor Lane will be 100 years old; we have occupied the building 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 issue’s article is by Dick Terhune ’56 and appeared in the March 1998 issue of the Oracle.

Ever explain your behavior to young whippersnappers by reminding them you are a “’50s person”?

Or if you’re from the “Vietnam Generation,” or are “30-something,” or a “Generation X-er,” or are an undergraduate— ever wonder why in the world people from about age 57 to 66 act the way they do? The answer is that they are ’50s people.

From the bad press it got later, younger people are entitled to think the ’50s were ho-hum years when 125 Edgemoor Lane was peopled with prudes drudging robot-like through their studies of English lit, animal husbandry, or heat transfer; sex wouldn’t be invented until the ’60s; and art, literature, or music hadn’t changed since Ezra said he Would Found a University. Well, kiddies, it wasn’t like that, let me tell you. It was like this:

At the beginning of the decade, the last of the World War Ii veterans were graduating. By that time, Lambda Chi vets had become semi-mythological to the rest of us. (At the parties the vets were not above helping their own muths along.) Pledgemasters would frighten quivering pledge classes by rumoring that “the veterans” were about to return and conduct the hell week pre-initiation ceremonies.

It was the best of times for a strong postwar America, and thsi cast a golden glow over almost everything that went on— Marilyn Monroe, milk punch, clorophyll, hula hoops, Davy Crockett! Eisenhower was president most of the time. New cars had big tail fins and lots of chrome. Actually, a Lambda Chi’s car was more apt to have rust. Jim Plunkett’s huge elderly Cadillac fire engine was a loud and colorful addition to the campus. And cheers would erupt when Tyler Todd’s sputtering Nash made it back up the hill, loaded with brothers, after a late-night run to Obie’s Diner for hash browns and scrambled eggs. It was a tribute to Detroit that some of those cars ever made it to Wells, or Elmira, or Cortland and back again.

Then, as now, the house was a good mix of people. Deer-hunting season was announced by the appearance of Ed Fessenden’s annual buck hanging from the back fire escape. The Latin American contingent (“Max” Abizaid, Al Rios, Tyler Todd, and Ted Valentiner) defended themselves with both wit and grace from the sly dinner-table barbs of “Senator” Bob Cantwell. Bob James came from England. From Germany came Werner Ramminger and Dolph Muenker.

Engineers and aggies enjoyed themselves by exposing the technological obtuseness of arts & sciences types— not, they said, a difficult task. The world outside was not so nice. The ’50s was the decade of the Korean War, the H-bomb, and the backyard bomb shelter. Getting, and keeping, your I-D student draft deferment was a reminder that the Cold War was real. “Busting out” could have an even bigger downside: Army basic training, and a trip to Korea or Germany, with expenses paid by your Uncle Sam. ROTC was tolerated because of the times, but we all irreverently parodied the military mind.

Back at 125 Edgemoor Lane, we believed, like most fraternity men, that it was our duty to uphold the ivy League’s charcoal-gray flannel tribal customs and to extend them to pledges who, increasingly often as the decade wore on, might arrive wearing pegged pants. Hair was short. Jacket and ties were required at dinner, and Wednesday was “suit night,” as was Sunday’s midday dinner. Jacket lapels and ties were narrow, shoulders natural. Khaki pants were in. Blue jeans were for bona fide horsemen like Bob Shirley and Charley Brooks.

The dominant party music on campus for the first half of the ’50s was Dixieland, revived from that similarly confident decade, the ’20s. At the chapter house, Craig Atwater, Jim Quest, and Al and Tom Kurdle were only some of the talented musicians who entertained us around the piano. But by the mid-’50s, something called “rock and roll” could be heard on the local AM stations. It spread and spread. Where the 1951 top ten was led by “Tennessee Waltz,” 1955’s top song (at least off campus) was “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets. This sort of thing was much deplored by diehard Ivy types, but by the later ’50s Dixieland was only a quaint memory, and Elvis truly was the King.

Lambda Chi’s knew how to party. One of my formative memories was, as a brand-new pledge, entering the house bar for the first time on a football-weekend Saturday night and being hit by that wonderful wave of crowd noise— loud singing, loud talking, beer fumes and cigarette smoke. Since that party was coed, the songs were fairly polite. At other times, when there were no girls about, the songs were inventive, mostly off-color, and endless. It was said they were a legacy from the veterans, who had learned them from who-knows-where during the war and had passed them down to a grateful posterity.

Brothers shared these treasures. Our sometime Libe Tower chimemaster “Thos” Bechert was said to have capped his playing career by loudly, but anonymously, playing “Shaving Cream” on the bells and quickly departing the tower. By the end of the decade, the winds of change were blowing. In Cayuga Heights, Professor Nabokov was quietly writing Lolita (while, as Jim Plunkett reported to the brothers, Nabokov’s wife, Vera, mowed the lawn). But the story of the ’60s is for someone else to tell. After all, I’m a ’50s person.