A Changed World: Ode to 1919

I’ve had many wonderful opportunities as an archivist to work with exceptional students here at RPI. One such student, Noah Zucker, is graduating with the Class of 2019 this year with a degree in Computer Science. Noah recently told me that as of July, he’ll be working for Facebook as a Designer for Social Virtual Reality. I couldn’t be happier for him, and I’m so thankful to have worked with him on a large augmented reality project for the Archives, during the summer of 2017.

As an archivist I think about the classes that come and go, year after year, decade after decade. Being surrounded by 195 years of student history on a daily basis has that affect on an archivist! I’m always pondering how our students have shaped the memory of the Institute, as well as the world they’re about to enter when they leave dear old R.P.I. This year, as we approach the Two Hundred and Thirteenth commencement, I think about the students of the Class of 1919. They had a much different experience, one which was worlds apart from contemporary life today.

Class of 1919 group photograph on The Approach
Class of 1919 group photograph on The Approach

The class of 1919, entered the Institute in September 1915 with 180 students. Student life was marked by the usual “stuff” of college life, games and events, rushes and elections, and lectures and exams. However, college life was experienced with the backdrop of World War I an ocean away, evolving and shaping the future to come. By April 1917, the class of 1919, in their sophomore year, saw a tidal wave of change, when most of the class members that entered went in the direction of immediate military service. Adding to this abrupt change, “Seniors became privates; freshman non-coms…Drill was added to the curriculum; forty-five square feet of barracks…and a uniform of indefinite fit augmented each man’s possessions. With commencement now in plain sight, to get by and be recommended for an officer’s camp became [their] chief end in life.” Thankfully, they awoke one morning to find the war over, but of the 180 students that entered the class, only 58 graduated in 1919.

To the Class of 2019, we wish you the best of luck, and we can’t wait to witness how you change the world! Certainly there are good things to come in your future!

Panoramic photograph of the 760 members of the 1919 Rensselaer student body taken in front of Russell Sage Laboratory. The students would have been posed in a horseshoe curve facing a camera mounted on a swivel tripod. The photograph was taken by Charles Pieper of Troy.
Panoramic photograph of the 760 members of the 1919 Rensselaer student body taken in front of Russell Sage Laboratory. The students would have been posed in a horseshoe curve facing a camera mounted on a swivel tripod. The photograph was taken by Charles Pieper of Troy.

For more on Rensselaer and the Great War, read this post

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The Gorgon: Students’ Words Set in Stone

“Words are the only things that last forever; they are more durable than the eternal hills.” – William Hazlitt, English essayist

Within the many rows and shelves of the Institute Archives and Special Collections, there is a student publication collection that caught my eye recently. Its name is the Gorgon, and, being an old English major, hearing the name first gave me pause. Gorgons, referenced in Homer’s Iliad, are monstrous women with snakes for hair. Confused on how exactly that related to a student publication, I was surprised to find that the Gorgon was a literary type of student magazine. Suddenly, it clicked. We often hear that words, once written, are set in stone, so taking inspiration from an infamous Greek monster makes sense. How does it make sense though, exactly? Well, gorgons have a special talent. They turn onlookers to stone.

The Gorgon, which ran from 1961 to 1998, was a magazine dedicated to creativity and art within the Rensselaer community. Students could submit their own creative writing and art pieces to be featured, in whatever form they wished. There are poems, translated plays, drawings, paintings, short stories, and even music compositions within the many issues. I think one of the highlights of the Gorgon, though, is the incredible cover art. Take, for example, the image below. It’s the cover of volume 33 of the publication, circa 1977. I find it to be eye catching! (Pun slightly intended).

As most things tend to do, the Gorgon changed over time. From 1961 to the early 1990’s, the Gorgon was published as a magazine. In the spring of 1993, it was published as a Polytechnic insert, and in the fall of that same year, it was printed as a poster. In the fall of 1994, the Gorgon was published as a series of postcards. It went back to its magazine format until the fall of 1996, when it was again printed as a poster. For the last two years of its lifespan, however, it reverted back to being published as a magazine. Unfortunately, time, and students, move on, and the last issue of the Gorgon was printed in the fall of 1998.

Though the publication hasn’t run for over twenty years, the Gorgon was still able to accomplish what its namesake was famous for. The students who dedicated their time to the magazine have their artistic endeavors preserved within their own collection in the Institute Archives and Special Collections. It might not be stone, but with the help of the Archives, their work has certainly become cemented in Rensselaer’s history!

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The Big Red Freakout: An RPI Hockey Tradition

What’s big, red, and is celebrated like a hockey version of Mardi Gras? That would be Rensselaer’s Big Red Freakout, of course! Started in 1978 as a way to make college hockey unique, the Big Red Freakout was an instant success. Each year, fans come to the rink saturated in Rensselaer’s signature cherry red color, ready to cheer on the men’s hockey team. The special addition to this night is a commemorative gift, known as a favor, each fan receives as they enter the arena.

The Institute Archives and Special Collections has collected many of these favors over the years, including pennants, pucks, buttons, clothing, banners, pom-poms, and other memorabilia. None, however, is as infamous as the 1987 horn.

This particular horn was given out to fans during the 1987 Freakout game against Brown, and the noise level it produced was so loud that it was credited as helping Rensselaer snag an 8-3 win over their opponent. The Brown coach was so incensed at the noise that a proposed rule change was brought to the attention of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which resulted in the NCAA banning noise-makers from Division I hockey. This rule subsequently became known as the “RPI rule.”

This year, the Institute Archives is holding an exhibit in the Folsom library, featuring various Freakout favors throughout the decades. On display will be clothing items, cowbells, pennants, pucks, buttons, and much more…including the notorious horn! Pop on over to take a look at the collection, and to celebrate Rensselaer’s Big Red Freakout with us. Body paint optional.

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Continuing Up the Hill: the Rensselaer Student’s Association Clubhouse

In 1906 a committee of Rensselaer graduates met in New York City for the purpose of organizing a Rensselaer Student’s Association. During the first decade of the 20th century the majority of the Institute’s 485 students resided off-campus in Troy rooming houses and the intention of the alumni was to create a club that served as a central on-campus meeting place for all students, where all would be welcome without regard to fraternity or other affiliation. To quote the December 12, 1906 edition of The Polytechnic: “The object of the association is to establish a true democracy in the student body, to develop loyalty to the Institute, and in every way to cultivate the Rensselaer spirit. In a word, to make college life a reality at Troy.”

The committee of graduates began by raising money to pay the salary of a secretary of the association. They also attempted to collect money for a clubhouse, but only $3,600 was donated. In the meantime the Rensselaer trustees authorized $10,000 for the clubhouse which was completed in 1908 at a cost of $19,000, of which the Trustees ended up contributing $15,500.

Interior of Student Clubhouse

The following description of the new building appeared in the June 10, 1907 edition of The Polytechnic: “The students’ clubhouse of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute will be located on the east side of the campus, adjacent to the athletic field. It will be of the colonial style of architecture and seventy feet in length by thirty-five feet in breadth. The basement will contain the hot water boiler for shower baths, with room for lockers if necessary. The first floor will contain a locker room, shower baths, toilets, and office for the secretary and a billiard room. The second floor will have a dining room, kitchen and main lounging room. The lounging room will be about 50 by 35 feet in size, and by means of accordion doors the dining room may be thrown into connection with it so that an apartment seventy feet long will result. Student’s receptions and dances may be held in this room. The third floor contains sleeping rooms for the secretary of the association and servants.”

View looking west across the ’86 Field

Situated at the west end of the ’86 athletic field, the club house served as the headquarters of all student extra-curriculum activities until it was razed in 1932 and replaced by a new Rensselaer Union building, the present day Lally Hall.

In April 1908 the Rensselaer Student’s Association combined with the RPI Union (founded in 1890 for the purpose of encouraging and promoting athletics and other student activities) to form the Rensselaer Union.

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Once a No Name, Twice a Winner

Sixty years ago, NASA was formed, the microchip was invented, Ella Fitzgerald was on the radio, and four men from RPI won the National Handball Championship in Chicago, Illinois. That’s right! Mike McQuillen, Harvey Poppell, Jerry Gonick, and Fernando Arias, under the guidance of RPI’s Athletic Director, “Pop” Graham, won the National Cup in handball, a sport that the team, besides Gonick, had never played until freshman year of college.

Up until 1958, Rensselaer was a relative no name in the sport. The big players in the national handball championship were schools that are still prevalent in college sports today, names like the University of Texas and Notre Dame. Texas had won the previous three years, but in fact, it was RPI that had actually tied with Notre Dame in the championship. It was suggested that each team hold the trophy for six months, but Notre Dame insisted on a rematch, and it was Mike McQuillen who won the bout, 31-14. When interviewed by The Rensselaer Polytechnic, McQuillen remarked, “We hoped to be up among the leaders but never expected to capture any title.”

A year later, in 1959, RPI stunned again, winning the national championship for a second time in a row, this time in Houston, Texas. Veterans Harvey Poppell and Fernando Arias returned, with the team being rounded out by newcomers Cal Mittman and Charlie Goldberg. This time, they managed to beat the University of Texas for first place. Unfortunately, that would be the last time RPI won the national handball title, but they certainly put on a show, with Arias helping to take the title with a 21-12 win in the finals.

Handball is not competitively played at the Institute today, but it has a long history at RPI. Though there is limited information on the sport at Rensselaer, handball is first mentioned in a 1911 Rensselaer Polytechnic article, stating that the then new ’87 gym was equipped for handball play. A decade later, in 1921, the official interclass handball league was established at the institute. However, it was the interfraternity play for the Barker Trophy (more on that in an upcoming post) that helped to spawn intramural, as well as intercollegiate, handball tournaments. These lasted at the school until 1980, when the sport was replaced by racquetball for the Barker Trophy.

There was a brief pause of play in the fall semester of 1943, due to “lack of population,” as most men were helping to contribute to the war effort, but interestingly, handball contests were held for Naval Aviation cadets on campus. According to an article in the February 9th, 1942 Rensselaer Polytechnic, handball, among other sports, helped “instill…the competitive spirit so necessary in combat duty.”

Throughout the years, there were many attempts to get handball recognized as a varsity sport, but sadly, that would never come to fruition. Instead, it remained an “approved organization,” meaning that, though there were competitions and awards, and it got its budget from the Union, it was never recognized as an RPI varsity sport. Therefore, players never received RPI sports recognitions or achievements. Instead, students played out of the pure love they had for the game.

Towards the late 1970’s, the interest in handball was waning, and the Executive Board decided not to pay for upgrades to the handball courts. Though there were students who still practiced the sport, by the 1980’s, competitive handball had all but tapered out at RPI.

Today, in places such as the Bronx and Brooklyn, there seems to be a cultural renaissance happening in handball popularity. It’s estimated that there are 2,300 public handball courts in New York City’s five boroughs, and competitions and tournaments are still played across the country, in various cities and colleges. Do you think competitive handball will ever make a return to RPI? Leave a comment below!

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