We're Not In Kansas Anymore

From '50s Prankster to '60s Radical —
My Stanford University Animal House

(Note: Irving Wesley Hall was an undergraduate at Stanford University in the 'fifties. He wrote the following reminiscences for the Summer 2015 issue of the alumni magazine.)

What did Stanford do to my old fraternity? Ellen and I found the house, but it sported an enigmatic sign that read "Ye Olde Phye Sigge" over the front door. An Asian man was reading a magazine in the lounge, but he was a student not the fraternity's irascible but beloved cook, Charlie.

You're right. Decades had passed since I last flew from New York to revisit the campus. So much had changed, but what remained—and the sweet rush of memories about what was gone forever—helped me realize how profoundly those undergraduate years had shaped my life.

And all for the better.

We dropped into "Ye Olde Phye Sigge" unannounced on the Sunday after the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the arrest of 68 mostly young people protesting the hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

We held the historic reunion under the rotunda of San Francisco's City Hall. Today the site is notable as a backdrop for iconic gay weddings. On May 13, 1960 it made national headlines when we college students were washed down those majestic marble stairs with fire hoses.

Anti-HUAC reunion

 

I was then a Woodrow Wilson fellow in English at the University of California, Berkeley. But my lifelong devotion to civil liberties and eventual successful debate on the Bill of Rights with William F. Buckley began accidentally. It was at Stanford in 1955 during my Sophomore year. In my fraternity dorm room a few of us listened to the live radio broadcast of the cruel pillorying of Victor Arnautoff, a Stanford art professor during a roadshow hearing of the odious HUAC in San Francisco. "Are you now, or have you ever been a member. . ."

Victor Arnautoff had been an assistant to the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. A Nation magazine cover featured Arnautoff's lithograph associating Vice President Richard Nixon with McCarthyism. To Stanford's credit, its faculty and president resisted the witch hunt and refused to fire him.

Victor Arnautoff Victor Arnautoff

Rivera mural

Rivera and Kahlo Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera

 

Was my introduction to the witch-hunting McCarthyites courtesy of the campus KZSU or Pacifica's KPFA in Berkeley? Whichever—I rooted mindlessly for the hapless underdog college teacher.

Mindlessly? In case you haven't heard, Stanford students at that time were, by any standards, woefully apolitical. When years later I taught the 'fifties history of the United States I was astounded by the number of momentous world events to which we were all blissfully oblivious.

You will find that embarrassingly obvious in this little memoir.

I also learned to write satire in the Phi Sig house. There on an old Remington typewriter I honed the writing skills for my 2008 satire on Christian Zionism, The Einstein Sisters Bag the Flying Monkeys. Einstein's late granddaughter, then 19-year-old Evelyn, was arrested with us in 1960.

The Einstein Sisters book Evelyn Einstein Evelyn Einstein Irving Hall on steps Irving on City Hall steps

 

None of Stanford's young people who welcomed the uninvited septuagenarian and his partner that Sunday in 2010 seemed to know that Ye Olde Phye Sigge was once Phi Sigma Kappa or that, for a couple of years, I wrote the tongue-in-cheek report of the Stanford chapter's latest Animal House escapades for our national fraternity's monthly magazine. We often wondered why ours was the only satirical column in the mag and if the editors understood our off-beat and often cryptically scatological humor.

 

Animal House Phi Sigma Kappa 1955

 

My Freshman English teacher recognized my talent. At the time none of us recognized his. The late Allan Temko graduated from lowly Stanford adjunct professor to the Pulitzer Prize-winning architectural critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.

He kindly urged me to submit my weekly essay to the Chaparral, Stanford's humor magazine.

My essay was a take-off from Jonathan Swift's bitter satire on the Irish famine. Amazingly the Chappies published my essay, "The Stanford Ratio: An Immodest Proposal," illustrated with innocently provocative graphics and a catchy title.

I was amazed to discover that the Olde Phye Sigge students had never heard of Stanford's discriminatory policy of admitting only one freshman girl for every three boys.

Oh My God!—today these Phye Sigge kids have girls living with them in our old sleeping porch!

Hence I didn't even try to share my freshman essay's macabre "proposal" to dissect each new Stanford co-ed into three parts—each labeled in popular campus slang—to distribute equitably among three male classmates. My Freshman year I was still a virgin, which makes re-reading my first published work, "Disappointment or Dissection," both a bizarre and a nostalgic experience.

 

Jonathan Swift

Ratio

Le Stanford Chaparral

 

At Stanford I also ran my first successful political campaign for the sole representative of Stanford's 24 fraternities to what was then called the Legislature of the Associated Students of Stanford University. The runner-up for the post, Anthony Kennedy, is now the swing Justice of the United States Supreme Court. I sometimes wonder if Tony had won the election, how he would have handled one of the year's more controversial issues before the council.

All of Stanford's fraternities then adhered to the policies dictated by their national organizations: we didn't pledge "Negroes." That's right: "WHITES ONLY" in Palo Alto, California only 60 years ago! The year I took office the brewing scandal was popularized by the 1955 publication of Alfred McClung Lee's book Fraternities Without Brotherhood.

Just my luck! My first political assignment was to defend official fraternity racial discrimination. Fortunately for me, it was not a burning issue on campus. I doubt there were more than a dozen African-Americans enrolled at Stanford at the time, and most were graduate students. So I finessed the moral challenge with high-sounding arguments that today sound like a Southern Congressman on the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Probably most of us oldsters from the Class of '58 have many stories like these about the antiquated religious, political and sexual values we grew up with and the awkward and amusing experiences they visited upon us.

Like George Ralph's 1955 successful run for student body president on a Marlon Brando Wild One platform.

Or my friendship with a fellow Roble women's dining hall waiter whose father was an ex-communist who devastated my conservative political views. Then there was my night job in a local funeral parlor and the magazine Mortuary Management that arrived monthly at the Phi Sig house. Oh, yes. How did my head shots in drag wind up in the Roble section of the 1960 Freshman Yearbook? Hint: a mischievous Phi Sig brother was the editor.

 

Freshman Yearbook

 

Who could forget the fraternity road trip to Oakland in our retired World War II ambulance to see the famous stripper Tempest Storm? Typically I was the only brother to bring a date. The later trip to the Triangle River Ranch bordello in Las Vegas was men only. Only one of five brothers had the nerve to take the plunge and brag all the way back to Palo Alto.

It wasn't me.

 

'46 ambulance Tempest Storm

 

The following year I had just been elected to Men's Council, the campus morality court, when two plainclothes police from California's Alcoholic Beverage Control collared me. I had just purchased a six-pack in the Menlo Park tavern where Dave Guard of the Kingston Trio launched his career.

That provided my first lesson on how politicians sometimes avoid arrest. The pair were amused by the irony of my plight. After a nail-biting thirty-minute drive they dropped me off at the Phi Sig house without a ticket. They kept the six pack, denying a proper celebration of a blessed example of a lifetime's many narrow escapes. A fraternity brother later commemorated the experience with a humorous campaign poster that fortunately never left the Phi Sig house.

 

Irv likes beer

 

The brothers later bestowed the task of dropping the ax in our float at the 1955 Homecoming Parade. Of course they didn't warn me about the gang of kids at the bend hurling melted lemon smoothies at the poor souls on the floats.

Dropping the ax

 

I could write a book. . .

Times have changed — perhaps for the better. After the politically repressed 'fifties, we welcomed the wild and crazy decade that followed. That's why I titled my account of the 1960 anti-HUAC demonstration "The Forgotten Spark That Set the Sixties Aflame" on the event's web page that a dear friend created for the 2010 reunion.

By now you won't be surprised that I call our website "We're Not in Kansas Anymore."

 

Bill Geyer

Bill Geyer 1936-2017
Fond Memories and Plenty of Laughs

My Phi Sig brother Bill Geyer crafted the Beer Poster and Frosh '60 Cover. He pooled our funds to buy the Phi Sig ambulance and drove us to Oakland to see Tempest Storm. My date for the ambulance ride, another precious friend, passed away in 2009. As I recall, the "INJUNS WRECK BRUINS DECK Homecoming float was partly Bill's brainchild. You can find his Sacramento Bee obituary here: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/sacbee/obituary.aspx?n=william-henry-geyer-bill&pid=187832948

-- Irving Wesley Hall