October 01, 2014
The DNA of Susquehanna University
Fifty years ago…
For students, fall is always the best time of the year. It marks the beginning of a new academic year, providing the opportunity to renew friendships with fall colors, Homecoming and parties on the horizon. Fifty such fall seasons ago, I stepped onto the Susquehanna campus to begin my college career with the Class of 1968. Four seemingly fast years later, I departed with my degree but also with a bit of notoriety as the first African-American graduate of Susquehanna University.
Recently, there have been numerous articles in the national media regarding the historical importance of the mid ’60s. In July, the United States marked the 50-year anniversary of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which enacted, among its provisions, equal employment and access to public accommodations. The country was in the midst of the civil rights struggle, complete with fire hoses and police dogs attacking civil rights workers and citizens demanding equal rights.
Contextually, it was during this civil rights period-the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 had not yet been signed into law-that I started my college years at Susquehanna. I have often been asked over the years what it was like to be in such a lonely situation. Indeed, one administrator noted to me years later that it must have been “really tough” to be at Susquehanna during that time. Well, truth be told, it was not tough at all.
I fell in love with Susquehanna from the moment I first set foot on campus during the winter of 1964. The campus was blanketed with snow and appeared pristine perfect. Later, walking on campus as a first-year student that fall, it seemed like every student I encountered had a friendly greeting or smile. It was a very different experience for this new student from Philadelphia, where my high school alone had twice as many students as Susquehanna! I found it to be a very pleasant change from big-city living.
From the outset I have always felt that the best “personality” trait of Susquehanna, so to speak, was its friendliness and the subsequent bonds it builds among its students. This was reinforced later in the fall of 1964 when Gustavus Adolphus (GA) Hall, one of the two male freshman dorms on campus, burned to the ground. The entire university community rallied around those of us who had lived there and lost nearly everything in our dorm rooms. The closeness of the student body helped us get through what would have been a challenging year. I vividly remember how impressed my parents were that one of my soon-to-be Phi Mu Delta fraternity brothers came to my house during the ensuing school break to see if I was OK and if there was anything he could do to help. My sophomore year I moved into the Phi Mu Delta house on University Avenue, where I would spend the better part of my college years, enjoying my fraternity brothers and establishing lifelong friendships that flourish to this day.
So much has changed at Susquehanna over the past 50 years. The size of the student body has more than doubled. The Sigmund Weis School of Business was established. There are new and exciting facilities and housing options. Still, I would be surprised if Susquehanna University is not the same friendly campus that it was in 1964. The school’s welcoming character-where every student is acknowledged-helped make my adjustment from the big city to a small town very easy and enjoyable. So, no, being at Susquehanna was not “tough” at all. It may be 50 years later, but I am certain the Class of 2018 will find Susquehanna to be the same welcoming, close-knit, academic environment it was when I first arrived on “old SU’s broad campus.” Quite simply, it’s in our DNA.
Bill Lewis is a member of the Susquehanna University Board of Trustees. He is the retired deputy director of the Office of Civil Rights and Diversity for the U.S. Department of Energy.