Nils Peterson: Talk in the Reading Room
About Nils Peterson

 The Reading Room
 Xmas Eve at the Big House 
 Christmas Mysteries 
Summers in Long Island 
 Father Arrives in the    Triumphal Car 
 Yankee Stadium Gone 
 A Thing of Beauty 
 Learning From My Father 
 Learning From My Mother 
The Bus


 Next Stop 
Going to College
 My Lecture on Romanticism 
 A Story 
 Go Way From My Window 
• Singing in the Rain 
 On the Nature of Exposition 
 A Latin Class
 A Hero's Life
 Letter to Paul Cantrell
• Homecoming 
 The Moon and the Bulldozer


Going to College

I arrived in Danville, Kentucky in September of 1950, never having lived more than 40 miles away from New York City.

It was sort of expected that I would go to college since there was little future for me elsewhere. My only skill was reading, not any of the practical things that seemed to make the world go round. No one of my parents’ acquaintances had any idea of how one went about making such a thing like college happen for someone like me. I got some help from school, but not much since I did not seem like much of a student though my test scores were high. I went to the academic high school (though I wanted to attend the vocational school with most of my friends) in Mt. Vernon, NY, a town right above the Bronx. One of my friends became President of the Student Council (or was he Vice-President?). He was black. Though the high school was predominately white, there were a number of blacks. The largest minority was Jewish. They were, in fact, the intellectual elite of the school, heading off to MIT and Harvard. But the way it was for me, my brother broke his leg, his 9th grade math teacher came over to tutor him, became friends with my parents, and she was the one who helped me find a school.

My parents put me on the train at Grand Central Station (or was it the Penn Station) and two days later I arrived at Centre. I was 16. I described this later as feeling like Margaret Mead when she first arrived at Samoa. It was a small Southern town of its time, separate bathrooms, water fountains, movie theaters, barbers for blacks. (Black barbers cut white hair, but, if they did, they would not cut black men’s hair.)  My college, though it was then officially a Presbyterian College, did not accept black students. I felt the strangeness of that, though that feeling was a little self serving since it gave me the moral high ground with little work (as being an agnostic made me seem like an intellectual with no work at all).

It was five years after WWII and the college was filled with veterans, the first time ordinary people started going to college, the US’s first experiment with mass college education. The veterans lived in barracks that were hurriedly constructed behind the dormitories. These later became married student housing. There was much drinking, a continual poker game, much running for bourbon over the hill since Danville was in a dry county, and some bootlegging of moonshine. One classmate, who had a 1950 Oldsmobile convertible at a time when almost no one not a veteran had a car, was rumored to be involved with the moonshiners. No doubt more envy than truth. (Actually, I had a car that sat behind the dormitory for a month because my father and mother who had come to visit had to abandon it in a snow storm and take a train back north. But it did me no good because not only did I not have a license, this chauffeur’s son couldn’t drive.)

The great hulking grizzled and graying veterans descended like locusts on the women of the incoming freshman class. There I was, a sixteen-year-old boy from New York, competing for women with the Kentucky veterans of WWII.

The girl’s school, now I’d say women’s college, had formerly been, I think, a finishing school and was on the other side of town, but the schools were now one and most classes included both sexes. There was a bus that went back and forth all day long so you could get to wherever your next class was. The girls had formal sit-down dinners — which they had to dress up for — served at tables by a black staff. The men ate cafeteria style in a grizzly-green rectangular room far from linen napkins.

My trunk of clothes, many of which had been newly purchased for me by my mother and father, never arrived, so I had very little to wear for most of the fall, just what I had carried with me in a small valise on the train. I bought more clothes a couple of months later when my insurance claim was settled. (Part of me kept hoping that “Some day my trunk will come.”) One of my classmates sometimes loaned me a sport coat , a maroon corduroy that matched nothing I owned, but that was all right since I didn’t know it didn’t match.

I loved Centre College.


yearbook photo of students arriving at Centre College

1951 Centre College yearbook photo showing Nils (tall fellow at right) arriving at train station in 1950


  © 2014, Nils Peterson

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