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Returning to a Place We Never Truly Left: SCSU Housing Reunion

The Wall 15

It’s been more than a year since I saw the picture that launched a thousand Facebook posts. A crew of college friends in a bar. Then came the idea, that (while fantastic) seemed like one of many alcohol-fueled ambitions that might lose steam and not achieve fruition. “Lets get the gang back together.” was the general premise. “The gang” referring to the housing staff, predominately former RA’s, from St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. This wasn’t simply an effort to get some kids from a few years ago together, it began as a mid-eighties gathering, grew to embrace the alumni of the entire decade and eventually it was determined “the more, the merrier” and nobody was going to be checking credentials or verifying diplomas at the door.

Social media certainly made the outreach an easier task and with Tom/Torgy the ring-leader, at the helm from San Diego, it’s hard to imagine such a feat being accomplished even a decade ago. The end of my SCSU housing career overlapped with the start of Tom’s and the start of mine was the tail-end of several people’s who I had always maintained contact with. There were some who my only contact with since my wedding (in 1989) was an exchange of annual Christmas cards, others were rediscovered friends as the result of Facebook.

I had returned to St. Cloud on more than one occasion; St. Patrick’s Day 1987 and a summer visit that same year, Homecoming 1988, an SCSU hosted “RA exchange” with staff of mine from either Winona State or UW-Stout, a Residential Life reunion where we were able to stay on campus one summer and a canceled reunion that simply wouldn’t die that resulted in many former RA’s roaming the streets of St. Cloud twenty years ago, a job interview in the ’90s, an Alumni Association event that brought back Vanguard alumni and I returned with a number of former Hall Directors and Assistant Hall Directors when the Michael D. Hayman Guest Suite (formerly first floor Sherburne) was dedicated. Since I was not able to speak with everyone last weekend, this is where I put the disclaimer that Mike Hayman is very much alive and that it’s not a “memorial suite”. Unlike faces on U.S. currency, St. Cloud State does not require that a person be deceased in order to name something after them. I can assure you that Mike was present (along with family) during the ceremony and somewhat shy and embarrassed by the well deserved accolades for his years of service as the Resident Life Director. Honestly, over the weekend several people in hushed tones tried to share with me that we had “lost” Mike Hayman. After a trip to The Wall with Sarah Coltvet last Friday, that is a euphemism for death that will have me laughing for years to come.

Tom put out feelers to explore a time that offered some activities on campus beyond a tour of local watering holes. With Dross and Kenny (familiar names and faces to many from the ’80s) still working in Housing it was determined that the third weekend of September would be ideal; coinciding with the 100 Year Anniversary and renovation of Shoemaker Hall, a football game, Family Weekend and typically decent fall weather. A weekend of non-sanctioned merriment. Apparently our reputations still lingered in housing lore and we were too big of a liability. Good call.

A Facebook page was put together to spread the word and a number of us served as sounding boards for Tom who wanted to make sure it was a fun and well planned event without needing a huge cash outlay in advance, with little knowledge of who might actually attend. Then the pictures began being posted and the brief snippets of stories explaining them. You saw pictures of those who were the RA’s when you arrived as a freshman and you saw pictures of your own tenants who were RA’s after you left. You didn’t even need to recognize faces to feel a camaraderie with the cross-dressed staff on stage at the Newman Center during an end of quarter staff party or the formal or informal gatherings at The Wall, the symbolic touchstone for rule-abiding housing staff, the closest place off campus that the enforcers on a dry-campus could go to drink.

Months turned to weeks, weeks turned to days and then it was simply hours, as I tossed a soft-sided cooler and all my alumni apparel into my car and headed west from my home in Bloomington. The last thing I packed was a bucket of Sweet Martha’s cookies that had been in my freezer since the State Fair. You can take the boy out of Minnesota but you can’t take the Minnesota out of the boy and as a kid with Roseville roots, the Fair was in Tom’s blood just as much as Long Island Iced Teas from DB’s would be on Friday.

As I drove through St. Cloud on my way to the Hotel I was reminded how little I drove while attending St. Cloud State, having only had a car in town during my fifth and final year on campus. Even then I parked it a block away from my “AD spot” so my expectant boss and her toddler had easier access to their car and her husband who worked downtown and drove daily had access to his. Other than the occasional drive home or to shop, most of the activities I participated in off-campus were ones best left to foot traffic or the occasional cab ride. Cabs in St. Cloud during that era were like clown cars, it was shocking the number of passengers that might emerge at a destination. While my car made its way through town, my mind wandered to other changes in the community. A woman wearing a hijab caught my eye and I realized by the time I’d pulled into the parking lot of my hotel that I had seen more diversity in St. Cloud that day, than during my entire time attending school there. Later in the weekend I would mention that “Diversity at St. Cloud State meant that a girl like me from Minneapolis worked alongside people from Cosmos, Albert Lea and Fairmont Minnesota.” An actual floor activity after spring break one year was a “tan competition” judged by our hall director. Typically during winters in St. Cloud, we were pale, paler and palest. Tanning booths became “a thing” towards the end of my time at SCSU, most of us damaged our skin the old-fashioned way, a little tinfoil over cardboard come April at Mitchell Beach.

I checked in, dragged my photo album and other luggage to my room and let Tom know I had arrived in case there was any last-minute details to attend to. He responded that he was having a beer (shocking, I know) at Beaver Island Brewing and wanted to know if I wanted to join them. I demurred (more shocking) and asked that they let me know when they got back. About an hour later I got a text to meet them in the lobby. Minutes later, there I am in the lobby with Tom who I suspect I had last seen in the summer of ’87 and his college friend Brian who had not worked in housing but ultimately was an invaluable team member for the reunion, serving as transportation and right-hand man through the weekend! We headed to DB Searle’s where we enjoyed a couple of beers and caught up, it was shockingly quiet and Brian and Tom expressed disappointment and dismay at the lack of Foosball table in the back room. They had played on the somewhat dilapidated relic the previous summer during the visit where the idea for this weekend had been conjured.

We then headed to the Red Carpet where Thirsty Thursday is just a fading memory of bottomless beers and poor Friday test scores. The horseshoe-shaped bar replaced by a bar along the wall, making the grand room of Happy Hour nothing more than a hallway to the “event center” which I would wait until Saturday to see. We headed downstairs to The Keller, the scene of my graduation party with two of my college besties, one of whom would be arriving the next evening. Described online as a “dive bar” I now wondered where the fish tanks had gone and then questioned how fish had ever survived in such a setting. We tried a Hawaiian craft beer that cost more for a single pint than an entire Thursday night out in the eighties did and then we headed back to the hotel once the band began to play and even our shouting at each other did not allow us to accurately understand what each other were saying. A quick perusal of my photo album and some thoughts regarding topics I might cover before the band played on Saturday and the night was over. Now it felt real, like people were really going to show up. The event had been tagged with the moniker “Back to Our Future”, a play on the title of the 1985 blockbuster movie that comically explored time travel and as I drifted off to sleep that night the concept no longer seemed fictional.

The next morning I met my freshman roommate Jill for breakfast at 8:30 at the Green Mill attached to my hotel. She and I had lived in a triple room in Holes hall together our freshman year. She had married Mark, a former SCSU football player who also lived in Holes our freshman year, they had settled in Waite Park and raised four kids. We caught up on each others families and friends and reminisced about people and events. She offered to drive me down the street to my 11:30 lunch at the White Horse (formerly The Sportsman Lounge where we often played “I Drink Alone” on the juke box while seated in separate booths) with a former staff member from my years in private student housing at the U, a young mother whose home is in the area. Drive me? During the entire time I attended school in St. Cloud the street we drove was a pedestrian mall. This was good information to share later that evening as a crowd of Long Island Iced Tea fortified forty and  fifty-somethings careened around the corner to head to Howie’s which was formerly the 1929 Club, The Courthouse Pub and Zim’s on Ninth (?). Sticking to the sidewalks, our boisterous clan headed to the bar located very near the actual courthouse, which has a facade with columns and a clock on it, quite similar to the Hill Valley clock tower in Back to the Future.

St. Cloud Court HouseHill Valley Clock Tower

While I chatted it up over extended meals with friends from another life, Tom was taking care of a million tiny details. He was still adding pictures to what would be an epic sideshow, managing food, addressing logistics for collecting admissions. When I had wrapped up, it seemed like it was time for everyone to have a drink. Others had been trickling in and it was determined that The Wall might be the ideal place to get this party started. The fact that Brian’s car is a mid-eighties boat that can accommodate six grown adults with its luxurious bench seat just made the trip from downtown to “just off” campus perfect. The fact he had recently had the tinting redone on the windows and they were not to be rolled down made it even funnier. As we turned the corner to the dead-end we see former staff member Bob Hull walking away with his Caribou Coffee cup in hand, we begin yelling and banging the windows (picture people who have been abducted) and Brian began tooting the horn. The hilarious part was Bob looking away, trying to avoid eye contact with the carload of lunatics. The laughter did not stop for me until I was safely home in Bloomington over 48 hours later.

Brian's car reunion '15

The Wall had been covered in some sort of cement, likely done to hide graffiti. While I grabbed a beer and offered them up to the empty-handed Sarah set to work like a Pampered Chef hostess, whipping out a cutting board, rolling a lime and preparing Gin & Tonics like a pro into acrylic stemless wine glasses. Maybe we had grown up. We regaled each other with stories from our times in St. Cloud and our lives in the three decades that had passed since. Some of the stories were funny, some of the situations were sad. The sadder the scenario, the harder we laughed and poked fun at it. As I had predicted upon arrival “I can drink like I used to but my bladder will not hold up as long.”. While Brian chauffeured Tom back to perform some mundane (but needed) task we decided that since it was still daylight and students had already been photographing us from a distance that we were going to play grownup and find indoor facilities for those of us who proclaimed needs. I was laughed at when expressing concern for taking a cooler on campus that contained alcohol, the only alcohol that made it into the residence halls was being processed by Sarah’s and my respective livers. Holes Hall was the closest stop and since I had heard a rumor that it might be torn down in the years ahead it was not entirely surprising to find it vacant, Stearns was our next destination and seeing the abandoned lobby there nearly brought us to tears or our bladders were rising to eye level. At last as we approached Sherburne we gained the attention of an exiting coed who graciously allowed us access (which really makes me wonder how well they are training entering students on “stranger danger” and security issues) and I led Sarah around behind the elevators to the public restroom, where I silently prayed they had not installed a fob system or retina scan. We relieved ourselves and returned to the street alongside Acacia Fraternity where Brian was ready to chauffeur us back to our hotel for a quick-change.

We met in the lobby a short while later and proceeded to the back room of the main floor of DB Searle’s where Tom had arranged for some happy hour food and $3.75 teas. There were name tags and more familiar faces. I drank several ice waters prior to having a featured libation which we all agreed was sweeter than we had recalled. I was thankful that they were heavily iced and considerably weaker than those of my youth. It was a noisy, fun evening filled with greetings, hugs and half completed recollections, a cacophony of middle-aged folks who swore their coworkers had not changed a bit!

Madison retreat group DB's 15Madison '85-86

A bunch of us who had been to an RA exchange in Madison my final year stepped out front to capture a group photo. In our minds we had shamed the notorious party school by showing them how a real school gets it done! Whomever decided that a team of impressionable RA’s should be guided on a road trip with the leadership of Cooch (Director) and Pat McCoy and I as AD’s must have had a real sense of humor. As we stood on the sidewalk Pat reflected on the weekend and when at a rare loss for words I simply said “St. Elmo’s Fire” (another ’85 film release) his eyes got wide and he wondered how after nearly thirty years I was so quickly able to identify what was in his head that he couldn’t articulate. The evening was magic!

Some stayed, some parted, a group moved on to Howie’s and after that a couple stopped at the former Lar’s Bar, which had become McRudy’s Pub during my last year on campus and remained that until a year or two ago. My former coworker-bridesmaid-friend-weekend-roommie “Bobbie” had arrived during our time at DB’s and after 30 seconds of concern she might not know anyone she acclimated to the rhythm of the evening, recollecting that twice her and “Spider” had together earned the coveted “Biggest Partier” accolades at end of the year staff awards. We finally returned to our hotel room and more half-told stories and laughter ensued.

Bobbie, Spider and NER(P)...sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your nickname!

When morning came we opted for coffee and showers while those more diligent headed to campus and tours and the Shoemaker anniversary event. We strolled the cobblestone sidewalks and peaked into shops, went to the drive-thru cash machine as pedestrians and eventually ended up at the Mexican Village where we were meeting up with former Mitchell staff members, having both worked there at separate times bookending our year as coworkers at Sherburne Hall. A delegation of Holes Hall staff and assorted others were there as well. Festivities moved on to the Beaver Island Brewery where the more formal itinerary began. Tom and Brian swung into action with wrist bands and our Sherburne coworker Deb arrived after a business fraternity reunion and football game. It was there I ran into “Kadz” who lived the floor above me during his final year and my first year as an RA. Despite not seeing each other since the Reagan administration it was like time had stood still. He had less hair on his head, I had more hair on my chin but beyond that we were both as sharp and wickedly witty as the duo who had brought “stewed tomatoes on a stick” as treats to staff meeting during the fall of 1983. We were golden!

Kadz, Doug and I Newman end of year '84Kadz, Doug Me '15

Bobbie and I headed back to the hotel to grab a boombox for the main event taking place at the Red Carpet. It was necessary so my Keith Fun n’ Stein tape could be played. Keith had been a one-man act that played filthy drinking songs that we enjoyed during many happy hours when not on duty. It made for a perfect accompaniment to the slide show of old photos from an era when nobody carried phones with them and phones did not even have cameras. More people continued to arrive and I gave a brief welcome and let people know there was some food available. A short while later I took the stage again, shared some memories about life on campus during the ’80s, revisited some truths of the era, gave thanks and acknowledged some of the folks who had impacted us during that time. There had been no need for awkward mixers, these folks had come back to St. Cloud with a desire to visit with people from a special chapter of their lives. Regardless of where we had gone or what we had done since our time working on campus, we were for that time in our lives the “chosen ones”, the students who had snagged the coveted RA positions. Each of us had at one time believed we were on the best staff, with the greatest supervisor and most fabulous coworkers ever. We were all right! Some would never have another job they loved as much or coworkers who knew as much about them.

As I exited the stage the Fabulous Armadillos began to play. Initially it appeared that the performance was going to take a concert format, until Tom and I hit the dance floor and in my best Jared Allen (Viking’s era) imitation, implored others to come down from the balcony, step away from the bar, get up from their tables and dance. It didn’t take much encouragement and the dance floor stayed full for most of the remainder of the evening. The Fabulous Armadillos (a compilation of incredible talent that have graced stages throughout the Midwest and around the world with each other and other artists) played covers of the songs that we’d danced to at T&T, Spring Flings and Newman Center parties. When they played Oh What a Night it was more of a statement than a song lyric.  Prince’s Lets Go Crazy seemed like an anthem and when the song exclaimed “If you don’t like the world you’re living in, take a look around you, at least you got friends!” nobody could disagree. The room pulsated with sweaty dancers, some in their floor shirts, some in new SCSU gear. People continued to connect, share their stories, ask about those who did not attend. A favorite among many excellent moments was looking up to see Tom surveying the dance floor from the second floor, basking in the joy of what his months of planning had wrought. Oh what a night!

There were shots, group photo’s, a trip next door to House of Pizza to taste a memory. Eventually the night wore down and the band finished and we demanded more and when I raised a lighter above my head for an encore and looked around the crowded room, I realized I was the only one in the room with a lighter raised  and knew it likely looked as silly as my brief interlude on the dance floor with the boombox on my shoulder (which was the result of a dare). This was more than a weekend trip to St. Cloud it was a trip down memory lane, a nostalgic detour. The Fabulous Armadillo’s came through with a finale not to be forgotten! Most eventually stopped dancing and stared in awe as the guitar player unfolded the blind singer’s cane and used it to summon the ghost of Hendrix as he pressed it against the neck of his guitar in a manner I imagine nobody in the room had witnessed before or likely will again. It was like a bow atop a very special gift, the gift we had all given ourselves by simply showing up.

There were hugs, goodbyes and faces we had recognized but never got a chance to talk to. It was perfect and it was too short. For some it was a break from busy schedules with kids or grand kids, time away from hectic work lives, a respite from caring for aging parents. For a weekend or simply a few hours, it was our time. During different eras of student programming there were expectations to meet the social, educational, spiritual, recreational and environmental needs of participants. Bobbie, Jessica and I were out on the alley behind the Carpet when they came to dump bottles for recycling, making me  confident that all aspects of programming were covered. For those who missed out or want to do it all over again, St. Cloud State turns 150 in 2019. I plan on being there for whatever happens. So keep your flux capacitor in working order, we’ll be going back to our future!

https://search.yahoo.com/yhs/search?p=Saint+Elmo%27s+fire&ei=UTF-8&hspart=mozilla&hsimp=yhs-001

*No names have been changed to protect anybody, some of us just knew enough to go by aliases back in the day!

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2 thoughts on “Returning to a Place We Never Truly Left: SCSU Housing Reunion

    • She was an RA at the start of the ’85-86 year at Mitchell before taking on an Assistant Director position at Benton-Carol. Beautiful with dark curly hair and a great personality. She remains an SCSU employee.

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