The College Returns: 2008

All new Haverford employees have to learn the slogan “The College is Never Closed.”

Sure, a few feet of snow might slow things down, but almost every student and most faculty are within walking distance of campus and even if commuting employees can’t get here, classes

“Vacations” are vacations for the students, but the work of the College goes on 51 weeks a year. However, in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, the place is as close to shut down as it ever is.

The Security Office in the Gardner Center remains on duty 24/7 and a few lonely faculty and administrators huddle in semi-heated offices. You can be sure that some folks in Founders were opening envelopes to record contributions from alums with one eye on the calendar and the other on their IRS forms! But for the only time all year, Magill Library is uninhabited all week, no one is working out in the Fitness Center and except for a few international students, all the young Fords are elsewhere.

Over the years, occasional activities have livened up this “dead week.” One cold New Year’s Eve some time ago, a lone campus wanderer thought he had encountered Brigadoon — men in kilts and women in gowns dancing in Founders while a bagpiper’s squeals announced the arrival of the ceremonial haggis.

However, on close inspection, this was no annual apparition of a time and place far away but a more prosaic party of the local St. Andrew’s Society which had somehow managed to rent Founders Great Hall for traditional Scottish New Year’s festivities.

The oddest year-end/ year-beginning ritual at Haverford occurred in the 1970s when Alumni Field House still featured a dirt track and infield. Obsessed runners from all over the world descended on Haverford to take part in one of the few “48-hour races” anywhere.

Dozens of people circled the 1/7-mile dirt track 18 hours a day (the rules specified that contestants had to sleep or at least rest six hours out of every 24). Many spectators came to see this reprise of the 1920s craze for all-night bicycle races.

The contestants did have to stop occasionally to….well, you get the idea… and they usually did stop for that purpose, though once in a while….

They also had to eat. Support teams brought victuals which the runners could consume while in full stride.

Therein lay the downfall of this unique event. In time, culinary provisions became more and more elaborate. Huge picnic hampers arrived and created considerable debris for College staff to clean up. Then, some enterprising folks started barbecuing chickens and other delicacies in corners of the cavernous old barn.

The College wasn’t sure it liked that. It would be pretty hard to burn down the Field House, sure, but a few dozen fires in its major athletic facility blazing all day and night didn’t seem quite right.

While the administration pondered this dilemma, fate took a hand. The Field House was scheduled for renovation, and the new floor was to be polyurethane, replacing the finely-ground dirt which still resides in older alums’ lungs and athletic gear. Fires just wouldn’t do.

The race was cancelled.

Considerable outcry came from the extreme sports crowd. The College was attacked as “Un-Quakerly” in a Philadelphia newspaper op-ed,though no one could find references
to 48-hour races or barbecuing chickens in the core writings of George Fox, William Penn, or Rufus Jones.

Haverford’s back in full swing this week. Staff can’t find an ideal parking place unless they get in early. There’s a basketball game in the Gooding Arena tonight. While the main dorms remain closed, HCA houses winter athletes, students with classes at Penn, and those from far away. Offices are open.

We don’t know if ghosts of bagpipers or ultra-marathoners–or more substantial figures–flitted across campus last week. We’re content to let one week a year keep its secrets. Haverford moves on to 2008, with both predictable rhythms of the academic year and no doubt undreamed-of adventures and challenges ahead. It’s good to be back.

–Greg Kannerstein ’63