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Kenyon College was founded about
1827 by the Episcopal Bishop Philander Chase on an isolated hilltop in
Ohio, the village becoming known as Gambier after an early donor. According
to the college myths, the college was started as very much a one-man show.
A college song says of Philander that he not only built the college and
dug the well, ‘He taught the classes, rang the bell, and spanked the naughty
freshmen well." He remained as college president, the story goes,
only until he was so foolish as to hire a faculty member enough stronger
than he was that sheer physical strength would no longer enforce his policies.
Philander then left to bring the blessings of higher education further
to the west.
Many memories of Philander Chase
remain. Since he is quoted as having said that the young men at Kenyon
College would get to wine, women, and song "over my dead body", the hill
between Gambier and the small nearly metropolis of Mount Vernon, Ohio,
became associated in local legend with the good Bishop. To this day the
Mount Vernon newspaper will report a traffic accident as having occurred
"at the west end of the Bishop's backbone".
And the well he dug may have survived
for a long time. When I was an undergraduate in the early 1960's,
there was pothole in the town road where the pavement crossed the gravel
path which runs one mile from the north end to the south end of campus.
It was a good-sized pothole: your foot could go in if you didn't watch
out, and it went down at least a foot or two before curving out of sight,
usually with some water in the bottom. Sometimes as freshmen walked
back from the fraternity parties at the south end of campus to the freshmen
dorms at the north end (wine and song, at least, having arrived in
town despite the Bishop's efforts), we would deposit our glasses in the
pothole, wondering that it never filled up. And, the seniors told us, this
hole, so centrally located in town, was the site of Bishop Philander Chase's
But in the mid 1960's,
trouble loomed. In the early 1960's, Ohio State Route 229, which
passed around the foot of the college hill south of the campus, washed
out in a storm. The town road over the hill was designated as Temporary
State Route 229, and it remained so for several years. (This lapse of a
few years may give you some hint of how unimportant a thoroughfare this
was, or at least of how far off the beaten track the college is still located.)
But in the Spring of 1965, the State of Ohio found a solution: they would
simply abandon washed out old Route 229 and redesignate Temporary State
Route 229 as permanent State Route 229.
This would seem like
a reasonable solution, except for one problem. The pothole. When
the road passed from town maintenance to being a state highway, the state
sent out a road crew. They patched the pothole. And the students
tore up the patch.
So the next week the road crew
came and patched the pothole. And the students tore up the patch.
And the next week the road crew
came and patched the pothole. And the students (all together now:) tore
up the patch.
Now the state started to get serious.
They sent in a road crew, patched the pothole, and set a state highway
patrolman to guard the patch while it hardened. The students came out in
force, chased the patrolman away, and tore up the patch.
The state was feeling a challenge to
its power, not a small issue in the mid 1960's. And it responded with a
serious threat. The State Highway Department told the college administration
that, if they could not patch the pothole, they were simply
going to take away the state route number from State Route 229 altogether,
and no prospective student would ever be able to find the college again.
that colleges had a lot of demonstrations in the 1960's and that this was
probably not the most serious conflict ever to arise between student desires,
campus traditions, and governmental authority, but it loomed very large
in the life of Gambier, Ohio.
Luckily, Kenyon College
was still blessed in those days with an institution that may be less common
in larger places and in this day of political correctness and less carefully
restricted sex roles. Kenyon College had a very creative, and very activist,
committee of faculty wives. And they had a vested interest in solving major
crises, especially crises that kept their husbands at work late for extra
faculty meetings, student judicial board hearings, or the other things
that go on when a college campus is in turmoil. They passed the hat.
They purchased a large round bronze plaque, inscribed "Philander's Well
/ ? / 1824-1965". And they placed it over the pothole.
I believe that State
Route 229 has since been rebuilt and rerouted, and again runs around the
south end of the campus rather than through the center. The College
has become coeducational, and the undergraduate men no longer have to travel
the length of the Bishop's backbone to get to the nearest women. But the
plaque is still there, just off center in the road where the gravel path
crosses the pavement. You have to know about it, and look for it. Many
passers-by simply suppose that it is just one more insignificant manhole
Edward Ordman (C) 2001
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