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Cornell in the Twenties

In Their Own Voice... student thoughts from the era


Harold Gulvin

Harold E. Gulvin, Class of 1930

Harold Gulvin began at Cornell in 1926, the following are extracts from his letters to his hometown sweetheart. After graduation, he taught agricultural subjects at the high school and college level for many years. From First-Person Cornell, Carol Kammen, Cornell University Library, 2006.

Willard Straight Hall is a beautiful building. It is the recreation center on the campus. It is only a little over a year old. It contains study rooms, reading rooms, clubrooms, card and billiard rooms, two large cafeterias, tea rooms and porches and a large theatre all in the same building. The whole campus is pretty these spring days. I am taking English I this year and it certainly is deep stuff. We just finished Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter and Hardy’s Return of the Native. They are both good books. We are now going to study Nicholas Nickelby and the second volume of Beowulf to Hardy, which is mostly poems. I have three prelims this week. We have prelims here most any time and not at certain times as in high school. If I take French next year I would complete an equivalent to your years work in one term here. They have a system here of cramming knowledge into you in a short time. Educating and learning is the chief object of the University. [Harold Gulvin, March 6, 1927, page 124.]

Now to tell you a little about initiating. You see my house [Alpha Gamma Rho] has pledged 7 or 8 men to become members and this is “Hell Week” for them. They have to stay & live here at the house for three days, tomorrow is the last. They have to enter the house thru the basement and then stand at the bottom step and yell “Hail thee, Hail thee, this lowly neophyte [his name] desires to enter the house of his noble lords.” If he don’t say it just right or loud enough he had to do it over again. Each pledge or frosh has to carry a whiskbroom and a shoe shining set with him. He must shine his lord's shoes. (I had mine shined yesterday) Also he must carry cigarettes and candy with him. They have 12 rules in all and they must name any rule when asked. There is one lowly neophyte in my room. He is supposed to be the scum in the room. He has gone to bed now.... The pledges were lined up and eggs were thrown to them. The first one to drop an egg was to be tubbed. It wasn't long before one of them dropped one and us sophomores took off our clothes leaving only an old pair of trousers on. Six of us rushed the lowly neophyte, dragged him downstairs and into the tub full of ice water. He splashed around so that we all got wet and some one closed the bathroom door leaving us in there to get wet. It was great fun although it might seem unfair for six of us to pick on one scum but the more we have the less wet we get. [Harold Gulvin, November 3, 1927, page 125.]

Friday night was the night though. That was rough house night and it certainly was rough alright. One of the neophytes had to enter the house singing some song, he was blindfolded and was asked some questions and then plunged into the black depths of… a blanket held by some fellows who tossed it up. From thence he undressed and was taken upstairs and put through some more torture as jumping on spikes, lying on an electric bed and singing and some other things which I don't believe I should tell you (seeing that you are of the opposite sex). [Harold Gulvin, November 9, 1927, page 125.]

Well there is one other thing that I might tell you about. It was quite some time, referring to the Frosh cap burning. We put up a good fight for the number we had. About eight o' clock four sophomores from here went to a meeting of the sophomores on the upper campus behind some building. We could only congregate about 20-30 sophs while the Frosh across the road and in the field were increasing in the hundreds. Making things kind of uneven. They hadn't gotten any wood yet either which we could capture. We hunted through the Forestry & Poultry building for fire hose in order to extinguish the fire when they started it. Worse luck just as we had four pieces fastened together ready to take outside a policeman showed up, sat on it, and said he would arrest anyone who touched it. Well we fooled around for a while, the sophomores on a little hill and the Frosh across the street. It was getting quite dark and they wouldn't quite see how few we were. They didn't attack at first but finally got brave enough to. Well in that first rush I lost my clothes unfortunately, and the sophs. who weren't stripped had to seek cover by running away to some of the buildings. I finally found my shirt and put that on but it didn't stay on. Then the Frosh lit their fire, sang songs and had speeches. Well somebody uncovered another fire hose and just as the Frosh were making another attack some other fellows and myself screwed the bore on the hydrant and turned it on, but what a time, the hose leaked badly, and streams of water came out of the sides as well as the nozzle. Everybody near got wet. The water from the hose made a big pool of mud and that's where several got a good cool muddy bath. We could strip the Frosh without fear of being stripped ourselves. We literally tore the clothes off of them. Fellows were running around without anything on and the upperclassmen and their girl friends seemed to enjoy it. There were plenty of cars around to make it quite light. The ground was simply strewn with torn clothes. Finally the frosh left. [Harold Gulvin, May 31, 1928, page 126.]

Went to the show last night just to hear all the noise. You should have heard it, I wish you could have. Of all the screeching, yelling, singing, clapping, hissing you ever heard. The manager appeared on the stage about seven different times and tried to speak but the noise would grow louder when he came on the stage. He wanted them to quit throwing things on the stage as it might cause an accident. The vaudeville was fairly good, it had to be, only you couldn't hear, just see. When one girl sang “now ain’t she sweet” the whole student audience joined in and sang it. Between the shows we furnished our own singing. Once the manager came out and threatened not to go on with the show and he had the curtain pulled down for a while, when the whole audience said “I want my money back” and he had to go on with the show, although the two last performances were incomplete. [Harold Gulvin, October 14, 1928, page 127.]

Len and I went to the new “State Theater” downtown Friday night. It is a dandy theater. Something like the Rochester only of entirely different architecture. Part of the ceiling has about 60 coat of arms of universities. Then there are stars, which twinkle all the time like real ones. Yes, I guess a college fellow in a co-educational institute can know quite a few girls, but perhaps about two dozen or so is about all that I know, which is very small when there is about a thousand in the University. I probably know about a hundred fellows I guess by name and sight. [Harold Gulvin, December 9, 1927, page 127.]