By Sybil Levine
Recently, I met James Sunshine, member of the class of 1946, to talk about his time spent at Oberlin. He told me about living in Men’s Building, swimming in the reservoir, and rebelling against rotten college food.
When did you go to Oberlin, and when did you leave?
Okay I came in 1942 in the fall, and stayed one semester and then left to go into the army.
Were you called upon or did you volunteer?
No, I volunteered. Everybody was leaving here at that time. They told us that if we volunteered and were enlisted that we could be in something called the “enlisted reserve core” and we could finish college and we could pick our branch of service. Well of course, all of these were lies….but I came back in 1946.
Where did the army take you?
I was in Europe in a field hospital. I was a surgical technician running an operating room.
It was…. I came back in the spring [of ’46] and just picked up where I left off. Some of my friends came back as well, a few did not. I got out in ’49, but the classes were all mixed up after the war so you didn’t know what class you were in. Or if you knew, it didn’t really matter much. Recently, I was in the class of ‘49 officially and 6 months ago I said ‘to hell with it’ and went back to 46.
What was Oberlin like during World War II?
Well, they brought a lot of people to Oberlin who had not gone to Oberlin, just people from the hills that they considered for officer training. Of course, during the war there were marines and sailors here. They would be drilling and doing things marines and sailors would do. A lot of them had come back from the Pacific, too, so they had had combat experience. All the civilian men were gone because the draft by then had taken away those not volunteered.
The atmosphere [of Oberlin] is what it is…the Oberlin Bubble. The students haven’t changed a bit. The connies are still connies. The work is still very hard. Everything I see is a dime’s worth a difference. It’s been roughly the same since I’ve known it. But you have to contrast the Oberlin I knew in 1942 with the one that you have now, and there was a big difference. It was smaller, 1,700 or 1,800 students, and somewhat more religious. It always has been very hard working. Believe me, I look at the work my daughter, who went here, and my granddaughter, who is going here, have done and I could not have produced the papers they do. The quality of the work students do here is very high, higher than it was in 1942. And in 1942, it was still a serious, very good college. It hasn’t really changed. The college has developed more. It’s bigger. I’m sure you had star professors, the way we had star professors–I had guys like Frederick Artz, and that name means nothing to you, Fletcher, Cole in psychology. These were really good people. And I’m sure you have some, too.
Do you remember where you lived?
Oh sure, of course. I remember everything. I lived in Men’s Building, which is now called Wilder. There was Talcott and Baldwin for the women and the Men’s Building and Noah for the men. Everyone else lived in made over houses. These were dorms, of sorts–they’d take a large house and they’d put an addition onto it, but it was pretty tacky living. The men were very separate from the women; you have to understand that.
[There were] house mother[s who] presided over the dining halls. In those days only the women’s dorms had dining halls so that when all the men were brought in you had a roughly 50/50 mix. They were widowed ladies in their 50s and 60s. They had a job to run the house for the women. They made sure the men and women didn’t get too close to each other. One woman was famous for going up and down her parlors at night and she would confront couples who were snuggling on the couch. [The house mothers] were there to protect the virtues of the girls. No one cared about the virtues of the men.
Oberlin was a very chaste place. Neither the men nor the women indulged in sex while they were here. That’s just the way things were. Everybody seemed to survive without it. There was a rule, no men upstairs in women’s dorms–none at all. Except there were visiting dates, twice a year. In those days you had to keep a wastebasket in the door so it wouldn’t close and four feet on the floor.
If you didn’t get into trouble with sex, then did you get in trouble with other things?
Well there wasn’t any booze in town; it was a dry town. Except there was this place called the Pool Hall. You could get a beer there, 3.2.
3.2 is dish-water. Normal beer is 7 or 8% alcohol. We could walk out to Presti’s, outside the county line, and get a beer there, though. We would go out there and sing songs like the Persian Kitten.
What did you and your friends do for fun on the weekends?
There wasn’t much to do around Oberlin. Go to the Apollo, go to concerts… we used to go out in the daytime to the quarry to swim. And ooh yes, the Arb. We used to take girls to the Arb and sometimes we would swim bare in the reservoir. That’s the trouble we got into. You can see how little trouble it was.
What’s one memory you have about Oberlin?
When I first came in ‘42, I ate in [a dining hall called] Elmwood, which was demolished when they built South Hall (which is a horrible place. It’s confusing on good days, but more of a deadly place). We had tablecloths, napkins, and waited service, but the food was rotten. The food you get now? Stop complaining.
I was on The Review at the time, and we launched an investigation. We discovered we were paying more money for food than they were paying at Harvard and Yale and Princeton. That’s the beginning of when they went outside [Oberlin]. Before the change in dining, every two dining halls would have a dietitian and they would have cooks, assistant cooks, and student workers, so this was very uneconomic. So we staged a journalistic rebellion–a front page piece. The college finally took notice and they went out and got contracts with dining services. This meant giving up all the small dining halls, though.
Is there anything in particular that sticks our in your mind when you think of Oberlin?
I got married in ‘48, when I still had a year to go, and I married a girl in the class of ‘47. We met at Pyle Inn–she lived there and I washed pots and pans. She used to sub for her roommate who was a waitress. She graduated in ‘47 and took a job as a social worker in Lorain county. She worked all along, helping me. Keeping bread on the table. So we were married all that time and then she got cancer and died in ’99. We were married 50 years.
Are there a lot of people at Kendal who went to Oberlin?
How do you like it?
[My wife and I] had a big house in Rhode Island and [after she] in 1999, I rattled around in the house for about 4 years and figured I’d much rather come back here. The scenery is not much, the weather is not much, but there are other things.
Is it nice to come back to Oberlin?
Oh yeah, the alumni have to have a place to come back to. There’s a lot of cross-fertilization…the conservatory people come over here and play all the time, faculty lectures all the time, and 500 concerts and plays a year–you can’t beat it.