Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Libes

It's good these days to hear about my alma mater, Northwestern University, even if it's just in passing. This past Sunday evening, I was shopping at Publix, and as I was searching for the perfect slider rolls, I overheard a conversation between a woman and a man, two friends who had run into each other buying groceries in advance of a predicted winter storm.

The woman's daughter was a senior in high school and had applied to a number of colleges. The daughter apparently wanted to stay close to home and had applied to the University of Georgia and a few other area schools, all very popular locally, but her mom, sporting a Nantucket sweat shirt, obviously wanted her daughter to venture North for higher education. Apparently, she and her husband had both attended Georgia and had, in her words, "done well," but at one point, she said, "You know, she really wants to go there...they all want the name, but those places like Northwestern...you never know." I'm not sure where her daughter's "there" was, but I had to chuckle a little inside, because when I went to Northwestern from Memphis, people weren't even sure where it was or why I was going "way up there." (For those of you who still don't know where Northwestern is, it's located in Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago. You drive up along Lake Michigan from Chicago, and you run right into Evanston. It's a beautiful community, very Midwestern, with lots of nice architecture.)

South Campus and The Arch
The thing was, Northwestern wasn't exactly known for having a winning football team, and in the South, football was and is a very big deal. One day in 1979, after we had both graduated and were living in Chicago, Karen and I saw a group of Northwestern kids carrying a goal post down Central Avenue in Evanston. We stopped one of the kids and asked them if they'd finally won a game. Turns out that they had just broken the nation's longest losing streak, which had previously been held by Columbia. These days, Northwestern wins football games and even goes to bowl games on a regular basis, but in those days, Saturday game attendance at 55,000-seat Dyche Stadium might average around 10,000. Not to mention that it was often freezing. You get the idea.

One thing about living up North is that you don't have any trouble staying inside and studying, and that was a good thing for Northwestern students. The academic pressure was intense. Most of us spent almost every evening and many weekend days (yes, even Saturdays) at the university library. And since we spent so much time there, the library, which was more commonly referred to as "The Libes," achieved destination status. It became so synonymous with my time at Northwestern that twenty years later, when my wife and I were giving our two young daughters a Parental Nostalgia Tour, The Libes had to be one of our first stops. The girls still joke about how how "exciting" it was for them to be shown the part of the library where I studied.

In 1971, two years before I arrived for my freshman year, Northwestern opened a brand spanking new student center called Norris University Center. It featured study areas, a theater, art galleries, a large cafeteria, and even three large "listening rooms" with floor-to-ceiling windows, each of which afforded a beautiful view of the Lake Michigan waterfront. You checked in to a central desk where you requested a particular LP to be played, and the music would be piped in to the room of your choice. But with all this, Norris still took a back seat to The Libes. The university was perpetually confounded that students elected to visit the second floor student lounge in library instead of using Norris. No one had time to visit Norris, because there was always some exam or other around the corner.

Library South Entrance
Both The Libes, built in 1970, and Norris were designed in the Brutalist architecture style. (Although the term may sound somewhat frivolous, it is a real thing, and it describes a style which features function over form. The most commonly used building material is concrete.) The library structure itself was divided into three similar five-story towers, one with walls painted brick red, one harvest gold, and one deep avocado green, perfectly matched to the aesthetic of the 1970's. On most floors, shelves radiated out from a central point, like spokes of a wheel. In the centers of the wheels, chairs and footrests were provided, with individual study carrels and private study rooms located throughout the floors. One of the first things that most students did upon arriving at Northwestern was to find a favorite place in the library which could be used as an elementary GPS of sorts. For example, in my freshman year, I preferred to study on the fifth floor of the green tower, so I would tell friends at dinner that if they wanted to find me, I'd be in "Five Green." In my sophomore year and later, I branched out to Two Gold at the Core Library, which featured unique, low-slung desk pairs. This was very nice if you found yourself studying with a friend.

One of the most important traditions at Northwestern was the 9:00 Break, during which time most people would head to the student lounge (Two Green) to eat snacks, drink bad but cheap coffee from vending machines, and socialize. This was the time when you would drop the econ, the neuro, the Kafka, whatever you happened to be studying just to hang out with your friends. People would even come to the library just for the 9:00 Break, and it was amazing: at any given time from 9:00 until around 10:00, there would be no seats left in the lounge, and people would have overflowed onto the floor. All this with the spacious Norris Center right next door. After the break, we'd all return to our respective study areas and hit the books until around 11:30 PM, when we'd pack it in and head back to our dorms or residences.

I spent so much time in The Libes that I can still fondly remember so many things: the way the fluorescent lights buzzed incessantly in the Green Tower, the way my roommate and I would sit in the halls of the Red Tower and quiz each other before neurobiology exams, the classic old periodicals on the lower level, the hidden tunnel to Deering (the "pretty library"), the way I would wake up in a study carrel and realize an hour had gone by, and the enormous card catalog that must have taken up a half acre. The memories are still so vivid.

The Campus Today
I don't know exactly how things are at Northwestern these days. There are a lot of new buildings, and the card catalog has long since been dismantled, but I'm sure that The Libes are still a nerve center, and if I'm thinking correctly, they're still something of a gathering place. But I do recall that every night when I left the library, I felt like I really was "at college," that this was something worth doing, and that this effort would pay off some day. In many ways, it has. I was fortunate enough to have much of the cost of my education covered by scholarships and grants, but my parents also contributed a sizable sum on their own. I'm so thankful to them for making it possible for me to attend Northwestern and to experience a life which they never had. I could never really thank them sufficiently, but when they came to visit, I made sure to take them to The Libes.