It’s Colgate Day!

Today is July 13th.  It’s also Friday the 13th, or as the folks in Hamilton NY like to call it, Colgate Day.  Colgate University, a small liberal arts college in upstate NY was founded by 13 men, who had 13 dollars, and gave 13 prayers to establish the college.  It wasn’t called Colgate back then, it wouldn’t be until the famous soapmaking family donated significantly to the University that it took on that name.  I guess for a while freshman would receive a Colgate gift basket upon arriving at the University.  So, in honor of my alma mater, I want to make this blog about my experiences with Colgate, from before I went there, to my time at the University, until after my graduation.

I had little knowledge of Colgate University leading up to that day in the summer of 1997 when I first set foot on campus.  According to a scrapbook, my first college football game was Colgate vs Army, at West point.  By the end of my junior year in high school, I had started looking at colleges.   My grades in high school had been good.  I played sports, I did community service, so I had a lot of options for college, and was getting a lot of packets in the mail.  I was going through a lot of college books, I had some computer software that let you look at and compare colleges.  And I was starting to go on visits.  My search was mostly focused in the northeast, although a part of me wanted to get to Big Ten country in the midwest.  I had briefly considered a military academy.  One thing was for sure though, every college I visited was disappointing in some way.   I visited Geneseo and Binghamton, but couldn’t see myself at either of those schools.  I went to a few other private colleges in NY, and all around New England.  We had taken a trip to Boston that ended up being mostly unproductive, however I did have an interest in Holy Cross, located in Worcester.

Colgate was love at first sight though.  The only reason I ended up even visiting Colgate that day was because I had dismissed Geneseo and Ithaca very quickly earlier in the day, and we had time to visit Colgate.  Just pulling into town was impressive, and the college on the hill was everything I had imagined a college would look like.  It was late June, so there were no students there, but the campus was amazing.  The tour went well, and by the time I left campus, I knew I had my top choice.  I also had a T-shirt, which I bought to show my new ranking of Colgate at #1.

Colgate’s academic quad

The research I had done on Colgate kept it as my number one choice.  However I did have a lot of people warning me it was a party school.  This concerned me a bit, but not enough.  I had survived high school, with all the parties, so I didn’t expect it to be that much different.  I visited Colgate once more in the fall of my senior year.  It was early on a Saturday morning.  We walked around the campus, and it was as beautiful as I remembered.  I didn’t see any students around.  I asked where they were.  The tour guide lied and told me there were studying.   So, Colgate remained my number one choice, and I decided I would apply early decision, and it was the only college I applied to.

I was accepted, so by December of my senior year, I knew where I was going.  I didn’t know exactly what I was going to be doing yet.  Colgate had a nice core curriculum, and requirements to take courses in a variety of areas.  So I would get to explore a variety of topics before picking a major.  We had to choose a freshman seminar to take.  This would be the group of people we were introduced to the school with, and would go through freshman orientation together.  I picked an education course, testing out whether that was what I really wanted to do.

My first sign of trouble was the summer before.  There was a kick off party, hosted by a local alumni.  It would be a chance to get to meet other future local attendees.  Pretty soon, the future students were all standing in a circle, introducing ourselves and getting to know each other.  I am pretty shy in such situations, and am pretty content to just listen.  But something I didn’t consider started to lead to my downfall.  They were all talking about where they shopped for clothes, and that was the main topic of conversation for a while.   Colgate can be a bit of a J Crew, Abercrombie and Fitch kinda a place, especially when they are trying to make a good impression, such as at a kick off party.  This sort of thing isn’t even on my radar.  They asked me where I got my jeans and t shirt outfit I was wearing.  I answered honestly,  Bob’s discount clothing in Danbury Connecticut.  And that was pretty much the end of my party.  I was too shy to speak up, and people weren’t going out of their way to talk to me.  At one point, I found myself on the outside of the circle, unable to get into it.

The drinking started as soon as freshman orientation began.  And I knew I had underestimated it right away.  I don’t really care that people are drinking, I just generally don’t want to be around it, which means I didn’t want to be around a lot.  The athlete groups had already been on campus for a while, so they stuck together.  In our freshman dorm of 200, it seemed like everyone was drinking a lot, especially the first few days where there weren’t classes, and everyone was just getting to know each other.  There were some people in our dorm I didn’t know at all, they already had their friends or their group, and I didn’t really have any contact with them at all.  I was always someone who liked to explore different circles, so not fitting in at all was making me pretty unhappy.

Academically things were going pretty good.  I liked my freshman seminar.  One of the great things about Colgate is the professors.  Class sizes were small, and every class was taught by a real professor.  The courses were great, and I learned a lot.  I was a decent, but not great student.  I usually got B’s.  I did nearly fail one class my freshman year.  We were supposed to take some classes from different areas, so I signed up for a computer programming class.   But I wasn’t in the introductory course that I should have been in.  The one I signed up for was for people who had some more experience, which I didn’t have.  It was a real frustrating experience, but I worked hard at it, and ended up with a C-.  Over the years, I took more classes from different departments than just about anyone I knew.   Part of that was a function of my program, part of that was just me trying to learn new things.  My freshman year I also took an intro geology course, and really enjoyed that.  So I knew what I was going to do.  I was going to major in Geology, minor in education, and become an earth science teacher.

Midway through freshman year, I wanted to branch out more socially.  I signed up to be a DJ at the campus radio station, and had a two hour show once a week.  But this wasn’t really much of a social experience.  I typically didn’t get more than a call or two per show, and pretty much the only time I would see another person at the station was when the DJ who had the show after mine would relieve me.   Being a DJ was fun, I had a SKA themed show.  But I really wasn’t meeting people doing it.

I turned to sports.  I started going to as many sporting events as I could.  Our athletic programs were excellent.  We had division one sports, and were often in contention for a league title.  I especially liked reconnecting with soccer.  Our women’s team was top-notch, and going to games in the evening was one of my favorite experiences of that first fall.  Not a whole lot of students went to sporting events as fans.  Some people were there for the social aspect of it, and I soon found a group that I could join.  The pep/marching band.   I didn’t think about joining originally, because I wasn’t a great trombone player, and I had no marching experience.  But by midway though the year, I decided to join.  The band was great, and they would become my dominant social group for the next four years.   I had the chance to play music, go to sporting events, and we got to do a  lot of travelling.  We made frequent trips to New England.  We went to our big rivals at Cornell a few times.  We also got to take big trips to Colorado, Minnesota, and one interesting trip to Illinois.   We were in the playoffs for football, and the band and cheerleaders were invited to attend.   We had a charter flight, and a police escort to our hotel, in Normal Illinois.  We got a chuckle at seeing “Normal Police” “Normal Public Library”  The hotel next to ours had a marquee that read “Good luck Red Birds”  We made sure that was changed to “Red Raiders”  the first evening we were there.  The game itself did not go well, we lost it badly.  Things went just as well on the pep band side.  The game itself was over Thanksgiving, and only a small portion of our already small band could go.  I think 9 people?  And the stadium was huge, who knows if anyone had heard us.  We had actually heard that ISU’s marching band was at the Macy’s parade, so they wouldn’t be at the game.  And then we heard the sound of a marching band approaching the stadium.  We thought they were right behind us, but turning, they were a ways down the road, and there were 100’s of them.  Standing shoulder to shoulder, the stretched endzone to endzone.  But, due to the rules, we had to alternate playing, so ha.  The trip to Minnesota was similarly disappointing.  We lost badly both games, and the band wasn’t even allowed to play, something they didn’t tell us until after we had coordinated our trip.  Colorado was one of the high points though.  It was a great trip, and our team was playing good hockey.  It was a two game series, at Colorado College, which is located at altitude.  We lost the first game, 6-3, with the altitude taking its toll on us.  And the Colorado fans were merciless with their taunts, a group of them came over to sit by us in the upper reaches of the area just to taunt and throw stuff at us.  All of this made the next night even sweeter.  Shep Harder would be our goalie the second night, and CC could not solve him.  We were in the lead, and had a shutout going.  The other team started to run into him any chance they got.  The altitude was still an issue, but not as bad as the night before, either way, at one point, Shep had to throw up into his own net.  He kept getting crashed into, and he kept getting back up, and stayed in the game.  He also kept his shutout going, and our 3-0 win was one of the most satisfying wins I’ve ever seen.

Academically, things were going ok.  What they say about every hour of work inside the classroom, requires two outside, is true.  It’s also not very fun.  During the day, between my classes I would usually go to the library and work, but I wasn’t one for late night study sessions, or spending all night in the library.  I got decent, but not impressive grades.  I still liked to explore new things.  At Colgate, there were lots of different clubs hosting lunches, lectures and discussions.  I went to many of these.   I did intramural sports.  I went to a lot of theater performances, or anything else that my friends were doing.  Some people might say Colgate is a small college, in the middle of no where, but there is so much to do on campus if you look for it.  And that’s one of the things I loved about it.

One of the drawbacks of being a small college was my academic program.  Being a geology major had certain requirements.  Going for my educational certificate required more courses.  Some courses required prerequisites .  Every course was just one credit, and science courses often had labs, which did not count for a second credit.  There was also a small number of courses offered.  Some classes were only offered every other year, some just once a year, and usually just one section, sometimes the course was full before registration was even open to me.   And sometimes, they were at the same time.   Getting through the requirements of my program would require some serious tap dancing.  And I almost made it.

I call this paragraph “Why I donate to the geology department every year, but the education department will never see a dime”  The education department had someone who was in charge of seeing science students through their program.  He was on sabbatical.   So I got the guy who was in charge of the english program.  These programs are not the same.   Just about every science teacher has general certification.  It would have required an extra class or two, which might not have worked anyway schedule wise.  But because I am only earth science certified, I did lose out of getting some interviews, and probably a few job offers.   I also had a problem getting through my Colgate approved program.  It’s not that I was failing classes, I was getting the grades I needed.  But what I needed was an upper level astronomy course.  Based on the time of the classes, the prerequisites required, it just wasn’t going to work.  So I appealed to the chair of the department.   I was not given any sort of help.  No one had gotten earth science certified for a while, so we didn’t know that the last person who did it had to take Astronomy 102 as their second astronomy course, and write an extra paper on how it relates to the NYS curriculum.  I didn’t learn this until shortly before graduation.  I had separately met the requirements for certification through the state, but I was not given credit for completing the Colgate approved program.  During graduation, students who had become certified teachers were given a special recognition.  This was not given to me, and it still makes me mad to this day.

I never fully fit in anywhere during my time at Colgate.  I spent too much time bouncing around, and exploring different things.  A lot of the geology students were really close to each other, but I never put in enough time in the department lounge to really be a part of that core group.  I did go to a lot of the campus events, and campus discussion groups, but it was often on my own.  Junior year, my band friends got together and got a house on campus.  And that was a lot of fun, and a good experience, but by senior year, I needed to make a different decision.  Because I was student teaching, I had to keep teachers hours.  Up early in the morning, in bed early at night.  I moved back to the same dorms we lived in sophomore year, onto a substance free housing floor.  My neighbor was a serious athlete who also wanted to avoid noise and distractions, but I was pretty much alone at that point.  I still loved being in the band though, and for the second year they had elected me as an officer.  What I lacked in musicianship, I gained in knowing about the sports we were watching.  At the hockey games, when a penalty was called, I was the one who could tell if it was on us or the other team, so we knew what song to play.  I had also taken to painting my face Colgate colors, and running around the hockey rink with the big Colgate flag after goals.  This got me noticed a bit more, and in one edition of the campus news paper, I was listed as one of the most annoying things at Colgate, right below our obsession with Acapella groups, and right above the fact that the campus co-op no longer served club sandwiches.

I tried to take a broader view, and to give back in whatever ways I could.  I embraced my role as the number one fan on campus.  Sophomore year, I started a website with a friend of mine.   We would analyze the sports teams, preview games, post results.  And we also offered a message board.   This was big, current students were all that interested, but we had a lot of alumni and parents who were following it closely.  Eventually, I took over running the website myself, and had started going to just about every game there was.  This got me some attention from the athletic department, and since I was at all the games anyway, often by myself, they offered me a spot on their event management team.  Mostly this meant being the PA announcer.  I did get to promote a big womens hockey event, for our team which had just started playing division one.  But mostly I was just a bored lonley student who really liked sports, and didn’t have anywhere else to be.  The knowledge of sports did help me later when I would start coaching, and also taking pictures of sporting events.

Senior year I also gave back to the school by taking on a column in the campus weekly newspaper.  Colgates sports teams were known as the Red Raiders.  However, they had decided, without any real discussion, to drop the “Red” from the name.  I had read every single campus newspaper from the year we got the name, the legendary “undefeated, untied, unscored upon and univited” season of 1932.   There was no Native American connotation or imagery used.  The present day University themselves did not use Native American imagery, or mascots.  Although I guess there was an unoffical mascot who would dress up like an Indian and go to games.   So I was a little annoyed that they made the decision, especially without any discussion.

This wasn’t the only time they did this, Colgate was obsessed with its ranking.  We needed to maintain our position in the top 25 liberal arts colleges, and we wanted to be picking up spots.  Our President had realized that colleges ranked ahead of us had honor codes.  We did not.  At first they toyed with a real honor code, like I was familiar from  my knowledge of West Point.  If you witnessed cheating, you were obligated to report it.  Coglate eventually decided there would be no such obligation.  Basically, all they did was take the part of the student handbook on honesty and ethics, called it a separate honor code, with the same rules and penalties.   But they couldn’t just institute it, it had to be voted on by the students, and I guess such a vote failed a few years earlier.  So, in order to vote this time, you had to attend a presentation in favor of the honor code.  Only then could you get to vote.   Doesn’t seem very democratic, does it?   Only a small portion of the students attended the meetings, and of those, a narrow majority voted for the code.  But of course, the headlines put out by the University read “Colgate students embrace honor code”  I believe our ranking did improve.

Reading the old news papers also put a column called “Sports Strolls” in front of my face.  It was interesting little summaries of what was going on.  Mixing sports results, with commentary, with some social history of what was going on on campus.  I loved it, so I revived it.   My senior year version of “Sports Strolls” wouldn’t really focus on recaps of the games, that was already covered in the paper, but if there was an interesting story to tell, that was my territory.  I also focused on some of the bigger picture things.  Our spot in the college athletic world, or even just our league.  I did a column on recruiting and admissions.  probably my most controversial column was when I asked the athletes which of the teams in our league they liked the most, and the least.  I’d like to think that 60 years from now, someone might find my old columns in the archives, and bring it back one more time.

By the time graduation came, I had felt like I was already gone.  Student teaching had changed my schedule a lot.   I wasn’t as close with my friends as I had been.  There was an awards ceremony at the end of the year, but there would be no recognition for me.  My role had been unique.  There was no award for being a superfan, for trying to sample as much of Colgate as I could, for maintaining diverse interests.  I didn’t even go.   As I mentioned, I was left off the graduation program as a newly certified teacher, so I felt betrayed in that way.  The band did honor me.  I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but at some point I ended up with a painted trombone we had found in one of the corners of the band room.  I used it until it broke, at which point it was hung up in the band room with a picture of me.  I’m not sure if it’s still there, but it was a few years later when I went back for a visit.  It snowed on graduation day.

As I said a few blogs ago, after graduating I made a search for where I would start teaching, and I ended up moving to the Glens Falls area.  Based on my photography records, it looks like I went back to Colgate, or to a Colgate sporting event out closer to me, about ten times.  But gradually, local sports took the place of relying on my alma mater for entertainment.  I think if I had taken a job closer to Colgate, it still would have been my hub for sports entertainment.   I haven’t been to either of my reunions, though I did go to a homecoming or two.   I still think about what I should have done differently.   Some days I wish I was back at Colgate, living the life of a college student again, some days I’m glad to be done with that.  The question in my mind has been, would I have liked somewhere else better?  I don’t really know.  I’m not sure one describes the service academies as “fun”  but I often wonder what would have taken if I had gone that route.  I wasn’t a Mormon yet, so it would have been very unlikely for me to have gone to BYU, but I think that if I had converted earlier, or been born into the church, that would have been a real possibility.  A few times I went to visit friends who had gone to a state school, and seemed to get along easily with them and their friends.  So maybe I should have looked harder at Geneseo.  I really don’t know.  But, everything happens for a reason.

As a teacher, I’ve had students talk to me about Colgate.  And even though I’ve used this column to complain a lot, I would still recommend the college.  Just not to everyone, you really should know what you are getting into.   I will repeat what I said earlier, the academics were excellent.  Small classes, taught by real professors who are good at what they do.  Can’t beat that.  And there is a ton of stuff to do on campus, which is absolutely beautiful.  I was also on campus at a time of restructuring and change.   The campus President was unpopular, and eventually replaced.  My Junior year there was a drunk driving fatality, and this cast a gloom over the campus.   The administration also began an effort to change to culture on campus, which was unpleasant to those who were a part of that culture, but also those who were not.  And my senior year began with 9/11.

I still keep in touch with some of my former friends and classmates, and I still like to visit from time to time.   I still give money to the college every year, specifically the geology department and the band.  Despite my negative comments in this blog, most of my memories are happy one.  I was holding a lot of those negative memories in, and wanted to get them out in some way or another.  I don’t know if any of it will make a difference to me or to others.  Either way, thats my story.  Happy Colgate day!

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About garybraham

I grew up in Mahopac NY, studied geology at Colgate University. I've moved to Queensbury NY to teach HS earth science. I also coach soccer and wrestling, take pictures at local sporting events, and am the Scoutmaster for the Glens Falls ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. My wife and I will be married 5 years this October, and we have a two and a half year old little girl.
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