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Town & Gown

Down at the Discotheque

by Gillian Pasley | Town & Gown | Fall 2018

Images from the Fall 2018 issue

Forty years in ’Sco history.


Forty years and hundreds of thousands of wristbands later, it’s remarkable that at first glance the “Dionysus Disco” still looks like an empty room. If you don’t believe me, enter through the double doors early in the evening, before anyone arrives. Hand Shirley your ID, walk across the hardwood floor past the rust-colored pillars and blue high-top tables pushed against the wall, to the bar facing the slightly elevated stage. When the room is empty, nothing about the space asserts its storied history—it’s a blank slate. The ’Sco is humble, perhaps to its detriment. Yet there is a certain magic about the space, for those who’ve known it well—a sense of a chaos and catharsis in its history of late nights and tall tales. There are ghosts in the ’Sco, ghosts that linger onstage and on the floor long after the house lights go up at one o’clock and “Mama ’Sco” yells for everyone to get the hell off the ramp. The stories are in the air there—when you start to see them, it begins to look a bit less like an empty room and a bit more like a vibrant collection of reconstructed memories, gathered over years and years of dancing and drinking and listening. As a booker, I have my own ghosts, my own stories—but the ’Sco has meant something different to each and every person who has worked, danced, or played there. Its legacy is built from all those discrete memories and meanings, some true, some untrue, all largely unverifiable. It’s impossible, then, to construct a “true” history of a place that is so based on individual experience, selective and transformed memory. A linear history is hazy at best. But there are so many stories.

“It will be a place for the people who want to dance,” said Clark Drummond, former Associate Dean of Students to the Oberlin Review. It was September of 1978 and disco fever had hit Oberlin. Drummond noted an instance during the previous academic year when “the music was turned up in the lobby of Wilder [and] everyone started dancing.” So in the fall semester of ’78, a disco opened in the basement of Wilder Hall, forcing a beloved game room to move to Hales. In typical Oberlin fashion, many were unhappy with the move. “These people are behaving like feudal lords ruling their own private fiefs,” wrote a student in the Review. “This new ‘disco’ will be open only three hours a night for several days a week, and the game room is to be ejected to Hales Gym—where is that?” And although it sounds silly in hindsight, the frustrations of these game-lovers make a certain amount of sense. There was no budget, no beer, no real plan to speak of. Nothing but a hardwood floor, some speakers, and the idea of dancing.

It’s hard to imagine the ’Sco as it was—no live shows, no bar. “It was basically just one big empty room,” said Gareth Fenley ’83, who arrived on campus in 1979 to word of the new “disco.” But the student DJs played their music and sure enough, the room became the place for those who wanted to dance. “During that period, it was a dance club, not a music venue,” said Josh Rubin ’85. Jeff Hagan ’86, who worked at the ’Sco from 1983–1986, remembers that “we opened at 10:00 PM and closed at 1:00 AM and in those three hours you had such a cross-section of Oberlin… At about a minute after ten, someone would come over after just studying for hours at Mudd, dance by herself for 40 minutes, and then leave when everyone else arrived. It felt like one of the few places most of the campus came to.” The ’Sco was a place to meet, to hang out with friends in a time when texting was not an option. “The only way you could leave a message for your friend was to write a note and tape it to their mailbox,” explained Chris Baymiller, who worked for 32 years as the Associate Director of the Student Union. “So people would come by, and it would say ‘meet me in the ’Sco tonight.’” Although it was mostly a space for socializing, there were some live concerts in the space during these days, but they were infrequent and mostly Oberlin bands or local acts. There was no money to pay for artists or sound, and people seemed happy enough just dancing. Programming was “just basically DJs,” said Shirley. Shirley has worked at the ’Sco for 33 years. “Fridays and Saturdays we used to have security here, because we’d have lines out the back door,” she remembered.

To make matters even more unfamiliar, Oberlin was technically a “dry” town at the time. The only alcohol that could be sold was “3.2 beer,” which was, of course, only 3.2% alcoholic. The Rathskeller offered beer for students to purchase, but Chris Baymiller saw an opportunity. “We had this keg that was being run by food service,” he explained. “It was pathetic. I kept saying, ‘you guys have gotta do something more than have this friggin’ keg here.’” He urged Dining Services to do more with the 3.2 beer operation, but “they said [they] can’t make money. Who can’t make money on a bar? Come on. So it was like, give it to me, I’ll take it over.” When the town finally began to allow alcohol sales, the ’Sco was quick to meet the demand. “We started getting microbrew beers and everything,” said Baymiller. “The place exploded.”

In many ways, Chris Baymiller was the catalyst in the ’Sco’s transformation into the storied music venue it is today. In the beginning, he says, things were sparse. They needed to build an empire. “We had no money,” he laughed. “We had no sound, we had nothing.” The trick, then, was in the budgeting. “It did help that I was in charge of the budgets,” he confessed. “Within a number of years, we kept pumping up our own budget.” It wasn’t overnight, but a transformation occurred. Eventually they were buying $60,000 sound boards for Concert Sound. “We had systems that were second to none.” Thus ’Sco’s reputation as a venue began to kick off, as Baymiller and his team of student bookers worked to bring national touring acts to the big room in the basement.

We take this for granted now. Concerts are just a part of what the ’Sco is. Sometimes people come, sometimes people don’t. But at the time, what they were doing was somewhat revolutionary. While touring bands would sometimes set up in dining halls or town bars at other schools to play shows, Oberlin was the first to establish what was essentially a student-run nightclub and music venue on campus. “What was cool about it was not only were you the booker, other students that reported to me were doing the sound… That was so unique, nationwide,” Baymiller explained. “There was no college putting on shows like we were doing… It was an all in-house production. It was a great learning experience.” As a current ’Sco booker, I can attest to the magic of pulling off a show—some of my shows have led to my most treasured Oberlin memories. Last November, for instance, I brought Jonathan Richman, my all-time favorite songwriter, who played to a packed house before finding his van had been towed—at which point I had to drive my musical hero to a junkyard in Elyria, where we became actual friends. It’s moments like that that I feel myself mythologizing, even one year out—so one can only imagine how much reminiscing goes on after decades.

These sorts of beloved memories are especially important for ’Sco genealogy—regardless of their factual accuracy. Chip Vhite, a former booker, relayed one such memory, recalling that “the ’Sco was the first place outside of New England that Phish played. This was back in ’89 or ’90 or so. I was on Concert Board at the time, and Phish sent us this janky homemade press kit with a cassette, photo, and one-page write-up of the band. We listened to it, decided they sounded quirky and interesting, and I called up their manager, whose first response was ‘Wow, the mailing worked!’” Of course, if you consult the well-kept archives of die-hard Phish fans, you’ll find that Oberlin was not anywhere close to the first place Phish played outside of New England. But in a way, I don’t think that matters. This story, this memory, this individual or collective idea is part of the ’Sco’s constructed history. If the space is built from memories, it doesn’t necessarily make a difference if the memories are entirely accurate. What is remembered becomes true, becomes legacy. That’s how ’Sco history works.

At its height in the ’90s and ’00s, the ’Sco was hosting upwards of 60 shows per year. Bands like Guided By Voices and The Black Keys packed the house—as an advisor to SUPC, Baymiller liked to encourage bookers to “pull the trigger on [booking] a big band.” But the bookers were also willing to take risks on unestablished artists with promise. “We were able to get really early hip-hop shows, with Common and Mos Def,” said Baymiller. “Other colleges didn’t want them.” As humble as it may appear, the ‘Sco has traditionally been on the cutting edge in terms of booking—for many alumni, the shows they stumbled into might well be the shows they brag about to this day. Shows that became legendary for their importance in hindsight were often not wildly out of the ordinary in the moment. Acts that could now play for thousands were not always easily recognized. When Blink-182 played in 1997, the same week they hit MTV, the “room wasn’t even full,” said Shirley. “People hadn’t heard of them. They’re all over MTV but nobody had heard of them.” Sleater-Kinney, with a little-known band called The White Stripes opening, were famously turned away from a party after their show in 2000, because the house was “too full—as if there were a legal capacity to which they were adhering and only so many rubbery vegan hot dogs and red Solo cups to go around,” Carrie Brownstein wrote in her 2015 memoir. And when Kendrick Lamar played the ’Sco in 2011 before he released his first album, the Review reported that “Kendrick may not have been ready for Oberlin. Sure, he’s worthy of praise, but at this early stage, I think it’s too hard to tell just how much.” Knowing what we know now, I would be willing to bet that the Review reporter might tell that story a bit differently in hindsight.

For a venue with such poorly kept official records, it’s remarkable how every ’Sco patron retains their own version of events, their own ’Sco mythos and favorite, or “top five” favorite shows. And for some, those memories mark life-changing moments. Ashley Roberts ’10 recalls seeing Cat Power at the ’Sco when she visiting as a prospective student—“she had everyone in the ’Sco sit around her in a circle, cross-legged like children, because it made her feel less anxious,” she recounted. She fussed over the lighting, the tuning of her instrument, implored audience members to bring her a beer, which they did. And then she gave this incredible performance, with all of us rooting her on. After that day I remember saying to [my friend who hosted me] ‘you found our people!’ and to the person at admissions that interviewed me later on ‘I found my people!’”

This is what ’Sco history is made of—not a list of shows, not a rise or a fall, but moments like these. A true chronology of the ’Sco cannot exist, because each student, each DJ, each bartender, each booker knows it differently. A show that someone left to smoke on the ramp or go to a party changed someone else’s life. And therein lies the magic. An archive couldn’t do that justice.

The “Disco” began in 1978 as many Oberlin institutions do, in a strategic move from the administration to meet some perceived student need. In this case, the Associate Dean thought that the students needed a place to dance. And dance they did. Over the years, the ’Sco has strived to meet the needs of the students at that time, but I think it’s important to note how much those needs have evolved. For instance, the ’Sco of the ’80s, complete with student DJs playing their favorite records every night and kegs of 3.2 beer, would simply not be viable today—the needs of students are just not the same. Less inclined to stop by to just dance to a student’s playlist on the way back from the library, today’s students are much more committed to creative programming, so the ’Sco tries to evolve with its patrons. With each new cohort of students, each new generation, the ’Sco is reconstructed, and takes on a new meaning. For the most part, students today don’t have any sense of the groundbreaking history of the ’Sco, we don’t have pride in the legacy we’re contributing to, and in some ways, perhaps that’s a shame. This room, this ugly, magic room and all that it stands for and has stood for, exists largely in the memories of the individuals who’ve been here through the years. So while those memories are treasured by many, they often fade from common ’Sco knowledge once a couple of years pass, and are relegated to alumni get-togethers and unintentionally kept far from current students. But on the other hand, there’s something so wonderful about a place that exists only in memories, that is defined only by the people who frequent the room. “I enjoy my job here, I enjoy working with you all because you are fascinating,” said Shirley. “You are some of the most fascinating people on the planet.” Ultimately, it’s these fascinating people who write their own ’Sco histories. The room empties out at the end of the night and is swept and mopped and born anew, ready to take on a new meaning.

So what is the ’Sco, really? It’s a bar, it’s a music venue, it’s a dance hall, it’s a big empty room in the basement of Wilder. These things are all true. But more than any of that, I think that the ’Sco is a collection of stories—and over the past 40 years, there have been a lot of them. But as long as someone’s remembering that time in the mosh pit, that one time at Splitchers, that great show freshman year, that time their world turned upside down and everything felt right, or wrong, or something—the space is alive, and learning, and growing. The stories are in the air there—in the corners, at the bar, on the stage. Try to see them, next time. They fill the room. 

Categories
Town & Gown

Ankle Deep in Mud & Water

by Lydia Moran | Town & Gown | Spring 2018

Photos by the author

Morality & perfection in Oberlin’s landscape.


PREFACE 

There is a Gnostic theory that Eve’s serpent, rather than a harbinger of Satan, was actually a gift from Sophia (Σοφíα, wisdom). 

His message was: This world is false. Your reality, this garden, has been contrived by Yaldabaoth, and he is insane. 

So when Eve ate of the apple she fell not into sin, but into a state of freedom from illusion. 

***

MUD 

You need not worry about me; the most that I worry about is that I shall get stuck in the mud and cant get out.

Oberlin student’s letter home, 1851

Mud! Dripping from boots, from the wheels of carriages, from the hooves of runaway hogs; tracked across the floors of Tappan Hall, on skirts, on hands, under nails, smeared on books. The principle ingredient in the early days of Oberlin was mud. The wet, clay-ey mess of (mostly) fallow, thick earth on everything. If you haven’t already noticed, Oberlin is a swamp, and was to an even more alarming extent before the college found a way to properly drain itself. This mess, this swamp, is described in one student’s letter home from 1845: “The soil is very clayey, I should think, for when it rains it is very muddy and there are so few sidewalks that it is very difficult to walk more than a rod without getting a free shoe in the mud.” Another student wrote, “I was more disappointed in the appearance of the soil, than in any one thing. It looks almost like a swamp.” One resident was so taken with the “Ohio Mud” that he devoted an entire newspaper article to the subject titled simply: “Mud!!” Tenured faculty member James M. Buchanan abandoned his position in part because of the swamp, and Reverend Charles Grandison Finney himself wrote that “had it not been for the good hand of God in helping us at every step, the institution would have been a failure because of its ill-judged location.” 

***

THE PARTING OF TREES 

So why journey away from the rolling hills of the East coast to this glacial plain, this muddy, muddy swamp? 

It seems this “hastily decided upon” location was chosen less for its individual qualities than for the fact that Ohio, not so long ago, was the frontier. Ohio, and likewise Oberlin, were virtuous in their separation from other parts of the world, not necessarily in and of themselves. The benefits of separateness were the foundational ideology that brought Oberlin’s first missionaries bushwhacking. Oberlin was not just different from other institutions of higher learning back on the east coast, it was separate. It existed “eight miles from everywhere,” meaning “eight miles from sin” (according to Oberlin historian Geoffrey Blodgett), and the corruptions that festered in more civilized parts of the frontier. Yet this connects Oberlin to the most vital facet American historical self-imagining: Manifest Destiny. It was then possible (and important) to create a perfect utopia, a nineteenth-century hankering that did not receive as large an amount of popularity again until the sixties. 

Much like Oberlin’s founders, those first students arrived in this area via a parting of trees. A Mrs. Dascomb wrote of her first journey to Oberlin, “When we were passing through the woods, I was so delighted with the black squirrels, the big trees, & above all, the beautiful wildflowers,” that at times while riding on the carriage she forgot to watch out for “scraggly limbs that every now and then gave us a rude brush.” She almost “[got her] eyes torn out, seconded perhaps by an unceremonious lash from a neighboring bough, wd. [would] Recall [her] to the duty of self preservation. Glad were [they] when an opening in the forest dawned upon [them] & Oberlin was seen.” And what could she have seen? The tangled fingers of budding trees part ways to reveal a (mostly) barren clearing. A few structures shudder closely together, a few men meander around in pairs, talking in low voices. If she arrives around sunset then, stepping down from the carriage to narrowly avoid moistening her laced shoes in a puddle, she sees her reflection, windswept hair blending with the sky above, softly graced now with light orange wisps. 

***

BITS OF BONE // ORIGINAL LANDSCAPE 

Oberlin itself was less than aesthetically appealing for many of its first visitors. There is an abundance of students’ letters home complaining of the lack of scenery, opportunities for swimming, and soil that was, well, ubiquitous. One disgruntled visitor wrote of Oberlin, “In the first place it is surrounded by trees. You cannot see more than two miles at the farthest… The bildings are not very near each other and probelay would look very lonesom to you as you are accostomed to see them surrounded by shade trees and [shrubbery] while here it is a rare thing to see even a rose bush.” 

Though Oberlin was surrounded by a dense “primeval” forest, for some reason it never occured to first settlers to save some of these trees on the campus proper. By 1846, only two trees stood in Tappan. Likewise, the abundance of mud made sidewalks hard to construct, the clay soil made farmer’s lives difficult, and even in the regions near Plum (Plumb) Creek where natural beauty was more readily available to be gazed upon, “old log bits, bits of bone, peaces of leather, &c—stumps, rail fences &c. &c.” got in the way. Yet, “when attempting to take in a different point your heels fly from under you,” and the observer would fall flat in a puddle of Ohio mud. Much of Oberlin’s early relationship with its environment consisted of embattling it in a struggle, or taking refuge from it. Frontier communities, while offering the unique ability to world-make away from constructed civilization, also had the unique challenges of whatever natural environment they chose to settle on. 

To add to this muddy mess were farm animals and fowl running amok across the village. In 1841, “75 Hogs Turned loose in the beautiful Village of Oberlin—to ravage, waste & discomfort & Destroy the fairest portions of our gardens, vex the peaceable Inhabitants, and in particular to war against to most defenceless, Ladies & Children.” The loose hogs raised such an issue that not one or two, but three whole committees were formed under town ordinances for the explicit and sole purpose of dealing with the abundance of rampant farm animals. The animals were apparently not passive trespassers, either. Citizens often reported being “assaulted” by wayward livestock. Cows, pigs, and chickens would “swarm upon and soil the sidewalks and crowd themselves into whatever door yard is open to their forcible assault.” Individuals who refused or neglected to contain livestock would be “notified & admonished” and “void of all regard to the rights of his neighbor & the community.” A hog was not “morally responsible for his actions,” so “the owner must of course be morally responsible for all trespasses by his Hogs.” 

The hogs served to muddy the streets and were, in part, what made it necessary to implement sidewalks and boardwalks. The mud made just the act of walking in early Oberlin hilariously difficult. The few boardwalks constructed to aid foot travel proved slippery as a result of poor construction and/or livestock tracking mud onto their surfaces, and numerous letters home detail students falling over themselves while walking, especially those students wearing petticoats, or, “the fairer sex.” Apparently, sidewalks were also capable of inhering moral virtue. In 1861, the editor of the local paper declared, “One fourth of the walks in our otherwise moral and orthodox village are indecently dangerous. A proper degree of risk is exhilarating, but the amount we daily encounter, is destructive and discouraging.” 

Here, Oberlin’s land management blends oddly with the village’s perceived moral duty to be a tidy, well-ordered community and live in accordance with the town’s founding sensibilities. After pushing their way through the trees and settling in a swamp, clear lines needed to be drawn between the natural and the civilized. Which is ironic, considering Oberlin left civilization in order to exist outside of what it deemed to be morally corrupt. Yet Oberlin felt it had a duty to prove to the rest of the world, and indeed to God, that despite its departure, it was still a suitable, perhaps even utopian, alternative to civilization elsewhere. Oberlin was infused with morality, and apparently the things that were most likely enemies of this morality were natural elements that threatened to overtake an otherwise proper society. Yet even still, Oberlin had mud, it had hogs, and these were physical markers of its geographic and ideological departure. Oberlin was in the frontier, but only so long as these natural frontier elements didn’t encroach on its proper society. Hogs were only morally corrupt when on the loose, and somehow a “degree of risk is exhilarating,” at least according to the paper.

***

BITS OF BONE // FIRST WOMEN 

Though Oberlin loves to pride itself on being the pioneer of coeducation, Oberlin’s first women were admitted on the basis of a “means to end,” according to Oberlin historian and former professor of history Geoffrey Blodgett. Apparently, Oberlin found it primarily important to educate the “minds of those who were going to make first impressions on small children.” The more Christian teachers and missionaries, the better. 

Female students at Oberlin had the apparent reputation of being far less outwardly radical as a direct result of coeducation. Blodgett cites some nebulously termed “recent studies in women’s history,” which show that emancipated college women in the nineteenth century became huge agitators in the suffragist cause, settlement house projects, and other reform movements. Yet these “agitating” women were mostly recruited out of women’s institutions in the East. Blodgett claims, “One can find very little evidence of feminist militance at Oberlin before the Civil War, and when it emerged it was slapped down.” Even after the war when suffrage movements gained traction in other parts of the country, Oberlin was “strangely passive” and perhaps even “hostile” on the subject. Women were more likely to be indoctrinated into missionary work or married off after graduating Oberlin. “Perhaps part of the reason for this,” says Blodgett, “is that Oberlin women in their formative college years learned stern daily lessons in how to behave in the presence of men. They learned that they were expected to behave like ladies.” 

Yet women were rarely even in the presence of men. The sexes were separated in all areas of college life except the most highly surveilled: dining halls and classrooms. Up until the 1890s, even library hours were segregated. According to Blodgett, “Having embarked in somewhat ad hoc fashion upon authentically radical arrangements for bringing large amounts of men and women together for educational purposes, college authorities spent the rest of the century trying to curb the most feared consequences of what they had done.” What could be more damaging to a pious Christian community’s reputation than a “sexual scandal”? So in order to prove itself worthy of existence, an “air of conservatism” surrounded the institution with regard to coeducation. Extra stress was put on Oberlin’s first women to “behave.”

Women were also, not surprisingly, relegated to the domestic tasks required in village homes and dormitories. They washed dishes, ironed, and sewed for other students. This provided a welcome break from the natural fatigue the female brain was inevitably prone to after spending a period of time studying. One woman wrote on behalf of the “young ladies”: “After having our mind absorbed in some abstract subject until we become weary with intense thought, we repair to some household duty & the mind & body becoming relaxed, we return to the page we left & grasp the thoughts with avidity, & instead of the pale face which too often belongs to the student we see a continual freshness & glow… here domestic economy, which is true should be inoculated by the mother is carried on to still greater perfection, here knowledge of domestic affairs, high intellectual culture & even refinement of manners are considered as consistent with each other.” 

***

PERFECTION // MANUAL LABOR

It is primarily in the realm of educational innovation that the Oberlin colony tried to find the latchkey to perfection.

Geoffrey Blodgett 

The domestic chores relegated to Oberlin’s first women were part of a larger system of manual labor, enacted to both combat the natural obstacles to frontier life and somehow instill in young men and women the virtues ingrained through laboring in the woods. The system was an attempt to both engage with Oberlin’s landscape and cultivate its likeness to God’s kingdom. In the eyes of the institution, Learning and Labor were inseparable from one another: “It meets the wants of man as a compound being, and prevents the common amazing waste of money, time, health, and life,” proclaimed the first College report. 

Oberlin became known as the “poor man’s college,” in contrast to older institutions in the East. It allowed students of little means an education at the cost of their physical labor in Oberlin’s initial construction. Indeed, the system’s ability to provide alternate modes for covering the financial cost of an education was in part what attracted Black student applicants—some formerly enslaved people, some not—to apply. Black students seeking college degrees in the nineteenth century were met with countless obstacles, financial and otherwise, that resulted from systemic racism; Oberlin was by no means exempt from this reality, but did create limited opportunity within it. This system allowed lower income students, both Black and white, to access an Oberlin education, though not all who applied were in need of the financial assistance. As a result, many of the earliest applications highlighted an applicant’s moral virtue, physical prowess, and good nature, without any mention of scholarship. A Middlebury student wrote to Oberlin in an expression of his wish to transfer: “I think the classical books which are studyed [at Middlebury] have a bad influence in forming the characters of young men. They have in a great measure an attendance to corrupt the habits, morals, and minds of those who pursue them, to say nothing of the time which is lost in commiting to memory ideas which are of no consequence.” 

One student wrote in 1837, just four years after town and college were founded: “Nearly all the labor since this Institution was was first established, has been chopping, logging and burning brush; and this too, a great portion of this year, ankle deep in mud and water!” Oberlin’s earliest students cleared the land, constructed buildings, conducted special projects for private residences, etc. One early timecard reads: “2 hours burning Stumps, 3 Hours building walk for Prof. Finney, 3 Hours hanging Gate etc., 4½ Hours preparing … sewer for Prof. Finney.” Eight cents an hour was the going rate for shoveling manure; seven cents for “picking up sticks.” 

In service of this belief in Oberlin’s heavenly potential, students worked: felling trees, cutting the stumps away from their roots, dragging the stumps to a brush pile, lighting the pile on fire, standing and staring into the flames, covered in mud, cicadas droning overhead, the smell of wood smoke drifting around them… 

The driving force behind this “perfectionism” that influenced Tappan and his peers was a departure from belief in the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. Calvinism placed heavy emphasis on mankind’s original sin: when Eve bit into the apple and fraternized with Satan in the garden. Because of this sin, Calvinists believed each person had their own pre-determined fate in the afterlife. The ripple effects of Eve’s first sin had made it entirely impossible for humans to not sin. 

But the breakup of Calvinist theology was ushered in by an age that was no longer entirely status-oriented, but celebrated the achievements of the self-made man. Along with this, a heavier emphasis was placed on human achievements, and the possibility of human perfectionism. This is partially why Oberlin’s founders felt motivated to create a utopian community, why they placed so much emphasis on the morality of this community, and why they ultimately held the men and women behaving in this community to high standards of judgement. They hoped that they could somehow teach perfect behavior through manual labor and later, the inauguration of coeducation. 

Drawings by Jamie Vincent

***

PERFECTION // LADIES AS CIVILIZING INFLUENCES 

In the same way working the land was thought to bring about stronger character in Oberlin students, women were also thought to be civilizing and moralizing forces for their male peers. Apparently, working alongside women “exploded” the male idea that “a lady is a toy or a plaything” according to the Oberlin Evangelist. 

One male student wrote after moving to an all-male boarding situation that he missed dining with women because, “Without the restraining and refining influence of ladies, it is found impossible to maintain decorum, and instead of our meals being a place to cultivate refinement and to refresh our minds from our studies, it is only a place for satisfying hunger.” 

What is it about women that was so able to provide such “refreshment?” The same student wrote earlier: “The society of such a collection of boarders, is just what could be expected from a lot of young men living secluded from ladies. Some would like to have everything carried on in the best of order, but others only wish to swallow their food and run.” Manual labor, a system that made for “sound bodies and clear minds,” perhaps possessed refreshing properties similar to those conferred by sitting next to a woman and engaging her in conversation over dinner. Like a cool breeze, like a stroll in the garden after being cooped up in the library all day. Something different, something immutable, something primal. 

By their very presence, women allowed Oberlin another step forward to that ephemeral latchkey to perfection—men were made closer to the ideal civilization through socializing with the opposite sex. Having women around perhaps kept Oberlin from becoming a sort of primeval male colony in the woods. Having women nearby was also a way for men to manage their sexual urges. The presence of real women, the very hum of them intellectually and physically working, supposedly put male urges to rest—like a lullaby.

Yet while feminine presence was grounding for men, it was also akin to a fresh breeze. So their etherealness, their natural mannerisms, had to be reigned in, segregated to avoid too much enticement. A balance was struck between the natural and the civilized. Perhaps we can draw a parallel here to those unscrupulous hogs: only immoral when on the loose. 

***

ARBORETUM // NEURASTHENIA

The natural look of the Arb has occasionally had to withstand planning and domesticating impulses brought to bear upon it from both town and college.

Robert Stinson, Oberlin Tribune columnist 

It is funny then, that Oberlin women were in apparent need of a place of retreat themselves, and that this place of retreat could only be located far from men, far from academia, at the edge of civilization itself. 

The mid-1870s saw increasing discussion about a need for “a place for women to walk in quiet meditation.” This place had to be, most importantly, out of the way and in seclusion from male students. It had to be physically and socially separated from men: “a tract of land of seventeen acres containing the only bit of primeval forest left immediately adjacent to the village,” the same forest we now call “the arb.” 

Ladies Grove itself was a much smaller area of the sweeping acreage of the Oberlin Arboretum, located a bit northwest from what students now consider to be the arb proper, with its reservoirs and prairies and illegal fire pits. It was an alleviation of an Oberlin-specific coeducational dilemma, keeping men separated from women in all spaces not heavily supervised to avoid a sexual scandal, and even more so, women seperated from men, to calm their nerves in peaceful pursuit of “contemplative rewards.” Like all other aspects of the lives of women on this campus, the Ladies Grove was another attempt at keeping pure the impressionable minds of the “fairer sex.” Again, Oberlin reached for perfectionism by way of separation. Ladies could reach their ideal serene state outside the civic lines drawn by others. 

If we can understand Ohio as an imagined frontier again, the water of Plum Creek running past miles and miles of “primeval” forest, separated infrequently by agricultural and clustered communities… If we place these women walking at the edge of this, teetering perhaps on the final line drawn between rural piety and rural wilderness… 

It was a world unto itself where these Victorian women could find cure for their “hysteria,” in the warm woolen arms of this wilderness. During the early eighteenth century, Neurasthenia, a make-believe “nervous affliction” originally attributed to the possession of a uterus, was increasingly thought rather to be a neurological phenomenon brought about by the stresses of daily life. The Oberlin Arboretum was at first a place where Victorian ladies could escape these stresses. Perhaps separation for these women had a similar effect to the one Oberlin’s founders pursued when they left the coast; salvation by separation, revelation by seclusion. 

When Eve bit into that apple, was she given knowledge that her world had been contrived by an insane deity? What messages, what wisdom, was imparted to those women in the fluttering of thousands of leaves? The world you imagine to be real is actually fabricated to limit you. What else could quell the “hysteria” bred by an insane patriarchy? Where else could liberation from illusion become possible? 

Truthfully, there’s not much in the Ladies Grove. Two engraved brick posts swept off the intersection of Morgan and South Prospect Street by the curved, muddied arm of a footpath mark its entrance to this day. Down past these pillars, a hill slopes gently into a forest interspersed with thin trees and tangled underbrush. On cloudy days, when the trees are barren, the forest is foreboding, the spaces between trees reveal more spaces between other trees and the cemetary to the right stands in ominous salute. But when it is sunny, maybe at the beginning of spring, or at dusk in late fall, the forest stands in subtly perceptible communication with itself. Frogs murmur, squirrels perform acrobatics overhead; and in the late hours of the day, the jeers of cicadas merge into one impenetrable wall of warm sound. 

Is this what Eve heard as she bit into the apple?

***

MUD

Several women glide through the grove in pairs; a few tread in solitude. One lone woman stoops to kick a clump of mud from her shoe, another snaps a twig in half as she passes under a low branch. Around and around they move, the plumes of their dresses elegantly spill out from their hips like clouds, like pockets of air.

The sun begins to set, turning the sky to a pink and orange froth. They murmur, blending their voices with the loudening symphony of frogs, the babbling creek. 

It gets darker, the light trickles in grey. Few women remain; most have carried off to make curfew, to slide into bed, to light their candles. But several don’t. They continue breathing deeply, trailing fingers across moss, across lichen. Suddenly, one woman trips. Her counterparts look over their shoulders and smirk but she is unfazed, she wanted to be closer to the ground, anyway. 

Fingers moving cautiously now, the woman cranes her neck forwards and spies a small boulder. She plants her elbow in the soil and rolls it over to reveal a tangled knot of earthworms. 

Most women are gone now. One stays. 

This woman takes the knot into her lap and watches as it strains against the pressed linen of her dress. Then the worms move deeper, they are looking for a parting in the soil. 

NOTE: I want to acknowledge the little information available on the experiences of Black women within the college’s domestic labor system and their role in the college’s moral negotiations within coeducation. The works cited in this piece focus on the experiences of the earliest female students at Oberlin and do so without fully acknowledging the disparity in experiences between women of different identities. Published in 1943, Robert Samuel Fletcher’s A History of Oberlin College in particular generalizes the student body’s experiences as those of white students, erasing the individual experiences of students of color. I sought to write a piece focusing on Oberlin’s initial relationship with its landscape and how this mirrored the indoctrination of coeducation, but there are many factors beyond gender that influence a student’s experience at Oberlin and it is important to acknowledge these complexities.

Categories
Town & Gown

At Their Mercy

by Olivia Fountain | Town & Gown | Fall 2017

Drawings by Anna Johnson

When I self-diagnosed my first UTI in July of 2014, I drank the requisite cranberry juice, felt better, and moved on. It was the summer between my sophomore and junior year, and I was living in Oberlin, working as a research assistant for the Classics Department. About a week after the first signs of my UTI, I realized that it had not been eradicated—I experienced extreme stomach pain, and made the decision to go to Mercy Allen Hospital for pain medication and antibiotics. It was after 8:00 PM and I knew I couldn’t spend the night like that, so I went to the emergency room. I took a selfie in the waiting room to send to my parents, and in it I look pale, but okay.

As I ricocheted from the front desk to the admitting nurse to the doctor who eventually saw me, I said the same things: That I hurt but I knew why and that I was pale but okay. After collecting a urine sample but before informing me of my results, my doctor told me that he was worried that I had kidney stones and that he wanted to give me a CT scan. I was scared and in pain so I consented. I didn’t have kidney stones. They’re rare, though becoming more common in nineteen-year-olds. A few weeks later, my family received a bill for nearly $1,000 of what my insurance refused to pay for, citing an unnecessary procedure. According to Mercy’s website, CT scans for outpatients cost between $1,418 and $1,954; urine samples are covered with the cost of an emergency room visit.

I felt like Mercy had taken advantage of my pain by implying that I had kidney stones and pushing an expensive procedure. I felt like my doctor had violated my trust by not believing me when I told him what I thought was wrong. In the aftermath of my emergency room visit, I talked to many Oberlin students, and it seemed like everyone had a story about Mercy. Most of them were negative. Why were so many of my peers feeling unsatisfied and underserved when they found themselves needing to receive medical attention? That question prompted this article. I wanted to learn more about Mercy and its relationship with Oberlin College and Oberlin students. To be honest, I wanted to find a smoking gun—to be able to conclude my piece with a definitive statement saying “Mercy is a predatory institution for these reasons.”

***

Spoiler: I found no smoking gun. What I did find, after talking with representatives from Mercy and Student Health, interviewing students, and combing through the Oberlin archives, is complicated, nebulous, and inconclusive. Everyone that I’ve spoken to has been kind and accommodating. I struggled—am still struggling—with how to square the stories of inadequate treatment with the earnestness of Student Health and Mercy. However, I did find some alarming information about Mercy Lorain, as well as disturbing statistics on emergency rooms in health facilities nationwide. What I hope that I’ve done here is lay out some of this information in a way that may not be conclusive but is at least coherent.

I’ll start with the history.

The city of Oberlin has 8,300 permanent residents, with the population swelling to around 11,000 during the academic year. It’s unusual for a community of this size to have a hospital, and yet Oberlin is home to Mercy Allen—a sprawling one-story health facility close to the center of town. Mercy is run by Mercy Health, a private, non-profit organization affiliated with the Catholic Church that operates in Ohio and Kentucky. Though there is no current official affiliation between Oberlin College and Mercy, the two institutions have long, intertwined histories.

The earliest iteration of the hospital opened its doors in 1907, after years of concern from the community over lack of available healthcare in the immediate area. It was also in the College’s best interest to have a hospital nearby, with Oberlin President John Barrows pointing out that college kids were highly susceptible to pneumonia, typhoid, and scarlet fever. The money to build the Oberlin Hospital came in 1906, when a group of Oberlin residents organized a campaign asking everyone to donate 5 dollars (approximately 125 dollars today) and successfully generated the funds for the facilities that the college and community both desired. In 1914, Dudley Peter Allen (Class of 1875), a doctor in Oberlin, donated $100,000 to upgrade the facilities. His wife, Elisabeth Severance Prentiss Allen, gave another $50,000 to finish the project after he passed away the following year. Their joint contribution funded the Allen Memorial Hospital, which was owned by the college and opened in 1925. The hospital passed back into the city’s hands in 1954 and stayed that way until the end of the 20th century, but Oberlin College continued to nominate and appoint members to the Board of Trustees until the late ’90s, when a major shift took place.

In 2000, the hospital had lost $6 million and was prepared to declare bankruptcy, but an eleventh-hour deal between Allen Memorial, the city of Oberlin, and Oberlin College kept the doors open. The city, which owned the land on which the hospital is located, donated it to the hospital. The hospital sold the land to Oberlin College for $2 million, and the College then leased it back to the hospital at a rate of one dollar per year until 2075. The deal provided the hospital with the cash it needed to remain functional, and came with some important stipulations. First, the hospital needed to bring in an outside contractor to manage operations—enter Community Health Partners (CHP), then-parent company of (now merged with) Mercy Health. CHP guaranteed a credit line of an additional $2 million, and in turn it was agreed that CHP would ultimately merge with Allen Memorial Hospitalafter a trial period of management (the second stipulation). Oberlin College would no longer have any presence on the Board of Trustees. The official merger came in 2003. Articles in both the Oberlin Review and the Oberlin News Tribune indicate that the larger Oberlin community was suspicious of the merger, which lacked transparency because of a series of secret board meetings, and a closed-door meeting between hospital president Ed Oley and then-president of Oberlin College, Nancy Dye. Though the college still owns the land, all official ties between the school and the hospital were severed in 2000. But as the meeting with Dye in 2003 shows, the College was still invested in the wellbeing of the hospital.

The 2000 transfer of power resulted in nearly 70 layoffs and the elimination of the birthing unit that had been operating in the hospital since its inception. Under CHP’s leadership, however, the hospital was once again financially solvent. In a 2001 Ideastream article titled “Hospital Crisis Profile: Saving the Oberlin Medical Center” (Allen Memorial was renamed in 2000, before the budgeting drama), reporter Karen Schaefer describes the hoped-for trajectory for the newly operational facilities: “The plan is to expand some revenue-generating services—like surgery, CTs and CAT scans—while at the same time offering more insurance provider options to physicians and patients.” That plan is perhaps, in part, why I found myself ushered into a wheelchair and rushed to a CT scan to check for kidney stones. My story is not the only one I have heard about the allegations of unnecessary CT scans during emergency room visits. Jordan Ecker ’17 told me about a time during his freshman year when his doctor recommended a scan after administering a muscle relaxant and a sedative to stop him from vomiting. He felt like he was too sedated to understand what was being offered.

“They gave me a muscle relaxant to stop the vomiting and a shot of something else,” he said. “The net effect of the drugs was to relax my muscles, and it did—the nausea went away right away but I also felt super sleepy. So, I was sleepy and in a bed and they left me alone for I don’t know how long… and at some point they come back, it’s a guy with a chart, he asks me a bunch of questions, I don’t really understand, and he’s like, ‘We think you should get a CAT scan.’ And at that point I was pretty much just drugged up beyond belief and really exhausted and hardly awake, so I said ‘Okay.’ And I got a CAT scan while I was coming in and out of sleep and then they wheeled me back.”

When I spoke to Sue Bowers, the president of Mercy Allen from 2006 to 2011, she also brought up the CT scan machine. Bowers has worked at different iterations of the Allen Memorial since the ’70s, and was the head of nursing at Allen Memorial during the 2000-2001 transition. After her reign as president, she now serves as Mercy’s chief quality officer. I asked her about the transition—she told me to call it a “transition,” not a “takeover” during our phone interview.

“We closed the maternity unit and then also closed what was our skilled nursing unit at the time,” said Bowers. “And then Ed Oley [hospital president] and myself [sic] and a lot of the people at Community Health Partners worked to restore the services that the community needed. We put in a new CT scan machine, and the emergency department was woefully undersized, so we constructed a new emergency department that brought a lot of physicians and surgeons.” CHP was able to bring the nearly bankrupt hospital, which plays such a crucial role in the community, back from the brink—which is undeniably a good thing. However, the influx of revenue that Oley was able to bring to the hospital came in part from expensive new procedures and the elimination of departments that were not as financially viable.

***

On the other end of the spectrum, I also received complaints of mis-diagnoses or under-diagnoses during visits to Mercy. After going to the emergency room with severe back pain, Kellianne Doyle ’19 told me that her doctor “just prescribed me two different types of drugs, had me [lie] in the bed for an hour, and then dismissed me. He said it was just a muscle spasm, and said I didn’t need an X-ray or anything. The pain persisted for the rest of the semester, and when I talked to my doctor at home he had me get an MRI, and we found out I had two split discs in my back.”

Maya Elany ’17 also received a very serious misdiagnosis after she got hit by a car while biking in the fall of her freshman year. The accident occurred right before she was scheduled to travel home for Fall Break, and the paramedics who arrived on the scene recommended that she go to the emergency room immediately—flying with a broken bone can lead to blood clots and other complications. In the ER, she sat for some X-rays and was released soon after with a prescription for pain medication. “They told me that it was going to hurt a lot today and even more the next day, but by the third day it was going to feel better.” She didn’t feel better. “I flew home that day, walked on it—they didn’t give me any crutches—walked on it for three days, on the third day I went to see a specialist in Boston and they told me that I was going to need to get surgery pretty immediately. Six days later I got surgery on my knee. My femur had crashed down onto my tibia and depressed it seven millimeters and also tore my meniscus. They put a plate and five screws in there and I was on crutches for four months, but I couldn’t really do anything for over a year afterwards.” Elany told me that she was happy that she had seen a specialist, not only because they were able to perform the surgery she needed, but also because she hadn’t taken her pain seriously before getting a second opinion. She had doubted what her own body was telling her because she trusted what the doctors at Mercy told her.

***

On the phone, Bowers was brisk and professional. I had emailed her in advance to give her an idea of the questions I wanted to ask, and she told me she would not answer anything related to the hospital’s revenue or specific services. She told me that people from Mercy and people from Oberlin College meet periodically about “issues.” When I pressed her on what she meant by “issues” she clarified that there were “periodic concerns for an emerging health issue,” such as flu outbreaks or potentially rowdy college events. “We had concerns after an event had occurred at the College where there was quite a bit of alcohol consumption, and a number of people ended up at the ER,” she said. “So we talked with College representatives after that to see how a similar incident could be avoided in the future.”

When I sat down with head of Student Health and Counseling John Harshbarger and Student Health Coordinator Marilyn Hamel, they confirmed the occasional meeting between College and hospital representatives. They happen at least once a year, Harshbarger said, and are a time for College administrators—including the Dean of Students—to relay student feedback to the hospital. He said Mercy has “been receptive” to student complaints, but that College representatives rarely have much information to pass on. Hamel echoed Harshbarger’s positive sentiment: “They actually have a very good rating in the hospital grading system, and the students are a part of that.” She was not wrong—according to data compiled by Medicare, Mercy Allen Hospital has four to five stars and is performing at or above the national average in eleven categories of customer satisfaction. So what am I missing? Hamel and Harshbarger have been happy and satisfied with their interactions with Mercy, but discussions with my peers have revealed something else.

Through my conversation with Hamel and Harshbarger, I learned that Mercy has a special relationship with Academic Health Plans (AHP), the Oberlin-provided health insurance. Copays on STI tests and other labs frequently requested by Student Health are covered entirely with no deductible. Student Health refers students to Mercy for blood tests, X-rays, and IV services, but doesn’t keep statistics on how many students are sent to Mercy for inpatient treatment. Hamel hazarded a guess that an ambulance is called for a student at a maximum of once or twice a month. Most of the interactions that students have, it seems, are through the emergency room facilities at the hospital. I’ll return to emergency room trends later, but Sue Bowers summed it up when she frankly told me that “emergency rooms are an expensive place to receive care.”

In April 2017, patient safety watchdog The Leapfrog Group released results of a survey of 112 hospitals in Ohio. Mercy Regional Medical Center of Lorain was the only hospital included that received an “F.” The safety grade was awarded based on five different categories—infections, problems with surgery, practices to prevent errors, safety problems, and care providers—each divided into subcategories. Of the five, Mercy Lorain scored the lowest in the subcategories grouped under “doctors, nurses, and hospital staff,” where it performed below average in every single area. The survey found that there were not enough qualified nurses on the premises, that specially trained doctors were not caring for ICU patients, and that patients consistently perceived that their nurses, doctors, and the rest of the hospital staff were not communicating well or responding quickly enough to them. In the “Practices to Prevent Errors” category, Mercy Lorain performed below average in hand washing—scoring a nine out of 30—and accurately recording patient medications. Four other hospitals run by Mercy Health across Ohio received a “C.”

It is worth noting that Mercy Allen Memorial Hospital is not the same as Mercy Regional Medical Center—the two hospitals together are part of the Mercy system in Lorain county. Leapfrog did not collect data on Mercy Allen because it is a Critical Access Hospital, meaning it is not required to publicly report its safety record. But the two hospitals are closely affiliated, and while scheduling my interview with Sue Bowers, my contact at Mercy Allen referred to Mercy Lorain as the “Lorain headquarters.” Mercy Lorain’s low grade is not only unacceptable, but likely indicative of the quality of care offered at Mercy Allen as well. Furthermore, an article published in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law in 2010 by Duke University Press titled “Inefficiency Differences between Critical Access Hospitals and Prospectively Paid Rural Hospitals” shows that CAHs had higher expenses per admission and were generally more cost inefficient. Based on these sources, Mercy Allen is not only providing below-average care, but by virtue of its CAH status, it is providing it at an unnecessarily expensive rate. This is especially concerning in the context of complaints about Mercy Allen’s emergency room—in general, emergency room prices are erratic and unnecessarily high, but there is extra cause for concern in an emergency room connected to a hospital such as Mercy Allen.

A Kaiser Family Foundation and the New York Times 2016 survey of medical bills showed that for people who struggled to pay their medical bills, the biggest portion of those bills were from ER fees. A 2013 PLOS One study showed that prices for the same treatment in different emergency rooms can vary wildly—a UTI, for example, can cost anywhere between $50 and $73,002 at different facilities across the country. This huge range demonstrates the lack of transparency on how much treatments actually cost, making it easy for emergency rooms to overcharge and difficult for patients to know when they are being asked to pay more than they would pay at other ERs. When I first started writing this article, I hoped to uncover something concrete about the wrongs that myself and my peers had experienced at our local hospital. While I still know that those complaints and frustrations are valid, I am beginning to see that Mercy’s track record is a symptom of a larger, very broken system of inadequate, expensive, and inconclusive emergency room care.

But there are things that can be done. A workshop should be offered during orientation to lead freshmen through the ins and outs of emergency room visits. For instance: how a deductible works, how much certain procedures cost, and how to identify when a procedure (like my CT scan) may be unnecessary and costly. A channel should be maintained by Student Health for students to submit comments about their experiences at the hospital. This was something that Harshbarger kept returning to during our conversation. He was shocked when I told him about my own experience, and alluded to some of the anecdotes I had encountered in researching this story. He insisted that Mercy was always open to student feedback, but they rarely had any to pass along. If Student Health has Mercy’s ear like Hamel and Harshbarger suggested, creating a space for students to share stories as a way to affect productive change—or at least get some answers—should be a priority.

As my conversation at Student Health came to an end, Hamel handed me a flyer for the new Mercy Ready Care clinic. The clinic, on West Lorain, is meant for non-emergencies that require quick attention. It’s a way to divert patients away from the costly emergency room to a walk-in care center that’s open later than most doctors’ offices and has weekend hours. I haven’t been to the clinic yet (thankfully I haven’t needed it), but it seems like an important step away from students feeling overcharged and improperly cared for. It also seems like something Oberlin should be shouting from the rooftops about, so students know about this alternative resource that they can take advantage of. The flyer lists “common conditions,” such as allergies, colds and coughs, minor skin infections, sore throats… and urinary tract infections. If a urinary tract infection is a “common condition” that can be treated at a walk-in clinic, why did my doctor insist on an expensive scan to check for kidney stones? This, I suppose, was the root question that started this investigation and the question that I’ve failed to answer. But I have gained some valuable insight into a medical system obfuscated by rumors that, when researched, turned out to be largely founded and symptomatic of a national crisis of emergency room care. My advice? Stick to 􏰀􏰁􏰂the clinic—or the Cleveland Clinic.