A Black Sheep Returns

Indiana University dorm life - c 1912. Matilda Lebline is second from left.

I know what it is to be the black sheep of the family.  Forty-five years ago I made a fateful decision—I chose to enroll at Purdue University.  You see, nearly everyone in my family who went to college before me had studied at Indiana University (IU)—my grandmothers, two great aunts, my father, my mother, two uncles–you get the idea.  I was leaving the fold for good reason, I thought.  My initial major in college was forestry and Purdue was a logical choice.  But to be honest, I stayed in that major only two semesters, and even after switching to biochemistry, I never considered transferring schools.  My connection to Purdue then probably had as much to do with winning football as academics.  With the school’s first-ever trip to the Rose Bowl during my junior year, it was an exhilarating time to be a Boilermaker.

But a curious thing has happened over the years since I strayed from the fold.  I have developed a fondness for Indiana University that would have astonished me during my time at Purdue.  One reason for this new appreciation for IU is the insight I have gained into the school’s impact on my family’s history.  Last year, I was given a 100 year-old diary written by my great aunt, Matilda Lebline, during her student days at IU.  Matilda arrived for her freshman year in September of 1909.  She was an 18 year-old farm girl from southern Indiana, and the sixty-mile journey to Bloomington by train to begin college was one of the biggest adventures of her life to that point.  She and her older sister Christine (who later became my grandmother) shared a room in a boarding house with several other women students (photo).  Christine was entering her senior year that fall.

Matilda’s diary offers a rare “first person” glimpse into the lives of IU students a century ago.  The university only had about 2000 students then and most were men.  Many of the landmarks on campus were relatively new at that time; for example, the Well House was constructed just the year before Matilda arrived.  There were comparatively few buildings and most were located in the area that is now known as the Old Crescent.  One of the memorable experiences during Matilda’s first week on campus was observing Mars and Saturn at Kirkwood Observatory.  Matilda had never seen a telescope before, and she described the planets as “magnificent.”

William Lowe Bryan was President then and in one entry Matilda wrote, “A convocation was held in the Men’s Gym this morning.  Such a body of students!  The different classes gave yells and nine ‘rahs’ for Bryan.  Then President Bryan gave an address which lasted for an hour.”  Student life in the fall of 1909 also involved football.  Rallies were held in conjunction with home games, and Matilda described one such rally as “…simply great, something to thrill every nerve…They played IU songs…on the band and then all those fellows whistled ‘Indiana.’  It was beautiful.  When we came back to Dunn Meadow, they built a roaring bonfire and all the students circled around it.  Then a platform was brought and …some football fellows made speeches…” That fall, as now, the IU-Purdue game was a highlight.  It was especially so for Matilda since close friends from her home area, who attended Purdue, came to Bloomington for the game.  She wrote: “The day of the game at last.  Rags [a housemate] and I went to meet the Purdue trains…then to the game.  Came out 36 to 3 [Indiana won].  The chimes played ‘Indiana’…”

Manners and social norms for men and women were very different during Matilda’s freshman days.  For example, on December 1st Matilda attended an on-campus reception.  She wrote, “Boys sat below and smoked; girls sat in the gallery and ate apples.”  And as the semester drew to a close, she noted that “Everybody talks about nothing but cramming for the final exams.”  Some things don’t change.

Matilda’s accounts of her days at IU, as only the second person in my family’s history to attend college, has given me a deep appreciation for the significant role that Indiana University played in her life, as well as establishing our family’s high regard for a university education that continues today.  Although I will always be the black sheep of the family—the Gold and Black Sheep to be precise—it feels good to have returned to the fold with new eyes to see and appreciate “old I. U.”


Steve Robert Simmons wrote this personal essay in 2008.  It was published in the January/February issue of the Indiana University Alumni Magazine in 2010.  All rights reserved.

4 Responses to A Black Sheep Returns

  1. Don Coon says:

    Steve, you are one of the nicest “Black Sheep” I have ever known. This was an interesting story of “early” college life in America. It reminded me of high school with the closeness of the students and the “folksiness” of campus life. Keep the stories coming and we are looking forward to seeing you guys in September.

    • steverobert says:

      Thanks for the affirmation, Don. It felt good to get that “mia culpa” piece written and out there. Now I can begin the healing process and my restoration into the family’s good graces. 🙂

  2. Norma says:

    Your essay, A Black Sheep Returns was a very pleasant read. Also, in spite of having seen the Boilermakers’ colors numerous times on the court in University of Minnesota’s Williams Arena, the end of your story took me by surprise. I had anticipated that your having become a Gopher had been your downfall.

    • steverobert says:

      Nope, Norma. Boilermakers and Golden Gophers are fairly compatible, it turns out. But Hoosiers and Boilers are another matter. For example, I talked with a friend who is on the Purdue faculty about the article right after it came out. He told me that he had gone to the Purdue Library to ask to see the article in the IU Alumni Magazine. The reference librarian looked him square in the eye and said forcefully, “We do NOT subscribe to the Indiana Alumni Magazine! Enough said. 🙂

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