Swarthmore Reminiscences: Town and Gown

By Louise L. Coffin

In the 1950s and ’60s, Swarthmore College was regarded by many townspeople as a hotbed of radicalism: the “Kremlin on the Crum,” as some termed the school. Looking at photographs of the era, at least those before 1963 or so, one notices young men with crewcuts wearing khakis and button-down shirts. Young women wore skirts and blouses. Certainly by outward appearances, all looked pretty mundane if not downright Eisenhower-esque. But Gus Hall, chairman of the American Communist Party, did come to speak in the spring of 1962, fomenting some demonstrations. In the interest of balance, Hall’s appearance was followed by that of John F. Doherty of the United States Justice Department.

The borough was much more politically conservative in the mid-20th century than it is now. At the same time, since many of the Swarthmore College professors’ children were students in the local school system, the connection between town and gown existed, whether one chose to acknowledge it or not. For me and many others, the fact that family members worked at or had attended Swarthmore College created a sense of familiarity. In my case, not only did my brother graduate from the college, so had my mother, her parents, and various of her aunts and uncles. In 1962, a second cousin on my father’s side enrolled as a freshman. At two different times during my teenage years, my mother worked in the alumni office. Moreover, each year, several Swarthmore High School students applied to the college; one or more would be admitted and attend. And on a warm June evening, Swarthmore High School graduation took place in the college amphitheater, after the class photograph on the steps of Martin Hall.

For those who chose to take advantage, the college provided wonderful resources. The library for research (the Library of Congress cataloguing system proved much different from the Dewey Decimal system), sports, music concerts, and art shows (where I bought a red and black woodblock print, my first purchase of art). The campus itself, in its guise as the Scott Arboretum, was a classroom to delight any botanist, amateur or professional.

The line between Town and Gown has become much more obviously porous. The college calendar lists activities available to the general public ranging from concerts to athletic events, from lectures to art exhibits, from workshops to discussion groups. With the completion of the inn and its restaurant, tavern, and community bookstore, opportunities for interaction will surely increase.

My only cavil is that the many buildings erected in the past four decades have challenged and, in some cases, obscured my visual memory.

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